Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- September, 2002

Despotism by Accident

Ernest Partridge
The Online Gadfly

Published in The Online Journal, September 18, 2002, 
Smirking Chimp, September 19, 2002.

"We knew that something unpleasant was afoot, but on the other hand there was a great deal that was pleasant. That was what we wanted to see. We didn’t want to walk around the whole day filled with remorse because of what others did – others we didn’t have anything to do with."

"When I saw something wrong happening, I didn’t feel strong enough to fight it, then I looked the other way."

"Of course, only a minority of Germans were immediately involved in the outrages against the Jews. What was decisive was the utter indifference, the callousness with which we as a people in general easily came to terms with it and accepted it."

Three German citizens reflect on the rise io Nazism.
"The Holocaust," a Series on The History Channel

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. 

Edmund Burke

For a half century civilized people have asked, "how could the Germans, the most cultured and educated nation in Europe, have allowed themselves to sink into barbarism?" For an answer, just look about.

The White House is occupied by an unelected "President," who gained his office through a combination of an illegal disenfranchisement of Florida citizens, the counting of invalid military ballots, an interruption of ballot counting by a partisan mob, culminating in a court-ordered halting of a ballot count by five partisan Supreme Court judges, in a "one-time-only" decision that is a logical travesty, an assault on citizen rights, and a betrayal of the Constitution.

Then the public was told to "get over it." And for the most part, it has.

After all this, it only got worse. Today two American citizens (that we know of) are in military custody and held indefinitely, without charge, without a hearing, without counsel, and with no prospect of a jury trial. They are so held under suspicion of being "unlawful combatants." And who determines this presumption of guilt? The President and the Attorney General, recognizing no requirement to justify this executive decision to any court. So much for the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

In addition, under provisions of the obscenely named "USA PATRIOT Act," federal investigators can read citizen’s e-mail and search their residences without notification. Ashcroft’s "TIPS" program, a scheme whereby twenty million citizens would be deputized to spy on the rest of us, was set aside for the moment, following an uncharacteristic outcry from the press and a few members of Congress. But his proposal for "internment camps" for "suspicious citizens" has largely flown under the media radar. (See Nat Hentoff on Ashcroft’s "Detention Camps,"  also "The Terror of Pre Crime").   Goodbye Fourth Amendment.

The Bush Administration’s contempt for the courts, the Congress, and the Law is flaunted persistently and openly. The President and Vice President routinely ignore Congressional and court subpoenas, and defy such laws as the Presidential Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

In sum, George Bush has repeatedly violated his oath to "execute the office of President" and to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution." Thus there is an abundance of grounds for his impeachment and removal from office, if only the Congress had the will to so act – which manifestly, it has not.

As bad as these assaults upon our liberties and our Constitution have been, worst of all has been the acquiescence of the public, a large majority of which reportedly continues to "approve" of Bush’s performance. Furthermore, with the exception of a few outspoken columnists, there is no complaint by the press or the broadcast media which, after all, are owned and controlled by the same corporations that "own" Bush and Cheney, five justices of the Supreme Court, and most of the members of Congress. For objective news and independent criticism, one must look to the foreign press and to the internet – while it is allowed to last.

Clearly, in scarcely a year and a half, the United States of America, long renowned as "the beacon of liberty," has taken giant strides toward totalitarianism.

Which leads one to ask, is this really what Bush & Co. truly have in mind for us? 

Does George Bush want to become a dictator? Probably not, notwithstanding his casual remark about things being easier under a dictatorship. 

Does Ashcroft want to abolish the Bill of Rights and the Constitution? Not deliberately and explicitly, even though that is in fact what he is doing.

Does Tom Ridge want to become the American version of Lavrenty Beria – the infamous chief of Stalin’s NKVD? Does he want the Department of Homeland Security to become, in effect, a "Committee on State Security" (in Russian, that’s "Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopasnosti" – KGB).  Surely not.

Despotism is not the objective of the Bush Junta and its corporate sponsors. Instead, their objective is to facilitate and increase the flow of the national wealth from the 98 percent that produce that wealth to the two percent that own and control the wealth. It is to feed the "defense" industry with appropriations to build more high-tech weapons that are totally inappropriate for a "war on terrorism," and to expend "ordnance" in unprovoked "pre-emptive" foreign wars. It is to dismantle most essential government services and to "privatize" the remainder. And it is to extract wealth from the resources of the earth, with no regard for environmental consequences to our selves and to future generations.. However, the successful pursuit and accomplishment of these goals will surely bring about the downfall of the American democracy, all in the name of "national security" and "the defense of liberty." In fact, as the above list of abuses clearly indicates, we are already in the process of losing our democracy, our liberties, and our Constitution, and we might well be moving toward a police state. Not by deliberate plan or intention, mind you, but as an "unintended consequence."

