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Wednesday, 04 February 2009


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Pity there are so few conservatives in American politics.

Though there is always a thread of authoritarianism bubbling under the surface of most societies, I would argue that this frustration with 'Liberalism' can be explained by the sense that there is far less accountability than previously. There is an increasing impression that there are few individuals who are made responsible for their actions (such as incompetent bankers/politicians etc.) and even fewer who take responsibility.

When there is no accountability, either through political corruption, a lenient judiciary, insufficient regulation, deterministic social theories, or politically correct distaste of punishment, then this will breed resentment, anger and eventually, a backlash.

Well spoken.

What you say is well expressed, including some of the difficulties and complexities. At first I thought it was off topic, but no: the freedom here is to snap with the camera anything you could snap with your eyes. The analogy would be the freedom to write down something you witnessed or overheard. There might be injurious uses to which such practices could be put, but the notion that such practices are automatically, or normally, injurious derives from a systematic fear, and distrust, of fellow human beings. It is perhaps understandable that the poorly paid and poorly informed guys who are left to exert some authority's presence in public spaces feel safest in being distrustful. But it is hardly evidence of the health of the body politic.

When I first viewed the video, I felt humor only slightly. I was mostly irritated that the subject was being taken too lightly, the notion being that if we can laugh at it we can ignore it.


I know Mike, I see more and more reports of this sort of harrassment in the news each week here in the UK. Its extremely depressing... wanders off thinking whether my cats will let me put them on a leash...


In a similar, but different vein, here's a clip on YouTube from an Australian comedy show (The Chaser's War on Everything), contrasting what happens security wise, when different people photograph the Sydney harbour bridge and a nuclear power plant.



Mike. I agree. Scary stuff. And it often seems to play out with people like security guards, who are not as well trained as the police.

The classic dictators turned the "regular folk" loose on the minority. Once the group mentality takes over, thinking and compassion go out the window. The mob is usually about instinct and violence.
As you point out, it is important to stand against this authoritarianism early.

I agree that authoritarianism is to be resisted at all costs.

Often, though, what we see is not a general "legal" authoritarianism in the US, but rather the assumption of authority by the most petty of our officials. The guys who arrested the cat-walking photographer were acting beyond any authority -- they didn't know what they were supposed to do, so, they did what they felt like. I know a kid who wants to become a cop because he *loved* the authority he got from being a rent-a-cop in a shopping mall...Some of this petty stuff can be resisted simply with law suits. The photographer should have sued Amtrak; even if he didn't collect much, or anything, Amtrak might have then made some effort to instruct its people about authority and procedure.

In the UK, the problem is considerably more daunting. The government seems to be deliberately pushing authoritarian positions. I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that the UK government is now very close to being Fascist (in the sense that Singapore is Fascist, which some people call "soft fascism.")



This photo that I made at an antiwar protest in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the summer of 2007 is the PERFECT illustration for this post. OBEY!



Can we have that on prime time on TV or any major newspaper ?

That's a very adroit observation Mike. It's alarming the parallels that exist today with the 1930's. A huge economic decline after several years of excess. Governments bent on reducing personal freedom in the name of security. Insipid protectionism in the U.S. The proponents of authoritarianism would like people to believe that they just want to protect us. Their success is aided by scared people, scared of their personal security, scared of losing their job, scared of losing their money, scared of someone taking harmless photographs. It's difficult to work against the proponents of authoritarianism because they thrive on fear and uncertainty. The more successful they are, the more people become afraid to speak out. They must not succeed.
Wayne D (Canada)

Perhaps its a fair time to remember that rights are neither "given" nor are they earned; they are either basic and inalienable, or they are not. We can mine rich veins of Santayana forever and talk of repeating the past, or re-read Yeat's The Second Coming for that matter, but all that vast experience tells us is that the righteous True Believer will try to stick it down our throat, and you can either submit or fight.

Mike - You totally hit the nail on the head with this post. After watching Colbert's "Repor" I was thinking along the lines of what you said...but you have put my abstract thoughts into clear words which perfectly encapsulate the current reality.

