Reading Darkness at Noon in the Age of Autocracy

I watched with great horror the Turkish bodyguards of Erdogan charging across the street, into the field where peaceful protestors believed themselves safe in America from the thing that would get them killed in Turkey: free speech. The thugs of Erdogan descended and beat and choked indiscriminately. Policemen tried to break up the fighting with the realization that they were witness to an international incident. Diplomatic immunity was abused to bring a pocket of autocracy into the heart of our nation’s capitol. I thought that naked thuggery in the halls of power was a dark thing, but how dark, and how naked? The cameras were rolling. None of the goons cared.

The President of the Philippines has openly announced that he has taken part in the vigilante killing of suspected drug dealers, the extra-judicial method he has chosen to combat crime in his country. No rule of law, just this: The police think you’re a drug dealer, so they shoot you in the street. He was elected to his office, and blusters and howls while he seems to collude with the corrupt.

It is widely held that the richest man in the world is Vladimir Putin. No one knows for sure, but at the top of a pyramid of what we are calling oligarchs, which would be more correctly referred to as a mafia, Putin has skimmed off the top of an entire country, pushing his own people into poverty while his coffers fill.

In Venezuela, they protest and protest… And for what? Democracy? An end to the corruption? Incompetence among those who rule, who cannot provide basic services?

We live in the age of rising autocracy, where tough men bellow and bluster and bully their way over the laws of the land. The law is constrained because power is required to enact the will of law, and power, once gathered, is hard to contain with law.

Is your democracy strong enough to withstand the rise of autocrats? Can these populist thugs take root in your country, or will you cast them out? These are the important questions, and safeguarding one’s nation from such thuggery is critical to protect the people from the thugs who charge across the street and beat down peaceful protestors beyond indifferent to the laws and customs of their host nation, brazen in their disrespect of any other laws but strength and purchased strength.

In this world, I read a classic of Western Literature about Josef Stalin, where an agent of communism is imprisoned and faces execution for whatever reasons are convenient. It amounts to the feeling of Stalin, never named in the text, indicate that the hero, Rubashov, is not loyal anymore, and could be dangerous to Stalin’s own hold on power. For in this world, the great struggle to promote worldwide communism stalls against the autocratic drive of one man, who slows the tide and hardens his grip upon the nation he has claimed. The ideology of communism, it is clear, is now swept up into one man’s ambition. The debate between the interrogator and the interrogated acknowledges this fact, while questioning the belief in communism in religious terms. Do you believe in the destiny of communism? If so, sacrifice yourself to it. Confess to this crime you did not commit.

The intellectual, Rubashov, accepts his place as a sacrificial victim of communism, in his way. He acknowledges that what is happening to him is something he had done to others, allowing others to be sacrificed on the blood alter of communism. The fervor of it, the way it swallows up lives, feels monstrous, but to a dedicated believer in the cause they are all martyrs to a historical destiny in which they firmly believe, even as it devours them whole.

The bleak and stark novel of prison and faith in philosophy and the bloody deception of political power stands against a backdrop of purges less elegant, purges so brutal and thoughtless that the beauty and philosophy of the text is almost an affront to the reality that it fictionalizes. The true horror of the text is that it permits an intellectualization of the lives of real people who fell into darkness, and were devoured whole in a holocaust of non-believers and outliers in a systematized corporatization of history under autocratic rule. Anything that deviated from the will of No. 1 faced death, and anyone inconvenient to the will of No. 1 faced death, and everyone knew they had to submit, maneuver carefully, and abandon their sense of self to the bullet of history.

Consider this in our current age of autocrats: Once upon a time, the autocrats abused rebellion to rise to power. Democracy was the answer against such behaviors. Democracies were able to hold back the flood of Communism better than monarchies and other such things. Where power accumulated at the top of society, revolutions took root among the desperate people and intellectuals. In our own time, the top of democracies have become functional oligarchies in many ways. Our own country has seen political power become nearly hereditary in some families, and corporate influence has led to a class of individuals who are more powerful in the shaping of legislation than the individual voters who presume to be in power through their congressmen. Were we not ripe for revolution? Were the autocratic impulses not looking around, seeking the weakness in the system of men?

A religious belief in democracy, then, may become the liability that is exploited by the autocrats. Do not be afraid to abandon the religion of political power. Let no oath to paper or men be greater than the whole of those ruled in sorrow.

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