The Stephen Colbert link I posted yesterday is funny, but it concerns a serious matter, and it's one that I think we should all be at least mildly concerned about—as photographers, true, but also as citizens. What that kind of thing is portending is a rise in authoritarianism.
As I've written elsewhere, "authoritarian" is the opposite of "liberal." (The opposite of conservative is progressive.) Authoritarianism is not a feature of true American conservatism, which largely seeks to preserve the values of classical liberalism. For a decade and a half now it's been a concern to me that a number of high-profile demagogues and a substantial segment of the corporate-owned media, backed by the instigators of a determined and well-funded fringe movement, have exhorted ordinary people (many of them less educated) to abhor and deride liberalism.
The problem with the word "liberalism" is that it really means two different things. First there's classical liberalism—personal freedom, the right to hold private property, equality under the law, liberty, freedom to trade and do business as you please—which conforms closely to the foundational values of American government and society (with the exception of "liberty," i.e., freedom from being indentured or enslaved, a principle that the United States applied only selectively for many years, even though the principle was firmly ensconced in our documents and our rhetoric from the start). Classical liberalism is what conservatism seeks to conserve. Then along came a theorist called John Rawls, who essentially added "fairness" and "inclusiveness" to the liberal stew of values. Because fairness and inclusiveness can really only be enforced by government, proponents of modern liberalism have leaned heavily on government to express and enforce their values. It is modern, post-Rawlsian liberalism that the demagogues fulminate against.
This is confused enough, but the picture is confused even further by the overlay of economic ideologies (capitalism, socialism, etc.), social issues (gay marriage, abortion rights, etc.), and religious allegiances, all of which are separate from political ideologies but overlap them, sometimes (and for some people) significantly.
But really, nowhere in American political life or political fundamentals does classical right-wing authoritarianism have a legitimate place. The classic form of authoritarian government is a dictatorship, and its primary feature is that individuals do not have clear rights or protections in the face of the dictatorial apparatus. Much in our Constitution and the very structure of our government (its three branches, and the so-called "checks and balances") is specifically designed to thwart authoritarianism. True conservatives are no more its friend than liberals are.
But what happens when you create a thriving culture of anti-liberalism? Can you assume that most people understand the nuances of the terms, and are clear about exactly which features of the general principle are being demonized? Or do you just begin to get its opposite—authoritarianism—both in government and culture?
Handcuffing the Cat-Walker
It might be funny when a mild-mannered guy who walks his cat on a leash gets arrested for taking pictures of trains, especially when the people who run the trains have explicitly encouraged the activity. Humor helps, because ridicule can be influential. We laugh. But it ought to be a laughter tinged with nervousness. The current rise of authoritarianism (I've called it "the totalitarian dawn") in America, England, and the democracies of the West is something to be taken with the utmost seriousness, in principle. Authoritanism has got its toehold, and the current climate of persecution against photographers is a good illustration of how it goes about gaining momentum. We can only oppose authoritarianism so long as it stays small and its power remains limited: once it gets free rein and power, it will usurp our protections, abrogate our rights, and, most likely, make life miserable for the greater mass of us. That, anyway, is authoritarianism's usual course.
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Featured Comment by Carl Blesch: "When I was growing up in a conservative white middle-class Midwestern American suburb, my parents of course taught me not to do any wrong. But equally, they taught me to avoid association with those who did wrong and to in fact avoid any appearance of doing wrong. Getting too close to wrongdoers or having any appearance of doing something wrong made you just as guilty of being wrong as if you'd actually done the deed. Sounded like good advice at the time, and it generally served me well.
"But I can't reconcile that upbringing with a passion in my life—railroad photography. By my parents' teaching and by the current popular mood in this and other free countries, I should simply stop photographing trains. True, photographing a train from a public vantage point* is perfectly legal, but in this era, it looks suspicious. So according to my parents' dogma, I'm as guilty as a terrorist.
"(*Much legal hair-splitting can be done on the meaning of a public vantage point, but let's not go there right now.)
"Trouble is, I don't see why I should have to give up my photographic passion, when the landscape photographer doesn't have to give up his or hers because it's not suspicious. But I know I won't get any sympathy pleading my case to the public, which has no idea what I or other 'foamers' (perjorative for railfan) see in trains. That attitude came through loud and clear in the comedy video. I can handle the teasing I get for being dorky and geeky when I shoot trains (on that point I'm guilty as charged!), but I'm not ready to be told to cease and desist or be branded as a terrorist."