Posts tagged with: tyranny

Vladimir PutinOn Tuesday, Acton’s Todd Huizinga took part in a West Michigan World Trade Association panel discussion on “US and EU Sanctions on Russia: How They Affect You.” He was joined by three other panelists who focused respectively on the legal, economic, and political ramifications of the current Russian/Ukrainian conflict and the sanctions it has evoked.

Though each of the panelists focused on a different angle of the conflict, a common thread emerged: the desire of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political regime to return Russia to a position of dominance on the world stage.

Signaling this desire for increased power was the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, Crimea, in March and its military intervention in Ukraine thereafter, among other events. While these are significant actions in their own right, they also serve a broader purpose in drawing attention from the international community. As Huizinga stated, “they test Western resolve to act.”

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Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
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Catching Fire

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Tyranny Is the True Enemy,” I explore the latest film installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.” I pick up on the theme that animates Alissa Wilkinson’s review at Christianity Today, but diverge a bit from her reading. As she writes, a major aspect of this second part of the series has to do with fake appearances and real substance, and the need to “remember who the real enemy is.”

Wilkinson is upset with the marketing buzz surrounding the film, arguing that it “declaws” the substantive message of the books themselves. There’s an element of truth to this. It comes home especially when watching an interview like this, in which Jennifer Lawrence seems to embody the idea that for a celebrity in today’s culture, “you never get off this train,” as Haymitch puts it to Katniss and Peeta on their own promotional tour.

But in focusing on the distracting nature of commercial merchandising of the films, I argue that Wilkinson ends up distracted from who the real enemy is. There is much that is morally problematic about the way that the Capitol operates. Wilkinson rightly shows the shallow consumerism and sensuality of Capitol couture. But the fact that this isn’t the real enemy, so to speak, can be shown by a bit of thought experiment.

Suppose that the consumption habits of the Capitol were far less odious to our moral sensibilities. Suppose the citizens all lived chaste, upright, and responsible lives in their city. Their oppression of the districts would be no less troublesome for all their virtuous consumption. The decadence of the Capitol only puts the real tyranny over the districts into sharper relief. John Tamny argues that to read Catching Fire as “anything other than a polemic against communistic, brutal government is a certain act of willful blindness.”

I won’t go quite that far, and I don’t agree that the film/book has nothing at all to do with critiquing consumerism, but I do think that such alternative readings often forget who the enemy really is. As Tamny (mis)quotes from Catching Fire, Katniss herself identifies the enemy as the one “who starves and tortures and kills us in the arena. Who will soon kill everyone I love.”

In the opening sequence of “Catching Fire,” Katniss is illegally hunting in an attempt to provide much-needed protein for her family. At one point, Katniss and Gale come across a flock of wild turkeys. This image is especially striking at the release of this film during the Thanksgiving season.

Far from promising a “turkey in every pot,” President Snow has no regard for the welfare of anyone in the districts. The citizens of the Capitol are all that matter, to the point that people like Katniss have to resort to illegal hunting and the black market for basic necessities like medicine and food.

There is a connection between hedonism and what might be called a “soft” form of tyranny characteristic of the vicious circle between the citizens of the Capitol and the government. And while tyranny in all its forms is to be rejected, the real enemy in the Hunger Games is the hard tyranny of President Snow and his jackbooted thugs. Everything else is, in the end, a distraction.

cruz controlThere is little doubt that we will see more Sen. Ted Cruz like broadsides against Washington’s power structure. Obamacare might be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to ceding power to Washington. A point that was made Ad nauseum during Cruz’s 20 hour plus talk fest on the Senate floor is that what he did matters little. Nothing would change from a legislative or a procedural standpoint. While I think that’s true for the short term, the credibility of the Republican leadership in the Senate may have taken a fatal blow. To see what that means for those fighting for conservatism and limited government check out Matt Walsh’s excellent post on National Review Online.

It was a definitive moment for the triumph of principle and that imagery matters not just to liberalism or the statist but for conservatism too. Every battle against collectivism doesn’t require an immediate victory but it does require a victory for principle. Most Americans know the federal government is broken. They sense there is something fundamentally wrong with the political leadership and the direction of the country. Despite America’s culture of escapism through entertainment, there are still millions of people paying attention. They don’t want to become what Alexis de Tocqueville warned in Democracy in America, as nothing more than “a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Political infighting and procedure aside, the larger point is an important one. We are increasingly arriving at the point where we will see more and more public show downs against the federal government by those constituencies that know it is broken, out of touch, and corrupt. The result of more and more centralization and federal control over our lives inevitably exacts push back.

