Another thing. While I was frittering away that summer morning at the DMV, I wondered about all those important people in Washington whom our tax dollars support. Do you suppose that Barack or Michelle Obama stands in line to get his license renewed? How about your congressman or senator? How about other members of the nomenklatura that run the country, that is, that run your life (which is not quite the same thing as running the country)? Do you suppose that a Supreme Court justice, say, or a cabinet member, or a senior aide to any member of the political elite, do you suppose any of them wait in line for hours and then find they are insufficiently credentialed to deserve a “verified” license?
The question answers itself and qualifies that “nearly” with which I began. More and more, alas, this country is dividing into two groups, us horde of lumpen worker-bees (many of whom, of course, do not actually work) and a political elite who live by very different rules. They do not wait in line at the DMV any more than they are subject to Obamacare or the usual rules that the SEC applies to insider trading. They make they laws. They are not subject to them, not, anyway, in the same way the rest of us are.
You might have been surprised by the word “decadence” in the title of this column. Most people, I think, can see how the DMV is an allegory for unpleasant, not to say insane, bureaucratization. But decadence? A society is decadent when the forms of its institutions survive but the substance or purpose of those institutions has been perverted, hollowed out. The United States still has many of the forms of representative democracy, of that republican form of government that Benjamin Franklin paid homage to in his famous “If-you-can-keep-it” comment. But how many of those institutions are but pale shadows of their former selves?
My little trip to the DMV may strike you as about as important as life was to Macbeth at the end of his tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech. What, after all, does it signify? “So you spent more than two hours on line at the DMV. So what? You didn’t get the license you wanted because you didn’t have the forms required to get it. Big deal.”
In fact, I think it is a biggish deal. Just now the public is exercised, and rightly, by the cataract of revelations about the NSA and the FBI hoovering up information about ordinary citizens. A couple of weeks ago, it was the IRS targeting groups whose political beliefs were at odds with the Democratic gospel of government unlimited. It wasn’t so long ago that we saw in the movies minatory bureaucrats barking out the demand “Papers, please!” They were the bad guys. They lived in squalid totalitarian societies where the government ran everything. We in American were different. Land of the free, home of the brave.
Now those bureaucrats yelling “Papers, please!” are our guys. “Communism,” said Lenin, who knew about these things, “means keeping track of everything.” How he would have envied our databases and supercomputers, our face-recognition technology and DNA testing! A society where surveillance is universal, where every move is tracked and docketed, is a society where everyone may be guilty and certainly is a suspect. Black boxes in your car that track where you’ve been and how fast you drove to get there, cameras in taxi cabs that snap your picture every time you take a ride, drones aloft that the FBI uses to keep an eye on us. Where does it end?