The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Monday, November 06, 2006

Maybe it was Godwin?

A more cynical thought occurred to me right after I posted about the hunter-gatherer to farmer transition below. One thing David wrote was
I believe that writ large, over many decades or centuries, people get the kind of societies they want and choose.
But, of course, in the shorter term, we have seen societies go drastically wrong, not through revolution, but through small, inceremental steps that don't portend their outcome. Sara Robinson posted the following excerpt from Milton Mayer's They Thought They Were Free over at Orcinus today:
"What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it."

Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

"How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice - "Resist the beginnings" and "consider the end." But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings."
Do you think that Americans have decided that we should be a torturing, kidnapping, wiretapping autocracy? Or do you think that each little step towards that end was taken without any sense of where it might lead? And if the pressures I speculate on below are generally right - if agriculture is hard to reverse, and if it can grow in power without benefitting most of its individual constituents, then all it takes (in each location) is one ill-considered transition.

No do-overs.


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