We Americans live with some interesting ideas about what tyranny is. And some interesting ideas of what freedom is too.
Our ideas of tyranny seem to be informed almost entirely our notions of captive nations groaning under the weight of the state — an alien state not made by the people it governs and which governs against popular will. In our minds, we see secret police, armies trained to fight their own people, governments of distant and uncaring elites — maybe of monarchs (or that odd creation of the 20th century, the "hereditary presidency") or of party chairman "elected" by a tiny, secret cadre of party faithful. We think of dank cellars in nameless places where dissidents, rebels and other "criminals" are beaten, humiliated, tortured and then finally given "nine grams" in the back of the head. We think of endless and meaningless teevee and radio broadcasts boasting of the success of the state and the brilliance of its leaders, statistics boasting higher wages, more output and longer and happier lives.
We also tend to think of hungry people without food, shelter or work, of states that promise and then fail to deliver even the most basic necessities of human existence.
But more to the point, we say to ourselves: "no one would ever choose tyranny, would they? Impossible!" We are convinced all tyrannies are impositions of which people yearn to be relieved. How could anyone ever support or endorse a dictator? How could anyone ever vote for a tyrant? No, tyranny is an imposition from either the outside or the inside, a parasite that grasps hold of the state and society and sucks it dry. We think of Nazi-occupied Europe, or the satellite nations of the Warsaw Pact, or even of much of the world (especially the Arab bits of it), bereft of American democracy and DC-style managerial and administrative government.
We have reduced liberty to a matter of "what kind of government a people has" and freedom to "can they vote for their leaders?" It is as if being free has no other meaning than casting a secret ballot in a "contested" election every now and again for people who claim to represent you (and probably do, legally or constitutionally, though probably not ideologically or in any other meaningful way). "Are you free?" is really "who’s your leader?"
And our reduction of tyranny to a crude, parasitic entity, an external "evil" that can be pulled off men’s bodies and rooted out of men’s souls by force and either stomped flat or shot in the back of the head until there is no more of it left anywhere in the world, ignores its very real complexity. It ignores that all government, and not merely the ballot-casting, party-caucusing, three-nominally co-equal branches-of-government kind, is to some extent self-government, the conscious work of men and women and a reflection of their real and sincere aspirations for themselves as individuals and as a community. (All government is also, to some extent, tyrannical, since there is simply no real, meaningful way people can "rule" or can even, as a collective, be sovereign.)
How a people govern themselves is as much a reflection of their culture, their spoken and unspoken assumptions and aspirations about themselves and the world, as it their ideologies and institutions. They may not cast secret ballots for political parties of little or no real distinction, but there is usually some process by which people address those who "rule" or "govern" them and hold them accountable. In fact, it has been my experience that the less formal the process, the more responsive those "rulers" are and the more likely people are to be satisfied with the outcome.
Even government imposed from the outside, by an occupying power or conqueror, as it becomes part of the culture of a people, and as more of them become involved in that government, becomes — to an extent — self-government. After all, isn’t this exactly what Team Bush is busy trying to do in Iraq, make Iraqis adopt and accept an imposed government and slowly embrace it as their own? It’s a process that’s not much different than what the Soviet Union did in Eastern Europe following the end of the Second World War. It will probably last about as long, too. (I give our Iraqi satellite government no more than five years from the "formal withdrawal," which may or may not be a real and complete withdrawal, before it is toppled, likely in a coup d’tat.)
Someday, maybe, the Czechs and Iraqis will be able to sit down and have a good laugh about it. And so will the Kurds and the Slovaks.
