[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]
If I Were a Dictator
Let’s call it the People’s Republic of America. I don’t know why so many totalitarian governments insist on calling themselves “republics.” Plato must be spinning in his grave. I also don’t know why our news media insists on calling a tyrant or a dictator a “strong man.” I think of a strong man as a muscle-bound fellow in a circus, an individual providing the public with a certain amount of entertainment. But some of these political strong men are mass murderers, making the media’s softball term seem like a bad joke. Why don’t they just call them for what they are?
While I avoid political discussions in my travels around social media, it is difficult to completely escape them. Political views are a lot like religious views: in both cases people know what they believe, they tend to associate with like-minded people so their opinions are not challenged, and when they leave their charmed circle they are shocked to find their views challenged when they are used to receiving only head-nodding assent. Such people suddenly find themselves in the position of “proving” the correctness of their views, will become tongue-tied and frustrated with their inability to articulate what they know is the truth, and finally get very angry at being challenged. Thus, the wisdom of the old saw on avoiding discussions about politics or religion.
Amidst the political viewpoints exhibited on social media, most of them unsolicited, I have recently observed the left joining the right in wondering, “Where did my country go?” Not that the left believes it is joining the right in any way. Indeed, the villains for the left tend to be the usual Republican suspects. The right naturally castigates the Obama Administration at every opportunity but the odd consensus between left and right is the growing awareness of liberty restricted. The left doesn’t criticize the President the way the right does; instead the left questions why he is doing what he is doing. It’s not an accusation (so far), just a question.
Like a mountain slowly emerging from the fog, this growing concern is coalescing into a major non-partisan issue. At this time the only debatable point seems to be who to blame. But the queasy feeling that we are under surveillance a lot more than we used to be is unmistakable. The impression even has several initials such as TSA, NSA, and AHA (Affordable Healthcare Act). Are things really so bad? Well, I think that even Gypsy Rose Lee would have objected to current airport security procedures on her person. It’s also pointless asking why the government is listening in on our cell calls and looking at our emails. It seems the government never did this before – until we realize that cell phones and email are very recent developments so government couldn’t do this before. We never had porn on the Internet either, until we had the Internet. The short answer is “because they can.” I know people who have no fear of their emails being read by third parties, simply because they don’t use email.
It seems that every advance in science and technology is marred by an almost immediate misuse of it. When television first hit the market in the late 1940s, many important commentators boldly stated that now everybody can watch opera and Shakespeare. Things didn’t quite work out that way and eventually shows like “Gilligan’s Island” became the norm. Some say the state of televised entertainment has gotten worse, going from the days of the insipid to the offensive.
Today we are living in a communications revolution that is decidedly a two-edged sword. We can call for help or just visit from almost anywhere now, but insurrections and terrorist bombings also have been activated by cell phones. The technological opportunities for misuse of governmental power are just now being understood: to “keep us safe” involves an unprecedented intrusion into people’s private lives. But just who decides where to draw the line of privacy, and when, and how, and do we get 30 days’ notice when they change their minds, will give us pause. Old style repression of dissent seems so 20th century, back when the government could control mass media. Today, it is not practical or desirable to repress communications that the government may not like. Instead, the better course is to direct it.
If I were the leader of a totalitarian government, I would want to give a platform to dissenters. Far from persecuting them, I would ensure they were well-compensated and quite successful. Naturally, I wouldn’t want them to be too successful. I would use such individuals as safety valves to let the public blow off steam. Since stories of government abuse are bound to surface one way or another, it’s better to handle the reaction instead of engaging in a futile effort to suppress them. The usual stratagems of plausible deniability would still be used of course, and a percentage of the public will want to believe the politician in question. As Lincoln famously observed, “You can fool some of the people all of the time.” Lincoln took consolation from the fact that, “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” True perhaps, but to win elections you don’t need to fool all of the people, only enough to get elected.
So by having the mass media dissenters observe a few simple rules, my totalitarian regime will not only survive, it will prosper. First, the dissenter will express high dudgeon and outrage so the viewers don’t have to. Let the guy on the screen put on a real show, maybe it will even go viral. He (or she) will get bigger ratings and more money. Second, the dissenters must give viewers the impression that they are on top of the problem and will investigate. In other words, they should leave viewers with assurance that they don’t have to take any action because their faithful host will obtain the facts and report back to them. They should feel free to return to their bread and circuses, or to update that term from ancient Rome, they can return to their TV and snacks.
Third and most crucial, our dissenters must not give viewers any tools whereby they can take action for themselves. For example, if there’s a bad piece of legislation pending in Congress, or a proposed regulation at one of the dozens of regulatory agencies, our dissenter must not provide the bill number or the rulemaking number that could encourage and expedite public comments. Don’t give phone numbers or email addresses either. The same goes for our print media too.
Wait a minute, this lack of contact information is already the norm! When was the last time you heard a bill number given on TV or printed in your newspaper? Finally, it is important for our dissenters to let folks know that they will take care of the problem. While ridiculous to promise, a well-turned catch-phrase such as, “I’m looking out for you,” will create a wonderfully complacent attitude, insure the dissenters continued success, and free the public from involvement in safeguarding their own liberty. If this scenario sounds a lot like the United States in the second decade of the 21st century, there’s a very good reason why.