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Prevarication

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Prevarication

Steven Alan Samson

Steven Alan Samson is a retired professor of government and history, who most recently taught at Liberty University’s Helms School of Government. He is currently an independent scholar and writer.

“And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another Man into his Absolute Power, does thereby put himself into a State of War with him; it being to be understood as a Declaration of a Design upon his Life: For I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for no body can desire to have me in his Absolute Power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the Right of my Freedom, i.e. make me a slave” — John Locke, 1690.

While meditating on the Nazi revolution, the novelist and motivational speaker Andy Andrews asked himself three questions:

Where do we begin to find common ground in regard to what we want (or don’t want) for the future of America? Is it possible to write something that doesn’t use the words Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, yet conveys a message with which everyone could agree? Can it be written in a concise fashion allowing anyone to read it, clearly understand the message, and be empowered in less than fifteen minutes?

Andrews entitled the resulting book How Do You Kill 11 Million People? Why the Truth Matters More Than You Think. It tells what happens when deceit is built into the fabric of everyday life.

The answer to the question is quite simple. René Girard drew on the Bible and other great literature to identify what he called mimetic desire in order to account for social contagions which draw us into envy, rivalry, and, ultimately, violence. In The One By Whom Scandal Comes, Girard singles out for analysis a familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-40) about turning the other cheek and handing over one’s tunic:

“Gratuitously reprehensible conduct of this sort suggests the presence of an ulterior motive. We are dealing with people who wish to infuriate us, to draw us into a cycle of escalating conflict. They do everything they can, in other words, to provoke a response that will justify them in retaliating in turn; to manufacture an excuse for legitimate self-defense. For if we treat them as they treat us, they will be able to disguise their own injustice by means of reprisals that are fully warranted by the violence we have committed. It is therefore necessary to deprive them of the negative collaboration they demand of us.

“Violent persons must always be disobeyed, not only because they encourage us to do harm, but because it is only through disobedience that a lethally contagious form of collective behavior can be short-circuited. Only the conduct enjoined by Jesus can keep violence from getting out of hand, by putting a stop to it before it starts.”

Tyrants seek to make people complicit in their own enslavement. Today we see a dramatic rise in such provocations. Witness the spread of false stories, the cover-up of real news, manipulation of fear, self-mutilation, drug-taking, scientific chicanery, elective reconstructive surgeries, flash mobs, intrusive regulations, divisive school curricula, and plummeting test scores. The way governments handled the Covid-19 pandemic — through the lockdown of businesses deemed non-essential, experimental vaccines rushed into production, scare tactics against alternative medicines, masking mandates, and double standards which permitted large urban demonstrations even as people were cajoled to stay home — led many people to make comparisons with the plot of a 1938 play, Gaslight, and the subsequent movies. The term “gaslighting” spread very quickly because people began to recognize the lies and irresponsible exercises of power. Some officials lawfully resisted illegal or unconstitutional actions. Most did not.

As Andrews himself noted a decade earlier: “The most dangerous thing any nation faces is a citizenry capable of trusting a liar to lead them.” Echoing a remark made by Max Weber a century earlier, Andrews concluded:

“In the long run, it is much easier to undo the policies of crooked leadership than to restore common sense and wisdom to a deceived population willing to elect such a leader in the first place. Any country can survive having chosen a fool as their leader. But history has shown time and again that a nation of fools is certainly doomed.”

Not to mention a nation of sheep. Another dangerous thing is to whip up a heightened state of fear or let it slip into the fatalism of despair. As the great constitutional historian Edward S. Corwin wrote in 1944:

“It was following this war [the Great War] that so sober and conservative a thinker as former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes raised the question whether ‘in view of the precedents established . . . constitutional government as heretofore maintained in this Republic would survive another great war even victoriously waged.’”

Corwin contrasted the wartime Constitution of Powers with the original Constitution of Rights. Emergency powers, which take the place of royal prerogative, have extended the Constitution of Powers into an administrative state. Both war and incompetence have become endemic. Our problem today is not even an insufficiency of rights. Rights, like powers, are now claims upon the public treasury. Having centralized political power, all proportion is lost as people are made dependent upon government. Further, the centralization of education — “the institutionalization of indoctrination” — results in a new ideocracy which appears to bubble up to the surface rather than precipitate downward.