Walsh’s point at NRO is that the Republican leadership in the Senate is just the first victim of the grassroots broadside. It will be interesting to see how the battle over power plays out and the biggest obstacle indeed is the secularism of society. Secular cultures demand centralization and planning in their futile attempt to perfect society. And while the federal government continues to expand in its already bloated form, it does so with great risk. More and more people will take notice and the bigger it is, the harder the entrenched power structure could come crashing down.

Democracy In America

Democracy In America

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, a monumental study of the life and institutions of the evolving nation.

$10.00

According to James Madison, when lawmakers exempt themselves from the legislation they pass, “The people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Over 1,200 organizations and companies have already secured ObamaCare waivers. However, currently making big headlines is a deal worked out by the President and Congress that exempts congressional members and staff from the full effect of the law. In actuality, lawmakers had to go back and secure the hefty subsidies for Congress and staff as that was set to end when the health insurance exchanges are implemented on January 1, 2014. The Wall Street Journal does a good job of covering the details of the exemption and stressing the point once again that Washington lawmakers voted on and passed a bill they didn’t bother to examine. The lack of oversight and vetting of the bill has led to the subverting of the legislative branch, as the executive branch has been rewriting portions of the law to make it even more favorable to Washington.

Arguing in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Federalist #57, James Madison made this argument:

I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America — a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.

If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.

Those are weighty words by Madison, but now they point not to the optimism of a new country trying to secure a lasting liberty, but the kind of despotism that should be feared by the people.

The Hunger Games TrilogyIn today’s Acton Commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” I examine the themes of faith and freedom expressed in Suzanne Collins’ enormously popular trilogy. The film version of the first book hit the theaters this past weekend, and along with the release has come a spate of commentary critical of various aspects of Collins’ work.

As for faith and freedom, it turns out there’s precious little of either in Panem. But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, as I argue in today’s piece: “If Panem is what a world without faith and freedom looks like, then Collins’ books are a cautionary tale about the spiritual, moral, and political dangers of materialism, hedonism, and oppression.”

Last week I was also privileged to participate in a collection of pieces at the Values & Capitalism website related to “The Hunger Games.” I provide an alternate ending (along with some explanation here) at the V&C site, where you can also check out the numerous other worthy reflections on Collins’ work.
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Open the books

Having recently finished reading Jean-François Revel’s Last Exit to Utopia – in which he excoriates leftist intellectuals for ignoring the crimes of communist totalitarianism and their efforts to resurrect the deadly ideology – and having just read a few more chapters of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago over lunch, it seems providential that I would stumble across this article at City Journal on the failure of researchers to seriously dig into the now-available archives of the Soviet Union:
Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile in London, has on his computer 50,000 unpublished, untranslated, top-secret Kremlin documents, mostly dating from the close of the Cold War. He stole them in 2003 and fled Russia. Within living memory, they would have been worth millions to the CIA; they surely tell a story about Communism and its collapse that the world needs to know. Yet he can’t get anyone to house them in a reputable library, publish them, or fund their translation. In fact, he can’t get anyone to take much interest in them at all.

Then there’s Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who once spent 12 years in the USSR’s prisons, labor camps, and psikhushkas—political psychiatric hospitals—after being convicted of copying anti-Soviet literature. He, too, possesses a massive collection of stolen and smuggled papers from the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which, as he writes, “contain the beginnings and the ends of all the tragedies of our bloodstained century.” These documents are available online at bukovsky-archives.net, but most are not translated. They are unorganized; there are no summaries; there is no search or index function. “I offer them free of charge to the most influential newspapers and journals in the world, but nobody wants to print them,” Bukovsky writes. “Editors shrug indifferently: So what? Who cares?”

If we have a duty to remember the victims of Naziism and to ensure that the hateful and vicious ideology of Hitler never rises again – and we do – do we not also have the same duty when it comes to the millions who were starved and worked to death in the communist Gulag? This material needs to be properly studied, translated, and released soon. The fact that it hasn’t been already is a shame, and an insult to the victims of communist tyranny.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 5, 2009
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In response to the question, “What is wrong with socialism?”

