"Benign" Dictators and Mob Rule

a discussion

(470-399 BCE)

esto perpetua

"Our political system does not compete with institutions which are elsewhere in force. We do not copy our neighbors, but try to be an example. Our administration favors the many instead of the few: this is why it is called a democracy."

Date: Wed, 13 May 1998 05:25:30 GMT
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I came upon your Starship Trooper-Brent Ziarney running commentary today (12 May 98), and wanted to add my two cents worth. My bias is: born in Wisconsin, 38, served in the Infantry and Intelligence in the Army, am a semester away from degrees in History and Philosophy, and work in horticulture. I am a Heinlein loyalist.

I grew up with ST. The bugs were scary, and something about the tale's line-in-the-sand patriotism appealed to me. I understood much better after the Army. The Infantry is the Queen of Battle, at any time, in anyone's Army. When it has to be done, the generals wield their pieces, and the Infantry gets it done. The notion of serving something higher, striving for a perfection outside ones own narrow, hedonistic wants, can manifest itself as a basic patriotic ideal, religious fervor, volunteer spirit, desire to write poetry or music, etc. I am reminded of Maslow's heirarchy, and there is a certain similarity. I am sure you understand commitment, dedication to a cause or project that comes only at a cost (look at your webpage!). That is the basal sentiment behind ST's so-called fascism. It is what I came away with the first time I read it as a fascinated youngster.

Heinlein's bias: While writing ST in 1958, his local paper ran a full page ad one day advocating a ban on U.S. nuclear testing. Robert responded with his own hawkish open letter and, with his wife Virginia, organized a petition and sent it to President Eisenhower. This super-patriot mood found its way into ST and Stranger in a Strange Land. By the 1980's, Heinlein was an avowed Libertarian. People evolve. Were his love-it-or-leave-it, militaristic values correct? Who knows. There was no nuclear war.

Lastly...you are an instructor, yes. I am not. Still, I can clearly see that Democracy is but one of many systems of government that has existed. If it turns out to be a 'successful' system, it will be the first. Do you see a healthy, burgeoning democracy? Has it ever been in your lifetime? America has certainly taken the Lockean ethics of life, liberty and the pursuit of property (read happiness) to new levels, and its basic ideals are pure and good. You like democracy. I offer this:

1) The economic system is Capitalism. When everyone is done talking, it becomes apparent that Capitalism is based on greed. No system based on greed can endure.

2) One-man-one-vote is mob rule, or democracy if you like. It too can be justified in many noble, and worthy, ways, but it's still one-person-one-vote. The Electors are a stopgap of dubious worth (1876, R. Hayes, was an election rigged by the College). You are advocating that any idiot may vote.

3) When a society fulfills its basic needs, it begins to fulfill (manufacture or import) luxery items. Politically, when a society finds it can vote itself bread and circuses, it will. IT WILL authorise values, avenues of exploration, areas of concentration, that it would do better without. There is ample historical proof to label both axioms. They are facts. We are past #1, and seemingly wending through #2.

4) The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. This too seems axiomatic, no matter how trite. So might it be with America.

5) When liberty destroys order, the desire for order will destroy liberty. Will Durant.

Democracy has great value when spoken of in its highest ideal. In practical truth, I favour 'benign dictatorship'. Damn right. And yes, maybe with some Platonic guardian caste to act as tribune of the people and check on dictatorial excess. Worrying about one person's foibles seems preferable to a congress full of inertia, salivating greed, pathetic ineptness, and average intellect. Deep down, everyone thinks they would make a good dictator. I say lets give it another go, with Marcus Aurelius and the Chinese meritocracies as our guide. Heinlein advocated a form of militocracy in ST. Who's right? The word Socialism produces such violent knee-jerk reactions these days that everyone forgets its most basic premise, the weal of the most, is not far removed from Democratic ideals. You may promote Democracy, but do it intellectually, I beg you. Show it for what it is, an experiment in time. Never allow yourself to forget the Romans. They too thought of themselves as forever. Through wars that took all the fathers, then their sons. Through three hundred years with only ten years of actual peace. Through generations of changing tastes, fads, mores, prejudices, even technology. They thought that since they had been around so long, and through so much, they would last forever.

