Albert Jay Nock, an excellent but largely forgotten writer, once wrote a little book titled Our Enemy, the State. I still reread it when I'm groggy from absorption in the daily events of politics. It revives me like a slap in the face.
If I were a pagan, I might fancy I heard the Olympian laughter of the gods when modern men think of their rulers as their friends. Common sense would suggest that those who have power over you, and can use it to kill or enslave you, are, more properly speaking, your masters and enemies. We're supposed to think that the system that can extort half our earnings from us is benevolent?
I don't think it's funny, but I can see how Zeus and Neptune and Mercury, with their larger perspective, might get a kick out of it. As described by Homer and Ovid, they didn't have to pay taxes. They could afford to laugh. "What fools these mortals be!"
The state is a parasite on its subjects, but in America its subjects have acquired the habit of speaking of the state as "we." As in: "We are fighting a war on terrorism." There can be no greater triumph for the parasite than for the host to think of it and itself as a single unit. It's as if a man were to refer to himself and a blood-bloated leech under his skin as "we."
How does the state pull this off? One tested and well-nigh infallible method is to convince its subjects that it's protecting them from an even worse enemy than itself. This seldom fails. The majority nearly always fall for the idea that if the state is hurting someone else even worse than it's hurting them, it's on their side, and is therefore their friend, protector, and benefactor.
The Soviet Union crushed every freedom worth having, but it assured the "proletariat" that it was only exterminating their "class enemies." Hitler imposed tyranny on ordinary Germans, but he was even crueler to Jews, so Germans figured he was on their side. The socialist state of Israel robs Jews blind, but since it treats Arabs even worse, Jews think of the state as "us." And the U.S. Government is stripping away traditional American freedoms; but as long as it is prepared to bomb foreigners to death, Americans imagine that their proximate enemy is defending them. No, it's even worse than that: they think their enemy is "us." The enemy becomes the self.
What a blessing "terrorism" is for the state! It's the ideal distraction from the day-to-day reality of the state's chief activity: wringing from its subjects the wealth they produce. Last September a handful of fanatics, armed only with box-cutters, provided a new rationale for the trillion-dollar swindle. A bonanza!
I don't know what these "terrorists" thought they were achieving: Making the infidel respect Allah? If so, they were wrong. You might as well try to make the U.S. Government respect the U.S. Constitution. Ain't gonna happen. They only made the average American cling all the more tightly to his state.
Orwell, with his Olympian humor, summed up this eerie state of affairs in two words: Big Brother. The all-powerful master feigning blood kinship with his feckless subjects. "We."
Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, arrives at an illusory happy ending: "He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother." And no doubt he pasted a decal of Big Brother's flag - "our" flag - onto his windshield.
When I was ten, I learned how to get a leech out of my leg in a hurry: a lighted match would do the trick. I never supposed that that creepy thing and I were "we."
But try getting a parasite out of your mind! As soon as you think you're rid of it, it has a way of coming back. You've been trained from childhood to think of your rulers as "we," just as sports fans speak of the home team as "we," as if they too had been down on the field earning the victory. Such mental habits are hard to shake.
Even the most wary of us have to keep reminding ourselves that the state is our enemy. Always. Not just when the Republicans - or the Democrats - are in power. Always. Tyranny and freedom are equally nonpartisan.
[This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on May 16, 2002.]
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Joe Sobran (1946-2010)
was a syndicated columnist, author, and speaker.