In answering this question we could point to the historical instances of socialist regimes and their abhorrent record on treatment of human beings. But the supporters of socialism might just as well argue that these examples are not truly relevant because each historical instance of socialism has particular contextual corruptions. Thus, these regimes have never really manifested the ideal that socialism offers.

So on a more abstract or ideal level, what is wrong with socialism is that it promotes governmental tyranny. The state becomes the option of first resort rather than last (or no) resort in concerns related to economics, social institutions, the family, and the church. The state in its local, regional, federal, or global form coopts the roles of all kinds of mediating institutions.

On the basis of this critique we can then point to concrete examples where the socialist ideal has been manifest and we can observe what the effects are. In the Acton documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, George Gilder discusses the “cuckolding” of the man by the welfare state, which preempts the role of the family’s economic provider. But in general the nanny state infantilizes its own citizenry.

Theodore Dalrymple’s recent book discusses the decline of Western civilization, and of his homeland he writes that there are

many people in contemporary Britain with very little of importance to decide for themselves. … They are educated by the state (at least nominally) … the state provides for them in old age and has made savings unnecessary … they are treated and cured by the state when they are ill; they are housed by the state if they cannot otherwise afford decent housing. Their choices concern only sex and shopping.

Maybe “sex” and “shopping” are still relatively free, but rest assured socialism won’t stop until it has undone even these last instances of relative liberty. See, for instance, talks not only about socializing procreation (a max of two children per couple?) but also the encroaching regulations on what can be purchased or consumed (e.g. “sin” taxes in various forms).

So there’s a sense in which what is wrong with socialism is that it has a faulty anthropology. But its anthropology is flawed not only in the sense that it fails to recognize and respect the fundamental place of individual human liberty, but also that it substitutes an inauthentic, disingenuous, and ultimately corrupted form of social relations for those that form God’s orders of human sociality: marriage and the family, work and culture, the church, and divinely-ordained and -limited government.

Because socialism attacks all of these institutions, one or another of them becomes the focus of resistance in the midst of actual socialist regimes. So the church might be the truest bastion of freedom in one socialistic situation, while the family might be the outpost of liberty in another, and free enterprise the haven of flourishing in yet another.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, stories from the pundit class and blogosphere abound proclaiming the imminent death of the conservative movement. This is part of a longer and broader discussion with roots in the post-Reagan era of American politics. (As you’ll see in my comments below, I’m not so inclined to think that a move toward particular kinds of populism is necessarily a move away from conservatism.)

Writing in the American Conservative earlier this month, Claes G. Ryn argues that our recognition of the corrupting nature of power shouldn’t make us abdicate all forms of government and authority:

Without some people governing others, basic social order could not exist, to say nothing of effecting desirable change. The prejudice against power-seeking has left politics too much to people with the wrong kind of ambition, most of whom desire power as an end in itself. Yet wanting power need not be immoral. Pursuing it can be a means to good.

Ryn is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and chairman of the National Humanities Institute. He notes, in agreement with the older liberal tradition, that,

the old American constitutionalism is inseparable from the moral-spiritual culture that gave it birth. Limited government and liberty were made possible by people who, because of who they were, put checks on their appetites, ran their own lives and communities, and generally behaved in ways conducive to freedom under law. Restoring American constitutionalism would presuppose some kind of resurgence of that old culture. Americans would have to rearrange their priorities and start acting differently, placing more emphasis on family, private groups, and local communities. They would have to want to take back much of the power ceded to politicians far away. Is that likely to happen? If not, the Constitution may not be salvageable.

Ryn discusses what he calls the “coup from within,” where under the guise of conservatism, “People of great ambition who want to exercise the power being abdicated by Americans are trying to make us accept and even welcome the final disappearance of constitutionalism and its culture of modesty and self-restraint.”

I’m not as pessimistic as Ryn about the seemingly inevitable outcome of the crisis and the government interventions and consolidations of power, at least in the economic sphere. He says of those perpetrating the coup, “Their response to the crisis, which they have aggravated, will hasten the crumbling of the American constitutional order. Their prescriptions contain the outlines of tyranny.” He may well be right about that, and Ryn’s concerns shouldn’t be limited to the American scene but apply to the international scene as well. As John Witherspoon said, “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue.”

