All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren
Between the ages of 10 and 13, I went to LSU’s baseball camp every summer in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. They had just attained the status of college baseball powerhouse in the mid-90s under coach Skip Bertman, and the camps were packed every year with eager youngsters hoping to glean a bit of magic from the storied program. One year we heard a motivational speaker — the kind of guy who gives pep talks to professional and college athletes — give a speech on Responsibility. He began by asking, “What’s the national pastime?” “BASEBALL!” we all yelled. “Wrong,” he barked. “The national pastime is… transferral blame.” He then went on describe how the greatest hindrance to success — from the ball field to the boardroom — is blaming others for our failures and pitfalls, a universal trait that spoke strongly to any 11-year-old who gives myriad excuses for not turning in homework or doing chores. It was the kind of speech that stuck with every kid sitting in the stands at Alex Box Stadium that day. As I grew older, I began to accept “transferral blame” as more than merely buzzwords in a cheesy motivational speech aimed at tween boys, but as a useful tool for understanding American life.
Nowhere is the the national pastime of transferral blame more starkly on display than in American politics (where so many participants, from politicians to voters to media personalities, often seem to have the mentality of tween boys), most notably in the form of psychological projection. We project our complex, multifaceted problems on easy, vulnerable targets, and then expect one politician — upon whom we project our ideal, unrealized desires — to wipe them all away (both problems and vulnerable scapegoats) with one mighty blast of bombastic rhetoric. Back in Louisiana, we called this “shotgun politics”: just aim, pull the trigger, and hope that some of those pellets from the spread find the mark…any mark at all, good or bad, consequences be damned.
It’s no surprise that one of the great American political novels of the 20th century was born in Louisiana, land of shotgun politics, home of transferral blame. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, written when he was a professor at LSU and surely based on the politics of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (despite Warren’s half-hearted attempts to distance the novel from Huey), is largely about the damage we do to ourselves (and to each other) when we stubbornly insist that our actions are meaningless in the larger scheme of things, and when we refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the rise of corruption, and even violence, in the political system due to our own apathy. Or, even worse, when we cynically work to undermine a broken political system instead of working to fix the problems. It’s far easier to load a shotgun and stand by idly as it’s fired than to speak up and stop the ham-fisted moron who is intent on blasting away.
Robert Penn Warren
It’s a lesson that many of us learned in the 2016 election cycle (and not only the United States), and it’s one that we could have avoided perhaps had we heeded Warren’s warning in the form of Jack Burden in All the King’s Men. Burden is an intellectual, cynical, former academic and current journalist whose apathy and cynicism leads him to cover — and eventually work for — the populist politician Willie “Boss” Stark.
Burden soon works as Stark’s hatchet man, digging up dirt on political enemies, including his father-figure, Judge Irwin. Stark’s brand of amoral politics — in which ideas and deeds exist independent of truth or fact, which are never concrete realities, and should always be manipulated as a means of some larger political end — initially appeals to Burden’s nihilistic worldview. We all wallow in the dirt, Burden rationalizes, and all dirt is equal. Therefore, a respectable judge’s bribe and a governor’s attempt to cover it up — isolated moments of failure in lives of otherwise moral public service — are on par with the rampant corruption and amorality of Stark, whose entire career has been dedicated to the obfuscation of truth and the slinging of dirt.
“Dirt’s a funny thing,” the Boss said. “Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?”
–Robert Penn Warren
All the King’s Men shows us what happens when our moral compass has become so distorted that we think, “All politicians are corrupt. All corruption is equal. Therefore, all politicians are equally corrupt, so our only option is to elect an outsider who best knows how to manipulate the corrupt system in order to destroy it.”
Does this sound familiar, American voters?
But the lesson of All the King’s Men is less about the rise of Boss Stark and more about the fall of Jack Burden, an Everyman who should have been smart enough to know that not all crimes are equal and that we are all interconnected. Words and ideas, like actions, can have a far-lasting impact that goes beyond our own cynically detached circumstances. When Burden’s world comes crashing down, he only has himself to blame. Stark might fire the shotgun, but Burden did the loading. And when that happens, one can’t merely stand back and say, “Well, I can’t be blamed for the result of the blast!”
And yet, this is precisely how authoritarians operate with impunity. When we don’t take responsibility for our actions, then the authoritarian can work without objection, resistance, or responsibility. His minions can do the dirty work while claiming plausible deniability. And they will, with rationalizations like, “I don’t agree with everything he says but…” (Translation: Don’t blame me!), or “Well, other people might vote for him for unethical reasons, but ALL politicians are unethical, and that doesn’t mean all of us voters feel that way…” (Don’t blame me!).
And then we have the ultimate transferral blame, in the form of those who stayed home during election day: “I didn’t vote at all/voted third party.” (Don’t blame me!) In a sense, we are all to blame for the Willie Starks of the world, in one way or another. He is a monster of our own creation.