“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross,” Sinclair Lewis probably never said. Regardless of its provenance, the snippet reflects the Nietzschean insight that power always disguises itself, it’s a play of masks so complex that even the actor wearing the masks loses track of the person beneath.

The more power is at work, the more assiduously it plays with disguises.

Such playfulness shouldn’t blind us to the dangers and temptations beneath, nor should it deprive of us the pleasure we experience when the actor is unmasked and we get a glimpse of the “who” beneath.

I’ll confess to the frisson of excitement I feel when organizations such as Oxfam get publicly undressed. Its abstract purposes (“a just world without poverty”) cover its inner ugliness, in this case aid workers using the cloak of “service” to exploit young women for sexual purposes. In her blistering survey in The Spectator Harriet Sergeant not only lays bare Oxfam but argues that the story is an indictment of aid in general. She writes:

“Aid does little to promote peace, security, trade and good governance. If anything, it hinders effective government. The cascade of aid money permits government to abdicate its responsibility to fund health care, education and infrastructure. It promotes a disconnect between a government and its citizens.”

And Oxfam is not alone in this. More:

“Andrew Macleod, former chief operator of the UN Emerging Coordination Centre, contends pedophiles and ‘-predatory’ sex abusers use the halo of charity work to get close to desperate women and children. ‘You have the impunity to do whatever you want. It is endemic across the aid industry and across the world.’ He warns the infiltration of the aid industry by pedophiles is on the scale of the Catholic church — if not bigger. The difficult truth is that ‘child rape crimes are being inadvertently funded in part by the United Kingdom taxpayer’.”

But condemning the general ineffectiveness of the Aid-Industrial complex is not my goal here. Dambisa Moyo has done that admirably. Rather, I am interested in the ways in which congealing power, whether in government or in nonprofits, and directing its energies toward abstractions, requires a certain disposition that can only be described as “smug.”

The etymology of the word “smug” is from the middle German smücken meaning “to adorn,” in particular reference to dress. It involves a “sprucing up” or a cloaking of the self, as something that we “slip into.” It is to present oneself as “trim and neat” and indicates the kind of pride someone might take in his or her appearance. It is in many ways the opposite of modesty.

Smugness is the predominant air of people who are in power or at least crave it. It involves their conviction that they can be trusted with power because their motives are pure, their causes are just, and their missions are noble. In contemporary parlance, it’s the attitude of someone who knows she is on the right side of history. 

The flip side of this, as Emmett Rensin discussed in his fine essay on the topic, is the failure of those who are skeptical of such claims to realize what is good for them. The smug look is the countenance of someone who knows better than you do what you ought to think and how you ought to live. It’s a profoundly anti-democratic impulse that if too obvious in the smug countenance of someone such as Hillary Clinton, will cause people to recoil, even if they don’t know why.

Smugness results from people being too full of their own virtue. Like a cloak they slip on, the virtue remains largely external. They don’t need to be good people so long as they’re doing good things. “Clothes make the man.”

Oxfam makes a lot of their money off “ethical shopping” stores. Theodore Dalrymple tells the story of an acquaintance who looked at Oxfam’s books and saw that “despite receiving their goods free of charge, paying practically nothing for their labour (which was voluntary), and paying much reduced local taxes, Oxfam shops made a profit on turnover of a mere 17 per cent, much less than his own, despite his incomparably greater expenses. How was such a thing possible, by what miracle of disorganisation (or malversation of funds)?”

The people who work there get to feel good about themselves because they produce “ethical” products and eliminate injustice and poverty at the same time. They walk out with that self-satisfied grin. But the smirk disguises the fact that those in charge know they aren’t doing what they claim, that too much of the money goes toward buying themselves new clothes rather than clothing the poor.

And so we harbor our resentments. Uncorrected, these abuses proliferate until they get to the point where they are so obviously corrupt that another centralized and powerful agency needs to “investigate,” or the resentments boil over and you end up with a Donald Trump as your president.

It’s a basic lesson for individuals as well as organizations: don’t become too full of, or too convinced of, your own virtue. Most of us as individuals have spouses or friends who undress us, who keep us from being costumed clowns; but in the case of large-scale organizations, the stripping down, if it ever comes, comes too late and it’s the most vulnerable who are undressed.


Image credit: recombiner via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (modified)