Restoring our Constitution
Thursday, March 1, 2007Freedom: Consciousness and Consent
To liberals and libertarians, the question of freedom is not even a question. We take for granted not only the freedoms we have come to expect, but that we have the fundamental right to expect them; indeed, that all people have a fundamental right to personal and political freedom. The American and French Revolutions were liberal and libertarian, and so were the fights against slavery and for suffragism. Liberals and libertarians continue to fight for the freedom of the GBLT community, and for oppressed minorities everywhere. Many of us dream of a world free of warfare, hunger, and deprivation. Many of us dream of a world where everyone has a birthright of peace, justice, opportunity, and the human community's compassion and support in times of crisis. We dream large because our ideals are large. Those who ridicule us as unrealistic would have also ridiculed those in the Eighteenth Century who dreamed of freedom from despotic monarchies. We take for granted the freedoms we have, and often forget the intrepid efforts of those who had to fight to win them for us.
A Republic, If You Can Keep It
It bears noting that the term of existence of what we now think of as modern governments are but a moment's breath in the known history of humanity. By way of comparison, Dynastic Egypt lasted some 2400 years, while the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire (which, as Voltaire noted, was "neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire") each lasted for roughly a millenium. The concept of human rights, however, sometimes prevailed even in the absence of elective government. Certainly, none of those rights can be deemed more fundamental than the right to physical freedom. Arbitrary imprisonment is one of the defining characteristics of despotism.
What we now know as habeas corpus traces directly back at least to the Magna Carta, in 1215:
39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.It was not, however, originally written into the U.S. Constitution. It is important to remember that the Constitution was not a poetic exercise of spontaneous inspiration. It was carefully and deliberately crafted, and much debated, and its creators were not always the high-minded idealists of historical iconography. As Richard Hofstadter wrote in The American Political Tradition:
The men who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 had a vivid Calvinistic sense of human evil and damnation and believed with Hobbes that men are selfish and contentious....Simply put, we do not live in a democracy. We live in a republic. That is why it takes a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto, confirm a treaty, impeach a president, expel a member of the House or Senate, or confirm judges, and a two-thirds majority of each house of Congress plus ratification in three-fourths of the states to amend the Constitution. The filibuster was enabled by Senate rules in 1917 for the same reason. In this country, the majority does not rule. The rights of the political minority are thus explicitly protected.
Throughout the secret discussions at the Constitutional Convention it was clear that this distrust of man was first and foremost a distrust of the common man and democratic rule. As the Revolution took away the restraining hand of the British government, old colonial grievances of farmers, debtors, and squatters against merchants, investors, and large landholders had flared up anew; the lower orders took advantage of the new democratic constitutions in several states, and the possessing classes were frightened. The members of the Constitutional Convention were concerned to create a government that could not only regulate commerce and pay its debts but also prevent currency inflation and stays laws, and check such uprisings as the Shays' Rebellion.
Despite having been a slave-owner, Thomas Jefferson is often presumed to have personified democratic idealism; but even he agreed with the Constitution's limits on true democracy.
A government that does not divide and balance powers in a system of checks is precisely what Jefferson means by despotic; the fact that the governing body is chosen by the people does not qualify his complaint; such a government, without checks, is merely "an elective despotism." Jefferson, then, refused to accept simple majority rule, adopting instead the idea that "different interests or different principles" should be represented in government.Jefferson was in France when the Constitution was ratified, and in a December 20, 1787 letter to James Madison voiced two main objections. The second was that the President was allowed to serve more than one term. The first:
All this sounds close to the theories of Madison and Adams. In fact, Jefferson did not differ with them strongly enough to challenge their conservative writings of the constitutional period. In 1788 he wrote to Madison praising the Federalist as "the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written." Two years later, advising his nephew Thomas Mann Randolph on a course of reading, Jefferson praised Locke's work as being "perfect as far as it goes," and then added: "Descending from theory to practice, there is no better book than the Federalist." In 1787 he told John Adams that he had read his Defence "with infinite satisfaction and improvement. It will do great good in America.
I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly & without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal & unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land & not by the law of nations.But Hofstadter says the Constitution likely would not have even been ratified had such a Bill of Rights already been promised; and Madison's Federalist colleague, Alexander Hamilton shared Jefferson's opinion about its necessity.
