Tyrants come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s the little ones that terrify me. I don’t mean short skinny people — I mean the small-time bullies bursting with zeal to apply whatever measure of power or authority they may have: the folks who live to say “I’m in charge here, and you have to do as I say.” (Often you don’t have to do any such thing; go ahead and question their authority, and watch what happens. The fury of the frustrated petty despot can be gratifying to provoke, and wonderful to behold.)
An example: recently, we heard from a friend that a woman claiming to be with the census bureau came to his front door, announced that his home had been “randomly selected” to participate in an extended interview, and asked to come inside. For several good reasons, all perfectly within his rights and the law, he declined this interview. He then stated his intention to leave his home to keep an appointment. This turned out to be a mistake, although he could not have anticipated why.
When he returned to his home, he was told by his housekeeper that immediately upon his departure, the same person returned to the door, rang the doorbell, and again asked to be admitted. The housekeeper, aware that this pest had already been refused admission, also demurred. The census taker left.
What’s the big deal? First, the gentleman thus treated has a serious and legitimate concern about his home’s security, should he choose to explain it. (Okay, I will. Recently, his home had been burgled and property well in excess of the value of a nice car had been stolen. The crime remains “unsolved.” In this circumstance, would you let a complete stranger inside your home to case it for another visit? Sure, she had ID. And ID is so hard to counterfeit these days.) Second — and more important — why would a federal employee knowingly attempt to invade private premises after having been clearly refused entry? There’s more than a little bit of the stalker to her behavior, lurking in the shrubbery for her chance to pounce.
We don’t, and can’t, know the reason. It could be anything — a sincere belief that her actions were in the public interest, and therefore justifiable; an all-too-common presumption that “I’m the government and I can do what I want;” a sense of personal animosity at having her authority challenged — who knows?
I might strongly suspect the two latter reasons are the most likely, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the fact that, however noble her intentions may have been, she’s not entitled to disregard the rights of a private citizen. I know, I know — what’s the harm? Well, that it precisely the point. Just because someone can’t understand the reasons for someone else’s choices, that does not give them the right or moral authority to violate that person’s rights. That is tyranny of the worst sort: the assumption that “everyone is just like me, thinks like me, and ought to do what I think they should do.”
Not that this kind of hive mentality isn’t pandemic these days — just log onto Gawker.com, for example, for a quick course in groupthink and fashionable memes favored by the twentysomething BA in sociology set, particularly in the comment sections, where orthodoxy is rewarded by stars of approval (you can vote) and heresy generates a level of ad-hominem playground-level rage that nicely underlines the whole marching-in-cadence leitmotif of the site.
And that’s why I fear petty tyranny so much more than the blatant attempts of the truly powerful to assert dominance and control. Those affronts are visible, and can be challenged. But the millions of tiny invasions by millions of tiny minds are much more insidious, much more difficult to identify and defeat. Erosion is small in individual scale, but unstoppable.
Some time ago, a novelist named James Lee Burke was asked by an interviewer: “What should a man know about the government?” He responded:
“When we hear about bad guys in government, we always identify them with the Prince of Darkness. The guy is demonic until we meet him. And instead of Satan, we find out we’re talking to Elmer Fudd. The banality is just mind-numbing.”