Liberty Expose: Police State America

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People often have a cartoonish vision of how tyranny begins. In the collective political imagination, images of jack-booted thugs in matching paramilitary uniforms overthrowing a peaceful democracy represent the origins of despotism. The specifics may very: some believe an oligarchical military or corporate coup as the stereotypical image, others, as the aftermath of the 2016 election demonstrates, though true on the surface, but tyrannies are not spontaneous – they are organic, evolving, and come from a culture in which the basis for authoritarianism begins to grow. Much of it is cultural.

Take the recent news surrounding feminist icon Lena Dunham, according to Ms. Dunham, while strolling in an airport, Dunham overheard two airline employees having a private conversation – one that included opinion Dunham did not agree with. This was of course unacceptable, as the moral arch of the HBO star is unquestionable, Allegedly, the two airline employees were discussing the latest news surrounding the trans movement; of which, the airline employees conversed disapprovingly.

To some, or even most, a private conversation between two adults is just that – private. But to Dunham, this was a thought crime, and one that should be prosecuted. Enraged by the alleged” transphobic” remarks made, Dunham went on a Trumpian Twitter rant to express to the world her well-deserved sense of righteous indignation. Dunham repeatedly messaged the airliner (she made the messages public) until it responded, stating that the company would investigate the matter. Whether they pursue those promises remains to be seen.

If the thought that one can report someone for voicing a dissenting view in a public debate question seems creepy and Orwellian, that is because it is creepy and Orwellian. It is reminiscent of scenes in 1984 in which Ingo, or the Inner Party to be specific, encourages young people of Airstrip One to report the thoughts and conversations of their parents to the Party. While Orwell’s efforts targeted the Stalinist sympathizers in Britain, the same skepticism can be applied to many in the contemporary political sphere who also adhere to policing thought crime.

Lena Dunham is not unique; preventing diversity of viewpoints is an increasingly common phenomenon in America. This is most evident on college campuses, where conservative speakers are routinely protested to prevent their views from being shared. The rioters veto is not utilized just in circumstances where the speakers represent an extreme, such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter – these protesters are against mainstream voices such as Ben Shapiro from coming to campuses. Riots are often the result, with originations such as the ironically named “Antifa” becoming violent in such events.

Another example could be the treatment of businesses that fail to comply with the chosen social norms of the day, such as the bakeries that do not cater at same-sex weddings. The businesses are subject to intense scrutiny by the most dedicated true believers of social justice: owner’s bakeries that did not serve same-sex weddings were often subject to death threats, and an Oregon bakery was fined $135,000 for “discrimination.”

What one may think of the issue is irrelevant, a violation of conscience is a blatant violation of conscience. And as the fine against the Oregon shows, persecution of conscience is becoming policy, which seems to be the result for social justice advocates whom wish to persecute dissenting opinions. It will not come in the form of Eastern Bloc secret police, but in bureaucratic and legal persecution.  

Historian and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, formed a theory on this called “soft despotism.” Soft despotism differs from the “hard” despotism of imagination. Hard despotism, or tyranny, is the stereotypical authoritarian states common in the 20th century. The Third Reich, Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and miscellaneous third word and Eastern Bloc tyrannies come to mind. Soft despotism is the pre-requisite. Soft despotism is illusive and tacit, it is bureaucratic and nature and is presented to be only with the best of intentions. As de Tocqueville puts it in Volume II of Democracy in America:

“Thus, after having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”

It is in this vehicle that soft despotisms become authoritarians, that combines with the persecution of conscience, makes the perfect formula for despotism. This is how the police state begins; an oligarchical coup does not overthrow the constitutional order, but by reporting views offending to some, and forming regulations designed for the “good of a people.” This is a toxic combination.

The road to despotism is always paved with good intentions. And while the blatancy of Airstrip One might just exist in imagination, the culture is already laying down the groundwork for such a society to exist. There is no need for the Inner Party when the people are willing to tyrannize themselves until it eventually becomes policy. Take note – Democracy in America and 1984 were not only pieces of political theory and fiction: both works were also meant to be a warning, or should those warnings not have been heeded, then prophecy.