Have you read other Heinlein? Try Stranger, or Number of the Beast. Or an early juvenile, Tunnel in the Sky. Heinlein ethics are not bad ethics. It's tough to know where he starts and necessary storyline ends in any of his books, but I am a lay Heinlein expert, and can categorically state that, taken in toto, his book's 'ethics' are positive, clean, conceptually sound even if provocative, and, for me, one of life's landmarks."

Findout="Just surfed on in!"

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      Dear Mike,

      Do you think then it would be so easy to dissolve Congress and find some "benign tyrant" who could better lead the country? Do you really think the average person in the United States would simply shut up and accede to letting someone else make public decisions without their consent? (I, a conservative bookish-type by temperament, would be heading for the hills with a rifle if such a thing were ever to pass.) You say you are a native-born American? Can you then honestly believe after a lifetime living among them that this would fly with the American people? Or has serving in the military subculture divorced you so much from the larger civilian population? (Last time I heard, all military personnel take an oath at the beginning of their service to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States - imperfect legislatures and all parts defined therein.) Your e-mail gives me reason to pause and think.

      Evil and injustice and hypocrisy are rife in this failed world; man wanders in the darkness frustrated and vexed by his doubts and fears. What should be is not, and what is crooked cannot be made straight. What it to be done? Will anyone not lead us out of the wilderness? You hope, Mike, for a strong hand to show us the way and to rule us for our own good; you claim the people -- in love with illusions and shadows, bread and circuses -- are a mob, and posit that democracy is mobocracy with venal, incompetent legislatures. The philosopher-king knows the true way and we need to obey his wisdom, so preached the great anti-democrat Plato, and the age-old lie continues down to us today. You capture the essence of this argument well, and I do not doubt your convictions are honestly held. Corruption and hypocrisy? Someone must have the cure! Greed and incompetence? I know somebody who knows the way! No need for people to struggle and search and suffer! ("I know the truth - give up all other truths!") Idiotic voters without a clue, deafening polemical debate, messy compromises which satisfy nobody, unfettered cupidity and graft, the chaotic elections of cravenly self-interested politicians... Give power to a single strong ruler and in his wisdom he will set things straight before it is too late! You claim this is the authoritarian form of government we should adopt in the style of the Confucist dynasties or Roman emperors. Well.

      I would argue that true leaders do not whine about the swinish multitude or carp condescendingly about the "mob" outside their window. True leaders rule by consensus, negotiation and, most importantly, persuasion. I thought most instructive President Clinton's offhand swipe at ex-dictator General Augusto Pinochet of Chile when he addressed that country's still fragile democracy at their Congress in Valaparaiso last month: "It [democracy] honors its soldiers for their commitment to defend the people, not to rule them." This is the same noble reasoning which led General George Washington to refuse the crown offered him at the end of the Revolutionary War and to instead of heading a monarchy choose to help form a government - unique at the time - based on the idea of self-rule. But then you would pull up by the roots this republican style of government and instead plant a very different form of political administration in its place.

      Look carefully, Mike, at what you propose, as history shows us rather decisively that the so-called "Enlightened Despots" are much more the latter than the former; so cynical with respect to a legislature representing the many, you are so trusting in the virtue of a single fallible person endowed with total power. You hold out hope that maybe a "guardian caste" might tempter "dictatorial excess," forgetting that Mao Zedong and Stalin -- despite the most savage such "excess" to the tune of millions of murdered lives -- kept their fearsome secret police tightly tethered and consequently died peacefully in their sleep. It is at the very heart of the American civic culture to prevent an accumulation of ultimate power which could lead to an infringement of precious liberty; and it is thinking like yours which motivated so many voters in Weimar Germany to conclude, "What a mess we are in with these weak piping ineffectual politicians!! Let's give that Hitler fellow a chance to get the trains running on time!" The rest is history, so to speak, as Germany leapt from the frying pan into the fire. You claim that most people "deep down" think "they would make a good dictator." I say that we as a people have learned better. I completely agree with Winston Churchill when he described democracy as the worst form of government except for "all the rest." But then you complain that democracy entails a lack of order. I think your desire for order comes at much too high a price. I would risk a degree of disorder to enjoy the fruits of liberty and pluralism rather than live in an unfree society where men are unable to live life on their own terms or to speak their minds with regard to the larger affairs of the polis.