And it is also possible for tyrannical governments that shoot people in cellars, imprison them in vast camps and are hell-bent on conquering the world to be popular, to possess a great deal of deep and sincere popular support. (Who would have thought Russians would have fought for Stalin and Party after June, 1941? And yet they did…) Human history is full of popular tyrants, and most Americans who applaud George W. Bush, his murderous war in Iraq, the eternal expansion of unaccountable executive power, deployment of the US military across three-quarters of the globe in order to "dominate" it, torture and indefinite detention of "suspected terrorists," and unaccountable spending of gobs and gobs of tax dollars (and Chinese central bank money) for all manner of "defense" projects, are hardly the kinds of people who ought to be shaking their heads wondering why Arabs tend to embrace dictatorial military/police regimes that repress domestic social, political and economic liberties while from time to time invading and occupying neighboring states. They are of a piece, every Arab who ever told me "we need to be governed by a strong hand" and every American who lectures me that "George W. Bush is our commander-in-chief!"
And both prove that even the most noxious and murderous tyrant begins his reign with the applause and adulation of the crowd, satisfying deep emotional needs of enough people — At last! The nation will be strong! We will be respected again! We will be important in the world! — to expand and deepen his power. Most people who live under tyranny don’t suffer anyway, not directly. Suffering, that’s done by other people, ones we don’t know or don’t like. People not like us.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite example of a thoroughly unlovable but once-loved tyrant, the ever-useful, pleasantly dead, Gumby-wire-doll of Adolf Hitler. (If he could find work in the recent Virginia gubernatorial race, he can find work here too.) According to an English-language article much earlier this year at Der Spiegel’s web site (this piece sat in my computer for a long, long time as I worked and reworked it), German scholar Goetz Aly’s book, Hitler’s People’s State: Robbery, Racial War and National Socialism, makes the right and proper case that the Nazi government was not merely the result of a "democratic" and constitutional process, but also continued to receive both the active and passive support of most Germans long after the National Socialist government did away with opposition parties, merged itself into the state, and glued the chancellorship and the presidency together to make the Führer, and invaded and conquered much of Europe. The National Socialist dictatorship, and its wars of conquest, reflected the desires and aspirations of many — possibly most — Germans. At the time the review was published, the book was not available in English (and I do not know German), so I am entirely reliant on the translation of the Der Spiegel piece.
The Nazi government was relatively popular, Aly said, because Hitler and his government "not only made Germans feel important, but also made sure they were well cared-for by the state." There were tremendous benefits to supporting the party, the state and the war. Soldiers and families were well paid, not only from the state treasury but also from countries conquered and looted. The system of rations was maintained down almost to the collapse of the Nazi regime.
"About 95 percent of the German population benefited financially from the National Socialist system. The Nazis’ unprecedented killing machine maintained its momentum by robbing from others," Aly told Der Spiegel. "Millions of people were killed — the Jews were gassed, 2 million Soviet war prisoners were starved to death … so that the German people could maintain their good mood.”
By contrast, the magazine pointed out, "British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cajoled his people in 1940, just after France had fallen, to ‘brace ourselves to our duties’ so that in a thousand years, ‘men will still say, this was their finest hour.’"
If Germans came to see themselves as having been liberated from Nazism, just as Belgium and Poland were, it came only some time after the war, when Germany was a conquered, ruined and occupied country. From 1933 on to the end of the war, many Germans who were not initially supporters of the new regime came — as Duke University history professor Claudia Koonz pointed out in The Nazi Conscience (an essential book for anyone interested in what it takes to get enough people in a society to accept the systematic dehumanization and eventual mass-murder of fellow-citizens as a moral good) — to accept the Nazi state and its world view as legitimate, if for no other reason than they benefited materially from it. According to Koonz, Hitler created a "consensual dictatorship" that was "neither right nor left" but a kind of ethno-religious fundamentalism built around a popular leader and drawing on "populist rage against corrupt elites who had betrayed the ‘common man.’"
And this, from the last three pages of Koonz’s conclusion, describes how that "consensual dictatorship" worked and succeeded:
Germans’ readiness to expel Jews from their universe of moral obligation evolved as a consequence of their acceptance of knowledge disseminated by institutions they respected. Like citizens in other modern societies, residents of the Reich believed the facts conveyed by experts, documentary films, popular science, educational materials, and exhibitions. What haunts us is not only the ease with which soldiers slaughtered helpless civilians in occupied territories but the specter of a state so popular that it could mobilize individual consciences of a broad cross section of citizens in the service of moral catastrophe. This persuasive process has little in common with brainwashing, which aims at turning its subjects into mindless automatons. In Nazi Germany, faith in a virtuous Führer and joy at belonging to a superior Volk cultivated grassroots initiative and allowed for a margin of choice.
