February 19, 2011

Clinton the Great and Enlightened Despots

Dallas Darling writes:

When security forces assaulted and beat 71-year-old Ray McGovern while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just stood by and watched, it evoked a faraway age of enlightened despots. As Clinton began her speech at George Washington University and condemned human rights violations, government arrests of protesters, and internet censorship, McGovern remained standing peacefully and silently turning his back. He was then attacked by security officers and brutally hauled out of the meeting. McGovern received bruises, lacerations, and contusions during the assault. Meanwhile, Clinton continued to observe and watch and did absolutely nothing. McGovern, a veteran, was later jailed.

Enlightened despots were kings and queens who were rich and well educated and recommended religious toleration while talking about abolishing torture and capital punishment. Some of them supported the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness up to a certain point, or when their own power base was threatened. More often than not, the changes they made were motivated by making their kingdoms stronger and their own rule more effective and forceful. Catherine the Great was one such enlightened despot who instituted some reforms and modernized Russia while still remaining an absolute ruler. Even though she believed education was better than punishment, she once scribbled to an aristocrat: "Be so good as to call your peasants cattle."

Catherine also exchanged letters with Voltaire, Diderot and John Locke. She wrote that liberty was the dearest thing to her soul and more important than even life itself. Catherine spoke against serfdom and praised enlightened thinkers for fighting the united enemies of humankind: "superstition, fanaticism, ignorance, and trickery." But when thousands of serfs and mine and factory workers revolted along the Volga River in 1773 for equality, liberty, land, fair taxation, and their own courts, she sent troops and crushed the rebellion. Tens of thousands of serfs and workers perished. The ring leaders of the rebellion were executed. Other ethnic peasants, who fought for toleration and freedom from persecution, were slaughtered too.

Catherine responded with severe repression to over fifty peasant revolts. After the Great Plague of Moscow killed 100,000 persons, cannon were used to suppress rioting. Priests were silenced and jailed for challenging her policies. She gradually started to see the aristocracy as her allies in maintaining state control. In 1785, Catherine granted Russian nobility a privileged status. They were exempt from personal taxation and afforded numerous rights. In return, they supported Catherine's rule. Russian serfs lost their last trace of freedom. Behind "Potemkin's Villages," a sarcastic phrase used in referring to overblown and unreal achievements, Catherine arrested writers, banished dissidents, and censored the press. Her contribution to Russia was not reform but an expanded empire.

In a tightly scripted speech, Clinton told about the promises and perils of the internet. She accused WikiLeaks of "stealing" government documents and posting them, and that such actions raised serious questions about balancing freedom with security concerns. Clinton declared that without security, liberty was fragile and without liberty security was oppressive. For Clinton, it seems security is beating and silencing a 71-year old peaceful protester. For Clinton, it appears security is a government that wiretaps, steals records, and infiltrates peace groups, even arresting members on frivolous charges. Not only is self-expression banished and the press censored, specifically by aristocratic corporations and their propagandistic armament industries that can afford it, but despotic wars are forced on the masses.

Despotic presidents too, who once promised a transparent and open government and railed against fear mongering tactics, gradually ally themselves with the military industrial complex and aristocracy. The excuse is always the same: national security is at risk and a free press and access to information is a clear and present danger. Other despotic rulers in Congress try to control public space and the acquisition of knowledge and therefore, they submit new bills that will make publishing classified information punishable, even unto death. In the end, public discourse is either repressed or sacrificed, as are debates over misguided military interventions and lengthy military occupations. Meanwhile, thousands of military serfs continue serve the empire and die.

Behind President Barack Obama's empty words and "Clinton's Villages," expanding the empire and feeding a corporate aristocracy are more important than reform and liberty. Welcome to another age of enlightened despots!