Is absolute power concentrated in an autocratic ruler or clique in your government?
Does the leader of your country adopt any of these roles: judge, jury, or executioner?
Does he have a moustache?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes”, you may be living in a dictatorship. But how to be absolutely certain? It’s easy to tell if you are living under the yoke of an old-fashioned oppressive regime, especially if somebody from the Department of Health and Human Services hammers bamboo under your fingernails. But the modern type of dictator is a far subtler creature. He may not wear epaulettes or shrink human heads. Some of the foremost dictators currently in power have excellent taste in neckwear and are indistinguishable from merchant bankers. Some of them are merchant bankers, but that’s a horse of a different subject. The foremost tool used by modern dictators to subjugate their constituent populations is no longer violence, and this is what makes them so hard to identify. There is now a far more effective weapon in the dictator’s arsenal: futility.
Futility has made the jackboot obsolete. It operates on one of the greatest human vulnerabilities: our fear of humiliation. To understand this we must define some terms. First, futile and impossible are not the same things. An attempt to achieve the impossible will generally end in disaster, but it will not be humiliating–
because the odds of success are extremely low, so no penalty for failure and you get points just for trying. There is even a sort of romantic association with failure, as with tuberculosis in poets.
An excellent example of attempting the impossible is human flight. It was impossible for centuries, and legends grew up around those that failed in the attempt. The fellows that eventually figured the flying thing out pushed back the boundaries of impossibility, and made human flight a commonplace reality, except at Chicago’s O’Hare International terminal. So beyond the impossible is the possible. On the other side of the equation from impossibility, however, there’s futility.
Let’s put it another way, because I happen to have a spare analogy lying around. A young gink in 1922 decides to send a man to the moon. This is impossible in 1922. But Melvin (let’s say his name is Melvin) works the problem, and by the 1960’s there are men hopping around the moon like large bipedal pressure-suited fleas. So the impossible is where the action is, right? You follow me. Good. Now let’s have a look at futility. Same Melvin (he wears a yellow plaid waistcoat and a Rotary Club watch fob, incidentally) decides to send a man to the moon. But on a bicycle. This is futile. You couldn’t make a bicycle tire that would last the distance, for one thing. Worst of all, the effort would end in humiliation. The test pilot pedals furiously and ends up no closer to the moon than Nyack, NY before he gets short-winded and has to lie down. Everyone involved in this junket is mocked, scorned, ridiculed, exposed to derision even, because there was never any real question how things would work out– whereas the impossible carries with it the tang of hope. Because you just never know. So what the up-to-date dictator needs to do is to obscure that faint whiff of hope, to make the impossible into the merely futile, and before you know it people are throwing around references to sheep, vis-à-vis the general population.
Not everybody is trying to bicycle to the moon, so how does futility operate on today’s dictator-subjugated peoples? Let us spin another moonbeam. Say you, an American citizen prone to whimsy, wanted to travel to Cuba. One might say (go ahead and say it, I’ll wait) that the opposite of “futile” is “practical”. Is it impossible to travel to Cuba? No. A stout set of water wings is all that’s required, and maybe some sandwiches if the wind is against you. But is it practical? Emphatically not. It’s an enormous pain in the ass. You’ll be opposed every step of the way, even if you’re on the short list of persons they’ll allow to go there, such as journalists. It may not be impossible, but it’s futile. How about voting for president? Not impossible at all. Some people do it a dozen times in the same evening. But ask most persons in this Great Nation if it’s worth the trouble, you will get an answer to the effect of “no”, or even “fuck off”.
But surely, a hypothetical detractor (of which I have many) might argue, a leader cannot be said to be a dictator, no matter how resolutely he ignores the will of the people in order to follow his own whims, if (the word “if” here is meant to be italicized, but I forgot to do it and it’s too late now), if (I say again for emphasis) the people are free to speak out against him, to vote him out of office, to protest in the streets, to elect representatives for the express purpose of opposing that leader? The worst one can say of such a leader is that he is of an authoritarian bent, or a peckerwood. He can’t really be a dictator, right? Enter futility, stage left.
