Festus could have taught political philosophy


Of course I still watch Gunsmoke. Why wouldn’t I? They don’t make them like that anymore. There is so much wisdom embodied in those characters. Matt Dillon, of course, is the equivalent of an American super hero. He always seems to know truth and his pals Doc and Kitty are right up there with him. However, it is his sidekick, Festus, with his crude “down from the hills” vernacular and unique way of thinking who fascinates me the most. Unlike Matt’s former almost helpless helper, Chester, who went on to be a very different McCloud years later, Festus had a way of talking which has found its way into my vocabulary, often on the radio, that has of late been the subject of some commentary from listeners.

One of Festus’ regular sayings was, “Don’t you see?” I love it. It really doesn’t get any better. So let me give you a few examples of “Don’t you see”-isms that might help you understand the concept.

Let’s take the concept of bureaucracy. I’ve been teaching this stuff for what seems like a thousand years. Put in academic language, the material is horribly boring. But, put in Festus-like context, it is all so much easier to swallow. Let’s take Chartock’s first law of bureaucracy, which I have been teaching for years. It holds that, “Every time you get a new rule or law, it generally means that something has happened to cause the change.” The example I always use is the announcement on airlines that when you open the overhead containers you should be careful because of the luggage may have shifted in flight and something could fall out and hurt you. “Don’t you see?” Festus would say. “Someone somewhere must have sued some airline for a million dollars or more and collected (or not) so we have a new rule because someone or something screwed up. Don’t you see?”

Or take what the sociologist Robert Michels said about the “Iron Law of Oligarchy. Now Michels was a brilliant academic but wasn’t brilliant enough to reject Mussolini and Fascism. He is best known for his writing on oligarchy, especially when it came to the way things got sorted out in political parties. The general idea is that no matter how things get started in any so-called democratic institution, the results are always the same — someone always gets to be the dictator or the first among equals. Whether it’s the House of Representatives or United States Senate or the houses of the state Legislature or even boards of selectmen, it never fails. Don’t you see?

Just take what happened in Washington last week when Majority Leader Mitch “the Turtle” McConnell used the so-called “nuclear option.” In doing so, he saw to it that it would only take a majority rather than sixty votes of the sitting senators to confirm a Supreme Court justice, this time Neil Gorsuch. Up until the Democrats starting horsing around with the filibuster rule for other federal judges, it took sixty votes to end debate. But now that the head Republican Turtle has changed the rule it will simply take a majority vote and inevitably, despite protestations to contrary from the Turtelistas, it won’t be long before the same thing happens with all debate in the Senate. As long as they have the votes it won’t be necessary but when they don’t, they’ll simply change the rules in their favor. At that point, the Iron Law of Oligarchy will apply and the head turtle will become the dictator. That’s the way it works in the House of Representatives now and the way it works when a group of people take over a business. Sooner or later, one guy becomes the boss, don’t you see? So when the dictator becomes abusive the institution is on its way to failure. Don’t you see?

Festus should have taught political philosophy at Williams.