Nobody wants to hear the truth, but everyone wants to listen to a joke, which is why Colbert is both so popular and smart. The problem for Colbert is, though a lot of people listen to him, few take his jokes seriously.

As a follower and student of political science, I closely follow political events and analysis...and though there has been much debate about the effects of 9/11, this is I believe the first time I have seen the use of the word "authoritarianism" used so unambiguously, a word that is both highly charged and yet which encapsulates in one word what is going on right now....

[Evil_Sheep, I have no way of emailing you, but I have edited out the other 1,377 words of your comment. Much as I appreciate the time you put into writing it, I have asked several people in this thread to please put their comments into just a few paragraphs of direct response rather than writing whole essays. The comment you submitted was, at 1,561 words, by a slight margin, the longest one ever submitted to this website.... —Mike]

Some time ago, my best friend was hired to photograph a demolition; she had me assist her.

As I was photographing, a rent-a-cop told me I couldn't take pictures and had to leave the property.

I pointed to the cab of the Komatsu crane and said "See that guy in the cab? He hired Kat and me to photograph the demolition. Take it up with him." The R-A-C was not going to tangle with someone built like a football player.

"Oh, OK" he said, and walked away.

Petty fascists - that's what they all are.

The problem is made more intractable by the swift rise of a massive security industry and the support it receives, after energetic PR campaigns and well-financed lobbying, from our legislators. Taser International has a very active legal department ready to intimidate anyone who suggests their stun guns are lethal. There are big bucks to made off of authoritarianism.

We, the people, are naturally inclined to avoid confrontation and are easily cowed by cops (real or rental) who wrongly trample on our rights. See, I sound like a g*****m radical. Those who rail against are generally characterized as anarchists, our media apparatus plays along, and the lockdown continues apace.

It's a condition that is so apparent, I didn't even need my tinfoil hat to write this.

Well said, and true. Authoritarianism is, to me, one of the most odious warts in human life. But it never goes away. It must be kept eternally at bay, or it grows back. It manifests itself in both left- and right-wing governments. And it's in season now. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back toward liberalism in my lifetime.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité :-)

The word "Liberal" has yet to recover from when Dukakis fumbled when asked if he was, in fact, a Liberal. All he had to say was that if being a "Liberal" meant that you believed in a country where working men and women could earn a living wage, have health benefits and an affordable place to live at the very least- then yes, goddamn it, he was, in fact, a Liberal, and a proud of it. It might even have won him the presidency.

It's amazing how many Americans (particularly those who call themselves Conservatives) conveniently forget that this country was founded by revolutionaries- "radical" Liberals, if you will. Conservatives back then were called Tories, who were, by the way, very much against any notion of a United States of America.

Actually the strawman 'liberalism' attacked by Limbaugh, Hannity and their ilk has nothing to do with actual Liberalism - not in its original conception by people like Adam Smith nor in the reformulation by John Rawls. I leave aside that obviously nobody reads the works they hold oh so dear [or they would know that, for instance, a completely free market without any impositions is an ideal in the Platonic sense not a feasible reality].

What the authoritarian war machine attacks is their own image of Socialism. Since, in the US, Democrats call themselves liberals [rightly so, BTW], right-whingers [sic!] simply supplanted one term with the other. Nobody would listen to their nonsense if they'd call the DNC socialist ... well, apart from the few already converted to the case.

Unfortunately humans are much more comfortable with being comfortable. Thinking for yourself is not comfy, it is hard, it is work. Much easier to let somebody tell you what is right and wrong, disregarding different perspectives. Now add a pinch of fear-mongering and what you get is a largely obedient herd jumping whenever 'terrorism' or 'child-molester' is dropped.

The really disturbing thing is that the last sentence is bogus. The numbers in the US, the UK and Germany [the three countries I know best] show that people in general do not succumb to these tactics. And still governments and political parties use them to great effect. As if politicians and the media don't give a damn.

