Ignorance and the Moral Fabric of the American State

by zunguzungu

Last November, Hillary Clinton responded to WikiLeaks’ release of state department diplomatic cables by complaining that “disclosures like these tear at the fabric of the proper function of responsible government.”

I think it’s an illuminating choice of metaphor. After all, what does it tell us about the “proper” function of a “responsible” government that its “fabric” must be untorn, unsullied, undisclosed? Are we being asked to understand world events through the spectacle of a woman caught with her pants down, her drawers rummaged through, her “state” impugned? That the virtue which it has been her responsibility to manage properly has been torn? If I have made my meaning clear, then so has she: patriotic propriety is a thing to be protected and hidden from sight, a thing which, like virginity or modesty, only exists to the extent that it is hidden.

I’m not saying the reference is direct, of course. It isn’t, but that’s not how this kind of rhetoric works. Instead, it only implies the interpretive context that is required to complete it. If you’d reason out what kind of “fabric” protects propriety, responsibility, and whose “tear[ing]” is of great concern to us all, you might realize that virginity or modesty are the same sort of ideological fabric: both represent a wholeness that is derived from being hidden away, an obscurity that is destroyed if it is pierced. But that’s only if you make the metaphor explicit, and such metaphors work best by implication. You don’t need to think about all that to intuit how Clinton is making us feel what it is that makes “government” proper: she is arguing — implicitly but unmistakably — that it must be hidden to function properly, that its wholeness is to be found in its obscurity, its truth to be implied, but never explicitly stated.

Contrast Clinton’s “fabric” with the one that Alexander Hamilton closed Federalist 22 by invoking:

The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.

If you want to gender the meaning of Hamilton’s pure, flowing streams of power, you’re welcome to  do so. But I’m more interested in how, even though they’re using the same word to describe proper and legitimate governmental power, the difference in the underlying metaphors illuminates the different political philosophies which that vocabulary is expressing. Notice, for example, that Hamilton is arguing that the people’s consent is the thing on which the nation’s fabric will rest. When’s the last time you heard someone using “fabric” as a thing that had a foundation?

The 18th century, that’s when. He’s using a metaphor of construction because “fabric,” to him, meant only some kind of contrivance “fabricated” from different substances. And while the term was slowly coming to include fabricated textiles, it was still, by far, most commonly used to mean buildings or other substantially constructed objects.[1] As the 19th century would wear on, the industrializing textile industry appropriated the word to describe, more particularly, the manner in which threads and yarns were being contrived into a variety of industrial textile products (forming one of the foundations, incidentally, of British economic power, and the seed of the first American Republic’s dissolution). But until then, Hamilton’s metaphor for governance indicated the kind of sturdy, architectural edifice that he believed would be necessary to hold the Republican state up, to keep it steady as the gravity of time’s corruption dragged it down.

It is in this regard that the philosophical world of the founders — the world into which their metaphors nestle — is most obviously different from that of Clinton’s, or her cohort, Republican and Democrat alike. For the political class who sought to build an enduring national fabric, the problem was the inevitability of corruption: the particular Whig science of politics most in favor among the first American technocrats began and ended with the assumption that all nations would have their origin in innocent vigor and virtue, and the fate of the Roman republic — its descent into tyranny — was the virtually inevitable sequel. They each had their own particular plans and stratagems for avoiding or prolonging this fate, of course; Jefferson was a big believer in the idea that the “open” land to the West would drain off and cleans the nation of its corruptions, while Hamilton was more of a “strong man keeping order” kind of guy. But they all believed that the problem was, essentially, the problem of Time: all things will eventually rot and turn to shit. They lived sort of close to the soil that way.