From Federalist 84:
The establishment of the writ of habeas corpus, the prohibition of ex-post-facto laws, and of TITLES OF NOBILITY, TO WHICH WE HAVE NO CORRESPONDING PROVISION IN OUR CONSTITUTION, are perhaps greater securities to liberty and republicanism than any it contains. The creation of crimes after the commission of the fact, or, in other words, the subjecting of men to punishment for things which, when they were done, were breaches of no law, and the practice of arbitrary imprisonments, have been, in all ages, the favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny. The observations of the judicious Blackstone,1 in reference to the latter, are well worthy of recital: "To bereave a man of life, says he, or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore A MORE DANGEROUS ENGINE of arbitrary government.'' And as a remedy for this fatal evil he is everywhere peculiarly emphatical in his encomiums on the habeas-corpus act, which in one place he calls "the BULWARK of the British Constitution.'' 2Even with its imperfections and initial incompleteness, the Constitution was unlike anything previously seen in Europe or the lands it had colonized. As has been oft-noted, Benjamin Franklin, when leaving Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention's final day, was asked whether a monarchy or a republic had been crafted. Franklin's legendary response:
A Republic, if you can keep it.Lady Anne:
Villain, thou know'st no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
Richard III; Act 1, Scene 2
If history has taught us anything, it is that the lust for power is paramount.Henry Kissinger, the real life Dr. Strangelove, is said to have remarked that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Unless our species punctuates the equilibrium and evolves into something wiser and more compassionate, there will always be people determined to conquer and control. Any nation that enjoys some measure of freedom must always be on guard against those who would destroy it. External threats will often be identifiable, but it is the internal ones that are most dangerous. Lord Acton's famous dictum must never be forgotten:
Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.To Thomas Paine, the corrupting power was monarchy. As he wrote in
For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.But John Stuart Mill later echoed the concerns of the authors of the Constitution:
...there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.And this is one of the critical points: no system of government is immune from abuse or the threat of despotism. The will of the majority can be democratic, but it can also be used to subjugate the rights of minorities; and the very definitions applications of rights and subjugation are malleable!
The same year our Constitution was written, the British jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote the Panopticon, a description of his ideal prison, which was designed such that prisoners could be observed at all times without their knowing whether or not they actually were being observed at any time!
I FLATTER myself there can now be little doubt of the plan's possessing the fundamental advantages I have been attributing to it: I mean, the apparent omnipresence of the inspector (if divines will allow me the expression,) combined with the extreme facility of his real presence.In 1977, Michel Foucault, the great philosopher and observer of mechanisms of power described our entire power structure as panoptic. To Foucault, the discursive infiltration of the past few centuries into practically every aspect of daily life was both means and ends for the assertion of control by power structures that were redefining socio-political values as best facilitated industrial capitalism. Even as democratic values opened new avenues of freedom, panopticism kept them rigidly regulated. As he wrote in Discipline & Punish:
Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became in the course of the eighteenth century the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime. But the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes. The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines. And although, in a formal way, the representative regime makes it possible, directly or indirectly, with or without relays, for the will of all to form the fundamental authority of sovereignty, the disciplines provide, at the base, a guarantee of the submission of forces and bodies.In The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawn explained that, in the early Twentieth Century, one particular form of government had a particular appeal to a certain politically dominant class of society :
It must nevertheless be said that fascism had some major advantages for business over other regimes. First, it eliminated or defeated Left-wing social revolution, and indeed seemed to be the main bulwark against it. Second, it eliminated labour unions and other limitations on the rights of management to manage its workforce. Indeed, the fascist "leadership principle" was what most bosses and business executives applied to their subordinates in their businesses and fascism gave it authoritative justification. Third, the destruction of labour movements helped secure an unduly favourable solution of the Depression for business.And while the fascist regimes of the first half of the Twentieth Century (having arisen amidst great economic and social turmoil, mostly in nations with little or no history of democracy), may have been particular to their times and places, our own history has not been without its own tremors of underlying threat. In times of crisis, even a democratically elected republican form of government may flirt with its own destruction.
As Paine wrote on December 23, 1776:
'Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them....And nearly 207 years later, some guy named Al Gore reflected on some dark moments in American history:
Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world.