This is not to imply that Nazi Germany was remotely similar to a democracy, but the laxity of its conceptual world distinguished it from the doctrinal rigidity of totalitarian societies such as Stalin’s USSR, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mao’s China. A field policeman in Ukraine explained the difference: “We are not commissars with all their evil ways. We are soldiers of Prussian rearing and stand before a task that demands from us our greatest efforts … a task to which the Führer charged us here in the Ukraine; to see something very important and beautiful; something upon which the fate of Germany rests for centuries.” German soldiers had been trained to take initiative, to think for themselves in the absence of specific orders. They functioned well because they shared a working consensus, rooted in ethnic pride and self-denial as well as contempt for their victims.
Ordinary Germans who were neither politically suspect nor racially unwanted had considerable latitude to create their own patterns of selective compliance. Thus, collaborators in racial persecution were ordinary in a different and more frightening way than the image of banal bureaucrats and obedient soldiers suggests. Despite having been raised to believe in the Golden Rule and probably more or less honoring it in their private lives, citizens of the Third Reich were shaped by a public culture so compelling that even those who objected to one or another aspect of Nazism came to accept the existence of a hierarchy of racially based human worth, the cult of the Führer, and the desirability of territorial conquest. The Final Solution did not develop as evil incarnate but rather as the dark side of ethnic righteousness. Conscience, originally seen to protect the integrity of the individual from the inhumane demands of the group, in the Third Reich became a means of underwriting the attack by the strong against the weak. To Germans caught up in a simulacrum of high moral purpose, purification of racial aliens became a difficult but necessary duty.
Culture and ideology worked together to make mass murder not just possible and not just morally acceptable, but a necessary honor and duty to state, people, country and leader.
The state shaped the popular culture through institutions Germans trusted — experts, social scientists, commentators, magistrates, and so forth. But a culture of people willing to obey, to listen, and internalize and replace whatever small voice of conscience they had with the loud and incessant dictates of the party, the state and its leader, already existed. That culture, as Koonz notes, was little different from that in any other advanced industrialized nation. And it was ready to listen. It was ready to believe. It was ready to follow.
The most successful tyrannies come from within, they spring from the souls of people who yearn for something more than peace, tranquility and prosperity. Because people — Americans, Germans, Arabs, Chinese, whoever — do, far too often, desire more; they want to be great, important and powerful. They want to belong to something that will outlive them, something "bigger than themselves" (as our Dear Leader was wont to say for a time after September 11, 2001), and states, governments, nations and races seem pretty permanent. Majorities of whole societies (or enough people to matter in whole societies) can, and have, desired to rule all they see, to live well off the sweat of others, to fill their spiritual voids with pride of race, nation and government.
To say this is unique to Germany, or Russia, or the Arab world, is to ignore just how much human societies across the world (and throughout time) have in common. In Koonz’s description of a Germany primed to listen to experts, to trust leaders, to believe in its importance and destiny, I see the United States of America. Our country, and not just now, but for most of the late 19th and all of the 20th centuries.
We bemoan the state a lot at this website, and well we should. I suspect we all have some point when America began slouching toward tyranny, when it more or less stopped being a free place and became something else — 1933 (when FDR took office, closed the banks and seized gold), or 1913 (when the Federal Reserve and the 16th Amendment came in with that monster in human form, Woodrow Wilson) or 1861 (when Abraham Lincoln decided that the whole — the union — was somehow greater than the sum of its parts and that in order to be saved, the constitution had to be effectively suspended and a lot of people needed to die).