Limbaugh and Hannity may be the clowns of the troupe but many other "journalists", meven most self-proclaimed liberals, work the same way - spew out a falsehood in the form of 'Most Americans ...', make it a hard-to-prove generalisation, see that others re-broadcast, re-print, re-hash. What you get is an imaginationland the Newspeakers call 'reality'.

"In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again." – Edward Gibbon


I agree with your assessment and concerns, but I would add that authoritarianism in its broader suppressive context can evolve from sources across the sociopolitical strata; it is hardly exclusive to the right, even in the United States. In the past two decades, no social phenomenon in the US has exhibited more contempt for the basic precepts of free thought than the progressives' own politically correct (PC) movement. Although the PC trend has since waned during the past decade, with its overt absurdity rendering it a self-parody in some cases, it still permeates a good portion of the very institutes that should most promote open discussion and debate, that being academia. In a way, it is far more subversive. From the start, the mere word "rightwing" generally connotes fascism, or at least a penchant for, while liberalism (in the modern Dukakis sense) suggest intellect, reason, compassion, and fairness; values that when nefariously appropriated make for a very deceptive Trojan horse from which to impose a sanctimonious authoritative agenda, one typically laden with ludicrous hypocrisy.


Mike, once suspicion and mistrust are encouraged in the population it spreads like wildfire. Couple this with the loss of privacy in our current times, and the linkage in the public mind of "pictures" with "terrorism" and "paedophilia", and the gentle pastime of photography becomes a hazardous occupation.
Photographers are an easy target for every suspicion, fear and insecurity. People uneasy about their deprivations of freedoms and rights in the name of "security" perceive photographers as further invading their remaining privacy - even if your kid is in focus and their kid is OOF in the background.
And when photographers try to capture the excesses of those who would prefer a passive and compliant population, the words of a retired journalist friend come to mind: "Politicians, cops and cockroaches hate having light shined on them".
Thanks for a relevant and timely article.

Thank you for your correct (except i would consider classic liberalism to include fairness concepts such as due process, etc.) explaination of terminology.

Where i live (U.S.) the terms liberal and conservative have both been warped beyond recognition.

"Liberal" is pretty much used as a pergorative. But in common use, it appears to refer to progressives, anything to the "left", and classic liberalism.

"Conservative" in common parlance, seems to refer now to something that is of an ideological nature and not common in the U.S. prior to rise of anti-modernism around the end of the 1800's here (and elsewhere). Certainly not progressive, but also anti-classic liberal.

I guess political terms take on different meanings according to the political history of the country where the terms are used, so it is only natural that your (great) post seems a little confusing at first to a non-American. Still, I would have thought that in the USA the opposite of "authoritarian" would be "libertarian" since the term "liberal" in America has such a strong association with state intervention at the Federal level in economic and social matters.

There is an interesting confluence of trends. The push from the corporate lobby has been to "limit" government by reducing public spending. Government bad, private enterprise good. This leads to smaller police and fire departments. Which then leads to private police forces and now some private fire-fighting companies; the need for them didn't just go away. So we end up with a large private security industry that is less and less controlled by due process. It's beautiful in a way. Lobby for the decline of government-supplied services, then when they're gone, replace with private companies to fill the void. And the people involved flow back and forth from positions of political power to private power. Meanwhile, people stand by and watch, salute, and cheer.

There is no need to point out the irony of that private sector now lining up at the public trough in bad times.

I don't believe in conspiracies. But I believe that systems always evolve in ways that benefit someone. It is not random.

There is semi-famous quote by Mussolini who said that Fascism could more accurately be called "Corporatism". We have travelled down this road before, does no one remember? It's all there written down, all over the place, even the internet.

"Still, I would have thought that in the USA the opposite of "authoritarian" would be "libertarian" since the term "liberal" in America has such a strong association with state intervention at the Federal level in economic and social matters."

Authoritarian can take many forms. In my country (U.S.) it can raise its head on occasion, or some elements of it (Late Adams Administration, McCarthyism in the 1950's, the 1980 to 2008 period) will appear.
The U.S. is hard to catagorize, exspecially as it well into a basic transition (in Aristotelian/Montesquieu terms) from a republic to a plutocracy.