Chicanery infects all parts of the civil body politic, as Victor Lasky asserted in a book title, It Didn’t Start with Watergate. In his inaugural lecture at Columbia in 1859, the early political scientist Francis Lieber noted that there are three gusts of passion which taint public affairs: 1) flattery of the people to such a degree that “philosophic candor is felt by many as a lack of patriotic sympathy,” 2) handling of public business “with such impunity” that it results in “a disrepute of politics,” and 3) the politicization of every conceivable question so that “fair and frank discussion becomes “emasculated.” Lieber anticipated the country’s descent into civil war and consequently moved from South Carolina to New York. Too often our institutional watchdogs fail to sound the alarm, often at great cost in human lives. Or else they “cry wolf,” as Aesop put it.

In the name of righting past wrongs, ideas and slogans are marshaled in order to rewrite history to justify a shift of power. But the idea of reviving Arcadian glory — a past golden age — which had been stolen is the essence of what Lee Harris calls “fantasy-ideology.” What Roger Scruton called a “culture of repudiation” — with its rejection of Western civilization, accusations of “cultural appropriation,” and destabilization of economic and social institutions — are illustrative of the process. The media offer their services as mediators as well as gatekeepers for correct thinking. As James Hitchcock noted decades ago:

“Probably the greatest power which the mass media possess is the ability, in effect, to define reality. What is presented in the media, and the way it is presented, are for many people the equivalent of what is real.”

The rhetoric of justice and fairness — John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness — is often designed to discredit existing authority in a bid for hegemony by self-appointed tribunes of the people. This is the common thread which ties various totalitarian movements together, as Hannah Arendt observed:

“The pronounced activism of the totalitarian movements, their preference for terrorism over all other forms of political activity, attracted the intellectual elite and the mob alike, precisely because this terrorism was so utterly different from that of the earlier revolutionary societies. . . . What proved so attractive was that terrorism had become a kind of philosophy through which to express frustration, resentment, and blind hatred, a kind of political expressionism which used bombs to express oneself. . . .

“The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into [society]. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries of historiography of which all totalitarian regimes are guilty. . . . They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case. . . .

“Not Stalin’s and Hitler’s skill in the art of lying but the fact that they were able to organize the masses into a collective unit to back up their lies with impressive magnificence, exerted the fascination. Simple forgeries from the viewpoint of scholarship appeared to receive the sanction of history itself when the whole marching reality of the movements stood behind them and pretended to draw from them the necessary inspiration for action.”

So, we conclude with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s counsel: “Live Not by Lies.” History, like salt, may be abrasive, but it is also a preservative. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear it may offer insights for restoring integrity and balance, such as making provision for the rule of law, a separation of powers, decentralization, and a proper set of checks and balances — all irrespective of the outward form of government.

Resistance to abuses of power and privilege requires some form of recognizable constitutional authority, which may take the form of an ombudsman or superior court which is distinct from the government itself. As Otto von Habsburg observed in an interview:

“Theodore Roosevelt . . . asked the [Austrian] Emperor what a monarch could still do in modern democratic systems, whereupon the old Emperor told him: ‘Well, my task is to protect my peoples from their governments.’”

Kenneth Minogue described the politics of ancient and medieval states as a scrum of masterful characters — “an association of independent disposers of their own resources” — which could not turn into a despotism:

“Having projects of their own, powerful individuals of this kind had no inclination to become the instruments of someone else’s project.”

Yet today the web of social media, information, and administrative law — along with an alliance of tech oligarchs with a Clerisy of journalists, teachers, managers, and technicians — makes surveillance, groupthink, and a utilitarian manipulation of everyday life and thought a palpable reality. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon readily comes to mind.

We now know that any of the safeguards we can imagine — including those offered by James Madison in the Federalist Papers 10 and 51 — may be derailed or defeated without competent and incorruptible public officers along with an independently educated and vigilant citizenry. The real challenge, as always, is how to realistically protect against tyranny.     *

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