Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Stoic Path: The Power of Dissent

Many of you may not read Naomi Wolf's "The End of America," discussed in the previous post, so I am summarizing very briefly the ten steps Wolf harnesses to argue that America and other liberal democracies are undergoing a "fascist shift," a shift, she argues, that began eight years ago. In Wolf's analysis, each of these ten steps was also followed in prewar fascist Germany, in fascist Italy under Mussolini, in Russia under Stalin, and in other totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy;
2. Create secret prisons to bypass the right of habeas corpus;
3. Develop a "thug" paramilitary caste;
4. Set up an internal surveillance system;
5. Harass citizens' groups;
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release;
7. Target key individuals;
8. Control of the press;
9. Discourage and limit dissent;
10. Suspend the rule of law.

This is a quick summary of the material. Wolf, of course, goes into each of these in some detail while developing a compelling argument that each of these stages has either occurred, or, is now a work in progress in the USA, and in other modern liberal democracies. In reading the book I was able to answer for myself a question that has haunted me since I was a boy: Why did ordinary decent Germans in the 1930's succumb to fascism? The answer lies in these ten points. Germans were essentially cowed by a creeping fear. But the process of building fear involved a gradual and measured application of these principles over many years. At first ordinary citizens believed that each of these these measures was at worst a necessary evil when it was implemented, but none of these measures would never touch them.

From my perspective battling this progressive shift in each of our modern liberal democracies will require extraordinary courage and fearlessness. But this battle must be fought if civilization is not to descend into a long period of darkness. This is a courage and fearlessness that must come from each of us. We cannot leave this to the guy next door.

The power of Stoicism is in its inherent invincibility. A Stoic understands that none of these stages can alter the fundamental truth of human existence: human beings are invulnerable to harm. Our physical bodies can be altered and in the end we will die. But our essential humanity resides in our intellectual orientation to truth and beauty. No tyrant can force us to believe in an idea we know is wrong. And no amount of fear mongering will compel us to change. A Stoic also understands that to abandon his understanding by acting in accordance with the directives of a fascist program would require abandoning our fellow citizens. This is not possible for a Stoic because each of us is by nature a component part of an egalitarian and cosmopolitan global community. We have a duty to educate, enlighten and protect others, including those who might carry out the elements of such a program. The architects of ignorance are no less human than any one else. We must not fall into the trap of dehumanizing those who oppress. This was the attitude that Marcus Aurelius always maintained toward even his most dangerous enemies. We are required to love our enemies. This is a Stoic necessity. To hate our enemy is to hate ourselves. But to love does not require that we capitulate to error. We must respond to ignorance through resistance, dissent, and compassion toward those who would destroy our freedoms.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.

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