October 9, 2012
Time to Demythologize the Authoritarian ImpulseBy Daren Jonescu
The will to dominate others is as old as history, and as endless. When the Berlin Wall came down, many in the West deluded themselves to the effect that history had reached its conclusion. A kind of Berlin Wall of the psyche went up, confining tyranny to an image drawn from Orwell, a convenient veil behind which three-dimensional men and women with the all too human urge to dominate are moving "forward" with their agenda.
To clarify, the point here is not that the West's declared victory in the Cold War is false. Thanks to the politically incorrect intransigence of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and countless unsung others, the Soviet Union dissolved, freeing millions of Europeans from the oppressive rule of usurpers. Nothing can diminish this victory.
But we may have accepted a mythology of "Them," the tyrants and their peoples, according to which Their otherness is so complete that it seems inconceivable that we could become Them without realizing it. After all, so the psychological Berlin Wall teaches, Their rulers are either bloodthirsty madmen or emotionless, robotic Party men, while Their oppressed masses are permanently huddled in corners, quivering with fear and furtively perusing by candlelight the one pre-revolutionary book they have managed to hide from the secret police. As long as our world does not look like that, we tell ourselves, there is no danger that we are becoming Them.
Such imagery is actively encouraged by modern tyrants, as it produces the general fear that helps despots maintain order among a population far too large to be held down by brute force alone. And there are, of course, moments of extremity when this imagery becomes quite literally accurate.
But for us it is falsely reassuring to reduce even modern totalitarian despotism to such imagery. For by highlighting nightmare images which make the totalitarian world appear so utterly different from life in the "free" West, we pre-emptively dismiss any uncomfortable comparisons to our own lives within the inexorably encroaching machinery of the bureaucratic regulatory state, while obscuring any disturbing similarities between the West's ever-expanding federal regulatory regimes and the mythologized dictators of totalitarian yesteryear.
Consider the prototype of the West's understanding of totalitarianism, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This novel's depiction of the oppressive apparatus of tyranny is so chilling -- Orwell is almost guilty of romanticizing the reach and power of totalitarian bureaucracy -- that the modern iconography surrounding the book overlooks the underlying banality of the world Orwell portrays. Because Orwell is focused on characters who resist the state's oppression, it is easy to lose sight of the quotidian aspects of the society he depicts: people traveling to and from offices, doing bureaucratic work without thinking much about its ramifications; listening to the day's government-regulated news without thinking much about its truth value; participating in state-approved activism without questioning its purposes; and living in compliance with the state's omnipresent regulations without wondering why all those rules are necessary, and what life might be like without them.
"Imagine having every part of your life regulated by the state," we respond, aghast, in pondering life under Stalin. To that thought, we ought to learn to juxtapose a few others: imagine being allowed to hold a church bake sale without a license; imagine being allowed to open a small business without fussing with a thousand pages of regulations demanding "compliance"; imagine being free to get on an airplane without government agents taking a virtual naked photo of your wife and/or pawing her body; imagine being a peaceful advocate of individual liberty without having to wonder why your federal government is officially training its law-enforcement officers to view such advocates as subversive terror threats.
Reagan was quite right to call the Soviet Union an "evil empire." What must not be lost to us, however, and what Reagan certainly understood, is the basic humanity of evil. Evil is not the character of inhuman monsters; it is the character of corrupted men. This is what Reagan implied by warning that "freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." The primary threat does not come from mythological Others; it comes from among us, from a generation that has lost its will to be free, or to resist those who wish to repeal liberty.
And, as a corollary of this, life under evil oppressors is not an unrecognizable, monolithic horror; it is just our life, but endlessly circumscribed by irrational rules designed to protect and perpetuate the ruling class. The great Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera warns against the tendency among survivors of Soviet era oppression to romanticize their hardship with phraseology such as "those lost decades." As he often explains, even in those terrible times, men had their muted versions of happiness -- their private jokes about the oppressors; their loves and their children; and art that gave them hope.
Yes, even art. For all our psychic Berlin Wall's self-congratulatory, mythologized understanding of censorship under totalitarianism, the two most advanced (i.e., farthest "forward") communist dictatorships gave rise to efforts of artistic courage far more resistant to socialist state propaganda than almost anything produced by the "freest" artistic community on Earth.
For example, in 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky directed Solaris, a beautiful examination of the depths of human spirituality produced in officially atheist Russia, interspersing black and white with color scenes simply because he ran out of color film stock; meanwhile, Hollywood, during the forty years since that film's release, has reduced the spiritual realm to pop song-singing nuns, left-wing activist nuns, and slavering huckster televangelists.
