People trade their self-respect for trifles.
He then bespattered the youth with abundance of that language which passes between country gentleman who embrace opposite sides of the question; with frequent applications to him to salute that part which is generally introduced into all controversies that arise among the lower orders of the English gentry at horse-races, cock-matches, and other public places. Allusions to this part are likewise often made for the sake of jest. And here, I believe, the wit is generally misunderstood. In reality, it lies in desiring another to kiss your a– for having just before threatened to kick his; for I have observed very accurately, that no one ever desires you to kick that which belongs to himself, nor offers to kiss this part in another.
It may likewise seem surprizing that in the many thousand kind invitations of this sort, which every one who hath conversed with country gentlemen must have heard, no one, I believe, hath ever seen a single instance where the desire hath been complied with; – a great instance of their want of politeness; for in town nothing can be more common than for the finest gentlemen to perform this ceremony every day to their superiors, without having that favour once requested of them.
Henry Fielding, A History of Tom Jones (1749)
Ass-kissing (A-K) is, as Henry Fielding noted, a paradoxical social phenomenon. Among those who request it, the requested never comply; A-K occurs only when the request is not made. One paradox Fielding didn’t mention: the more prevalent it becomes, the less anyone notices or remarks about it. Indeed, in our age even the most jaded and cynical, who dismiss all apparent virtue as hypocritical or false, who ascribe everything to the brutal machinations of venality, money, and power, seldom mention butt-bussing, although a distasteful but necessary examination reveals it as a powerful explanatory force.
Why are so many “luminaries” such obvious mediocrities? How does incompetence spread its leprous grasp? Why is so much obviously trite, second-rate, or just plain awful cultural fare not just tolerated, but hailed as brilliant, transgressive, and transformational? How can universities promulgate nonsense that leaves graduates stupider than before they matriculated? Why does the faintest of commendatory words—“nice,” “cute,” and “like”—dominate media, online, and verbal discourse, while we no longer hear terms like “admire” and “respect”? No answers are possible without examining the dynamics of sucking up.
Within the human psyche, two fundamental impulses war: to be liked, accepted, and fit in, or to be independent and stand alone. For the first to win, one only has to allow one’s emotions free rein. Being liked is usually pleasant, so that desire is the path of least emotional resistance. Independence requires a conscious decision and unwavering commitment, because it can lead to ostracism and hatred. The steadfastly independent guide their actions by principles, not random emotional impulse. If you know on which side of this dividing line a person falls, you know the single most important aspect of that individual’s personality and character.
For most people acceptance is more important than principle. Under enough social pressure, they’ll jettison whatever they’ve claimed to uphold. Government always rests on its coercive ability, but at least as potent a source of its power is the pervasive fear of independence and standing out. Many people would accept the state’s dictates and venerate it even if the gun was not figuratively or literally pointed at their heads. If A-K is your proficiency, you welcome a system in which economic, social, and political rewards are doled out by one’s conformity to the herd and obsequiousness to those doing the doling.
Politics is institutionalized A-K, which makes Washington the A-K capital of the world. An entire occupation, lobbying, is devoted to sucking up. This oleaginous trade solicits money from its clients to solicit favors from the government. (Any time you see the word “solicit” assume sucking up is somewhere involved.) Unlike that those bad old free markets where individuals trade value—goods, services, labor, credit, money, etc—for value, government trades goodwill, favors, influence, sex, etc. for power, payola, and prestige. As it expands, more and more of what transpires is governed by A-K, less and less by value for value, which puts the value creators at a disadvantage to the suck-ups. In the perfect world of the latter, the former would be completely at their mercy, abandoning their integrity, productive ability, talent, skill, and other virtues as they descend into supine suck-uptitude.
It is impossible to have your lips planted on someone else’s buttock, especially someone you deep-down despise, and not loathe yourself. Loathing themselves, butt-bussers cannot admire virtue in those who have it. It’s secretly hated and either publicly disparaged or denied. As A-K spreads like a noxious cloud from Washington out over the land, recognition and appreciation of virtue disappear, replaced by formulaic deference to socially and politically correct bromides and the faux virtues implied by those bromides.
In self-serving advertisements corporations signal their fealty to the approved causes of the moment. Campuses have become bromide bastions. Social media descend a step further. There’s nothing even faux virtuous about pictures of kittens and the like, but those who post them garner electronic affirmations that are worth less than the minimal effort—touching a screen or clicking a mouse—necessary to produce them. It’s a form of signaling: I’m safe and will give the crowd what it wants.
In order to ascend to the rarefied world of the enlightened elite, you are required to affirm membership with insipid and inane identifying incantations. You must be “awestruck” at the brilliance of obvious idiots and their ideas; “moved to tears” by ugly art, discordant music, unreadable novels, and tedious movies and theatre; fake laugh at the correct comics; cite approvingly propaganda masquerading as serious journalism, and praise the statesmanship of criminals. The elite unfortunately set the agenda for what the rest of the populace reads, views, and hears. The incantations are the elite’s public entrance exam; who knows what’s required privately. It’s undoubtedly unwholesome and disgusting, entangling its members in a vast, inescapable web: everyone kissing everyone else’s ass all at the same time.
The prevalence of A-K may elicit despair among those with no use for it, the few who would like to make their way based on their ambition, talent, skill, hard work and independent integrity. They have one grim consolation. The last several decades, as everybody was kissing everybody else’s ass, the world went to hell. Reality doesn’t kiss asses; it often kicks them. The A-K legions have ignored realities that might unpleasantly brook the approved narratives; realities that will not forever ignore them. Nothing is more certain: the world has an imminent rendezvous with a plethora of ass-kicking realities. The world is not completely devoid of justice.