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Tuesday, January 2, 2007

day three: law and disorder, part one

I think I underestimated how difficult it would be to keep blogging while travelling. I arrived in Madrid about three hours ago and I'm now wondering why I am sitting in a basement typing this when I should be outside seeing the city. Perhaps I will write breezier entries while I´m here. I must say, I am itching to write about the National Gallery's Velázquez exhibit, but dragging the huge catalogue around Madrid with me hardly seems like the best way to enjoy my stay. Reader, you will have to settle for some quick reflections on Tom Stoppard for now in lieu of Velázquez.

On New Year's Eve, Dan and I saw a matinee performance of Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll. The play covers a lot of ground: Czech dissidents and English communists from 1968 to 1990, and the Dionysian power of rock and roll and the threat that it and, by extension, the arts pose to the zealots of order. It is not just a play of ideas but a work with as much to say to the heart as to the head.

The best scenes, in a play that is strong from start to finish, depict a Czech rocker and a Czech dissident, neither one understanding what motivates the other. Over time, we see the two communities come together for the common purpose of making Czechoslovakia safe for rock and roll and the rule of law. At the start, the rockers were completely apolitical, if not anti-political. And the dissidents thought the rockers were just a bunch of irresponsible narcissists. But the enjoyment of disorder depends on the protections of law, as the play demonstrates.

Dan and I spent much of the evening discussing it, and he said something important: that we commonly speak of law and order yet the two are often at odds, and many people want order without law. I agree. The two should be joined not by the conjunction 'and' but by the disjunction 'or'. What every fascist/communist/authoritarian has in common is a contempt for parliamentary democracy and a lust for a strong executive to impose order on society. And they generally don't like long hair on men, rowdy music, or fabulousness in general.

The zeal for order is driven by fear. I don't mean the cynical manipulation of other people's fear, but the systematic attempt to dispel fear and uncertainty from our lives. I'm a strong believer in taking demagogues and fear-mongers at their word. People like Dick Cheney and Generalissimo Franco spread fear because they feel fear. I have no doubt that they honestly and truly believe that law stands in the way of making the world a safer place. But it is precisely law itself that makes the world safe for all of us.

An artist or an intellectually curious person in general is usually someone who tolerates fear, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and may even welcome them. He or she is someone who actively seeks the thrill of a loud, distorted guitar, or likes not knowing what to make of some funky new painting, or is prepared, without hesitation, to lay it all on the line at the karaoke bar.

Without the safeguards in place that keep the rule of law above the prejudices of the powerful, nothing we do would be safe: not theatre, not dancing, not blogging, not kite-flying. The zealots of order abuse the apparatus of the state to expel disorder wherever they find it. The misfits of the world are only safe so long as law protects us from the rest. In short, we need law to save us from order. Order, when elevated above law, would kill us all. Disorder will set us free.


Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

The driving force behind communism, fascism, and Cheneyism is fear. I don´t mean the cynical maniupulation of other people´s fear, but the systematic attempt to dispel fear and uncertainty from our lives.

Fear and uncertainty? Is that a bit like law and order? You are right about uncertainty, but to claim that Cheney is, or that fascists and communists were, systematically attempting to dispel fear from people's lives is arrant nonsense. Happy New Year!

1:06 PM, January 02, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I guess next time I should save my unfinished blog entries as unpublished drafts rather than post them online with notes like this: ´My time is up. I will finish this later.´

I have returned to an internet cafe and finished the first piece on law and disorder.´Doctor Hutu´in the meanwhile commented on the earlier version which included the above line about not being finished.

Despite what the doctor says, I still believe that people, even people you and I would call evil, are usually sincere. Communism and fascism have this in common: both systems and the people who ran them depended on the belief that disorder and uncertainty could be overcome by state action. The fear that such people whip up among the populace is a fear that they themselves geuninely share. Was Hitler not genuinely a Jew-hater?

And yes, Dick Cheney is trying to create order and safety for his constituents and dispel their fears. It just so happens that you and I are not his constituents. We are the rabble-rousing misfits he would lock up in jail if only he could. Dick Cheney may be the sincerest man in America.