But despite all this, common sense folk are realizing again that virtues like frugality, thrift, and self-discipline are necessary parts of a broader view of stewardship. This is in part why the bailout has had difficulty finding any serious measure of popular support…it is a plan that is counter-intuitive on so many levels, and despite the media’s best efforts to sell the bi-partisan scheme, the American citizen isn’t convinced. In fact, the concept of stewardship is a pretty good model for Ryn’s view of the appropriate pursuit of power.

It is certainly an uphill battle to practice traditional virtues against a government and a culture that tells us to spend all we can on credit. We have just about maxed out the credit borrowed from the moral and cultural capital of previous generations. In response to those pushing the expansion of federal and executive power, it’s time to, as Ryn says, “expose their false solutions to what are real problems and to explore by what measures the best of our civilization might, despite daunting odds, be given a new lease on life.”

The impending death of conservatism might just be the kind of big-government conservatism that is virtually indistinguishable from big-government liberalism on the scope and size of the government. If that’s the case, then let us celebrate: “Conservatism is dead. Long live conservatism.”

It took awhile, but after its release in 2005, the latest installment of the popular computer game Civilization IV was received warmly by many cultural commentators. Civilization IV, or CivIV for short, was hailed alternatively as “a video game for the ages,” and “a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.” The basis for much of this regard among even conservatives as “crunchy” as Rod Dreher was a piece in the Weekly Standard, highlighting the background of the game’s founder, Sid Meier.

For the first time, religion plays an important part in the strategic gameplay. Victorino Matus sums it up this way,

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay.

Indeed, while CivIV deserves praise for integrating non-material elements like religion and culture into the gameplay, in the end these pieces suffer the same fate as the rest of the game’s components. CivIV, ultimately, is less about the development of civilization than it is about the expansion of imperial tyranny.

“Genghis Khan, your people have vested absolute power in you…”


The game begins by the player being vested with “absolute power” over all aspects of the lives of the citizenry. Religion quickly becomes a means of social control. When your civilization founds a religion, you are able to build structures that have other important benefits attached to them. You can spread your religion to neighboring civilizations, expanding your influence. But it doesn’t matter which religion you prefer, as long as it keeps your people happy.

And happiness, by the way, is something that can be bought in this game. If your citizenry is a little restless, simply up the percentage of money spent each turn on “culture,” and watch the happy faces multiply. That’s the CivIV equivalent of Caesar holding gladiatorial games at the Colosseum to appease the populace.

There are consequences to which sort of economy, government, technology, and religion you choose. But in the end all these choices are yours, and you are free to use whichever combination you find to be most expedient. The variety of game-ending scenarios, including world domination, UN diplomacy, and space-race technology races (which may indeed teach us something we need to know), mean that you don’t have to simply hack and slash your way to victory. But make no mistake about it, you are out to conquer your opponents, by any means necessary.

You can choose to embrace different branches of technological innovation, including the compelling “Animal Husbandry.”


The popularity of the game, which has won numerous awards and spawned successful expansions, is well-deserved. It taps in to a fundamental human drive for dominance in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

The revisionist history that is possible to reenact with the game is one of its greatest attractions. While it may cause some cognitive dissonance to see Mohandas Ghandi order an nuclear ICBM attack on an opponent’s city, it is also reassuring to know that Genghis Khan can expand his empire by means of free trade and cultural suasion rather than force of arms (although in some cases “revisionist” history ends up corresponding better to reality than accepted theories).

“Soon my numberless minions shall destroy you all!”


The game’s interface is straightforward and intuitive. One drawback of the game’s emphasis on strategy over action is that the conflict sequences are repetitive and buggy. The graphics when units are in battle leave much to be desired.

These tactical criticisms aside, however, CivIV is a superb game. But the adeptness with which it meets the deepest human desires for power and control teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the progressive unfolding of history.

This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.

Here’s some insight into J. K. Rowling’s perspective on tyranny, in the words of Albus Dumbledore, speaking of the arch-villain of the series:

Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many vicitms, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back! Voldemort is no different! Always he was on the lookout for the one who would challenge him. He heard the prophecy and he leapt into action… (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 510).

My most immediate thought upon reading this passage was the account of King Herod in the book of Matthew.

Rowling’s work is worth paying attention to, if not for its insight and its own merits (which there certainly are), then at least for its importance as an influence on popular views of life, liberty, and love.

Also, if you want a truly strange take on the popularity of the Harry Potter series, be sure to check out this article, “Harry Potter: The Archetype of an Abortion Survivor” (HT?: The Point).