Friday, March 12, 2010

Dictatorships Suck, unless You're a Dictator

Let’s face it, if we had the opportunity to exercise absolute power, we’d take it. Not only that, we’d use it for our own selfish gain. Aren’t my acute observations of human nature amazing? Moreover, we’d descend into the abyss, chastising those who disagree with us with the sword and rewarding our thuggish cronies with the state coffers. We also wouldn’t be averse to some time-honored ethnic cleansing of minority groups.  Okay, sure, once in a blue moon we get a George Washington who relinquishes such absolute power, but most people aren't George Washington.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m thankful for civilization, especially the wonderful democratic institutions we've largely inherited from Great Britain. These innovations in the long, violent history of Homo sapiens are valiant efforts to save us from ourselves. I’m not a Rousseauian believer in the "noble savage."  It's society that corrupts us, huh?  As a Bavarian neighbor of mine used to say, Quatsch mit Soße!  Our worst enemy is the base instinct that nature has bequeathed us. Hobbes, Nietzsche and Freud had it right: the painstaking process of building civilization is the best thing we have going for us, and unfortunately its viability in the future, for each new generation, is always tenuous. Who knew that an era of "darkness" and decline would follow Greco-Roman civilization during Europe's early medieval period? Who would have guessed that long after the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, Europe would spawn two horrific world wars and the most extensive genocide yet perpetrated by the sons of man?  Have we finally arrived as a species, or, to quote Churchill, will we "sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age" yet again?  What we have is so fragile, so let's cherish it and not buy into this nonsense about government or modernity being the problem.  Please!

Primatologists like Frans de Waal at Emory University, whose opinion  I highly respect, will tell us that primates—and by extension, we humans who share over 98% of DNA—have the natural capacity for empathy and consensus-building. I don't doubt it, but too often these commendable innate qualities succumb to the darker forces within us.  Xenophobia and a penchant for domination are hardwired into our monkey brains and savage hearts. Humans constructed civilization not so much to ease our daily lives but to keep us from bashing each other’s skulls in. What is this quintessence of dust, you might ask?  Our human nature has been around much longer than civilization, so we still have “primitive” instincts that outweigh (1) the relatively new dictates of society (a mere 10,000 years or so) and, more disturbingly, (2) a sensible and peaceful use of modern technology. Give us another 500,000 years and maybe we'll be predisposed to help one another; altruism, if there is such a thing, will become our first instinct rather than second nature. That's the best we can hope for, I’m afraid, but don’t count on it. I've done the math.  That would be like expecting a troubled young man who'd spent years and years of his life in an abusive home and out on the street to be an upstanding citizen after a week at a reform school.

Despite your protestations to the contrary, you self-professedly sensitive liberal types ensconced smugly in Starbucks with your laptop and iPhone would be the most vicious dictators of all if you were to acquire such unchecked power. And remember that neither the political right nor the political left is immune from exercising such tyranny—witness Hitler and Stalin, Ho Chi Minh and Mobutu. You’d decline this power and give it to the people?  You'd put together a blue ribbon panel to draw up a constitution and insist on the rule of law?  You’d use this power to make the world a better place, you say? My arse! Besides, with these world-changing objectives, you’d be in good company: Pol Pot and Robespierre sought to create a Year Zero, to start anew, to erase the past and create a utopia. Problem is, the guillotine and the killing fields became their respective means to a not-so-noble end.  Granted I'm addressing males more than females, and I'm not saying that someone would offer you such power ex nihilo.  No.  You don't become a Nero overnight.  It's a gradual process, as circumstances allow and as your risks pay off.

So I say, live it up! If heads need to roll, then so be it. It’s good to be the king. Like the Legalist scholars who advised China's first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi: a good dose of suppression is just what the doctor ordered if you want stability and discipline.

And talk about absolute power! Julius Caesar got his start as part of a three-man rule called appropriately enough a triumvirate. He’s the first dude in history to go up to two other dudes—in this case Pompey and Crassus, Roman generals—scratch their heads at the same time and say, “Man! My balls itch.” That is so cool.  With this audacity, it was only a hop, skip and a jump to his dictatorship.  And wouldn't it be fun to take an axe from the executioner like Peter the Great did and start lopping off the heads of political opponents on the execution platform just to show who's boss?  (That's at least what Maximilian Schell did in his performance of the Russian tsar!) But watch yourself, dictator wannabe, for as the case of Julius Caesar shows, you might be hoisted by our own petard.  Beware the Ides of March!

Take counsel from Hobbes, not Rousseau, folks. Life for humans in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.