The utopianism of the American experiment, then, was an effort to build something that would last, if not forever, then as long as it could stave off corruption. Those were the key terms. And while the Federalist papers (and the entire constitutional convention) is a fascinating record of all sorts of crackpots throwing out crackpot ideas about how to make that happen, one of the things they all more or less took for granted was the idea that in building a nation, you were doing something like building a building: it had to be both sturdy enough to last and well-formed enough to be worth surviving. That’s why, for example, at a time when Washington, DC was still little more than an ambitious grid of roads crisscrossing a swamp without buildings, Jefferson was holding an architectural competition to determine who could best translate classical architecture into a representation of the American spirit.

an early draft

In particular, a building could stand as a representation of the American fabric because it stood so tall: that dome was to rise high above the Potomac — higher than everything else, by law — so you could always see it, always be aware of the imperial power that brought peace to the land. And in the importance of open sight lines, the two main political tendencies more or less concurred: while the Jeffersonian wing tended to think the pre-eminent danger was in the tyranny of a central executive — to be combated by the people watching over the state — the Hamiltonian wing tended to fear the “tyranny of the majority” and looked for ways for the state to supervise and regulate public society. But they all, in principle, agreed on the building — and on phrases like “consent of the governed” — because it promised a solution to all of their problems, even as they differently defined them. It was a kind of architectural contract signed between governed and governed, soaring high above the muck of Washington swampland, for all to see.

The Panopticon

The transparent clarity of the democratic process, the broad and wide avenues of public space, the free expression of dissent, and the organic elision between an “open” frontier and American democracy; these are all old, old narratives. It’s out of this kind of thinking that you get projects like the panopticon, the state that rules through the fact that you know you’re under surveillance. But such a sense of the state — for good or for ill — is still utterly foreign to the kind of mindset we see in a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, with their “proper function of responsible government” being something you need to just trust us on this one, okay? While the founders were elitists — and their ease with words like “empire” gives you a sense of the kind of power they were well aware of wanting to wield — they wanted you to know that power was watching over you. They had no doubt that building a gigantic Parthenon-esque domed skyscraper was an attempt to awe and control the backcountry hicks they were trying to govern, for whom they had so much contempt and of whom they had so much fear. But the endpoint was always consent, always the idea that you governed well when the people knew what you were doing and were willing to agree. Hegemony meant you didn’t have to use force because the people found it easier to just follow the rules. And in those days, you called it what it was; an empire was an empire. And you told everyone that it was a good thing.

The weird thing about this surveillance state, then, is that you’re not supposed to know (or allow yourself to know) that you’re being watched. For example, let’s look at a fuller version of that Clinton quote:

The work of our diplomats doesn’t just benefit Americans, but also billions of others around the globe. In addition to endangering particular individuals, disclosures like these tear at the fabric of the proper function of responsible government.

People of good faith understand the need for sensitive diplomatic communications, both to protect the national interest and the global common interest. Every country, including the United States, must be able to have candid conversations about the people and nations with whom they deal. And every country, including the United States, must be able to have honest, private dialogue with other countries about issues of common concern. I know that diplomats around the world share this view – but this is not unique to diplomacy. In almost every profession – whether it’s law or journalism, finance or medicine or academia or running a small business – people rely on confidential communications to do their jobs. We count on the space of trust that confidentiality provides. When someone breaches that trust, we are all worse off for it. And so despite some of the rhetoric we’ve heard these past few days, confidential communications do not run counter to the public interest. They are fundamental to our ability to serve the public interest.

The important lines of communication are those between one state and another state, the professionals that keep you and “the global common interest” safe. You can trust them because they are professionals, you see, by which we mean, they are the people you rely upon because they see better than you. Precisely because they know better than you, you should have the “good faith” to keep your eyes shut and try to know as little as possible. See?

Marvel with me, please, at the marvelous construction of a phrase like “[p]eople of good faith understand.” The first thing to note is that what she wants is “faith” in the most thoroughly dogmatic sense: Have faith, she is saying; believe me, not your lying eyes. The second is that she has nested that concept into a phrase — “people of good faith” — which has a very different set of connotations: a “person of bad faith” would be a person who acts in untrustworthy ways, a person who cannot be trusted to do as they say. It’s essentially a commercial standard, the basis on which a person can be trusted to do business; as the Uniform Commercial Code defines it, “good faith” is “honesty in fact and the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” So, on the one hand, she is urging us to have faith that she is of good faith; on the other, she is making our status as “people of good faith” dependent on our faith that this is what she is. Whether she is of good faith — and how we would know — is an unarguable proposition, therefore, because she has not argued it; it is unthinkable because it has remained unthought. Instead, the rhetoric boils down to: you know who doesn’t trust the government? Untrustworthy people.

