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Tyranny and Resistance

I’ve been having an e-mail exchange with an Iranian friend which began with a discussion of the poet Hafez and went into very different territory. When I mentioned that I was reading Hafez, he said, “Whatever is left of the vision of people like Hafez is what makes this country bearable.” He told me the Iranian people can be “very flexible. Just the opposite of what it seems.”

I replied that I know the Iranian people are open to the world around them, and that people everywhere are different from their stereotypes in the media. I went on to make a psychological observation. “In a crowd it is usually the bullies and extremists who speak first, intimidating the others who are afraid they are in the minority, when in fact the opposite is true. The majority is much more tolerant than the loudmouths who speak. It can take a long time for the tolerant majority to realize that the bullies and extremists do not, in fact, speak for the crowd.”

My friend replied, “A friend, with a very sad outcome in his life, told me once, “One of ‘them’ is enough for a hundred of ‘us.'” There is a handful of loud and extremist people who are more visible that a much larger number of ‘normal’ people. With their intimidating manners or mere brutality, one of them is able to rule over a hundred of us.”

This led me to share with him, and with you, the following thoughts.

— • —

This is why “rule of law” is so important, to contain the bullies. It’s easy for them to get into positions of authority and become tyrants, because that is their nature. So the most important thing in a system of government is transparency and the balance of powers. For example, the police must answer to a civil, elected authority. There must be a process for removing corrupt officials, and so on. No power should be outside the law, or above the rest.

Of course, even then the people must be vigilant, because there is always the possibility of private interests getting together in secret, and using the machinery of government to operate in the dark areas of the law. A friend of mine in Morocco once told me that “all governments are Mafias” and I see his point. In a place like Tunisia or Egypt it is clear, the Mafia is the police. But even in the wealthy democracies, there are private interests that have suceeded in making themselves one with the State, carefully hiding themselves.

I’m an anarchist at heart, so I used to think that the answer was to do away with all government. But then I realized that “rule of law” is the only thing protecting us from a Mafia state. Whatever its imperfections, the constitutional system should not be discarded, but strengthened—by exposing its contradictions and reforming it, by making it more transparent, by increasing citizen control—all on the principle that no one is above the law. Those who resist tyranny should do so in the name of the law!

Here’s where I’m stuck. The principle of civil disobedience, as taught by Thoreau, Ghandi and King, tells us that we have the duty to resist unjust laws. We do this is in the name of a higher law, an ideal law that doesn’t exist on earth. Each time the law reforms itself, it tries to get closer to this ideal. But where does the ideal come from? I can’t accept that it comes from some holy book, for the simple reason that the universe is not frozen in time. We, God’s creatures, are expressing God’s revelation in new forms each day. This is my answer to the fundamentalists. Universal law comes from us. It represents the spirit of humanity, our image of what we should be. Yet because the law is evolving, there is no fixed point of reference. The laws of two centuries ago aren’t the laws of today. We notice their limits and we push against them. We see a hole in the law and we sew it up. Since the law is always changing, by what standard do we accuse a tyrant of injustice? He will answer, “My people aren’t ready. They know only the stick. First let them prove their discipline, then we will see about your ideal laws.”


Comment from homeyra
Time: July 14, 2007, 04:43

It seems that unfortunately your Moroccan friend is right when he says “all governments are Mafias”. A European diplomat once put it this way: “the increasing criminalization of Politics”. A “rule of law” where laws are – as much as permitted – written and implied by the Mafiosi!

Fundamentalism is not an independent phenomenon staining the otherwise perfect “democratic” world.

Comment from eatbees
Time: July 15, 2007, 11:54

In the U.S. the “criminalization of politics” is a Republican talking point, and means (to them) that they can’t do their jobs to defend the country without their opponents calling it a crime (as with Scooter Libby). So they use the phrase in a self-serving way. But I know that’s not what you meant. You meant it literally—criminals in high office who rewrite the laws to justify and conceal their behavior.

Since so much of what the CIA does is secret, even to our elected representatives in Congress, how do we know that their actions aren’t serving the interests of a few people who know how to pull the strings? It goes without saying that secret chains of command are antithetical to democracy. The shame is that we have allowed this cancer to grow.

If I understand what you are saying about fundamentalism, I would put it this way. There are “pure bullies” like Saddam Hussein who are only interested in power—maintaining it, and enriching themselves from it. And there are “ideological bullies” like (certain elements of) the governments of the U.S. and Iran, who fan the flames of extremism in order to justify their hold on power. They may even believe their own ideology, but the reality is one of absolutism, corruption, dominance of power by a single group. It is harder to dislodge this form of tyranny because it wraps itself in moral principle!

I’ll say it again, government must be transparent, limited, and accountable to the people. It has both the right and the duty to restrain those who are most powerful (including economically) to allow the less powerful to express themselves. But while we may all sense what justice is, I’m not sure we can define it, and that’s the question I’m raising here. “By what standard do we accuse a tyrant of injustice?”

Comment from homeyra
Time: July 16, 2007, 02:59

I wasn’t aware of this “crime” double meaning of the day.
Just for the sake of expanding an already large subject :) many years ago I read: Les empereurs fous.
I don’t have the references as my books are packed now, but can provide them sometime. It is a very interesting thesis regarding the “bullies”.
In short, the writers, who studied emperors such as Nero and Caligula, had the conclusion that they reflect the collective unconscious of their people, a hidden latent side.
The “bullies” don’t “appear” like that out of the blue, the social forces help their rise and their rule.
I realize it is more complicated than this, that especially in the Middle East it is difficult to distinguish between “our” rulers, and “yours”! :)

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