History is replete with examples. To be sure, there are times in history when malevolent despotisms are intended and planned at the outset. For example, the holocaust was clearly anticipated in Mein Kampf and planned in detail at the Wannsee conference in 1942. So too, the Soviet purge trials of the thirties. But just as often, terrible things happen by accident. Barbara Tuchman, in her book The Guns of August, tells how, after the First World War, some diplomats were asked, "how did this happen?" "If only we knew, " they replied. Neither side desired the carnage that followed the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarejevo. 

Similarly, McNamara, Rostow, Rusk, and all those "best and the brightest" never intended the disaster that was the Viet Nam war. But it happened – step by step, by increments. Thus the words "mission creep" and "quagmire" entered our political language.

Bush is not renowned for his capacity for reflection or for long-term planning, nor are these intellectual virtues conspicuous among those around him. They act step by step according to their preconceived dogmas and in reaction to immediate circumstances. They learn little from day by day events. These are individuals who covet their own wealth and power which they relinquish very reluctantly. Once they set their course in a dangerous direction, they are disinclined to make mid-course corrections.

Furthermore, as they continue upon their course, motivated by the desire to maintain their wealth and power, a new factor enters in: cover-up. For in the pursuit of their ill-begotten ends, they will have likely utilized illegal and immoral means that they dare not disclose to the public. Thus their path of retreat is further closed to them, the bridges behind have been burned. Such was the case with Nixon and Watergate. 

Thus they can only "go forward," and doing so often entails still more crimes and outrages – silencing dissenting voices, incarcerating opponents, increasing surveillance, etc. As Jonathan Turley observes, "we have learned from painful experience that unchecked authority, once tasted, easily becomes insatiable." 

Unquestionably, the Bush team has embarked upon the road toward despotism, with the USA PATRIOT act and the consequent summary arrests of at least two American citizens. This is bad enough. But even worse has been the feeble protests from the press and the spineless "opposition party" which, in fact, has been complicit in many of these outrages. Similarly, the public has acquiesced without protest. And so, lacking resistance, more and more of our liberties have been taken from us, and more of our laws have been violated. Ominously, there is nothing in sight that is likely to reverse this dreadful trend. 

Are Bush and his colleagues aware of the threat that they pose to our republic? Probably not. After all, almost every atrocity in history was believed by the perpetrators to be a virtue. The Nazis to "cleanse the race," Stalin to "assist history toward its culmination in pure communism." The Spanish Inquisition regarded burning at the stake to be a sacrament, a "cleansing of the soul with holy fire." And so today, the attack on our Constitution and our civil liberties is being undertaken, we are told, "in defense of liberty." 

Can this creeping despotism be halted and reversed? Perhaps, but there is no time to waste. In his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer speculates that had Hitler’s first aggressive action, the seizure of the Rhineland in 1936 been resisted, he likely would have been ousted from power. Nor was he resisted when he grabbed the Czech Sudetenland in exchange for what Neville Chamberlain called "Peace in our Time."

One after another unresisted outrage has been perpetrated by the Bush Administration – itself an illegitimate regime. The longer this erosion of our Constitutional liberties continue, the more difficult it becomes to resist them. So the resistance must begin now, and forcefully so, while the opposition still has the tools for resistance. Bush does not want to be a dictator, Ashcroft does not want to shred the Constitution, and Ridge does not want to preside over a domestic KGB. They have other goals. But the pursuit of those goals, and the need to keep secret the means to those ends, will nonetheless bring about a despotism. And clearly, that is the direction in which we are headed. The record could not be clearer.

The essential point to remember is that our democracy is being lost to us by small increments – the camel’s nose in the tent, slices from the salami, the frog in the heating water, a slide down the slippery slope. And all the while we tell ourselves, "it’s not my problem" and "I have nothing to worry about if I’ve done nothing ‘wrong’."