      You ask me if I ever have in my lifetime seen democracy work? I have seen it sputter, begin to work, work, almost work, and fail to work. You claim the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. That might be. Democracy certainly has unraveled and then ended disastrously in the past. No less a person than Founding Father John Adams said: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." But I think the United States has a chance. She has a Protestant tradition of discussion as opposed to autocracy; the country is blessed with gobs of land and natural resources; the civil society has strong free institutions backed by over two hundred years of national tradition; the people are mostly prosperous and pragmatic, disposed to compromise and consensus. I do believe the end of the United States, if it comes about, will arrive not by means of military defeat at the hands of foreign power but through internal disharmony and civil disintegration. I agree with Lincoln when, many years before the Civil War, claimed, "If ever it [danger] reaches us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide." Mike, you say you are about to graduate from the university with a degree in history. I think it wise to remind you that, for all its reputed military prowess, the Spartan alliance never did conquer Athens in the field of battle during the Pelopennesian War. The flash of brilliance which was democratic Athens under Pericles received its death blow only when Critias and the Thirty Tyrants treacherously betrayed their fellow Athenians and entered into an alliance with their mortal enemy, Sparta.

      We shall have to wait and see what happens to our Republic. It is an ongoing story, a continuing experiment, as you say - even as you would sweep it all away for a "benign tyrant." But every time I despair for my country's political culture, I need only look overseas to gain a sense of perspective and appreciate what we do have. We stand to lose much. One only need read the statements of beleaguered journalists in Latin America -- a region with a narrow and shallow democratic tradition, historically inclined towards the "benign" tyrants and strongmen you claim to favor -- who complain about the political murders of their compatriots or similar tales of woe and worry from dissidents in a dozen other countries to see what we have to lose. Your e-mail prompts me once more to wonder how people in countries that enjoy political freedom under the law come to take it for granted, knowing nothing else -- the typical naiveté of Americans speaking from a position of safety, the descanting on "benign" tyrants from the comfort of Wisconsin. (Perhaps a residency in Cuba or North Korea might change your perspective.) And the capitalism and its "greed" you so bemoan has helped the United States to avoid the penury and underdevelopment which has plagued every other country but Canada on the American continent. (Maybe a vacation to the Dominican Republic or Bolivia might drive this point home.) You have, perchance, noticed that people by the millions still vote with their feet in deciding to immigrate to this land which -- despite all its intractable problems, grave shortcomings, and crass materialism -- is the richest, most powerful, and freest nation in the history of the world.

      I do not think mob rule or the salivating greed, pathetic ineptness, and average intellects of our representatives are the biggest problems facing the United States today; I think apathy and cynicism are the invidious poisons circulating through the body politic. Your e-mail reminds me of this powerfully. You sound exactly like the Chileans I have known who tell me point-blank that they hate their new democracy with its good-for-nothing politicians who do nothing but quarrel endlessly and steal public monies. Bring back the good ol' days of Pinochet and military dictatorship! It is a speciously seductive argument which I reject. Writers and thinkers from Plutarch to Rousseau have romanticized the great law givers such as Lycurgus and Solon, who were supposed to have founded and formed communities and set the mold where none was before. The 20th century totalitarian regimes in Germany and Russia were created in the spirit of these dynamic quasi-mythical personages. "The ancient law giver was a benevolent myth," Betrand Russell points out poignantly; "the modern law giver is a terrifying reality,"

      You seem to share with Plato the metaphor of the people as misguided and requiring the attention of a paternalistic doctor in the form of a "benign tyrant" to keep an "unhealthy" society from degenerating further into the "greed" of "mob rule". I would counter that a certain degree of sickness is the rule rather than the exception in all societies, and that we would be better served to vigorously fight any dangerous infection rather than amputating the limb. In abandoning the central tenets of democracy, you would cure the sickness by killing the patient! We do not need in the United States more doctors to treat the symptoms of the sicknesses in society today. We need more teachers - in the most catholic sense of that term - to educate and enlighten the people generally.