5:05 PM, January 02, 2007

Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

How gauche of me to comment on the "unfinished" version which you posted for all the internet to see. It is nonetheless pleasing to see that you have subtly changed the sentence that was, as I pointed out, obviously untrue. It still needs some work, though, since it's still obviously untrue. How do you think Hitler's and Stalin's and Saddam's secret police forces worked? Not, I think, by seeking to dispel fears.

This of course has nothing to do with the "sincerity" or otherwise of leaders.

6:14 PM, January 02, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

The majority of people living under Hitler or Stalin surely did not live in fear. And if the majority of Iraqis lived in fear under Hussein, that was because he ran a minority apartheid state. It´s the troublemakers, i.e. people like you and me, who live in fear in a fascist state. Many people actually like strong leaders who throw the longhairs like us in jail, and most others go along with it just fine. Most people prefer order over law. Dick Cheney is not going to abuse his anti-terrorist powers to eavesdrop on most Americans´ e-mail. He is going to use it to listen to ours.

So yes, I do think the secret police, in any society, dispel the fears that protected constituencies have about agitators and other disorderly types. Only certain people are meant to be afraid.

3:04 PM, January 03, 2007

Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

The majority of people living under Hitler or Stalin surely did not live in fear.

I will leave this remarkable comment for the historians among your readers, only noting the obvious fact that the function of secret police forces is not to dispel fear among the populace but precisely to spread it: that is the only way they can operate, given the limited physical resources any such institution will have. No watchmen actually need to be on duty in the central tower of the Panopticon at any given time, as Bentham pointed out.

I might also ask: what about the fear that, as you conceded in your first comment, the leaders "whipp[ed] up"? How can you whip up fear at the same time as dispelling it? Your arguments are, I'm afraid, incoherent.

6:31 PM, January 03, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

My argument is not incoherent but, rather, too advanced for the doctor. He has apparently never seen footage from Nazi Germany of happy, fascist-tolerant Germans marching around in their Hitler Youth outfits or attending Nazi rallies as adults. Or perhaps the good doctor so unblinkingly believes in the goodness of humanity that he can only think that they rallied in the millions for Hitler out of fear and not because they failed to find Nazism distasteful. Or perhaps he does not believe that half of Spain fought for Franco in the 1930´s. Perhaps he has forgotten that just last month (see blog entry of December 1, 2006) people in Chile mourned the death of Pinochet. I don´t think it was fear that led them to demonstrably mourn Pinochet sixteen years after he left power. They mourned him because they admired him and felt comforted by his fascist rule.

Police states—not to mention most, if not all, people—divide the world into the saved and the damned, us and them. People create lawless, order-loving authorities to oppress the damned and to preserve the saved from contamination by the damned.

I wish that police states only existed beause people were too afraid to oppose them! But that proposition dodges the question of why people form them in the first place. I say again, people with a low tolerance for fear and uncertainty create police states and authoritarian systems in order, in their misguided imaginations, to dispel what they perceive as dangerous elements threatening their peace and security, i.e. to crush perceived troublemakers. Those troublemakers could be Jews in Germany, trade-unionists anywhere, gays and Copts in Egypt, Kurds in Turkey, or karaoke singers in my worst nightmares. And when the troublemakers get hauled off to jail at the expense of civil rights—rights that remain theoretical to most people—the groups served by the police state applaud. You doubt it? I refer you to the events of November 2, 2004.

3:32 PM, January 04, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Just for the record, lest anyone misunderstand the end of my last remark. I am not calling the United States a police state. Far from it. I was alluding to the fact that Bush and Cheney run a lawless administration with brazen contempt for constitutional, republican government and that American voters, with full knowledge of their deeds, elected them to power in 2004. They chose order over law, or, in this case, the appearance of order. In this, they are not exceptional. I wish they had chosen otherwise, and it seems they now wish the same.

3:39 PM, January 04, 2007

Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

Notoriously, of course, police states operate on the fear that, though one is not one of the "damned", as you put it, today, one might always be tomorrow. What is more, you neglected to explain how, according to your so very "advanced" argument, it is possible to whip up fear at the same time as dispelling it. I do look forward to that explanation.

4:03 PM, January 04, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

My answer to the doctor´s latest question brings me back to my point about sincerity. I tend not to believe that propagandists and fearmongers are cynical evil geniuses who know better but lie to the world about their actual beliefs. The people who whip up fear also share those fears. Hitler really feared and hated Jews, Rick Santorum really fears and hates gays and lesbians, and I really fear and hate fascists, even dead ones.

