Confronting Tyranny and Stupidity: What Works?

Confronting Tyranny and Stupidity: What Works?


A Talk at the Democracy Teach-in, Rensselaer, October 24, 2007

By: Langdon Winner

Thomas Phelan Chair of Humanities and Social Sciences


My comments this evening are made possible by a grant, …[SLIDE: Bill of Rights] grant of free speech from the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and also by centuries long traditions of academic freedom worldwide.


As befits a teach-in, my remarks draw upon a variety of historical, philosophical and social scientific terms which may or may not be relevant to the dilemmas and choices at hand.


To begin, I have a favor to ask of you. In ancient Athens there were yearly theatrical festivals that celebrated the rise of democracy. In these dramas, a chorus of actors spoke to express the thoughts of the general populace. In that spirit I would like you to join as an echo of that classic democratic chorus. So when I point to you like this, [point…], I’d like you to shout these words: [SLIDE # 3: UNPROFESSIONAL CONDUCT! Portrait of Tom Paine, patron saint of unprofessional conduct]


Let’s give it a try. [Points to audience….] Unprofessional Conduct!


Democracies, when they are successful, usually replace other forms of governance, oppressive autocracies in the main. And when democracies die – for example, when overturned by military coups – political society reverts oppressive autocracy. This can happen very quickly, as in the military coup in Chile in 1973 that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.


In oppressive autocracies there is always a GREAT LEADER. [SLIDE #4]


And the great leader has…A PLAN. [Slide #5]


The people of the land are told if only they follow the great leader and the Plan, all of their fondest hopes and dreams will be realized. [SLIDE #6: photo of the stairway to heaven] …. So it’s in everyone’s interest just to go along.

Crucial to the power of regime [SLIDE #7] is a large and ever expanding collection of loyal bureaucrats whose role it is to say yes and never say no to what great leader wants.


There is a technical term to describe people who serve in this role. They are called flunkies. [Slide #8 – Flunky] (This is the social science part of the talk.)


In regimes of this stripe communication is reduced to propaganda. [Slide #9] The people hear stories about the glory of great leader, the success of The Plan and the coming of a brighter future.


At the same time, dissenting voices and popular institutions for making decisions are quickly spotted as troublesome and eliminated. Thus, free elections are annulled, independent representative bodies suspended, dissents silenced.


[Slide #10]

An example is the country of Myanmar (formerly know as Burma) where the legitimate elections of 1990 were annulled, the parliament abolished and the opposition suppressed. As you know the suppression happened again just a few weeks ago. Here is the leader of the legitimate opposition Aung San Suu Kyi. [Slide #11] She has been held under house arrest off and on for the past seventeen years. I believe she was charged with the crime of …[unprofessional conduct] …. But I may be wrong about that.


[Words on the screen but not spoken: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” — Auug San Suui Kyi]


Autocrats, you see, prefer to handle governance through selection rather than annoying and sometimes disruptive processes of election. Thus, when the Nazis conquered Norway in 1940, the Norwegian politican Vidkung Quisling was “selected” as ruler by Adolf Hitler. [SLIDE#12] Quisling is remembered as the most hated man in Norwegian history.


[SLIDE #13] The word “quisling” is now a common name for those selected by people in authority for positions of “provisional governance.”


As democratic governance and free speech vanish, people get the message that to get along it is best just to remain silent. [SLIDE #14 – It can’t happen here – Norman Rockwell free speech paint and photo of Joe McCarthy]


And when free speech dies it is not long before free thought dies, then creativity, invention and innovation are strangled. That is why autocratic regimes of the sort I am describing become famous not just for their authoritarianism, but for their total stupidity. You don’t see people turning to North Korea or Myanmar or Zimbabwe for new ideas and innovations.


Regimes and organizations that follow this route are not headed for excellence but are on a fast track toward decline and failure. How much discipline, policing and repression are necessary to eliminate free speech, and legitimate self-government are the “benchmarks” for how quickly the decline will unfold. (I love that word – “benchmarks.”)


One of the most insidious varieties of autocratic rule involves the use of informers in everyday life in the attempt to quash dissent. In the Soviet Union, for example, children were urged to inform on their parents and students to rat on their teachers if they heard them discussing forbidden “issues” at home or in the class room.


A gruesome picture of these conditions is painted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago. [Slide # 15].