Throughout American history, what we now call Civil Liberties have often been abused and limited during times of war and perceived threats to security. The best known instances include the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798-1800, the brief suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the extreme abuses during World War I and the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids immediately after the war, the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the excesses of the FBI and CIA during the Vietnam War and social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s.In the Cold War period, Paul Virilio, in Speed And Politics, located a particularly dangerous modern manifestation in the insidious effects of the combination of Cold War fears, mass media, and consumer culture:
In fact, the government's deliberately terroristic manipulation of the need for security is the perfect answer to all the new questions now being put to democracies by nuclear strategy--the new isolationism of the nuclear State that, in the U.S., for example, is totally revamping political strategy. They are trying to recreate Union through a new unanimity of need, just as the mass media phantasmatically created a need for cars, refrigerators... We will see the creation of a common feeling of insecurity that will lead to a new kind of consumption, the consumption of protection; this latter will progressively come to the fore and become the target of the whole merchandising system.Gore Vidal believes that President Truman used the Cold War to effectively end the American Republic by transmogrifying it into a "National Security State"; and President Eisenhower famously warned about the growing threat of the Military-Industrial Complex; but it was C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite, who, perhaps, best described this new threat:
In so far as the structural clue to the power elite today lies in the political order, that clue is the decline of politics as genuine and public debate of alternative decisions--with nationally responsible and policy-coherent parties and with autonomous organizations connecting the lower and middle levels of power with the top levels of decision. America is now in considerable part more a formal political democracy than a democratic social structure, and even the formal political mechanics are weak.Mills did not deem it of fundamental importance to determine whether this system of control was deliberately planned, or whether it coalesced as opportunity allowed:
The long-time tendency of business and government to become more intricately and deeply involved with each other has, in the fifth epoch, reached a new point of explicitness. The two cannot now be seen clearly as two distinct worlds. It is in terms of the executive agencies of the state that the rapprochement has proceeded most decisively. The growth of the executive branch of the government, with its agencies that patrol the complex economy, does not mean the 'enlargement of government' as some sort of autonomous bureaucracy: it has meant the ascendancy of the corporations' man as a political eminence.
The conception of the power elite, accordingly, does not rest upon the assumption that American history since the origins of World War II must be understood as a secret plot, or as a great a co-ordinated conspiracy of the members of this elite. The conception rests upon quite impersonal grounds.Indeed, this difference is exactly that between 9/11 conspiracy theorists, who, without credible evidence, believe that the Bush Administration was deliberately complicit in the terrorist attacks, and we, in the "reality-based community," who believe rather that their incompetence inadvertently allowed them to happen; but there is no question that, since 9/11, the Administration has perversely and shamelessly exploited it for political advantages which have included the deliberate undermining of the very freedoms that we like to think makes America what we like to think it is. In the aftermath of 9/11, President (sic) Bush famously, and idiotically, claimed that the terrorists "hate our freedoms," and it might cynically be said that he has since assiduously endeavored to neutralize that hatred by systematically eliminating those freedoms.
There is, however, little doubt that the American power elite--which contains, we are told, some of 'the greatest organizers in the world'--has also planned and plotted. The rise of the elite, as we have already made clear, was not and could not have been caused by a plot; and the tenability of the conception does not rest upon the existence of any secret or any publically known organization. But, once the conjunction of structural trend and of the personal will to utilize it gave rise to the power elite, then plans and programs did occur to its members and indeed it is not possible to interpret many events and official policies of the fifth epoch without reference to the power elite. 'There is a great difference,' Richard Hofstadter has remarked, 'between locating conspiracies
history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy...'
And it matters not how the opportunities arose for the neo-fascist Straussian neocons, the sinister authors of the Project for the New American Century, and war profiteers such as Halliburton. What matters is that when the opportunity did arise, they seized on it like voracious jackals, and although the terrorists will never have the power to destroy America, they may have so traumatized that it is willingly, if not always wittingly, destroying itself.
