In Praise of “Bad Attitudes”

The local newspaper once ran a human interest story about a halfway house that found work for mentally handicapped adults. It quoted a restaurateur who employed one of the residents as a minimum wage dishwasher: “I wish I had twenty like him — he’s got such a good attitude!”

That speaks volumes: When people in authority talk about someone with a “good attitude,” they mean someone who hasn’t managed to figure out he’s being diddled, that there’s a man behind the curtain, that the rules are made for the benefit of …  well, for the benefit of the people who make the rules.

The publik skool system serves the need of people in authority to have “human resources” who will obey — with a “good attitude” — anyone sitting behind a desk.

The next time you hear complaints about someone having a “bad attitude,” keep this in mind: It’s entirely because of people with “bad attitudes” that you’re not a slave. For the fact that you’re not working on a chain gang building a pyramid, you should thank all those whose previous bad attitudes won your present degree of freedom. Their bad attitudes echo down to us through time as the principal obstacle to your re-enslavement in the here and now.

When, in all of human history, have those with wealth and power ever willingly surrendered the tiniest crumb of it, or extended the range of freedom by a single millimeter, merely because in the goodness of their hearts they thought it would be a nice thing to do? Have the classes that own the world ever voluntarily reduced the tribute they charged to labor?

No. Throughout history, what Adam Smith called “the masters of mankind” have been motivated by a single “vile maxim”:  All for ourselves and nothing for other people. They have departed from it only in the face of resistance.  To quote Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand.

Even when these classes were spurred by shame to moderate the scale of their own injustice, it was only because some slave, some serf, some hand in a Dark Satanic Mill overcame the “good attitude” into which the ruling classes attempted to inculcate them, and told the masters how despicable they were. It was because people with “bad attitudes” contested the values of the system’s official legitimizing ideology and said, loud and clear, “Non serviam!”

Even in history’s darkest and most brutal periods of servitude, the evil was limited in its force by the potential for resistance. The rigor of the master’s hand throughout history has been tempered, if only a little, by the fear of generating another Spartacus, another Nat Turner, another Big Bill Haywood.  The hand of power has always been limited, if nothing else, by the fact that even the most brainwashed slave will eventually say “No more!” The lowliest worm will finally turn.

So next time you hear some right-wing authoritarian express “gratitude” for all the freedoms that we’ve been “given” in this country, like we received our liberty from the beneficence of those in power, remember these words from Rudolf Rocker:

“Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are rather forced upon them from without. … They do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace. …  All political rights and liberties which people enjoy today, they do not owe to the good will of their governments, but to their own strength. … Great mass movements and whole revolutions have been necessary to wrest them from the ruling classes, who would never have consented to them voluntarily.”

Freedom is never given; it is always taken. So for the fact that you’re not a slave, don’t thank those in authority.  Thank someone with a “bad attitude.”

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The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory