The Corner


The Lure of Dictatorial Power, Etc.

Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak waves during a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1973 war: October 6, 1998. (Mona Sharaf / Reuters)

As usual, Impromptus has a range of items, though most are related to the present crisis. How could they not be? Even the music item at the end has a corona connection: The musicians of Malaysia’s Bach festival — plus some others — got together to perform a chorale from the St. Matthew Passion. They “got together” remotely, each performer in isolation. Then some technical wizard put it all together.

The universality of Bach — and of music in general — is a stunning thing. Bach speaks as strongly in Malaysia as in Leipzig (maybe more these days, who knows?).

One of my items is on power-grabs in the time of corona. A pandemic is a juicy opportunity for a dictator, or would-be dictator. People are scared — understandably — and willing to accept almost anything.

Anne Applebaum addressed this in an essay called “The People in Charge See an Opportunity.” (She is the author of books on the Gulag and the terror-famine, among other subjects.) I quote her essay in my column. And here is a report from Bloomberg News: “Hungary’s Orban Seeks Indefinite Emergency Powers in Virus Bill.”

Bear in mind that Hosni Mubarak, the “president” (dictator) of Egypt, ruled by “emergency law” for over 30 years. That’s a helluvan emergency, you know? More like a permanent one.

After I wrote my column, I noticed a new statement from Freedom House, which I’d like to share now. Its heading: “Principles for Protecting Civil and Political Rights in the Fight against Covid-19.” There are five such principles, the first of which is:

Any emergency restrictions should be clearly communicated, enacted in a transparent manner, well grounded in law, necessary to serve a legitimate purpose, and proportionate to the threat.

The fifth is:

Every feasible step should be taken to protect the administration of free and fair elections, including by adjusting voter-registration rules and polling-station procedures, encouraging early voting, and allowing vote-by-mail or other remote voting procedures where their integrity can be assured. Postponement of elections should only be a last resort, and should be supported by law and a broad consensus among political forces and independent experts.

I don’t mean to slight the other three principles. Freedom House has come up with an important, sound, and, of course, very timely statement.

Would you like a bit of reader mail? A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine who’s a top lawyer in Chicagoland. Here is a portion:

If you can believe it, I was in a jury trial . . . for two weeks until Thursday. I am certain we will have been the last civil jury trial in Illinois for a long time. We could not believe all the jurors came on time every day to see it through as the courthouse literally closed down around us. I had visions of starving people clawing at the windows of the courtroom and hazmat-suited men retrieving bodies from the street outside as we argued over the admissibility of documents. It was surreal. It was also frankly inspiring that amid all the upheaval, these people did their civic duty without complaint and with good humor. Seriously. These were very good people but they were just “average people.” So, we’ve got that going for us.

We sure do. Wonderful.


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