If I respect the office, can I then engage in blatant disrespect for the person who holds it? In actual practice, doesn’t one behavior very rapidly bleed into the other? Suppose we take this relationship—office and holder—and apply it lower down in the ranks of the world. When I was in the U.S. Army, it was certainly quite impossible to salute the commanding generally while standing at attention while loudly muttering “here goes an idiot with stars.”
I’m far from the only one who has noted that opponents of President Obama feel entitled to treat him with visible contempt, ascribed to his person, while nominally respecting the office. See, for instance, this February 25 column in the Daily Princetonian whose author, Ryan Dukeman, dates this behavior as beginning with Obama’s swearing in ceremony (link).
In actual practice open disrespect (however hedged in by phony distinctions between office and holder) brings in its train the cheapening and discount of authority—not least of the authority of that empty office too. This occurred to me when reading about the racist video made public by some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at University of Oklahoma in Norman. ΣΑΕ was founded in 1856; its creed, entitled The True Gentleman, can be read here.
I learned from Arnold Toynbee early in life that culture is shaped by elites—and the great majority follow this lead by imitation—mimesis, in Toynbee’s words. What our elites do will, in due time, be echoed by the population as a whole. To be sure, minorities will be disgusted, will refuse to imitate, and in this process begin to form future elites. So there is always hope in the long run. As for today, I cannot help but feel that the attacks on Obama, in the name of political ideology, are heavily colored by racial bias—however outrageous that sounds in an age that believes in inevitable progress.