That´s my answer: sincerity. The ´whipping up´of fear is simply the strategic deployment of fear by people who genuinely possess it.

4:27 PM, January 04, 2007

Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

How is it possible to strategically deploy fear at the same time as dispelling it?

6:49 PM, January 04, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Here is the original sentence as quoted by the doctor:
´I don´t mean the cynical maniupulation of other people´s fear, but the systematic attempt to dispel fear and uncertainty from our lives.´

I don´t see anything in it about simultaneity. I do see ´the systematic attempt´. I don´t see ´simultaneous attempt´.

12:25 PM, January 06, 2007

Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

Well, we are getting somewhere, if amazingly slowly.

So you claim:
i) that the leaders you talk about attempt to dispel fear; and
ii) that those very same leaders strategically deploy fear.

Now in your latest comment you appear to accept it is absurd to claim that the leaders do both things simultaneously. So perhaps now you can explain in what order they do them?

Personally, I can't foresee a good answer. If the dispelling comes first and the systematic deployment comes afterwards, then what on earth was the dispelling for in the first place? It can hardly have been the whole "driving force", as you claim. And of course history tells us unambiguously that the alternative order is absurd, too: the whipping up or strategic deployment does not stop once the leaders have a secret police force (on your wrong account, to dispel fears), but carries right on, in general in fact accelerates.

In sum, you are making two wholly incompatible claims. And you are making them simultaneously. Since the first of them, as I pointed out at the very beginning, is just false, I beg you to abandon it gracefully.

5:15 PM, January 06, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I don´t understand the doctor´s interest in prolonging this thread nor do I understand his—and he is surely a he—obsession with sequence. Nor is his characterization of my comments accurate. I simply don´t relish rhetorical chest-beating as he does.

People who are afraid try to banish that which they fear. And they may go about banishing the thing they fear in a systematic way. They may also use rhetoric and propaganda and organized collective action to accomplish the banishment. (Again, propagandists usually mean what they say. I don´t use the word propaganda with any pejorative connotations.)

Because the doctor restricts his imagination, I will remind him of the most explicit and widely known examples of such campaigns: the Spanish expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492, and the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. In both cases, the guilty parties were driven by fear and hatred of the people they attacked. They literally dispelled the supposed troublemakers from their country and from existence. They did so systematically. And they used all the powers of rhetoric, propaganda, and publicity that they could muster.

And that is all I have to say. The doctor either understands or he does not.

New blog rule: no thread should exceed ten comments. Anything beyond ten is mere bickering.

3:39 PM, January 07, 2007

Anonymous Doctor Hutu said...

None of which clears up the blatant contradiction between your claim that the Nazis (since you bring them up again) on the one hand made "a systematic attempt to dispel fear" from people's lives, and on the other hand systematically deployed fear, whipped it up, fomented it, for political purposes.

Is this not an accurate characterization of your comments? You said the first in the original post: "The driving force behind communism, fascism, and Cheneyism is fear [...] the systematic attempt to dispel fear and uncertainty from our lives." You said the second in your first comment - "the fear that such people whip up among the populace" - and in your fifth comment: "the strategic deployment of fear" etc. Claiming that I am somehow twisting your words is bluster. This is what you have said.

In fact the Nazis did the second thing - whipping up fear - and did not do the first thing, attempting to dispel fear. It is plain nonsense to claim that they were attempting to dispel the very thing they were so expert in whipping up. If it is fear of Jews we are talking about in particular, they were, as everyone knows, whipping up fear of Jews, inciting fear and hatred of Jews, not attempting to dispel people's fear and hatred of Jews but in fact aiming for the apotheosis and total enactment of that fear and hatred, the genocide of Jews. In short, the crimes of the Nazis simply were not attempts to "dispel fear" from people's lives. It is utter nonsense to say so, and yet you did say so, when you wrote that the Nazis among others were engaged in "the systematic attempt to dispel fear [...] from our lives." No. No, they really weren't. To say so is world-historical nonsense. Do please reconsider. It's not too late.

But I like your new rule. Probably, too, any bar conversation that lasts for more than ten minutes is mere bickering and should be abruptly terminated with gassy platitudes.

9:40 PM, January 07, 2007

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