I don’t really buy any of those. My own personal moment is sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s, when we decided that the entire continent belonged to us, and that we were going to take, by hook or by crook, those parts of Mexico we thought God intended for us to have and that the Mexicans were not really using properly anyway. (However, I’m inclined to agree with Albert Jay Nock when he says the authors of the Constitution never intended to create the kind of state that the principles of liberty suggested in the Declaration of Independence, and that America was never really meant to be a society of liberty to begin with.)
But if tyranny — real tyranny — comes to this country, it will not be because Marxists staged a revolution, or politically correct women studies professors found time between their semiotics lectures to form a national salvation council, or because Dick Cheney calls out the Marines and the Army in response to an indictment, or Islamic revolutionaries march up Independence Avenue and hang the banner of Islam from the US Capitol, or because Hillary Clinton or John McCain declares themselves "president-for-life." It will be because enough people in this society want it, wish for it, work for it and support it. They will will it into being with their hearts and their hands.
As attached as Americans are to individual liberty, freedom of thought and conscience, and the ability to live and believe as one chooses, there is a darkness to our culture, a desire to conform, a fear of the outside world, and a need to punish — often brutally — those who fail to or refuse to conform. This goes much deeper than any of the various isms we ascribe our plight to, and are a product of the cultural stew that is America: the intolerance and arrogance of the Yankees, the cussedness and fearfulness of the Scots-Irish, the brutal egalitarianism of the Scandinavians, the tribalism of the Southern and Eastern European migrants, and who knows what else. All of these have contributed to a culture that, while raising high the ideal of liberty and individualism, is as collectivist and authoritarian as any in the world. And is as ready to listen to dictatorship and embrace tyranny as well.
In saying that the 1840s was the era when America began its long slide from liberal society to a collectivist and militarist one, I’m also saying that Andrew Jackson — and the "Jacksonian Democracy" historians have now decided he stood for — is the great demon of American history. Not necessarily for what he did, but what he stood for and the social forces he represented.
Democrats and liberals (not us, but left social democrats) still think fondly of Jackson as the man who took an elite republic and left it something resembling a mass democracy, a society in which "the common man" could participate in government with the expectation he would get something from it. They commemorate the "founders" of their party with their annual Jefferson/Jackson Day dinners, the man whose commitment to popular rule, the spoils system and the state-sponsored "American Dream" made possible the future expansion of the state. We tend to remember Jackson fondly as the president who waged war against The Bank of the United States and won. Not for expelling the Cherokee. Or threatening to wage war against South Carolina over the tariff.
However, in her riotously wonderful tongue-in-cheek history of the presidents, Hail to the Chiefs (How to Tell Your Polks From Your Tylers), Barbara Holland describes Jackson this way:
Jackson was Old Hickory, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and stood for all the manly American virtues like cockfighting, horse racing, drinking, gambling, and shooting at people … [Jackson] always said he was crazy about the common man. He didn’t mean they had to stay common, though. He only meant that they, too, could be born to poor immigrants in a log cabin in the middle of howling nowhere between the Carolinas, and still grow up to be a rich lawyer and famous general and own miles of land in Tennessee and whole armies of slaves and stables full of fancy horses. And not need any sissy universities to do it, either. He thought people should have a chance to grab up all the public lands dirt cheap and be a success like him.
Jackson represents that darker part of American civilization, the fearful mob that hates the stranger or anyone who doesn’t fit in, deeply resents certain kinds of educated and wealthy people, doesn’t know what to do with a problem it cannot shoot, and wants its $5,000. Now. It represents the autocratic and even authoritarian use of informal social power as an adjunct to state power. Democrats made great use of that mob for much of the 20th century, keeping it happy with a rigged economy, a social welfare state and the occasional invasion or air raid against farthest wogistan until Richard Nixon stole George Wallace’s playbook and invented the Culture War. Since then, Jackson’s mob has more or less been a sullen and angry creature of the GOP.