And that’s just the subject of the sentence. While everything flows from this conflation, she goes on to make an epistemology out of this model subject, a form of knowledge that is particular to this very peculiar trusted-because-trusting citizen. What this person understands, she argues, is that “sensitive diplomatic communications” both protect “the national interest” but also “the global common interest.” And not only are all of our interests the same, but the kind of sensing which makes those communications “sensitive” is actually, perversely, our insensibility to their existence. If we know what they‘re doing, they’ll cease to be able to do it. We, the people, will be sensitive when we are sensibly senseless; we will prove our good faith by assuming theirs.  Indeed, by adopting the language of contract and commerce, she gives us a citizen’s contract that we buy into not by knowingly consenting, but precisely by not knowing. You show your bona fides by signing a blank check.

This is, to put it simply, a very different form of power than even the one the founders were envisioning, a different way of seeing like a state. What the founders tended to fear the most — after they had won a sort of disorganized independence from Britain — was the uncaptured backcountry people, the Indians and the settlers that were becoming all Indianish and uncontrollable and disconnected from the market. The Appalachian mountains represented a wildness that haunted their dreams, because while they could survey and map it, the people there didn’t always see the benefit of being part of an national system, didn‘t want to be taxed, didn‘t feel like taking part. And this was the threat pointed straight at the heart of their grandiose vision, both the insurrections that made constituting a more secure union necessary and the anti-constitutional wildness that threatened it afterwards (especially once immigration really got going). How do you get those people to buy in? Eventually, they did it through the market, albeit not in the way they intended. And as roads and canals brought all the deep country hicks into the orbit of Eastern capital, a lot of that early empire talk kind of died down; getting people in the hinterlands to feel like being Americans required making them feel like they were free. But at the start of it, the principles that motivated the theory of American state-craft were enlightenment enough to really just put power front and center and top, to build a giant statue of liberty and make people look at it when they sailed by. If the problem was that citizens didn’t want to be subject to power, the answer was consent: getting people to buy in, to know how they were being ruled, and to agree.

It’s this that I think makes what Balkin and Levinson have called our National Surveillance State different than the kind of panoptical surveillance that our founders hoped to construct, a difference that the vocabulary of our statesmen reflects. Even in the fifties, the point of having show trials for suspected communist sympathizers was to make damn sure you knew you were being watched, and to get you to take part. But today, our trials take place in secret locations, and if they can manage it, you’ll never even know you were bing watched.

A huge part of why is that we no longer have the option of opting out. It’s not just that the frontier is closed and there are no more native peoples to genocide and steal their land. It’s that consent is not a gift they very much want us to give, anymore; Obama, Clinton, and the rest of them just don’t have to worry very much about whether we agree. Who the hell else are we going to vote for? Where are we going to go? We don’t have whiskey rebellions any longer, and soon we won’t even have unions. And so, instead of trying to persuade us on the rightness of being ruled — instead of seeking to acquire our knowing consent to be subject to governmental power — this state apparatus finds it easier, simpler, more expeditious, to simply make a virtue out of ignorance, to argue — explicitly — that the best subject is the one who knows well enough not to know anything at all.


[1] The OED’s first entry for “fabric”: 1. An edifice, a building.1483    Caxton tr. J. de Voragine Golden Legende 275/1   He had neuer studye in newe fabrykes ne buyldynges.a1552    J. Leland Itinerary (1711) II. 32   Gibbes the last Prior?spent a great summe of Mony on that Fabrike.a1684    J. Evelyn Diary anno 1666 (1955) III. 460   The august fabricque of Christ church.1708    J. Chamberlayne Present State Great Brit. (1743) ii. i. ii. 326   Fabricks?said to have been built by the Picts.1749    T. Nugent Grand Tour IV. 73   A vaulted fabric without either wood or iron-work, three stories high.1813    Scott Bridal of Triermain iii. xvi. 152   Never mortal builder’s hand This enduring fabric plann’d.1865    Dickens Our Mutual Friend II. iii. vi. 49   The ruinous fabric was very rich in the interior.