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The Failure of Authority: A Nation of “Karens”

We've reached a new height in this national failure of authority, when the President of the United States flouts the authority of not just the office he holds, but also the government he heads, the military he leads, and the laws he swore to uphold. We may as well have a "Karen" in the White House.

In our family, we have a ritual: a leisurely Saturday (Shabbat) brunch where I indulge myself to cook whatever I feel like, or what my wife and kids are craving. Today it was spinach and totally un-Kosher smoked ham omelets, bagels, grits, turkey bacon, and fruit, with pop-tarts added for those on the sweet-tooth diet. Sitting at the table, I opened a book of 3,000 questions and picked a few to stimulate conversation, lest we all end up face down in phones, iPads, and God forbid, a Nintendo Switch. For our Shabbat brunch, electronics are rather strictly controlled, if not completely restricted.

I randomly chose the question: “Do you respect authority?” Hmmm. Interesting question, because there are various types of authority, are there not? Going around our table, most of us said we respect authority (my youngest said he totally doesn’t, which makes me think of the old saw “the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree”). See, I’ve always understood respecting authority to be the same as “conforming” or “following” and I’ve never been either a conformist or a follower.

Many of us–especially Americans–regard respect for authority like that. Our society is built on rugged individualism and personal achievement. It’s one of the things, if not the thing, that has made America a great nation. It’s also a two-edged sword, because for every Steve Jobs winner, there’s tens of thousands who work hard and never get the “dream.” There’s some number who gamble big and lose, and there’s some number who are just too far back in the pack to do much except hope for their kids to do better. When one generation works for the betterment of the next, that’s the organic process of “social engineering.”

When authority is imposed from above to mandate outcomes, that’s another form of “social engineering.” Like most things in our world, organic is better. “Social engineering” works best when achievement and love are combined with a healthy regard for authority. That is, it does depending on how you define authority.

Looking more deeply, I find that there are different kinds of authority, and they all contribute to our society at some level. There’s government authority, which inevitably ends at the barrel of a gun (pointed at you, if you defy it). There’s transactional (boss) authority, which has a reward–your paycheck–and the threat of not getting one. There’s moral authority, which is the respect earned from wisdom. There’s group authority, which is nothing more than peer pressure from the “cool ones” we want to emulate. There’s parental authority, which should be the model for everyone. Finally, there’s spiritual authority–what we really believe that determines how we act when nobody’s looking.

Living under tyranny invalidates all authority but government. Living in an Ayn-Randian 100% libertarian society invalidates all but the economic, transactional authority–you give something of value to get something of value. All societies need moral authority, even when it’s suppressed under the boot of tyranny. Peer pressure and group authority is what gives us tribes and tribal loyalty. Parental authority can be overridden by government, tribe, and moral authority (Soviet children were encouraged to denounce their own parents).

What I’m seeing in Washington, D.C., in local stores, at our workplaces, and especially online in America is a failure of all kinds of authority. We live in an every-man-for-himself time. It’s like we’re living out the “Karen” phenomenon, made real everywhere. If you don’t know, “Karen” is a meme for a particular kind of self-entitled person, who dresses professionally, values their time over yours, and feels entitled to be treated like royalty.

God help you if you are in retail, customer service, or any job interacting with the public and you encounter a “Karen.” There is no authority on earth high enough or powerful enough for a “Karen” unless that authority agrees with them. If you are the unlucky manager who has to tell them “no,” you will suffer the wrath of hell unleashed upon you, and then spread to the Internet like a plague via Yelp, Nextdoor, or whatever app is appropriate to bear the weight of your trashing. A “Karen”‘s spiritual authority has failed.

When spiritual authority fails, humans devolve into tribal authority (absent tyranny, of course), based on what tribe gives us the biggest advantage. The evidence of this is clear in the subversion of many American evangelical Christians to the tribalism of the GOP and its leader. When people have to twist scripture to support the tribe, they’ve demonstrated the failure of spiritual authority in their lives.

Most conservatives cite the failure of parental authority as the root of America’s social troubles. From strictly the viewpoint of both organic and liberal social engineering and economic opportunity, that’s true. Our prisons would not be statistically overloaded with black males if there weren’t an enormous gap in the percentage of fatherless families (24% for white, non-Hispanic, and 65% for black in 2018) by race. If you’re in prison, you’re not setting up your kids for success–and the chance they’ll also end up incarcerated is multiplied many times.

That problem is bad, but it doesn’t explain how our society and politics are fraying at the seams as they are. The bigger failure is rooted in a general failure of authority at all levels. That affects conservative, white families as well as minorities. In fact, many raw immigrants find us to be shockingly without any kind of respect for authority versus the society they left to join us.

We’ve reached a new height in this national failure of authority, when the President of the United States flouts the authority of not just the office he holds, but also the government he heads, the military he leads, and the laws he swore to uphold. We may as well have a “Karen” in the White House.

This is worse than a failure of parental authority or a failure of social engineering. It’s worse than a simple failure of government authority. A black American “male who loves this great country of ours and has tremendous respect for authority,” wrote a letter to the editor of the LA Times in 2018:

As a parent, I teach my children to respect authority, but when the person with the most authority in the country consistently makes derogatory comments about other countries and races, how do you respect a person like that? How do you explain the president’s comments to our future leaders?

How does any of us explain? Do we fall back on tribalism, on the authority of the group, but just the group that agrees with us? Do we model “Karen” to our kids? Do we fall back to the authority of government, quoting Bible verses instructing us to respect the “governing authorities?” But those authorities have also failed, because we now have a president sitting in trial for impeachable offenses.

The very political leaders who impeached Trump have failed to respect authority, because they impeached Trump for political reasons, and didn’t respect the process of their own power to subpoena and the federal courts authority to enforce their subpoenas. They simply rushed to impeach before the election.

Democrats want government authority to determine everything. They believe in central planning, that all forms of authority should come from government. That’s tyranny, pure and simple.

The 2020 presidential election will be between a man in the White House who only respects his own personal authority and whatever Democrat is nominated. It’s “Karen” versus tyranny. Many of us will choose “Karen” because at least the dysfunction we know is better than the tyranny we fear.

I fear we won’t have any authority left in America that functions normally. We will either devolve into our tribes, constantly at war, or we will succumb to government tyranny. We will become a nation of “Karens.” We must work to restore respect for authority. I wish, and pray, that our president was more aware of the tremendous value of that authority than he is.

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