Kindly remove your hat before crossing the threshold of institutional society's inner sanctum

Creed, the eternally creepy old guy in NBC's The Office, divulges to the camera in one episdoe that he has been involved in many cults in the past - both as a leader and a follower. "You make more money as a leader, but you have more fun as a follower." Part of the humor in his offhand observation lies in treating the mysterious roles of cult leader and follower as a hat one can put on or take off at will, devoid of any real purpose of responsibility. Yet when other people do essentially the same thing - especially those occupying positions of power in our institutional society - they can sometimes persuade us that they're not really wearing the hat.

Consider for example the recent remarks of General Motors' Vice President, Bob Lutz, confiding to reporters his true feelings on global warming and hybrid vehicles. The specific remarks denigrating global warming and hybrid vehicles indicated to many that Lutz is out of touch with the current market, especially given GM's long running inability to compete with foreign manufacturers who prioritize fuel economy, innovation, and environmental impact. In response to the outcry, Lutz acted as if his first amendment rights were under attack:

An offhand comment I made recently about the concept of global warming seems to have a lot of people heated, and it's spreading through the Internet like ragweed. But I think that the people making a big deal out of it are missing the real point. My beliefs are mine and I have a right to them, just as you have a right to yours. But among my strongest beliefs is that my job is to do what makes the most business sense for GM.

Never mind what I said, or the context in which I said it. My thoughts on what has or hasn't been the cause of climate change have nothing to do with the decisions I make to advance the cause of General Motors. My opinions on the subject - like anyone's - are immaterial. Really. The point is not why and how did we get where we are, it's what are we going to do to get where we're going.


Instead of simply assailing me for expressing what I think, they should be looking at the big picture. What they should be doing, in earnest, is forming opinions not about me but about GM, and what this company is doing that is - and will continue to be - hugely beneficial to the very causes they so enthusiastically claim to support.

I'll be the first to go to bat for anybody's free and frank expression of opinion, especially on important issues like these. But it boggles the mind for a person who is a vice president of one of the world's largest corporations to say his opinion on some key controversies in the auto industry is equal to mine. Really. I wonder if he would suffer his employees to regard his memos with the same lack of urgency.

The role he plays is awfully squishy - he can speak for the corporation, or for himself as an unvested individual, depending on what is convenient. He can even go back and re-characterize his comments in one or the other sense. We misunderstood him because we didn't stop to ask him what hat he was wearing when he spoke.

If there is one person whose opinions matter, especially those on the industry and the larger world in which it operates - it's the executive leadership of an automobile manufacturer. In fact, if Lutz treats these concerns with such an unstudied flippancy in front of the press, one can only wonder why GM's business is in the toilet. As Mark Floegel put it:

I don't think anyone's questioning Mr. Lutz's right to have an opinion. I think, instead, when Mr. Lutz was kind enough to treat the world to his unvarnished thoughts, we all had an "Aha!" moment explaining why Toyota is overtaking GM as the world's largest automaker.

But I'm less fascinated by Lutz's sincere cluelessness and more intrigued by his sense of victimhood - why would a person in such a position of power project such an air of powerlessness and vulnerability? You see this in politicians, too, such as Bush lamenting his inability to cut taxes or spending further, as if that outcome had nothing to do with his fucking decisions. Indeed, modern institutional society seems to have a lot of cracks into which stewardship seems to frequently become lost. We've created these collossal organizational structures with complex processes and intricate systems to solve the problems of society. But we tend to invest the responsibility for running these bureaucracies in a relative handful of people, who supposedly have the fortitude and resolve to command them to success through the nature of their innate, indescribable qualities. Yet the challenge is almost always insurmountable, and it's understandable that these leaders would feel self-conscious about their failures.

The elite, for all their power, can be just as trapped as us in the whole system, because their position in the system arises from their ideological conformity - their willingness to accept the system's basic legitimating myths and assumptions. This is one of the big problems with a highly centralized, institutional society: the machine is so big and complex that even those with a hand in driving it have convinced themselves of their own powerlessness (or at least they feel they can get away with pretending so). Indeed, C. Mills Wright addressed this peculiar self-awareness in his classic sociological work, The Power Elite:

American men of power tend, by convention, to deny that they are powerful. No American runs for office in order to rule or even govern, but only to serveā€¦.Nowadays, such postures have become standard features of the public-relations programs of all men of power. So firm a part of the style of power-wielding have they become that conservative writers readily misinterpret them as indicating a trend toward an "amorphous power situation.

But the "power situation" of America today is less amorphous than is the perspective of those who see it as a romantic confusion. It is less a flat, momentary "situation" than a graded, durable structure. And if those who occupy its top grades are not omnipotent, neither are they impotent.

Indeed, it may be the very durability of this power structure which makes its higher occupants feel as if they're not really free to make the right decisions, thereby allowing them to rationalize away their responsibility. Or it may be that they see the ambiguity of institutional roles and systems of decision making as a way to take the least amount of personal responsibility possible, letting the machine drive itself. Either way, one has to wonder what these elites are actually contributing if their opinions, especially by their own admission, are worthless. If so, it may explain why these pillars of our most powerful institutions insist on the importance of their headdress.

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Written on Saturday, April 12, 2008