can individuals protect themselves from tyrants?" "In
the face of the enormous and rapidly-expanding powers of the state,
how can any of us hope to preserve our life and liberty?" "Ideas
about freedom sound good, but what practical solutions do
you offer?" In one form or another, I have received such questions
from a number of readers and friends. Such inquiries often arise
from people who see no connection between how we think about ourselves
and the rest of the world — a continuing theme in my writings —
and those most pragmatic concerns for how we are to survive in a
world that is hostile to our individual interests.
our politicized world, most of us are convinced that the protection
of our life and liberty is contingent upon what others do
and think; that our well-being depends upon our securing the support
of at least 51% of our neighbors. Because we are social beings who
affect one another in various ways, whether or not we respect one
another's inviolability is obviously very important in how we live.
But because we have been conditioned to think in political, majoritarian
terms, we cling to the view that only some kind of collective
response to statist policies will be effective; that others
must change — or be changed — if we are to live well.
is the insidious nature of the mass-mindedness that inheres in political
systems. We anxiously await the outcome of public opinion polls
— whose authenticity we rarely question — to inform us whether our
liberties are likely to be respected. That our individual resolve
might be sufficient to secure our well-being – particularly
in the face of the tyrannical and warmaking cravings of powerful
men — is a thought we tend to reserve for idealistic speculation.
of disappointing experiences with the political process has left
many aware of the futility of relying upon collective efforts to
retard the expansion of state power. As the Bush administration
metastasizes the growth of a jackbooted absolutism, it is increasingly
evident that no one will be able to rely upon any agency of the
state or its processes to afford meaningful safeguards that will
assure them an immunity from despotic practices. Neither Congress
nor the courts have shown any disposition to interfere with the
inflation of imperial ambitions that know no apparent limits. In
the face of a politically-generated crisis, the idea of a constitutionally
limited government has been revealed as but another of the popular
delusions by which the few have controlled the many.
millions of Americans continue to march and demonstrate against
the "war" in Iraq, their protests have been virtually
ignored by federal officials. At the state level, many city councils
and at least one state legislature have passed resolutions that
would refuse local support for much of the federal Wehrmacht. While
such efforts reflect a widespread public distaste for the federal
police state, they fail to be reported by an obsequious national
media doing its best to be Mr. Bush's Leni Riefenstahl.
who continue the Sisyphean cycle of seeking collective methods of
protecting themselves from state power, would do well to recall
a statement attributed to Albert Einstein: "The significant
problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking
we were at when we created them." We need to move beyond our
failed assumptions and acknowledge that the political system feeds
on collective thinking, on mass-mindedness. It is little wonder
that referendum movements, third parties, new legislation, reform
candidates, and constitutional amendments have failed to produce
even a diminution in state power. Let us also remember how easily
this administration has exploited mass-minded fears, following 9/11,
to exponentially increase its police powers and declare war against
virtually the entire world!
possible defenses, then, can an individual muster against a tyrannical
regime? The answer to this question lies in understanding the sources
of power and of weakness in political systems. State
power derives not from tanks, soldiers, prisons, machine
guns, and other weapons of violence, but from the willingness of
men and women to adopt collective identities. By getting
us to identify ourselves with various groupings — whether based
on nationality, race, religion, economic interests, gender, or other
collectives — the state is able to manipulate us into supporting
the interests of "our" collective vis-à-vis others.
It is in this sense that all of politics is grounded in social conflict,
a truth made clearest in times of war.
weakness of the state, then, is to be found in our refusal
to identify ourselves with exclusive groupings; to insist upon our
individuality, and to recognize the importance of respecting and
defending the individuality of our neighbors. Such a frame of mind
will not be found in empty posturing, or sloganeering bravado, but
must arise from a focused resolve to insist upon the direction of
our life; to not allow others to define reality or make moral judgments
foundations of such thinking can be found in the thinking of the
ancient Stoics who insisted, even in the face of bodily threats,
to remain masters of their own sense of reality. Gandhi referred
to this state of mind as "holding on to truth," or the
"soul force" within us. Joseph Campbell termed it our
"invisible means of support." It exists, within
each of us, as a dormant source of energy which, when brought into
focus, becomes our most useful means of survival. It is an expression
of an integrated sense of wholeness that transcends divisiveness;
it reflects the same inner strength of character whose absence precipitated
the erosion of independence and responsibility within us, thus allowing
the conflation of individual subservience and despotic forces to
arise within society.
of our collectivized mindset, almost all of us are disinclined to
consider our own inner resources as an effective means of protecting
our lives and liberty. We dread the sense of loneliness that is
implicit in the recognition that, whatever fear we confront, we
must ultimately make an individualized decision as to our actions.
