Reasoning with Tyranny

Jon Stewart made a remarkable statement a few days ago on the issue of gun violence and gun control:

“Now I see what’s happening. So this is what it is. Their paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present.”

He was responding to the fears of media reporters, pundits, and angry citizens over gun control, but he and his team of writers view this as a paranoid and irrational fixation on a possible future apocalypse or some other fantastic threat. Instead of worrying ourselves about the rise of tyranny or power concentration that may some day occur, Stewart and his staff coach us to focus on the present. His practical advice on solving the problems pressing right now is to have a reasonable debate on guns in our society. But what would that debate look like? File that question away for a moment.

Alex Jones went on Piers Morgan’s show and ripped him apart through sheer ranting. He repeatedly talked over Morgan, mocked him with phony rhetorical questions in response to what Jones called his “factoids”, and turned his show into a mouthpiece for Jones’ opinions. This was not a cool, calm, and collected rational debate. Piers Morgan had been shouting about his own native Britain’s success in controlling gun violence through strict laws and Alex Jones arrived to give him a taste of how an American libertarian can rant.

Jon Stewart used footage from this… uh… “conversation” to help him paint a picture of gun nuts obsessed with imaginary dystopian apocalypse scenarios where they can become heroic, antigovernment freedom fighters. Is this characterization so accurate and do these gun-carrying patriots deserve it? Moreover, and this is the crucial part, what would it take to move a more rational and deliberate person into action after recognizing that we all are living in an “actual dystopic present” (like Stewart said)?

What is a citizen, or a patriot, or an anti-capitalist, or a socialist, or a libertarian, or a student of history who hates ideological labels suppose to do when they come to terms with the understanding that they are living in an authoritarian-tyrannical-fascist state? What role would reason, wit, or irony play after reaching this understanding?

Jon Stewart’s ingenuous call for a rational debate in the toxic space where these national debates usually take place seems like the soft, joking, friendly, and intelligent voice amidst a sea of inflammatory rhetoric. I admire Jon Stewart for his witty and hilarious mockings of the mainstream media’s stupidity and demagoguery as I have since the 90’s (and by the way I had never even heard Alex Jones speak before the Piers Morgan thing). Mixing comedic satire with vital issues of the day has always been The Daily Shows genius. But I depart from the opinions expressed here about the role of reason when tyranny has entered our “actual dystopic present”; though whether or not we are at that phase is very much a matter for reasoned debate. When a power grab has occurred and a very small number of people hold absolute power over the rest, the only reasoning left is how most effectively to resist: debate becomes strategy. We can and should always use our reasoned arguments to convince people that what we believe is right given the opportunity. But the moment tyranny is upon us, the moment one is left with a choice between domination and resistance, all conversation breaks off, the diplomats are sent home, the embassies burns their papers. The only reason that a fascist government serving the very few and enslaving the rest deserves is the tactical reasoning that strategizing against it.

This not a Left vs. Right, Liberal vs. Conservative, Progressive vs.(?) Libertarian matter, this is a matter of the utmost importance polarizing everyone with any inkling of a political consciousness: the possibility of a Revolution, a coup d’état (past or future), a Civil War. The debate on gun control and our American culture of violence has brought us here.

There is little to suggest that banning assault weapons would prevent mass shootings like the one in Newton which the nation is still grieving about. The thought of a person shooting up a classroom of children with a giant military-grade rifle is so stirring and awful that a collective wave of emotion will inevitably grip a nation addicted to sensational news stories for the duration of the news-cycle. To have a reasonable debate debate about gun violence and gun control would mean to wait for this collective outrage to pass, but then, in a double standard, proponents of gun control would see this as letting their moment to take action slip away. Banning assault weapons in fact would do little to save lives as almost all gun deaths are from handguns and nearly all of those deaths are gang-related. [Link] If we were serious and calculated rational human beings about lessening violent crime and homicide, we would end the drug war and legalize marijuana. Clinics could be set up to help those addicted to hard drugs and gang violence would decrease.

But popular rage is not with that issue at the moment, so the spectacle is concentrated now on guns and mass shootings. It is very likely that these massacres are done for the media publicity and the perverse “fame” that these suicidal gunmen receive posthumously. Blasting his mug-shot on the nightly news for a week and making a household name out the person probably does more to encourage these atrocities than anything else. These unexpected massacres deserve a much more thorough look into the violence of American culture.

