Politics & Policy

Tyranny Shmyranny

Putting things in perspective.

Well, this is no good. My desktop computer isn’t working. The long-term problem is that the fairly large fraction of my life that takes the form of ones and zeroes is on that computer. My short-term problem is that I had a mostly written Goldberg File sitting in there just waiting to be polished off, like the last beer in an otherwise empty cardboard six-pack holder. Now I have to start from scratch.

I’d like to blame this on my movers, who were movers in perhaps the most fundamental of senses: They moved around a lot, without much direction or concern for the larger goal of moving my stuff from point A to point B.

Anyway, please indulge me as I have not yet unpacked any of my books, let alone my smart pills.


One of my best friends in college was a serious, long-haired, no-blood-for-oil, hippie lefty. During the lead-up to the Gulf War he even organized a “learn-in” on the evils of whatever made America look bad (teach-ins, you see, are too hierarchical; they assume that one group informs the other. Some feminists object to “teach-ins” because of the implicit patriarchal assumption that some people, usually men, give information to others who receive it, usually women. A learn-in allows for the collaborative sharing of information without any of the bogus assumptions that anyone has a monopoly on knowledge. Seriously, this is the kind of stuff I dealt with in college on a daily basis).

Anyway, Sam (not his real name) had a tendency to imbue current events with a larger meaning than they deserved. I must have heard him say “This may be the greatest outrage since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were unjustly executed” a million times. I’m quite serious — and so was he, most of the time. I learned through Sam, and his many followers among the campus Left, that he was not alone in this tendency. They came in all sizes, from feminists who’d see The Handmaid’s Tale in a B- on an English paper to environmentalists who saw the extinction of the panda in an over-flushed toilet.

Surely, part of it simply comes from being young (and, often, spoiled) and believing that the first “outrages” you encounter are the greatest, most unique outrages in the history of mankind. I myself quoted Stokley Carmichael’s expletive-laden rhetoric more than once while in college. But that’s a story for another day.

But some of us don’t grow out of this tendency. Some people spend their whole lives seeing molehills as mountains. And, among this group, there are people living perfectly happy and normal lives who for some reason also believe that we are a hair’s-breadth from tyranny. From across the ideological spectrum, these folks imbue comparatively tiny events with profound ideological and historical import. And sometimes they seize on important events, and magnify these to the point of near-biblical prophecy.

Let me pick an example that will be sure to annoy many people on the right: Waco.

Now, I think the raid on Waco was a horrible, deplorable, and in all likelihood criminal disaster. For the sake of argument, at least, I’m perfectly willing to concede pretty much every assertion made by those who believe Waco was a deliberate outrage by the feds and not just an outrageous mistake. So let’s stipulate all of that.

But does that mean, as so many right-wingers of a certain perspective insist, that the siege of the Branch Davidian compound was a major step toward a “police state”? I simply don’t think so. I don’t want to vent, again, about how unpersuasive slippery-slope arguments can be. But simply because Waco was police-state behavior doesn’t mean it pushed us closer to living in an actual police state.

It may not have been an entirely isolated incident, but you have to have a very immature and unrealistic view of the last decade to say that Waco-like events have become the norm. And please, spare me the connect-the-dots game of adding Ruby Ridge and Elián Gonzalez to the “big picture.” As bad as these events were, they were not run-of-the-mill and they’ve hardly become routine.

And yet Waco is repeatedly cited as an example of the FBI and ATF turning into the Gestapo. And I just don’t think you can make a reasonable case for that.

Now, on the left this sort of thing goes on everyday. From the rise of the “Taliban wing of the Republican party,” to the invocation of the Holocaust and lynching whenever some boutique minority group stubs its toe. Jesse Jackson brought up the Holocaust and slavery repeatedly during the Florida recount — as if “hanging chads” referred to blacks and geriatric Jews named Chad dangling from a noose, rather than an improperly punched-out piece of cardboard. Environmentalists, feminists, homosexual activists, teachers unions, librarians, civil libertarians: these are just a few of the groups who regularly invoke the Nazis, the KGB, the Gestapo, the looming “police-state” with almost daily regularity. As Jesse Jackson himself said years ago, “in South Africa, we call it Apartheid. In Nazi Germany, we’d call it fascism. Here in the United States, we call it conservatism.”

Now, the use and abuse of Nazi analogies has been a major peeve of mine for quite some time. Here’s how I put it in a column on this subject about a year and half ago: “If someone isn’t advocating the murder of millions of people in gas chambers and a global Reich for the White Man, you shouldn’t assume he’s a Nazi and you should know it’s pretty damn evil to call him one.”


The conviction that we stand on a razor’s edge between freedom and tyranny can be found across the ideological spectrum. I’m beginning to think one reason for this is that it is a psychological tendency, not an intellectual one. There are some people who simply have a highly literary view of the world. They see plot lines and themes rather than reality; they emphasize imagined foreshadowing over facts. Perhaps it comes from the natural desire for humans to find larger meaning in their lives: I care passionately about X, therefore X defines the universe. One can surely see this in the rhetoric of those who continue to stress racism, sexism, or environmental degradation as the overarching problems of our society — even though all three of these things have been improving dramatically over the years.

I got to thinking about all of this while dealing with the readers of my syndicated column who insisted that I must be some kind of Nazi because I think terrorist agents of foreign powers should not be accorded due process. I can totally understand how people can disagree with me. What I’m at a loss to understand is their granite-like conviction that if we deprive Jose Padilla of his right to trial by jury, we’ll become a totalitarian regime. Sure, I can see how it might bring us a teensy-weensy bit closer to a less free society. But the distance between us and the Third Reich or the Soviet Union is hundreds of miles and we are arguing over inches.

Those with literary minds see this movement of inches as foreshadowing a movement of miles. The problem is that life doesn’t move like a novel or screenplay. Think about all the hysteria that surrounded the presidential ambitions of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Perfectly sensible people fretted that these men might become dictators or tyrants. Now, I may have problems with both men, but that’s slander against Buchanan and Perot — and more importantly, it’s slander against America. If Perot or Buchanan tried to declare martial law for illegitimate reasons, the American system would snap them in two. Officers would resign; governors would refuse to cooperate. Congress would impeach. Hell, we impeached Clinton — do you honestly think we wouldn’t impeach a would-be Hitler?

A better example: Think of all the hysteria over Richard Nixon. Amid all the endless commentary about Watergate and Nixon’s “imperial” abuses of power, people keep forgetting to mention that Nixon resigned, peaceably. No soldiers left their barracks and no Nixon-defenders said they should. This country doesn’t have it in it to become a dictatorship, because the American people will not be dictated to. This may reflect a bit of wishful thinking, and too much faith in the inherent goodness of the American people, on my part. But it’s still a lot more rational than those who think this country would roll over for a Hitler in a heartbeat.


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