Americans Have Too Much Respect for Presidents and Power

TeleSur | 31 July 2015

The corporate press and its pundits act horrified when common citizens interrupt the people in power who are ruining their lives. However, the status quo deserves to be heckled.

“Just coming in to The Situation Room, an awful situation,” Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s prime-time presenter, urgently announced.

Was it a tsunami in Japan? Another terrorist attack in Tunisia? A mass grave in Mexico?

“A heckler,” Wolf gravely continued, “interrupting the president of the United States just a little while ago.”

The disturbing news was that in late June a transgender woman named Jennicet Gutiérrez had interrupted a man named Barack Obama to demand he stop deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants like herself. However, in Washington, D.C., decorum insists that the nation’s leader only be interrupted by spontaneous applause and cries of adulation, not something as awkward and vulgar as a legitimate grievance.

“No one clapped, no one supported me,” Gutiérrez told an interviewer after she was kicked out of the White House. Indeed, she was shushed and booed by the more obedient LGBT rights campaigners selected to cheer on the performance of the world’s most powerful man. As for Obama himself, “No, no, no – this is my house,” he exclaimed (“Oh snap,” is how celebrity tabloid Us Weekly reported on that exchange). “Shame on you,” he said, pointing a finger at the impolite activist as the others who knew their place laughed and cheered.


The etiquette that governs relations between the ruled and their rulers in Washington is like the law itself: dictated by and for those powerful few who stand to benefit. Thus, it is considered rude for a member of an oppressed class to confront their oppressor in a public setting – there are existing channels, like a quadrennial contest between two candidates who largely agree on most issues, in place to diffuse such anger. Direct confrontation is “awful” to the elite because it pops a hole in their self-righteous bubble, challenging the sacredness of their authority and making all that pomp for people who don’t even claim a divine mandate seem a tad silly.

It of course makes sense that those who profit from the existing power arrangement in robber-baron America would seek to cultivate respect for the system that has benefitted them. And on a simple, superficial level, news personalities would like it to be known that what they do is as important as the people on whom they report; gravitas by extension. These personalities work for corporations owned by those with an incentive to increase the perceived legitimacy of the public figures they sponsor in exchange for laws that suit their interest; it requires no shadowy conspiracy – a dumbed down version of Noam Chomsky’s thesis on media bias – to deduce that it’s probably easier to get on prime-time TV if one isn’t seen as a threat to those who own the channel.

Even the president’s rudest televised critics insist on deference to the inherent authority of power. “You must respect the office of the presidency, even if you don’t like the person in it,” is how Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly put it the last time the president got heckled. And when it comes to the press corps writ large, even those who purport to serve no ideology agree with the far-right star of Fox: authority, by virtue of its existing, is to be shown respect.

RELATED: Interrupting Power: The Struggle for Trans and Migrant Rights

According to researchers at Indiana University, nearly half of the journalists they surveyed would refuse to file a report on a government document if the government itself disapproved, seeing themselves as part of the system – as, effectively, the public relations branch of power there to explain decisions to the public, not so much challenge them.

The secular center-left also insists on this respect for the state religion and its idols, though more loudly when the respect is owed one of their own. The “office of the president is the highest in the land,” Catherine Pugh, a Democratic state senator from Maryland, recently reminded readers of The Huffington Post. Its current occupant is “a man of the people who loves his country and all the people in it,” she wrote, rhetoric befitting an overtly totalitarian state, and “we should show him the respect that we’ve shown every United States President before him.” One might imagine a Democrat would recall the product of respect for the previous president – a couple hundred thousand dead Iraqis – but then platitudes such as those deployed by Pugh are meant to be felt, not thoughtfully considered.

The most recent case of a member of the oppressed disrespecting their oppressor allowed good liberals to once more reprise their role as authoritarian scolds. “No, it is Not Okay to Heckle the President, Even For a Good Cause,” was how the editor of The Daily Banter, a website for Democrats, responded to the sordid affair, driving home the point that respect is owed whether the object of it is right or wrong. The editorial conceded that it “may well be the case that transgender detainees are being assaulted and abused in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at this very moment,” but that – the ongoing, systemic abuse of those most abused by society – is no reason to be rude. What may be a matter of life and death for you is, after all, just a policy dispute to those mature and unaffected enough to view it as such.

Under the guise of good manners, America’s polite authoritarians seek to silence qualms with the status quo, preferring that angst be channeled into the less disruptive, more respectful and largely ineffectual world of electoral politics. Don’t like the system? Vote for someone who will promise to change things (and then be mature enough to accept the fact they won’t). That’s how we’ve been doing things since 1776.

The United States is not North Korea, of course – dissenters are blacklisted, not taken out back and shot (provided they’re on U.S. soil). But the U.S. is also unlike contemporary totalitarian states in that the leader at the top of its hierarchical system of authority possesses much more power during their term-limited time in office than any leader-for-life in Korea or elsewhere: the authority to order a military strike anywhere in the world and, importantly, the ability to carry one out – to even eliminate all life on the planet Earth with a push-button nuclear holocaust, should those beneath him respect the chain of command.

Even the most respectable, upstanding individual cannot be trusted with the power invested in a president today. History shows that those who have occupied the highest office in the United States – historically: slaveowners, ethnic cleansers, atomic annihilators, liars, philanderers and scoundrels of the lowest sort – are no saints.

Who’s served by “respect” for an office of such ill repute, then? Not the hundreds of asylum-seekers kicked out of the country every day, nor the military-age foreigners remotely killed on the orders and whims of the current commander-in-chief, but the powerful few who profit from trampling on the many beneath them.

For those at the bottom, perhaps it’s time to stop listening to those at the top and be a little less polite.

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles who has been published by outlets such as The Nation, The New Republic and Al Jazeera.

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