It is difficult to school oneself to ask that constant question: Who is the stool pigeon among us? In our apartment, in our courtyard, in our watch repair shop, in our school, in our editorial office, in our workshop, in our design bureau. . . . It is difficult to school oneself and it is repulsive to become schooled, but for safety one must.

Solzhenitzsyn was imprisoned in the gulag for eight years and then held in internal exile. I believe he was charged with [point to audience]….. “Unprofessional Conduct.” (But I’d have to check the facts on that.)


In a later case in the Soviet Union, a noted physicist (a physicist!…of all things!) ran into trouble. To paraphrase the message given to him by the state “You are free to do your research and your science. But when it comes to criticizing great leader, or finding fault with our glorious regime, just you watch out, Dr. Sakarhov!” [Slide #16: Sakarhov]


In 1980 after protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Sakarhov, probably the most brilliant scientist of his generation was forced into internal exile in the closed city of Gorky. As I recall, he was charged with the crime of … “Unprofessional Conduct.” (It might have been something else.)

Now it is possible and in fact common for people who live under repressive authoritarian regimes to live perfectly normal, contented lives. [SLIDE #17 – Free] In his famous study of German people following World War II, the American social critic Milton Mayer found that many of the people he interviewed scarcely even noticed that their society had been taken over by a brutal, totalitarian ruler. They went about their lives, did their work, enjoyed their families. Yes, they noticed that the synagogue had burned down and that their Jewish neighbors had moved away for some reason.


But they remained silent and life was good. They had a great leader. And the leader had a Plan. Everything seemed fine until that horrible war broke out. The title of Milton Mayer’s book is, “They Thought They Were Free.”


I will not continue with this list of “benchmarks” of autocratic governance. For specifics you can read books on modern political history or consult your local listings.


Time is short and I will not have time to discuss strategies for change. I would like to conclude with two points of recognition that may be helpful in efforts to restore democracy.


The first point might be called the Niemoeller principle. [Slide #18]


It stems from the life of Martin Niemoller, a protestant pastor in Germany who supported Hitler during the early years of Nazi governance but later began to criticize the regime and was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. [SLIDE #19]


After the war he said this:


…they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;

And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;

And then they came for the Jews,

And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;

And then . . . they came for me . . .

And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”


Although Niemoeller himself did not state the lesson as a principle, I would summarize it as follows:


[Slide #20– principle] If you see them doing it to somebody else, don’t think they won’t do it to you.


This suggests an urgent need to recognize one’s connection to the plight of others and one’s solidarity with them. Poor Niemoeller got the point only after he had been shipped to the concentration camp. By the way, I think his crime was [pointing to audience] “unprofessional conduct.”


* * * * * * * *


Once again, it often happens that people watch democracy and freedom evaporate before their very eyes and say, “Well, that’s of no concern to me. I have my work. I have my research. I’m not involved.”


I believe it was Patrick Henry once proclaimed, “Give liberty… or maybe a research center and a few grants.” (Maybe I don’t have that quote exactly right.)


But even for those of you who simply want to get on with your lives and work, there’s important point of recognition. It is a malady to which even good rulers often fall prey.


[SLIDE #21 – March of Folly]

The historian Barbara Tuchman called it “The March of Folly.” In her book by that title she looks at societies that launched catastrophic wars or pursued disastrous policies, persisting in them to the bitter end even when the results were clearly contrary to their own self-interest.


Tuchman calls the mindset that produces outcomes of this kind. “Wooden headedness.” [Slide #22 – Benchmarks of folly (picture of locomotive crashing through wall of building)]


The Vietnam War, in her view, was a classic example of wooden headedness in action.


If you read the daily paper – The New York Times or, for that matter, The Polytechnic –you’ll find ample evidence that the March of Folly continues to this day.


Fortunately, we are not helpless. Barbara Tuchman spells out a suggestion. [SLIDE #23]


She writes, “If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is the summit of the art of government.”


How wonderfully sensible. Why not give it a try?


* * * * * * * * *

Well, I hope this has been an educational experience for you.


We discussed some important concepts – “flunky,” “quisling,” “stool pigeon.” And we’ve covered some important historical principles.


I want to thank you for participating in this presentation, even though, as you’ve probably noticed, we’ve sometimes stumbled perilously close to the brink of: [point to audience]




* * * * * * * *


This talk can be seen on You Tube. You must click each segment separately in sequence, or You Tube will take you to an earlier edition, out of sequence. The performance was rated “Outrageous” by the Rensselaer’s head pettifogger.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

(My thanks to Ethan Bach for the video editing.)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s