In a recent issue of The Nation, Anatol Lieven wrote a review of a biography of Andrew Jackson in which he articulates why any future American tyranny, as well as our country’s past wandering into authoritarianism, are as much a matter of culture in this country as it will be the state:
Jackson and his descendants have always been genuinely attached to democracy and the law, though in their own specific understanding of these terms. For most of American history, tendencies toward authoritarianism have taken a communal form, and as with Jackson they have been phrased and even thought of in terms of a defense of the American democratic system, not a revolt against it. However, this adherence to democracy has also involved a conviction that being American means adhering to a national cultural community, one defined by its values, and in the past by race, ethnicity and religion.
Like Jackson, the numerous descendants of this tradition have had a strong sense that this community is threatened by alien and savage “others.” They have also had a sense that they constitute in some way the authentic American people, or folk; the backbone of the nation, possessing a form of what German nationalists called the gesunder Volkssinn (“healthy sense of belonging to the people”), embracing correct national forms of religion, social behavior and patriotism. With time, they have come to accept people first of different ethnicities, then of different races, as members of the American community — but only so long as they conform to American norms and become “part of the team.”
The freedom of aliens and deviants, who do not share the folk culture, can therefore legitimately be circumscribed by authoritarian and even savage means, as long as this is to defend the community and reflects the will of the sound members of the community. In the words of Walter Russell Mead, which have deep implications for American nationalism abroad as well as at home: “Jacksonian realism is based on the very sharp distinction in popular feeling between the inside of the folk community and the dark world without.”
As Americans, we tend to think we’re different than most other people. We’re better. We’ve never had tyranny and never will. That’s other people’s problems. We save them from tyranny.
But we aren’t better. We did not stop being human beings just because we became, or were born, Americans. We’re no different than the Germans who admired Hitler, supported his government, fought in his war and ratted out their Jewish, Communist or devoutly religious neighbors because they thought it was the right thing to do. We’re lucky — so far, we’ve never really had that chance. We’ve never lived under a regime that wanted or needed such things on a mass scale for any great length of time. We’re quite capable of mass murder, even of our neighbors. We’ve done those kinds of things in the past, though mostly in far away countries against people we knew little about and respected even less. We don’t, right now, have a government that wants those things. But if ordered, would most — okay, enough — Americans comply, do what they saw as their duty? I have no doubt they would.
Anyone who’s ever been on the outside of American culture knows that this country and its people, and their social power, can be as cruel and intolerant as any state or government power. Informal social power can be as collectivist, cruel, capricious and authoritarian as state power, but it has one distinct advantage — it can be fairly easily escaped. There are places to run to — that’s what big cities are for — but when social power is welded to the blunt cudgel of state power (as so many believe it needs to be), where then do you hide from Andrew Jackson’s wretched, enraged, frightened, self-righteous, murderous and nuclear-armed great-great-grandchildren? How can you?
The Republican Party’s and George W. Bush’s Jackson-flavored "revolution" appears to be happily unraveling, tripping up both in its own lies, arrogance and cowardice, proving mainly that the people who run it (thankfully) do not appear to have the stomach (or brains, or ambition) to be real tyrants. Which, despite the death and destruction they are wrecking upon the world, is something to be truly heartened by. It may be that a tyranny based largely on culture and with only the loosest state control, without any real ideology behind it and managed by those unwilling to sanction mass murder whenever and wherever it is needed, is doomed to fail. As long as the intolerance, the hate, the fear, the resentment and the desire to dominate that come naturally to Jackson’s mob don’t find significant state-sanctioned or state-sponsored outlets or become mass political movements, and instead only float around largely undirected and half-inchoate in the culture (and there are still places inside this country to escape that social power), then we who have decided to dissent and resist are okay. The routine price of dissent and resistance is not yet one’s life. For that I am thankful. Hopefully that will never change.
But I fear it very easily could, that despite the clear failure of the Bush administration’s attempts to subdue the dark world outside our borders by force, enough Americans would still wholeheartedly and honestly support a real military and police dictatorship with a real ideology and real ambitions of world conquest if given half the chance. One that "makes them feel good about being Americans" and keeps them in a style they are satisfied with as it — with their full support — murders, bludgeons and plunders its way across both our country and the entire world.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.