the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2001 November 25


Now that the Taliban has been defeated, we are seeing the vision that the international order has for the future of Afghanistan. The UN Security Council has voted unanimously that the transition in Afghanistan should be managed by a council headed by the former king, and that the new constitution should be both written and approved by a Loya Jirga, an undemocratic council of what are politely called “elders”.

The week has also brought us George Bush’s military order to try non-citizens accused of terrorism in military courts, subject to rules determined solely by himself and the Secretary of Defense. This follows the proposal of, as I have remarked, indefinite detention without judicial review, surveillance of non-citizens, virtually-unlimited wiretap ability, and seizure of voice mail and e-mail. Twelve hundred non-citizens are being held in secret detention, and five thousand are being interrogated without suspicion of a crime. The administration is constructing a police state, a project of the dominion that, during normal times, it is only able to advance with stealth. Crisis means opportunity for the dominion; the citizenry is begging for the iron hand.

Several friends have recently forwarded me writings of other progressives on these themes, including from populist progressive Jim Hightower. And while I find their thoughts helpful, I am disturbed by the fact that Hightower and the others make such a show of emphasizing first their patriotism. They will attack George Bush full on, but still talk about loving the flag and all it stands for (a subjective content, if anything is). In their own way, then, these progressives are contributing to the argument that there are some lines that we must not cross, and that patriotism is one of the untouchable foundations of our existence. Further supporting this argument, every time the ultranationalists attempt to outlaw flag-burning with a constitutional amendment, the left-of-center “opposition” condemns flag-burning and passes a statute that would theoretically outlaw the gesture but which they know the Supreme Court will reject. If they truly opposed the prohibition, they would state, simply, that freedom of expression must be preserved, and then shut up.

A year or two ago I was treated to a musical production of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, which tells the story of a gallant English noble who fights the excesses of the French Revolution. The villain of the story was portrayed as a man who always wears black and usually scowls. I did not need the physical resemblance to recognize myself in that portrayal. I, like the instigators of the French Revolution, am a rationalist republican. Yes, we are humorless, and, yes, we are out to deprive the world of fun, but does it follow that we are all barbaric guillotinists? Set aside the absurdity of glorifying the justice and humanity of the British aristocracy. Why are we so ready to allow negative characterizations of positive ideologies? Capitalists long ago succeeded in ascribing the atrocities of such fascists as Stalin and Mao to the political and economic theory of communism ― as if to say that anyone who questioned the control of natural wealth by a few through the private-property system was of necessity a monster. Nationalists and traditionalists have the same hopes for the destruction of rational secularism.

None of this is new. It is the practice of sensationalism associated with both journalism and politics to cast every observation as a reaction to a previously-nonexistent phenomenon, but I would go in the opposite direction. I think the dominion has always worked, often with great success, to indict its opponents with the crimes of the dominion itself. And I think society has always been receptive to the machinations of the dons, so that, while we might be tempted to think of the dominion as some nefarious elite, in practice it is a system controlled by a nefarious elite but relying on the complicity of society’s majority, who must bear a share of the responsibility for their actions, including ultimately their own oppression.

And it should be noted that while I view opposition to dominion as an appropriate and necessary responsibility of the stewardship, I do not consider it to be automatic; stewardship and opposition to dominion are not identical. The real opposition to dominion is an ideal of several interconnected ideologies: liberalism, rationalism, secularism, republicanism, and cosmopolitanism. And the practical opposition to dominion in the world seldom approaches the ideal. Republicanism in particular seems almost a dead ideology, and neither the “Republicans” nor the “Democrats” of the US seem willing to advocate it, instead recognizing and even celebrating kings and elders and strongmen the world over. Cosmopolitanism, the opposite of parochialism and nationalism, has never seen much support in the world, and secularism is always a struggle in a world where most persons believe in some god and religion, and are generally vigilant about secular principles only if in the religious minority.

On the positive side, while Bulgaria did put its trust in a former king, this man sought power through elections, chose for himself not to reign as a figurehead president but to govern as prime minister, and has exchanged the royal ‘Simeon II’ for the more normal Bulgarian ‘Simeon Sakskoburggotski’. The emir of Bahrain is leading the drive for a constitutional monarchy. The women of Afghanistan immediately shed their burqas with the withdrawal of the Taliban. The Australians have not ousted Elizabeth Windsor as head of state only because they couldn’t agree on a single alternative.

Such small moments of progress are hopeful because so much of the protection of freedom depends upon attitude. And such small moments are what we are compelled to look to right now. The public attitude of the administration, its accomplices in Congress, and its allies around the world is that we are forced to these measures of repression in order to be secure at home. What they are saying in private I do not know. It is tempting to look at the public figures and attempt to guess which of them are in on the project of subjugation, and which are not. I feel confident that George Bush is too simple and silly to be trusted by the dons, and is not among them. But who knows about Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and the like? How many of them are a part of that nefarious elite? In any case, such speculation is overly personal. It matters more that there are in fact individuals who are highly intelligent, highly ambitious, motivated solely by power and personal gain, and operating in the shadows to control the world. That is not to say that all power rests with such individuals. But power, as the dominion understands and we often forget, is partially a matter of wanting. There are many among the stewards who could be ruling the world, if they so chose. We can certainly seek power for the sake of good deeds, and for the sake of preempting the dominion’s own quest. But ultimately our success lies elsewhere.

We must offer a vision for a world that is not open to such abuse of power. We must construct a world that makes it impossible for the dominion to manipulate individuals. We must encourage individuals from the moment of birth to be just that, to think as individuals, to question, to challenge, to doubt. And though few are prepared to embrace the ideal in sum, we must ultimately create a world that is liberal, rational, secular, republican, and cosmopolitan. While it is tempting to enter the shadows and engage the dons with their own weapons, it is the light of critical thought and all its corollaries that will defeat the dominion. The people of the world must understand, and if we perpetuate traditional beliefs and ideologies without challenge, we will never arrive at understanding. The dominion seeks our dependence, our worship, and our obedience. And those who suggest that we accede to this are doing its bidding, witting or no. I don’t know if John Ashcroft really believes he is protecting me from terrorism, or if he is engaged in some secret effort to install a dictatorship. Ultimately I don’t care. Tyranny is still tyranny, regardless of intent, and thanks, but I’ll pass.


Original version


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