"There is semi-famous quote by Mussolini who said that Fascism could more accurately be called "Corporatism". "

Yes. "Classic" (Italian) fascism involves the union of the state, and the corporate, and the individual identifying with the state and submission to its will.

This is as contrasted with National Socialism in Germany, which added a strong spiritual component (The Volksgeist "Spirit of the people/nation" and the cosmic battle between the Volksgeists tied to conflict on Earth)and a "racial" component.

Both though involve (as do all variations of Fascism) the veneration of and display by civilians of state/military symbols, and tended towards foriegn mischief.

Another state that was in a sense, classic fascist, at least in function, if not rhetoric, was the Soviet Union. The state was venerated, and consisted of essentially one corporation that had a monopoly on for, and everybody worked for it. But it used a different (marxist) rhetoric.

We must all be watchful of authoritarianism, and it's quietly insidious nature.

However, I also find myself highly attuned to the use of 'England' when it is clear that the 'UK' or 'Great Britain' is what is being talked about. It is infuriating for many in Britain, and absolutely wrong in many circumstances, to talk about 'England' in isolation.

The US Constitution is a thoroughly libertarian document. It has not been protected or defended properly by any of our Presidents,or the Congress, and certainly not the news media since 1932.
As Caroline Kennedy recently said, freedom is based on two foundations, privacy and due process. The currents in our society now find protecting either to be inconvenient.There is no consensus that we have the right to be let alone anymore, and with the growth of the prison-industrial complex (more cops, guards, laws penalties, surveillance,etc etc etc) there is an embedded economic driver behind a lot of the harassment going on eveywhere. My blood bolied when I read the article.
Until the courts, which were designed to be the check on all this stuff stop rubber stamping the authoritarian strain in our culture outrages like this will continue. Anyone think, however, that a citizen jury will render a verdict against the police in this case? They just want to be safe.

I hope that the new Obama administration in the United States will reverse some of the authoritarian measures put in place by the Bush people. While Bush himself had little pedigree in authoritarianism, and surprised a lot of people, some of his advisors (most notably Dick Cheney and a lot of Cheney's advisors) were long-time right-wing authoritarians who had been thinking about this for 30 years. Everything from the Patriot Act to the doctrine that "the President is above the law, and can hold people in jail without charge and torture them if he wants to" has been fulminating in certain rightist intellectual circles since the Vietnam war protests offended certain parts of the establishment. Hopefully, with its promoters soundly defeated, this horrid ideology and philosophy slinks back under a rock where it belongs.


Paul Manson,
Point taken, except that most of the examples I come across seem in fact to emanate from England. I'm just not sure whether the whole U.K. deserves painting with the same broad brush or not. Not being local, I'm not up on the nuances.

Mike J.

Turning over aspects of law enforcement, such as prison management, or military combat roles to the private sector is beyond comprehension to me. Subcontracting out the commissary, I can see. But private security firms doing bodyguard work in a foreign country is a disaster waiting to happen. The conflicts of interest between the profit motive and prisoner rehabilitation in privately managed prisons are obvious even to the least imaginative.

From the point of view of someone who has worked in the private sector almost all of my adult life, the reason for all this, the idea that the private sector is efficient, just makes me laugh out loud.

While I no longer work full-time in NYC, I have a standing weekly appointment to visit a client in the Union Square area. At least once a month there are police officers on security detail in the Union Square subway station during the afternoon rush, picking people at random to have their bags checked. You don't have to comply with the search if you are picked, but if you decline, you are not allowed to enter the subway (since you can walk 5 minutes to another station or another entrance where there aren't police, this is a pretty dopey policy).

It doesn't seem to be a quite random pick, because I am picked for search on a regular basis. Must be my advanced age, paunch, and the messenger bag I carry with my laptop and papers. The last time I got stopped, the cop complained about how heavy my bag was. I decided it wasn't the best idea to joke about carrying depleted uranium projectiles.

Don't get me wrong -- I feel safer in NYC (and I was born, grew up, and lived and worked there full-time for 40 years) than I ever have. I now walk freely and without fear in parts of the city I would never have gone into to take photographs, and do it early on Sunday mornings when there are few if any other people on the streets.

