Sunday, August 22, 2010

Attributes of Authoritarianism

Keep this simple chart in mind when you are evaluating the performance of your elected officials. Remember, you pay them to protect your civil liberties.

Domestic advocates of authoritarianism constitute the primary danger to democratic societies. They are always present, always working to undermine civil liberties, usually pretending to be trying to strengthen rather than undermine democracy (a claim that may occasionally be true), and working through means that start out being legal. Such a challenge is incomparably more difficult to spot and resist than an overt external military challenge.

To respond to this ever-present challenge requires ever-present vigilance, which is a lot to ask for a democratic society, which after all is made up primarily of citizens who want nothing more than to be left alone to go about their lives. Alas, such a protected existence citizens may perhaps persue under a dictatorship, provided that they accept the dictator’s definition of what they can read and say, who they can interact with, where they can work and travel. But those who want to make up their own minds must pay for the privilege with vigilance.

This raises the question of how a society is to define acceptable democratic behavior. Setting a “democratic threshold” beyond which attitudes and behavior will meet with disapproval thus becomes a key step for the vigilant society. As an example, a vigilant democratic society might deem ethnic riots by the majority against a minority, police brutality, attacks on cities during a war and preventive war in the absence of a clear and present danger all to be unacceptable examples of violence that undermines democracy.

If “violence” is thus deemed a form of behavior exceeding the democratic threshold of acceptable behavior, one must then clearly think through the range of examples of such behavior sufficiently so as to be able to identify and condemn unacceptable behavior. For example, is a public call for the murder by the government of a foreign leader one such example? Does the failure to condemn a member of a democratic society who makes such a public statement constitute evidence that the society has stepped onto the slippery slope down from the heights of democracy toward the abyss of authoritarianism? Is the evidence all the stronger if the speaker happens to be a member of the elite? Clearly, the vigilant society will need some answers, perhaps starting with the enumeration of forms of behavior that are deemed to constitute indicators of authoritarian tendencies. (What one is to say about a society in which such questions are not even raised is less clear.)

Having determined that a threshold of acceptable behavior is needed and that the definition of such a threshold should be informed by identification of indicators of unacceptable behavior, one discovers that one can of course make an endlessly long enumeration: undemocratic behavior sports a vast wardrobe. Might one then identify a few key attributes of authoritarian behavior for citizens to keep in mind?

Imagine a map of the political landscape of all possible attitudes and behaviors extending in one direction from low status to high status actors and in the other direction from individuals to the whole society or culture. Any “point” on this landscape, i.e., any expression of attitude or any behavior, now possesses two attributes, “status” and “specificity” (where “specificity” indicates the degree to which it concerns only a specific individual). The goal is to facilitate measuring the seriousness (in terms of authoritarian threat to democracy) of any statement or act. Our tool is now an undifferentiated landscape filled with all sorts of acts – calls for war, riots, etc. So far, it is not too much help because it is complicated to use.

To simplify, draw in the axes for status and specificity, resulting in a grid with four quadrants. Quadrant A contains statements and acts by low status individuals, which may be reprehensible but represent little danger for the system. Quadrant D contains acts by members of the elite that are culturally acceptable. If undemocratic acts are plotted, this grid helps to discriminate between those possessing lesser and greater danger to a democracy. Finally, add an arrow to remind yourself that the closer you get to the D corner, the more dangerous the act in question is.

To use this tool, simply locate acts that you consider to be examples of a tendency toward authoritarianism. In the illustration, one act in each of four countries is shown. A private campaign in the U.S. in 2004 to smear a Columbia University professor of Arab origin as “unpatriotic” is optimistically placed in Quadrant A, on the assumption that the average American rejected such efforts to prevent the free exercise of personal opinion in an academic setting could appropriately be constrained on the grounds that it was not sufficiently “patriotic,” i.e., in support of the particular policies of the current regime. The degree to which the average American in the panic-stricken post-9/11 atmosphere of religious bias cared about the politicization of academia is of course debatable. The next event, the murder of a civil rights activist by Columbian paramilitary forces is placed in Quadrant B, indicating high status, implying that the rightwing paramilitary forces in Columbia have close ties to the government. The final two events, in Israel and Turkey respectively, are firmly in Quadrant D since they were each official government acts of repression that were generally not criticized by the respective societies.

If this simple tool facilitates thinking about what constitutes acceptable behavior in democratic society and reminds citizens to pay particular attention to anti-democratic behavior by the elite, including the very officials elected to defend democracy, then it will have done its job.

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