Chinese cinema has given us Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite (1993), a moving depiction of the brutal practical means whereby totalitarianism maintains control of the populace, and Zhang Yimou's To Live (released in 1994, before Zhang's hideous sellout to the Chinese government beginning with 2002's Hero), depicting the infinite reserves of hope that allow ordinary people to carry on through oppression and regulatory degradation. Meanwhile, Hollywood has given us statist-supported agitprop, from the global warming alarmism of The Day After Tomorrow to Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln, which proudly declares leftist-plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin as its source.
So what does all this have to do with Obama's re-election campaign? Everything, as a matter of fact. The West's popular artists, along with the establishment media and their puppeteers in academe, operating under the protective psychic umbrella of the post-Cold War mythology of the inhumanity of evil, have successfully propagated a convenient fiction -- namely, that leftism and its workings are normal, unexceptional aspects of a Western free society, and in no way an existential threat to freedom and civilization. After all, we learn, the tyrannical impulse is the exclusive provenance of monsters who have nothing in common with real live human beings. Our leaders are just people like us: they watch movies, eat fast food, and listen to pop music. Monsters don't do any of those things; ergo, our leaders are not monsters.
The truth, however, is that real tyrants are not inhuman monsters. As great political thinkers and psychologists from Socrates to Tocqueville have taught us, the tyrannical soul is a thoroughly human soul -- merely an upside-down one.
The brains of Saddam Hussein's outfit, Tariq Aziz, enjoyed ballroom dancing, and Saddam's own home was adorned with magazine clippings of Britney Spears. Kim Jong-il was a fan of Hollywood and British comedies. Osama bin Laden was a regular on the Beirut nightclub scene for years, and he made larger "charitable donations" than any American politician. These were not mythological creatures; they were real human beings with families and "everyday lives" -- and twisted dreams of ruling the masses for their own perceived advantage. To neglect this reality is to ignore Reagan's warning about the fragility of freedom.
Today, we have Al Gore, Bono, Bill Gates, and Prince Charles, demanding powers of "global governance" to enforce a smaller, dimmer life upon all mankind -- while they live in enormous energy-devouring mansions. And then there is Barack Obama, fomenting hatred of the rich and demanding that they be forced to relinquish more of their wealth in the name of fairness -- while he, his wife and children, and a few of his closest millionaires and billionaires raid the public till to pay for their life of jet-setting luxury.
Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn? Sure, they were a little out of control in their younger days, but now they are respected professional educators, and therefore clearly on this side of the psychological Berlin Wall separating Us from the Evil Other. Likewise with Gore, Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, David Axelrod, Rashid Khalidi, Eric Holder, Valerie Jarrett, and all the rest of the leftist establishment. They are all conceivable as guys and gals from your neighborhood, and inhuman monsters don't come from your neighborhood, right?
Wrong. Evil does come from your neighborhood. Where else would it come from? The same goes for the authoritarian impulse: it is a thoroughly human impulse, and one that is in no way exclusive of a variety of other impulses. Conservatives are wont to debate whether Obama is a hardened socialist radical or just a lazy man happy to gain his personal pleasure as the willing tool of wicked backers. This is a false dichotomy, born of the post-Cold War misunderstanding of the tyrannical soul. There is, in truth, no reason why Obama could not be both of these things. He is inclined to idleness, vanity, and self-gratification. Should we not expect men of an authoritarian bent to have such weaknesses?
The proper dichotomy of governing types is not evil monsters vs. guys from your neighborhood. The real dichotomy is reluctant leaders who govern with a mind to protecting and enhancing the freedom of their fellow citizens vs. men eager to rule over others with a mind to molding them into better servants of the ruler's own aspirations and interests.
Washington and Lincoln were the first type of leader. Which type is Barack Obama? That is the only question that matters for those taking the measure of this or any leader. We obscure this fundamental question when we accept the "it can't happen here" mythology of Cold War monsters and their lifeless, quivering subjects.
Big Brother is a powerful image, but it is too easy. In reality, there is no otherworldly Big Brother -- the real Big Brother is a group of very recognizably human beings, with families, friends, teachers, and students. They are precisely guys from your neighborhood -- smug but unaccomplished, clever but unwise, drug-using, lazy, lucky, opportunistic, well-supported, rabble-rousing guys from your neighborhood.
To state all of this a different way, one-party rule is not a defining trait of leftist authoritarianism. It is merely one way of achieving leftism's aims. Leftism's defining trait is the micro-regulation of the individual's life, such that each citizen develops an instinct for prejudging his own potential actions or thoughts against an internalized version of the state's never-ending, ever-changing rulebook. Finally, he gives up thinking or choosing at all, and simply lets the government decide what is best for him, and how best to utilize his efforts.
That, as Tocqueville prefigured, is what modern tyranny means. That is what leftists want. That is what November 6 is about.
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