I object, though, to being pulled aside in a public place, being hustled over to a folding table (high tech!), and having my bag searched for no apparent reason. Does it make it look like the cops are actually doing something useful? Perhaps. But while they are checking me out, literally hundreds of other people are walking through the turnstiles.

I lived in Pakistan during the 1980s, while the Russians were in Afghanistan and the Afghan freedom fighters and their allies (including our current enemy Osama bin Laden) were our friends. I experienced at close range guerrilla terrorism -- car bombs, donkey bombs, etc.) targeting those in Pakistan who were on the side of the Afghans (and lots of arms were funneled through Pakistan for their use). I used to stay at the Marriott in Islamabad (then a Holiday Inn) that was recently bombed (and when I had my own house, I brought my dry cleaning there).

The key is that terrorism doesn't have to have a target. The actual action or even the threat of terrorism creates disruption and fear. And it changes how people go about their lives.

If we allow terrorists to achieve that, they win without ever having to do anything. And the cops and rent-a-cops who think they are making us safer by abridging our rights to live our lives freely (and to take photographs of trains) are their unwilling allies.

I think anyone who photographs long enough in the public sphere bumps up eventually against anti-photography authoritarianism. There's no question in my mind that it's gone far too far. When the public and press cannot be free to photograph the police (as in the British story you linked to), the very force that has been empowered to serve and protect the public, it's obvious that we're in trouble.

The real question is what can be done to change the current mindset that links the photographer with the bogeyman of the day: the spy, the terrorist, the voyeur, the pedophile. At a time when camera use is more prevalent than at any time in history, it seems absurd, but something obviously needs to be done.

"Fascism is capitalism plus murder."
Upton Sinclair

“When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Sinclair Lewis

Just some more random thoughts.

What would "they" do if, say, perhaps 1500 photograpers showed up at once to photograph a building or a bridge or a train? Would "they" call out the National Guard? Would a "purple alert" be issued nationwide?

With the exception of Steve from Tokyo, y'all are talking in an echo chamber. You need to talk and associate with a wider group of people, including those who may disagree with your political views. Your characterization of the conservative side of politics and policy is way off base - it's a charicature that I recognize from 25-plus years as a liberal Democrat who only associated with like-minded people and only read the NYT, Washington Post, and Baltimore Sun.

Mike, some historical context would show that on a scale compared to other presidencies during periods of crisis... Wilson and FDR for example, the "authoritarianism" of the past several years would barely register.

Thank you, Michael. I wish everyone was as concerned about this as you are, and as I am.

Good article. Really good. I'm a self described "conservative," but when asked to go in detail, I really am more of a classic liberal.
What bothers me is that in the countries that I know the best (USA, Netherlands, Italy), there aren't many--if any--politicians that value freedom, not on the left nor on the right.
I don't know about other countries, but what I hear out of England is not encouraging.
I do believe in a dynamic equilibrium, where a wave of authoritarism follows a wave of liberalism, and between the two society moves on and evolves, but I think we're going to see a freak wave soon.
As an aside, when I'm in Amsterdam, I talk about these things with collegues and I make my case for more freedoms, usually people say "Oh, it shows you've been in America too long." When I'm in America, and I say the same things to local collegues, I hear "Well, I guess that's the way they think in Europe." Maybe I'm just odd.

Here's the problem with labels: they get co-opted by the people who want the benefits using the label provides without adhering to the label itself.

The reason that 'liberal' became a dirty word in American politics is because many people who weren't liberal at all labeled themselves thus in order to gain the benefits of being considered liberal. Case in point: the 'liberal' groups who shout down speakers with opposing views at college campuses.

Back in the day (at the founding of our country), what we consider 'conservative' values were actually liberal values to the point of being radical values. Americanism is a rejection of authoritarianism, of the belief in a class system based upon parentage. America's challenge has always bee to live up to Americanism, and we have not always succeeded. But we keep trying.

And, I'm all for conserving THAT.

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