Accordingly, the crackdown on dissent does not begin with attacks on significant individuals and institutions. Not with the arrest of Al Gore or Paul Krugman or Bill Moyers. Instead, the first victims are the least appealing: first "illegal combatants" flown to Guantanamo Bay. "But these arrests and confinements will not involve citizens," we are assured. Then that Rubicon was crossed as two alleged "Al Qaeda operatives" who happen to be citizens are imprisoned without charge or defense or time limit. Still feel safe? There has been no direct censorship and shutdown of the media. Instead Bill Maher, and by implication all of us, are told by Ari Fleischer to "watch what we say." Then Maher’s "Politically Incorrect" is cancelled. There is no "dissolving" of the Congress, merely the disregard of "minor" Congressional prerogatives, such as "invitations" to cabinet officials to testify and the right to subpoena government documents.

Similarly, if and when our freedoms are taken from us, it will not be by a jack-booted Gestapo thug in the front door, but rather by a smiling and "likeable" frat boy who will tell us that we must give up our liberties as a necessary cost of "the fight to preserve our freedom." And once those liberties are irretrievably lost, then comes the Gestapo and the NKVD – the midnight knock on the door, an Alaskan gulag, the bullet in the head in the prison cellar, the growing list of "disappeareds."

What begins as the unthinkable, can evolve into the "thinkable," the possible, and eventually the inevitable. This is how democracy ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

But not necessarily this democracy. Not if a great many of us – rich and poor, powerful and weak -- finally wake up to what is happening to us, to our Constitution, and to our republic. 

For the issue of the creeping despotism of the Bush regime transcends party and class. After all, few of Bush’s supporters in the mega-corporations and the media would want to live in the kind of society and under the form of government that they are, in fact, promoting. The rich and powerful who were early supporters of Hitler, were, in turn, ruthlessly tossed aside when they were no longer useful to the Nazis. So one important tactic of the dissenting patriots it to remind the power brokers, time and again, that what they are doing is not in their self-interest and is contrary to their professed (and quite possibly their genuine) moral and political convictions. 

And if appeals to political ideals will not suffice, there is always economic self-interest. For history shows that corporations and thus their officers generally do better under Democratic than Republican administrations. What capitalist prefers current conditions to those under the Clinton Administration? Have we forgotten that FDR, a Democrat, rescued the American economy from a disaster brought on by twelve years of Republican administrations? Those that defend Bush, contrary to these lessons of history, are left with the pathetic suggestion that the economic woes under Bush are the fault of Clinton, and that the Clinton prosperity was an after effect of Reagan and Bush I..

In short, the issues before us far transcend party affiliation. And so it is time to ask our Republican compatriots: What is more important to you, your Party or your Constitution? We must confront the libertarians with the question: what is more important to you, the "free market" or your personal civil liberties? If their convictions incline them to remain Republicans and libertarians, then that’s quite alright, provided they recognize that their primary loyalty is to the political ideals that we share. Once our Constitution is rescued and our liberties retrieved, we can then return to civil political debates and once again agree to disagree.

So why are the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation silent? Is it just possible that they are not authentic "think tanks," but rather propaganda mills serving their corporate sponsors? Why no word of protest from the so-called "strict Constitutional constructionists." Where are the journalists – Thomas Jefferson’s first line of defense against tyranny? Where are the scholars and the lawyers who can best appreciate what is being done to us? Where is the public that is being robbed of the product of its labor? And where are the Democrats!, the alleged "opposition party"?

A few discerning Republicans have seen the gathering storm of despotism and have chosen to join the resistance – Jonathan Turley, Arianna Huffington, Kevin Phillips, John Dean, David Brock, among others. To their great credit they have not looked about to see if they had company in their exodus. They just saw their duty and acted. Just possibly, many more will follow, and if so, there is still hope.

They day may soon be upon us when, in the name of "protecting our liberty," we will all be subject to arbitrary arrest without benefit of counsel or trial, when only "approved" political views will be published, broadcast and taught in our schools and colleges, when our mail, our homes, and our workplaces will be searched without notice and at the whim of "homeland security police," and our Constitutional rights will be set aside at the convenience of the government by "conservative" judges. Unquestionably, we have already traveled an appreciable distance down that road to despotism. And when at length there is no turning back, all of us – journalists, lawyers, businessmen, workers, teachers, Democrats and Republicans – will ask, "how did it ever come to this?" "Why didn’t we prevent all this when there was still time?"

Today, my fellow citizens, there is still time. But the door of opportunity is fast closing. So why aren’t you writing your senators and congressmen? Why are you not organizing and participating in a teach-in? Why aren’t you in the streets? What are your plans for next November fifth – just possibly our last free election?

Copyright 2002 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .