Wednesday, 19 February 2014

What's Not To Like About A Tyrant?

You'd think that this would be a closed case in a country founded as a reaction to tyranny, with a people whose very Constitution is based on a suspicion of government and trust in individuals and the choices of the people, where "freedom" and "liberty" are discussed and honored more often than just about any other concept. Yet, when you see not one, but two presidents applauded for promising to abuse and overstep executive authority in a State of the Union address, when you see government agencies and bureaucracies used to stifle dissent, and when you see massive surveillance of the press, opposition groups, and in fact the entire population, all of which happens without any public outrage, you start to wonder.

In the old rhetoric schools of Athens and Rome, one of the rhetorical exercises given to advanced students was to rhetorically "slay a tyrant" by using something called the "topos of a tyrant:" In a measured invective, the students would lay out the six vices of a tyrant to remind their audience what it meant to be free from tyranny as well as to move them to action against a budding tyrant or tyrannical tendencies in their society. The freedom they had to exhibit this exercise was a good indication of the actual freedom they actually enjoyed in their societies. Two rhetoricians, Secundus and Maternus, were put to death by Caligula and Domitian when they performed the topos of the tyrant as rhetorical exercises at a festival. I guess they did too good of a job, and the tyrants got a really good look at themselves. The topos of a tyrant is an exercise I think we could profitably adopt in our society, as a safeguard of liberty and a ready weapon against tyranny. In this post, I'll try to explain the exercise and give a model you can use and spread as you choose. So, here goes: Let's slay a tyrant!

First, a little bit of theoretical groundwork to define what I mean by tyranny. Paul Woodruff has the best description I have seen so far in his book First Democracy: "The idea of tyranny is among the greatest gifts we have from ancient Greece, because it nails down a vital way to think about freedom. The ancient Greeks realized that there is a kind of government that destroys people by dividing them, while it diminishes their leader by clouding his mind. The leader may be a person or a group, and tyranny may rise in what is nominally a democracy. Like a disease, tyranny is recognized by its symptoms. These symptoms are the features of political leadership that the ancient Greeks most feared. And the Greeks were right to fear them. If you observe any of these symptoms in your leaders, be wary. A plague could be on the way, and it could fatally weaken your freedoms:
1. A tyrant is afraid of losing his position, and his decisions are affected by this fear.
2. A tyrant tries to rise above the rule of law, though he may give lip service to the law.
3. A tyrant does not accept criticism.
4. A tyrant cannot be called to account for his actions.
5. A tyrant does not listen to advice from those who do not curry favor with him, even though they may be his friends.
6. A tyrant tries to prevent those who disagree with him from participating in politics" (66-7).

Any of these look familiar? Ask yourselves, when did the US last have a president who did not start campaigning for reelection from day 1 in office? When last did it have a president who followed the Constitution and refrained from fighting illegal wars? When last did a president voluntarily disclose and admit to a significant failure without being forced to do so? When was ever a president successfully impeached or held accountable for his actions? I'm not talking about losing an election or stepping down like Nixon, I mean impeached and prosecuted for crimes. Only two presidents (in over 200 years) have ever been impeached, and none have ever been convicted. And not because of lack of either crimes or evidence, I can assure you. Besides, the US president has what is called "sovereign immunity," and according to the US Attorney General's Office "The indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions" (i.e. "ya can't touch him"). Concerning point 5 and 6, do I even need to list examples? Didn't think so.

So why is this so bad? Why does it matter for example if the NSA is spying on Americans (and the rest of the world for that matter)? I have had university students actually say "as long as you don't do anything wrong, what do you have to fear?" If that's your attitude, why bother with any restraint at all. Why even care about having checks and balances. Have we forgotten that almost everyone who has been given absolute power has actually used it? The results have not been pretty. The rhetoric schools outlined six vices of the tyrant to help people keep this in mind. They are cruelty, savagery, suspicion, arrogance, immorality, and avarice. The student would then explain and amplify those vices by giving descriptions, examples, and stories. I will provide a brief outline, but you can easily fill in examples of your own.

Suspicion: A tyrant can have no real friends, for he knows that his power is illegitimate and is only supported by force. As a result, he is constantly suspicious, even of those who want what is best for him. He believes the slightest rumor of a threat against him and sees every talented individual as a challenge to his power. As Euripides writes,
"When the people govern a country
They rejoice in the young citizens who are rising to power
Whereas a man who is king thinks them his enemy
And kills the best of them and any he finds
To be intelligent, because he fears for his power" (Woodruff 63).

