Recently on Facebook I’ve been having a spirited (but civil!) debate with a friend of mine regarding gun control. Unsurprisingly at some point relatively early in the discussion my argument incorporated the issue of defense against tyranny, which is an argument that I stand by. He actually pivoted from there to a surprisingly apt and unusual comparison, one that I have not before seen, invoking the specter of 1984 before I could, but then he made the point that “Brave New World illustrates that humanity can be lulled into submission into serving the interest of a minority by luxuries and promoting self interest.”
It was a different tack, and one that at least took our discussion in a new direction, but it also got me thinking. One of my great loves is dystopian literature (although the sub-genre of cyberpunk is my favorite), and obviously I have given more than a little thought about what shape society takes both now and as we move into the future. So as we continue forward, which is the move likely totalitarian prospect: the iron hand or the velvet glove?
Historically I would say it’s both. Consider one of the most successful (if you can use the word without being offensive) totalitarian regimes in history, the Nazi regime. By combining a rule based on fear and oppression with strong economic growth that gave the “approved” majority of the populace not only the necessities they had been denied but the luxuries they craved, the Nazis turned Germany from a failed state into a powerhouse virtually overnight. I’d have to do a lot more research than I’m ready to right now to call this a thesis, but it does provide some (disturbing) food for thought, if anyone has a strong enough stomach for it.
The iron hand is easy to fear, and just as easy to dismiss. We always assume we’ll see it coming; after all, why would we allow someone or some government to drag people out of their homes in the middle of the night, lock them up for no reason, torture them, or execute them without good reason? We’re good people, we live in a good society, we’re better than that. But then, all it takes is one bad day; one evil act. Then the world changes.
On the other hand, the velvet glove seems far more likely. Stories of people giving in to addiction, vice, and other temptations are as old as… well, stories, and the idea of the guy who controls your hunger controlling you has a great deal of appeal. But consider the recent Occupy movement. Here is a case of rebellion against a system that tried to control the populace by controlling luxury, Big Business in cahoots with Big Government (and the system fought back). Keep in mind plenty of Occupy supporters were not the homeless, the starving, or folks who struggled their whole lives to make it day to day; they were college graduates, middle class and above, theoretically bought and paid for.
So what do they both have in common, and how is it that tyranny in any form finally does manage to take hold? If the neither the iron hand nor the velvet glove is sufficient unto itself, how do they succeed together? Is it simply that “one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away” is enough to confuse people? I wonder. Perhaps it’s more complex, or perhaps it is simpler than that.
According to the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. It’s an interesting philosophy, but what if it goes further than that? Can it be posited that nobody can truly be governed without their consent? After all, you can put a gun to my head but that won’t make my body move; you will simply be putting me under duress. If it is sufficient duress, I will take action, but it is still my action, not yours. Your action was coercing me in the fist place. Coerce enough people and you have a tyrannical government, but it is by the consent of the governed, even if that consent is given under duress.
Viewed in that way, we are always standing between Scylla and Charybdis, between totalitarian oppression and totalitarian luxury. The only thing that prevents it is our exercise of free will, a refusal to allow ourselves to be ruled by others. So long as we view certain things as right and others as wrong, and we hold to those principles in the face of opposition (even unto death), we can and will stand against tyranny. That is the cost of freedom. The cost of society, of civilization, is learning to live with each other, to find the reasonable compromises between my ideals and principles and yours, such that we can live together without my bowing to your tyranny or you bowing to mine.
As soon as I get that one figured out, I’ll let you know.