"How 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.
In 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.
Such 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.
Decades 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.
While 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.
Those 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!
What 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.
The 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 for us.
The 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.
Because 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.
The 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.
Frankl’s 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."
Further 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.
Neither 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.
Perhaps 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 persecutors.
Do 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!
There 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!
Such 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.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.