Because if speaking out against him has absolutely no impact on policy, if the voting machines are sufficiently jiggered and his opponents sufficiently irresolute, if protests are ignored by politicians and news outlets alike, and if the elected representatives staunchly ignore the will of their constituents in favor of the leader’s aforementioned whims, then it is futile to bother with any of these things. Opposition is futile: you can do it until you’re blue in the state, but nothing will happen. It’s like boycotting Wal-Mart because it treats its employees badly: knock yourself out, but don’t expect the corporation to go socialist all of a sudden. In fact, people that make such a stand are labeled cranks and idealists, reality-based unwashed hippie losers. It’s humiliating. There’s a Wal-Mart right over there, just go buy a pack of batteries. Ahhh, that feeling of futility is gone. Now you’re normal again.
Reactionaries please note I have never patronized a Wal-Mart.
What I’m driving at here is that Americans are drowning in a sense of futility right now. They are humiliated. George W. Bush (just for example) crapped on their heads, so they elected Nancy Pelosi to lead the charge against him, and Pelosi kicked them in the testicles. Humiliating. Many folks, having read my occasional screeds documenting the death rattles of mankind, comment that rather than whining, we ought to be DOING something about the issues (by “we” they mean “me”, of course; they’re already making a difference with street theater featuring Uncle Sam mimes with papier-mâché tanks and wheelbarrows stuffed with fake dollar bills). May the religious entity of their choice bless them, may they never get that horrible ant-like feeling of futility, but lordy lord do I ever get it myself. It doesn’t mean I’m living in a dictatorship. Maybe I just have a low tolerance for being ignored by all-powerful megalomaniacs pissing my tax dollars away to expand the reach of their personal corporate empires. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to a bunch of subnormal bureaucrats deciding how much freedom is too much for my own good. Probably I am. But once that old feeling of futility sneaks up on me, it sure takes hold.
If it was impossible to oppose a fellow like George W. Bush (just for example) because he would send brownshirts to your house to cut off your ears and put food on your family, it would be a whole lot more fun. We could have secret meetings and run little hand-cranked printing presses day and night, distributing leaflets concealed inside baskets of luncheon rolls. Eventually someone would figure out a way to electrify his bunny slippers, and the next thing you know Biff Zapata is walking into the White House and it’s a whole new day. Many a dictator has succumbed to the impossible in this manner. But it’s not impossible to oppose Bush, only futile. I have been opposing him since he first started governing the country, way back in 2002. What has been the yield of my efforts? What have the steadfast and urgent efforts of all my fellow-travelers opposing this erstwhile tyrant amounted to? Hint: it’s a quantity in the mid- to low- zilch region, relative to the damage he has meanwhile done on the slightest caprice.
So two questions hang in the air, like goiters: first, are we living in a dictatorship? I know you saw through my cunning rhetorical subterfuges above and know that this is what I was driving at the whole time. And you probably know that my answer is “yes”, but that it’s a dictatorship empowered by futility rather than violence (the violence being restricted to people we’ve recently attacked, such as Afghanis, Iraqis, or black Southerners, plus a handful of suspects whisked away for torture, just to remind everybody else there are worse sensations than a feeling of futility). That said, the second question arises from the first: if this is a dictatorship, even of the subtlest kind, what does one do about it? It’s humiliating to go around being outwitted at every turn by a president so incompetent he couldn’t light a match if you held the blowtorch. I think the answer lies in the nature of the impossible.
We should probably be attempting impossible things. Our current incremental approach amounts to pitching pebbles in the tide. World events play up the sense of futility: are we really going to diddle around demanding improved fuel economy when the seas are already going to rise five meters? How high is that in feet, anyway? If we’re at Peak Oil already, is it really worthwhile attempting to stop these rotten oilmen fighting it out in faraway deserts? Can’t we just wait until the oil runs out? If the educational system is so broken it will take decades to fix, shouldn’t we just bustle our kids into private schools now, rather than hope they graduate from high school when they’re thirty? It all seems dreadfully futile, put in that kind of context. But let’s talk about the impossible: cars that run five trillion billion miles on a thimbleful of mint sauce! A protective snow globe built over the entire North Pole with “Merry Xmas” engraved on the genuine burl walnut base! A proportionally representative government with mandatory voting for all adults, universal healthcare, and a lifetime supply of Circus Peanuts for every citizen! The more impossible something is, the more worthwhile it seems. At least there’s no disgrace if it doesn’t quite pan out the way you intended. Come to think of it, that’s probably the main appeal these days of demanding the impeachment of George W. Bush: when the Republicans were in control of the House and Senate, it was futile. Now that the Democrats are in charge, it’s impossible.
Creative commons copyright 2007 by BEN TRIPP