Violence is very much a central part of American culture, and I’m not talking Hollywood and video games (of which there is no evidence that either make people more violent). The USA is the by far and away the biggest military superpower today and maybe even for all of history. The war technology far surpasses anything that’s ever been seen on Earth and continues to advance. Drone warfare allows our executive to kill whomever he wishes on the planet. There is no congressional oversight, the president has the authority to wage micro-war whenever and wherever he pleases. The former president George Bush initiated two wars that have killed hundreds of thousands, scaring congress with blatant lies into giving him executive authority to wage war. There is a war on drugs, a war on crime, along with the war on terror; all with no end in sight. The Patroit Act allows for wiretapping of Americans by the recently formed Department of Homland Security and data mining whatever information it wants with no oversight. Barack Obama has continued the war on “terror” (which would sound like ‘an attack on fear’ to the newcomer) with even broader authority than the much reviled-by-leftists Bush. His signing into law of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 (NDAA) grants him the power to indefinitely detain any American anywhere in the world without due process of law, holding them in prison conditions that harken back to the 18th century. This allows for the military detention of any “associated forces” of terrorist groups who commit “belligerent acts” in a dangerously vague wording. The statute for total control over the freedom of the citizens of America by the executive has been set in law. Torture has been proven to be used repeatedly as a tactic against alleged “insurgents”. Soldiers go on killing sprees in a fit of adrenaline fueled rage. Children and their villages are wiped out at the press of a button by drone strikes for being nearby someone on Obama’s hand-picked kill-list. And when these war atrocities are made public they shoot the messenger, taking more action against whistle-blowers than any presidential administration ever. Secrecy, death, and total war define most aptly our global state of affaires, together with maintaining a social order to contain people’s anger from coalescing. Protesters exercising their rights to assemble and redress grievances are haphazardly labeled terrorists. And I haven’t even started to talk about the financial sector’s ransacking of the wealth that pushes most people into crippling debt-slavery, or the back-door bailout (after already using the front door) that siphons money to mega-banks leaving the great many in the cold.

These are all reasons to fight back. But in the face of this reality and the thought of gun seizure from this government, how can one demand a state of cool, calm, collectedness necessary for rational debate? A level head is always the first choice in relating to another, but what I will never do is try to reason with a dictator, or a police officer tackling and beating me with a nightstick for expressing my anger in public. No, I like many Americans feel the need to rant and rave and light a fire under people’s asses until I know which side people are on and then reason with those on my side. The tension produced by the proverbial ‘drawing a line in the sand’ flies in the face of the value the American mainstream media places on a civilized bipartisan agreement. The rancorous national debate between neoconservatives and progressives has far too long been a matter of finding some tiny island of common ground between two evils. Imperialism, plutocracy, military-police surveillance, and spectacle worship are on both of *these* sides. The task then becomes drawing different lines and making it easier to determine who is willing to fight and who is content with continuing the way things are.

We may not be in a dystopian present, but the very utterance of that possibility and the popular fascination of post-apocalyptic stories and scenarios (where violence is normal and always upon you, basically the environment) attests to its nearness in our imagination. This is not some aberration but a fear that was anticipated by the very same people that established the federal government in the beginning. They understood the necessity of checks and balances and civil liberties to protect the people from a potentially tyrannical rule. The crafters of the American Constitution and instigators of the American Revolution were very much afraid of the colonial empire subjecting them to intolerable rule: their actions were moved by fear and anger as well as a free and just society. When the protections they outlined in the Bill of Rights are systematically undermined, there is every reason to be angry and afraid.

As David Hume wrote: “reason is the slave of passion”, but there are still good reasons – one is justified reasonably – to be emotional. There are so many levels of injustice that it is difficult to piece it all together and decide how to change it effectively. When the time comes to defend one’s anger and fear, many draw blanks and simply can’t find the words to defend the intensified emotion. Others rant and shout (and there is a time and place for that mode of discourse). To demand a reasonable debate that will in theory convince anyone to believe the correct argument often kills the mood needed to follow through and take the right action – even if that action is reasonably justified.

With all of the recent political developments written above, it is not hard to make a case that America is on the march toward tyranny. But whether or not totalitarian plutocracy is imminent, I would not insist that all willing to defend their freedom state an air-tight, logically sound explanation for why they must resist. A general feeling that something is terribly wrong, seeing people suffering, and experiencing unnecessary plight is enough to take action. Getting screwed should not require an essay.

But my open question still is: what more would it take to convince people rationally that the government claiming to represent them is tyrannical? What *could* one do without the means to fight it?