From Liberty Street: Preparation

John Turner

I've had this suspicion before. But this morning in the Orlando Airport it became a near certainty. The Department of Homeland Security exists for one purpose only -- to train the American people for life in a dictatorship.

As a voice intoned smarmily over the loudspeaker system, warning about various threat levels, I was reminded of filmic science fiction dystopias from the 1980s, depicting life in the near future when every element of personal freedom had been banished, supposedly for the good and the safety of the population.

The people in the airport scurried to their destinations, appearing to find nothing remarkable about the messages directed at them, seeming even to accept them as  norms and necessities of life. And I couldn't help asking myself: "Do these people have the spirit not to subside into dictatorship?" It's the most serious question in America today. And the condition that tells us how ominous it is has been the debate during the past couple months in the various Congressional campaigns, where it was never raised.

While I've been in Florida, I've watched for signs of the democratic spirit. By that I mean a sense of responsibility for the behavior of government, an understanding that in a democracy what the government is, and does, reflects the convictions of the people. I've heard much griping about the government, much assertion that all the officials who serve in government are crooks, much belief that the government is regularly bought and sold. But I've heard no one make a link between the actions of the government and the desires of ordinary people. In conversation here, government exists as some monstrous "they," out there, corrupt and greedy, which does exactly as it pleases despite what the people want or need.

This, of course, is not the democratic spirit but rather the mood of a peasantry which expects to be mistreated, and figures there is nothing to be done about it other than finding shrewd ways to outwit and demean persons even more degraded than oneself.

The mind of a peasant is embedded in a hierarchical structure in which the larger issues of public life are determined somewhere far away, up above, beyond the reach of real people. It's not that the makers of policy are seen as paragons of virtue. They are frequently viewed as monsters of corruption. But, good or bad, they operate with powers normal people -- people like friends, neighbors, family members, coworkers -- can neither approach nor comprehend. Consequently, it is these makers of reality who decide issues of war and peace, what elements of the population get what kind of social support, how the national treasure is apportioned, whether or not major efforts are launched in scientific and medical research, and how the nation comports itself with the other nations of the world. A peasant doesn't necessarily like being dictated to. It's just that he can't imagine any other way. Consequently, he is the material from which dictatorships are forged. Not knowing how to acquire vital knowledge, he has surrendered any hope of commanding it. A remark I've heard repeated over and again in recent days is that "they" know things we don't know. How they know it is not a thing to be investigated. They just do.

This is the reason God figures so mightily in peasant politics. When a political leader says he has faith in God, that he is being directed by God, the peasant mind concludes that he must be doing the right thing. The claim of being close to God is received as being tantamount to the fact of it. And if the nation is called by God to fight against the forces of evil, the peasant quivers with the only sentiment that can allow him to feel he is participating in national affairs.

We are all peasants, to some degree. But if we allow that sense of self to dominate our political thinking and our desire to know what is actually happening, we stop being citizens of a democratic republic and become merely troops in support of national dictators. I say "merely" because I think a citizen is a finer thing than a nationalist. It is only through the actions and thoughts of citizens that this nation can be the republic dreamed of by the founders. And if the behavior of true citizens is said to be impossibly idealistic, I don't care. I want the republic that citizens can create. And I am thoroughly weary of the voice that slathered over me at the Orlando Airport this morning telling me what Homeland Security has determined.

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Harvard Square Commentary, November 6, 2006