As Susan Sontag wrote about Bush's "War on Terror":
Since last Sept. 11, the Bush administration has told the American people that America is at war. But this war is of a peculiar nature. It seems to be, given the nature of the enemy, a war with no foreseeable end. What kind of war is that?...And David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center wrote in September 2002 issue of The Nation:
When a president of the United States declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs, we know that "war" is a metaphor. Does anyone think that this war - the war that America has declared on terrorism - is a metaphor? But it is, and one with powerful consequences. War has been disclosed, not actually declared, since the threat is deemed to be self-evident.
Real wars are not metaphors. And real wars have a beginning and an end. Even the horrendous, intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine will end one day. But this antiterror war can never end. That is one sign that it is not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding the use of American power.
With the exception of the right to bear arms, one would be hard pressed to name a single constitutional liberty that the Bush Administration has not overridden in the name of protecting our freedom. Privacy has given way to Internet tracking and plans to recruit a corps of 11 million private snoopers. Political freedom has been trumped by the effort to stem funding for terrorists. Physical liberty and habeas corpus survive only until the President decides someone is a "bad guy." Property is seized without notice, without a hearing and on the basis of secret evidence. Equal protection has fallen prey to ethnic profiling. Conversations with a lawyer may be monitored without a warrant or denied altogether when the military finds them inconvenient. And the right to a public hearing upon arrest exists only at the Attorney General's sufferance.Is it?
Administration supporters argue that the magnitude of the new threat requires a new paradigm. But so far we have seen only a repetition of a very old paradigm--broad incursions on liberties, largely targeted at unpopular noncitizens and minorities, in the name of fighting a war. What is new is that this war has no end in sight, and only a vaguely defined enemy, so its incursions are likely to be permanent. And while many of the most troubling initiatives have initially been targeted at noncitizens, they are likely to pave the way for future measures against citizens. So as we mournfully pass the one-year anniversary of September 11, we should ask whether President Bush's new paradigm is in fact something we want to live with for the rest of our lives.
This freedom of choice in the U.S.A. drives everybody crazy.
John Doe, See How We Are
The greatest threat to individual freedom is despotism, and the greatest threat to despotism is the individual. From the "divine right of kings" to the "we never make mistakes" of the Soviet Union, absolutism relies on a mindless compliance that assumes perfection on the part of a leader. The individual's will and identity are completely subsumed into the dictates of that leader. Individual identity, itself, is not something that should be taken for granted.
Andre Malraux spent part of his early twenties in Indochina, where he was involved with groups opposed to French Colonial rule. In his early novel, The Conquerors, one of his characters expresses one of the difficulties of introducing European revolutionary theory into 1920s China:
The simplest notion of the individual was unknown. (The unskilled laborers) are learning that they exist, just that they exist. There's a popular ideology, like a popular art, that isn't just vulgarization, but something else. Borodin's propaganda said to the workers and peasants, 'You're terrific people because you're workers, because you're peasants, and because you belong to the two greatest forces of the State.' That didn't go over at all. They figured the way your recognized the two greatest forces of the State was, they were being bludgeoned and dying of hunger. They were too used to being despised because they were workers, or peasants. They were afraid that when the revolution was over, they'd be plunged right back into the contempt they were trying to liberate themselves from.Freedom is existential. Even the concept of freedom is more fragile in the imagination than we spoiled modern Americans realize. Frantz Fanon believed the victims of colonialization needed resort to violence in order to reawaken their sense of individual right; but, as he wrote in The Wretched of The Earth, he also believed freedom depended on an even higher awakening:
We have seen in the preceding pages that nationalism, that magnificent song that made the people rise against their oppressors, stops short, falters, and dies away on the day that independence is proclaimed. Nationalism is not a political doctrine, nor a program. If you really wish your country to avoid regression, or at best halts and uncertainties, a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness.... The battle line against hunger, against ignorance, against poverty, and against unawareness ought to be ever present in the muscles and the intelligences of men and women.Gandhi, of course, rejected violence on moral, existential, and practical grounds, and as early as 1914 he understood that a people cannot be governed but by their own consent:
Only those who realize that there is something in man which is superior to the brute nature in him and that the latter always yields to it, can effectively be Satyagrahis. This force is to violence, and, therefore, to all tyranny, all injustice, what light is to darkness. In politics, its use is based upon the immutable maxim, that government of the people is possible only so long as they consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed.Combining these three lines of thought, then, it could be said that to be free people must a) realize that they have rights as individuals, and b) be politically and socially conscious, and only then will they be able to c) consciously consent- or not- to the system that governs them! Simply put: freedom is the conjunction of consciousness and consent! And as difficult as it may be to attain the necessary consciousness, the consent may be even more difficult, because freedom is terrifying!
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor explains:
"Mankind as a whole has always striven to organise a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly they were developed the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union. The great conquerors, Timours and Ghenghis-Khans, whirled like hurricanes over the face of the earth striving to subdue its people, and they too were but the unconscious expression of the same craving for universal unity. Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar's purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him. Oh, ages are yet to come of the confusion of free thought, of their science and cannibalism. For having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end, of course, with cannibalism. But then the beast will crawl to us and lick our feet and spatter them with tears of blood. And we shall sit upon the beast and raise the cup, and on it will be written, "Mystery." But then, and only then, the reign of peace and happiness will come for men. Thou art proud of Thine elect, but Thou hast only the elect, while we give rest to all. And besides, how many of those elect, those mighty ones who could become elect, have grown weary waiting for Thee, and have transferred and will transfer the powers of their spirit and the warmth of their heart to the other camp, and end by raising their free banner against Thee. Thou didst Thyself lift up that banner. But with us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as under Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us. And shall we be right or shall we be lying? They will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Thy freedom brought them. Freedom, free thought, and science will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: "Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!"Or, as Mr. Alexander explained, in Stanley Kubrick's screenplay for A Clockwork Orange:
"'Receiving bread from us, they will see clearly that we take the bread made by their hands from them, to give it to them, without any miracle. They will see that we do not change the stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself! For they will remember only too well that in old days, without our help, even the bread they made turned to stones in their hands, while since they have come back to us, the very stones have turned to bread in their hands. Too, too well will they know the value of complete submission! And until men know that, they will be unhappy. Who is most to blame for their not knowing it?-speak! Who scattered the flock and sent it astray on unknown paths? But the flock will come together again and will submit once more, and then it will be once for all. Then we shall give them the quiet humble happiness of weak creatures such as they are by nature. Oh, we shall persuade them at last not to be proud, for Thou didst lift them up and thereby taught them to be proud. We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all. They will become timid and will look to us and huddle close to us in fear, as chicks to the hen. They will marvel at us and will be awe-stricken before us, and will be proud at our being so powerful and clever that we have been able to subdue such a turbulent flock of thousands of millions. They will tremble impotently before our wrath, their minds will grow fearful, they will be quick to shed tears like women and children, but they will be just as ready at a sign from us to pass to laughter and rejoicing, to happy mirth and childish song. Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours we shall make their life like a child's game, with children's songs and innocent dance. Oh, we shall allow them even sin, they are weak and helpless, and they will love us like children because we allow them to sin. We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission, that we allow them to sin because we love them, and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves. And we shall take it upon ourselves, and they will adore us as their saviours who have taken on themselves their sins before God. And they will have no secrets from us. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient--and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.
Before we know where we are we shall have the full apparatus of totalitarianism. This young boy is a living witness to these diabolical proposals. The people - the common people - must know... must see! There are rare traditions of liberty to defend. The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go! Oh, yes - they will sell liberty for a quieter life. That is why they must be led, sir, driven... pushed!!!In The Trial, Franz Kafka crystallized the character of a man who placidly allows an unknowable power structure to slowly and methodically destroy him. The character K. has liberty enough to wander the labyrinths of his city and his government bureaucracy in a vain quest to learn even of what he is accused! He plays the game. He submits to its nightmarishly absurd exigencies. He is imprisoned only in his own mind, by his own lack of initiation and will. Only at the very end is his actual physical freedom literally assaulted. Only then is he fully conscious of what he has allowed to happen:
But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.'s throat, while the other hand thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him. "Like a dog!" he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.But one of the most terrifying depictions of self-abnegating subsumation to fascism is the character of Lev Grigoryevich Rubin, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle. Rubin is imprisoned, but knows he is innocent. He is a brilliant intellectual, but he is such a true believer in his system of government that, even though he knows he is innocent, the cognitive dissonance forces him to desperately believe that his imprisonment, even in some way that he can't comprehend, must be correct!
Distracted from distraction by distraction
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets: Burnt Norton, III
Television is the opiate of the people. Emma Goldman supposedly said that, in America, voting was the opiate of the people. Marx, of course, believed it to be religion. Whatever opiate we choose, or have thrown upon us, the greatest threat to our freedom may actually be none of the issues previously discussed. In the end, syncretizing all of these issues, complacency may be the most terrible of all threats. The media assaults us with the endless trivialities of O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, and Anna Nicole Smith, but it is our own fault for even knowing who those people are!
As Howard Beale raved, in Paddy Chayefsky's Network:
We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube. You eat like the tube. You raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness -- you maniacs! In God's name you people are the real thing, We are the illusion.Our freedom is under assault. Fundamental rights that both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton considered absolutely critical are being taken away from us. This is not happening in secret. We are watching it. We are reading about it. We are allowing it to happen!
So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I am speaking to you now. Turn them off!!
In Inside The Whale, George Orwell observed:
For the ordinary man is also passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade union or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavouring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him.But as Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam expressed, as most prominently voiced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
A time comes when silence is betrayal.If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict - and of tragedy - can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton conceived of it - as an end in itself, and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused notions and irrational and disordered lives, a predicament which a panacea could one day put right.
Isaiah Berlin, Liberty
Tom Stoppard was born Jewish in Czechoslovakia, and when he was a toddler, his family fled the Nazis to Singapore. Two years later, they fled the Japanese invasion to India. His father remained behind and was killed. It's little wonder that his magnificent plays and screenplays so often deal with politics, power, and totalitarianism.
In Stoppard's first masterpiece, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, he combined Shakespeare's Hamlet and Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot to create one of the classics of modern Theater.
Hamlet, of course, is a play of personal and political intrigue in a medieval Danish royal court. The young prince is literally haunted by the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, Claudius, who then married Hamlet's mother and usurped what should have been Hamlet's crown. As he discovers the horrible truth about his father's death, Hamlet totters on the brink of madness, while plotting how to expose his uncle and exact revenge. In one of several attempts to distract and tame his nephew, Claudius invites to the court Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are to handle their friend with great care, in service of the king. They are sycophants and flatterers, but they are unaware of the darker machinations churning around them. Hamlet immediately suspects their manipulative purpose, and begins toying with them. Claudius sends the three on an errand to the court of England, giving Hamlet private papers for the English king. Hamlet opens the papers and discovers that they are a request that the bearers of the papers be put to death. Hamlet dupes his two friends into carrying the papers for him, while slipping back into Denmark. In the play's climactic scene, almost as an aside, we hear that the English have, indeed, complied with Claudius's request, and that the two very minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are dead.
Godot is Beckett's great comic classic about modern ennui. Estragon and Vladimir are two bored friends who spend most of their time doing and discussing nothing. They are waiting for Godot. Who or what Godot might be, we are never told. Occasionally, a boy walks out to tell our two heros that Godot will be delayed, and they are confused and frustrated, and they continue to wait. And wait. And find idle ways to occupy their time. And wait.
Stoppard turns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into Estragon and Vladimir. Their humorous existential boredom now becomes ominous. By not doing anything, and by having no purpose or greater awareness of the world around them, they become subject to those sinister machinations of Hamlet's Danish court. Our own innocense is no protection against the evils around us. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do what they're told, unthinkingly accept their assignment, and suffer the consequences of not being conscious and proactive. In his final scene, just before he's led off to his execution, Guildenstern realizes what has happened:
There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said--no. But somehow we missed it.Freedom is not easy. Freedom as we know it is an historical anomaly. We like to think of it as the culmination of historical evolution. It could just as easily be but a momentary disruption in the more established historical record of tyranny. The threats to freedom are both external and internal, both political and personal. We must be eternally vigilant against the nefarious forces that haunt both seemingly distant corridors of power and the darkest recesses of our own individual psyches. We must never consider the battle won. If, in a moment of national trauma and panic, we allow such a basic freedom as protection against arbitrary imprisonment to be eviscerated by the pettiest of aspiring tyrants, what hope have we against the broader and more persistent array of threats? We have a choice. This is as basic as it gets. Once lost, freedom is not easily regained. We cannot afford to be complacent or distracted. This is the moment. We cannot afford to miss it.