Our very lives depend upon transcending our conditioned thinking.
pragmatic, survival value of such individuated thinking can be found
in Viktor Frankl's experiences as a survivor of Nazi concentration
camps. Frankl observed that the men and women who survived such
ordeals tended to be those who had a sense of "spiritual freedom,"
what he called "the last of the human freedoms — to choose
one's attitude in any given set of circumstances." Such persons
devoted themselves to alleviating as much of the suffering around
them as they could. Those who lacked such spiritual qualities, he
went on, had "lost the feeling of being an individual,"
and were more likely to die.
testimony confirms that neither blind obedience to authority nor
"niceness" is an effective strategy for survival, for
such tactics are usually paid for by a depressed spirituality. In
his view, "it did not really matter what we expected from life,
but rather what life expected from us." Frankl was able to
discover the truth of Nietzsche's observation that "he who
has a why to live can bear with almost any how."
evidence of the survival value of one's integrity was recently revealed
in the Senate's opening of transcripts of the closed-door hearings
held by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the early 1950s. McCarthy
used such private sessions to ferret out, for subsequent public
hearings, the weaker men and women he thought he would be able to
intimidate. In the words of a Senate historian: "The people
he chose not to call into public session were the ones who stood
up to him the most" in the closed-door sessions.
should we forget the one man who, more than any other, helped to
shatter McCarthy's bluster-filled balloon: attorney Joseph Welch.
I remember watching Welch, during the nationally televised "Army/McCarthy
Hearings," take McCarthy apart in mild but powerful tones:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I had never really gauged
your cruelty or your recklessness. . . .Have you no sense of decency,
sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" With
those words, McCarthy stammered himself into a mass of jelly; "McCarthyism"
was thereafter in a terminal state.
my favorite example of the practical value of "choosing one's
attitude in any given set of circumstances" is found in the
experience of a very dear friend of mine, the late Howard Moore.
Howard was a conscientious objector during World War I. Since governments
do not like the model of an individual who insists upon living by
principles higher than the state dictates — particularly in wartime
— Howard was convicted and given a heavy prison sentence. He refused
to cooperate with prison officials in any way, for which he was
severely treated. When the war ended, Howard was finally released
from prison, and he went on to a very successful business career.
Even though he had been born two months prematurely and with a defective
heart, Howard lived as one of the kindest gentlemen I have known
until his death at about the age of 104, thus outliving all his
these examples prove that having a strong sense of integrity will
guarantee surviving the oppression of the state? Of course not.
They only illustrate, as Frankl observed, the increased likelihood
of one's survival that arises from an insistence upon spiritual
autonomy. We have been conditioned in the proposition "in unity
there is strength." But in the coerced assemblages of concentration
camps, wartime herdings, and other expressions of collective mindsets,
it is time for us to consider — for the sake of our very survival
— the importance of a focused sense of individuality. Perhaps our
best defense against those who collectively organize to subdue us,
is for each of us to be just as well-organized in our character!
may be a lesson to be derived from the study of quantum physics:
in a collective sense, the law of large numbers permits the
state to more easily manipulate and control masses of men and women,
while individual behavior remains unpredictable. Mass-minded "people,"
in other words, can be controlled. It's the "individual"
the state has trouble controlling!
are the thoughts that arise within me as I see members of the booboisie
driving cars with bumper stickers that read "united we stand."
If it is our desire to survive, it may be time for us to consider
the importance of "standing individually," and
to join with and assist others who may be emerging from the stifling
cocoon of collective thinking. In the process of helping one another,
we may discover those qualities that represent the best of what
it means to be human; characteristics that can blossom within each
of us to make our individual lives, as well as society, decent,
peaceful, and loving.