Every tyrant has needed informants, secret police, and surveillance. In our days the thought police have taken the role of the bodyguard as the vanguard of tyranny. The ancients recognized that a tyrant first asks for a bodyguard because he knows he will need protection from his people and the power of force in order to carry out his crimes. In our days, the tyrant first seeks intelligence about dissenters and the ability to spread an atmosphere of fear and distrust among his subjects. It is always defended with a need for "security," but too late do the people realize that the security he was talking about was his, and the threat was them. This is a necessity, for a tyranny of one over many can only endure by the oppressive fear created by a police state, splintering everyone into their own shell of terror, never knowing who is watching or listening.

This is a scene from  the movie The Lives of Others portraying the real surveillance practices of the DDR.

Cruelty and savagery: A tyrant relies on terror to silence opposition, and the fear of the citizenry must be kept vivid by regular demonstrations of power and cruelty. Thus, it is not a question of whether or not a specific victim deserves this treatment because of any action on their part. Rather, display of cruelty in itself is a goal, and so-called crimes against the state are often mere pretenses in order to organize these displays. This is one subject which I believe the recent UN report on the North Korean prison camps makes vivid enough. To give a more historic example, Tacitus describes the murders committed by Emperor Tiberius after he had seized complete power: "Frenzied with bloodshed, the emperor now ordered the execution of all those arrested for complicity. It was a massacre. Without discrimination of sex or age . . . there they lay, strewn about - or in heaps. Relatives and friends were forbidden to stand by or lament them, or even gaze for long. Guards surrounded them, spying on their sorrow, and escorted the rotting bodies until, dragged into the Tiber, they floated away or grounded - with none to cremate or touch them. Terror had paralyzed human sympathy. The rising surge of brutality drove compassion away" (209). This is the goal of cruelty, to paralyze human sympathy and drive away compassion by terror and brutality. This is the hollow existence of a people living under tyranny.

Arrogance: Along with being a vice, arrogance in some ways is a necessity for a tyrant. How else can he defend asserting his will contrary to the wishes of his subjects? He needs to believe that he is above them. He needs to make himself in some ways a "superhuman," almost a god as the Roman emperors did. His reign serves as a sign of devotion to his massive ego. Raised on a throne of power above everyone else, he looks down upon the puny humans below him as little more than animals with haughty disgust. They are there for his enjoyment and use, and serve no higher purpose than that. The Greeks believed this frame of mind above all the other vices show tyranny for what it is: a disease of the mind. For under this self-delusion the tyrant has to hide his knowledge of his weaknesses, frailty, and guilt. Tacitus writes, "How truly the wisest of men used to assert that the souls of despots, if revealed, would show wounds and mutilations - weals left on the spirit, like lash-marks on a body, by cruelty, lust, and malevolence" (202). The tyrant seeks confirmation of his superiority over mankind, and finds it in abuses of power. He seeks confirmation of his superiority to divine law, and finds it by breaking every sacred bond and violating everything deemed inviolable.

Immorality and Avarice: These are the vices which a tyrant can exercise without restraint, and the very ability to do so constitute the lure and reward of tyranny. To have whatever one's eye lusts for, be it property, power, or people, this is the lure for the tyrant. The desire for absolute power would have little meaning for unscrupulous people if that power did not enable one to break all bonds which social position, morality, and laws would otherwise restrain. The Roman emperors would frequently display that power by taking the wives of men they had invited to the palace. Nero made it a hobby to display the most depraved behavior imaginable. Tiberius had his soldiers throw the richest man of Spain off a cliff so he could confiscate his money. There is no private property in a tyranny, nor is anything sacred. There is nothing where anyone can say, "this is mine" or "this is private." What is there then to live or hope for?
As the Athenian Euripides writes:
"Why should one acquire wealth and livelihood
For his children, if the struggle is only to enrich the tyrant further?
Why keep his young daughters virtuously at home,
To be the sweet delight of tyrants?
I'd rather die than have my daughters wed by violence" (Woodruff 63).

Yes, freedom from tyranny is worth fighting for. Cicero, who saw the death of the Roman Republic in his time sums it up like this in his The Republic: "As soon as a king takes the first step towards a more unjust regime, he at once becomes a tyrant. And that is the foulest and most repellent creature imaginable, and the most abhorrent to god and man alike. Although he has the outward appearance of a man, he outdoes the wildest beasts in the utter savagery of his behavior" (50). Remembering the first tyrant slayer of Rome, he writes that "he became the first in this state to show that, when it comes to preserving the people's freedom, no one is just a private citizen" (49).

It is the duty of every citizen to guard against tyranny and from becoming tyrants ourselves. A whole generation is growing up now which has never experienced the world before the Patriot Act. Massive surveillance which has never before been experienced in free societies is a fact of life. Throw off this yoke and destroy tyranny and all that resembles it. Nip it in the bud before it can grow any further. We do not want to progress down this road. Remember the words of Benjamin Franklin