      You argue that we need less politicians. Indeed, you are ready to have only one master politician to lord over us whose excesses might (or might not) be tempered by a praetorian guard (implying that assassination is preferable to elections as a vehicle for political change) I say that we need not fewer but more and better reasoning politically-engaged citizens at every level. We need, in my opinion, less whining and despairing over the various failures of self-government and greater inspiration in understanding and living out the ideal of the democratic ethos. Attitude is everything, and to believe that nothing can be improved through the existing system is to doom it to failure! I dislike this painting the United States today the color of Rome in its final days. I don't buy into the paradigm.

      Neither human nature nor Mother Nature has changed in the last few thousand years; and even a superficial reading program of ancient, medieval and pre-modern world history gives one a sobering sense of the magnitude of the political landscape and of the shattering ruin of culture after culture that believed itself eternal and insuperable. I do not dispute that democracy is only one of a great many varieties of government to grace the earth since mankind first starting walking upright. I do not dispute that liberal democratic regimes -- and the United States of America as a nation state under its Constitution -- might very well one day disappear from the earth. This is exactly what threatened to occur during the darkest hours of the 1930s when fascism and communism appeared triumphant in all four corners of the globe. But even so, Mike, I believe something will remain for the all the ages -- just as in the case of Pericletian Athens -- in which future democrats and thinkers might find inspiration and profit. Perhaps some outbreak of uncontrollable disease, a vast natural disaster, or general nuclear-chemical-biological war will bring about a new Dark Age in the future. Humans will finally from their huts and caves emerge to examine the legacy their ancestors leave them in words and in deeds. They will come to understand that mighty and advanced civilizations came before them. They will learn.

      You ask me to promote democracy "intellectually." I think I have done so up to a point, but I believe that democracy and pluralism should appeal ideally as much to the heart as to the head. I do not doubt that the "Declaration of Independence," "Federalist Papers" and United States Constitution will be read with great interest and profit on into perpetuity; and neither do I doubt that, for those willing to take the time to learn about it, the heroism and sacrifice at Cemetery Ridge, Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, Wheat Field, and Little Round Top -- as well as the consequent sublimity of the "Gettysburg Address" to make sense of it all, will live on solemnly forever in human memory.

      Mike, I have taken the time to answer your e-mail so thoroughly because you are obviously an intelligent and learned man and the kernels of truth that you present, in my humble opinion, obscure the larger picture and lead to slippery paths with dangerous destinations. I write in the hopes that I might convince you to re-evaluate some of your assumptions and conclusions.

      Very Truly Yours,

      Richard Geib

P.S. It is not Heinlein's "ethics" I object to in "Starship Troopers" - although I find them to be specious and dangerous. Aesthetics are where I find Heinlein guilty as sin.

P.P.S. I challenge you to cite a political culture led by a "benign tyrant" since the 15th century (ie. the birth of the modern) that has brought about more wealth and progress to its people than England since 1688 or the United States of America since 1789.

P.P.P.S. I spent a pleasant two hour visit with my representative Brad Sherman (D.-Ca.) on Capitol Hill last week and he seemed a reasonable and intelligent enough fellow. He neither appeared "pathetically inept" to me nor did he exhibit "salivating greed."

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Brigadier General in the Union Army, wounded six times in battle, hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, president of Bowdoin College, and three terms Governor of Maine.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Years after the fact, Chamberlain spoke the following at the Gettysburg battlefield where he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery during the American Civil War:

"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls."