Pop quiz: which of the following scenarios doesn’t belong?
Scene One: a social gathering in Canada, 2015.
Dinner Guest: “Well, it’s obvious the Prime Minister is a puppet of the US oil lobby, and his policies are solely designed to serve the corporate elite. He’s determined to take away our liberty. Oh, and the mainstream media won’t report it, of course, but he also has a secret plan to dismantle the secular state and replace it with a Christian theocracy. The gullible masses who support him sure have been brainwashed by propaganda and lies. By the way, this is great poutine.”
Scene Two: a social gathering in America, 2015.
Dinner Guest: “Well, it’s obvious the President is a radical Muslim socialist who wasn’t really born in the country. He’s determined to take away our liberty. Oh, and the mainstream media won’t report it, of course, but he also has a secret plan to outlaw the Christian faith and herd believers into giant concentration camps. The gullible masses who support him sure have been brainwashed by propaganda and lies. By the way, these are great burgers.”
Scene Three: a social gathering in Germany, 1942.
Dinner Guest: “Well, it’s obvious the Fuehrer is a madman who has contrived this war out of his psychopathic delusions, with the compliance of the national business class. He’s determined to take away our liberty. Oh, and the mainstream media won’t report it, of course, but he also has a secret plan to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. The gullible masses who support him sure have been brainwashed by propaganda and lies. By the way, this is great strudel.”
Not sure of the anomaly? Here’s a hint: While each of these speakers claims their country has fallen into the hands of an evil cabal, and each is posing as a courageous dissenter, only one of them isn’t wildly exaggerating. Still stuck? Two of these situations should be pretty familiar to us – casual chatter about tyrannical government and glib pronouncements on the suppression of free speech – but the other probably never occurred, because the government actually was tyrannical and did in fact brutally suppress free speech.
Anybody? Anybody? Another clue: Our trio of dinner guests clearly aren’t stirred into active resistance here, yet their offhandedness sounds absurd with just which one? In the other two, the superficiality of the conversations betrays the weakness of the central point. People living under genuine dictatorships (of which there are numerous historical examples) do not have the luxury of openly griping about authority and blithely entertaining fantasies about their leaders’ hidden agendas. Those are indulgences of liberal democracies. And notice how all three folks confidently distinguish themselves from a duped majority, but don’t seem to feel much responsibility for whatever disaster they predict for their fellow citizens. In which instance here would that smug sense of exclusivity be fatally naive? Who alone of these rebels is risking anything by rebelling? Whose object of complaint isnʼt being ridiculously demonized? Do we know of any places where civil society and basic human rights were indeed eliminated by an all-powerful autocratic regime? Not just in dinner party rhetoric, but in the tangible daily affairs of the entire nation? Has anyone heard the aphorism that conspiracy theories are the sophistication of the ignorant? No?
Think about your responses; this may be tricky. The paradox is that the more lightly made the accusation of totalitarianism, the less truly totalitarian the system accused. Talk is cheap, at least in places where you can invent the most simplistic or far-fetched indictments of your politicians, out of sheer pretentiousness, and be assured of offending almost no one. Of the three imaginary quotations given, two are likely to be repeated in countless other discussions around the water cooler, in the classroom, and on clever Facebook memes, but the third – in the unlikely event that it was uttered to begin with – would have only been cited once more, by the Gestapo executioner just before he pulled the trigger.
Oops. Gave the answer away.