There are few times when movies exceed in quality their source material. True, this is usually a rare occurrence. I have always preferred books to cinema for a variety of reasons, most importantly, the ability to develop characters beyond the limited time constraints of a two-hour flick. But, there are those rare exceptions. One that has always stood out for me is Jospeh Heller’s, Catch-22. One of the reasons for this is the masterful screenplay by Buck Henry and the stellar performances by Allan Arkin and Art Garfunkel.
A dialogue in that movie between the patriotically naive Garfunkel and a cynical elderly Italian popped into my head this week as I was watching what could best be described as the burning of Rome. The FBI had decided to raid President Trump’s home in Florida. The purpose has ostensibly been given that this was done to secure absconded documents critical to national security. What everyone cynically assumes is that this has been done to assure that The Donald does not run for President again.
The veneer of a Republic is being pried off the rotten wood that lies below.
In Catch 22, Garfunkel admonishes the elderly Italian to take up arms against the fascists who have taken over Italy. He tells him:
“Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!”
The Italian responds:
“No son… you have it wrong. Better to live on your feet than to die on your knees.”
That is where I believe we are now.
On Monday of last week, the FBI launched its raid on The Donald’s home in Florida. Sandy and I were in Las Vegas about to sit down to an exquisite Japanese dinner at Wakuda in the Palazzo Hotel. News broke about the raid, and I felt my phone vibrate with the “breaking news”. As I looked at the headline, I saw others in the lobby reaching for their phones as well. Obviously the information was going out on various media platforms.
I stared in disbelief. Others seemed to shrug it off and go back to their conversations.
I have written many times about the absolute necessity of “trust” for our system of government to work effectively. Without that trust a society fails. I have been somewhat hesitant to let on the corollary to that statement because, frankly, I don’t want to admit the veracity of what I am about to write. It scares me, but there is a truth to it: Trust is irrelevant if it has been supplanted with abject fear and authoritarianism. During the Reign of Terror in France, there was not a particularly large amount of institutionalized trust in the systems of government. What there was, however, was fear.
This fear is palpable and has become somewhat transcendent. In the past we had “Officer Friendly”. We were instructed that “agents of the state” were there for our protection. They shielded us from two separate existential threats: natural calamities and “The Others”. Those “Others” scared the crap out of us, and we were grateful for the centurions who kept them at bay. From serial killers, to economic-inspired criminals, to un-reconstructed hooligans, “The Others” threatened our way of life. It was easy to see “Officer Friendly” as a natural ally in our push back to “The Others.” We loved him for it.
Now we have become “The Others”… and we are painfully aware of it.
As our laws have become inordinately complex, and our interests fall outside the scope of political orthodoxy of those bent on authoritarian imposition, we find ourselves more and more on the receiving end of the militant wing of the “State”.
One thing that has been unique up until now in the United States is political factionalism. Though very real throughout our history, it has operated largely outside the formal institutional structures of the government. The Democrats and the Republicans may use all forms of coercive measures to police their own, but for those of us who operated outside the political realm, their intrigues meant little to us.
This is very different to the partisan wars that have taken place throughout most of Europe’s history. From the Nazi Brown Shirts to the Irish Republican Army, political factions in Europe have employed “enforcers” to keep their own members, and that of the opposition, in line. When those parties took power, the enforcers simply melded into the law enforcement apparatus of the government, and now those levers of power were available to control the population at large.
Last week I received two separate phone calls from putative law clients who had recently realized that firearms they legally owned had been stolen from them. They were desperate, and knew they needed to inform law enforcement of the thefts, but in both cases these people were deathly afraid of contacting anyone in law enforcement.
Two years ago I posit this would not have been the case. Now it is. Both of these individuals are successful business people, rational, and by no means suffering from any form of mental defectiveness or paranoia. Yet, in both instances, the thought of contacting law enforcement… “Officer Friendly”… was met with resistance.
So… the battle lines are being drawn with an odd assortment of combatants. On one side a group of partisans who represent the ultimate manifestation of authoritarianism. (I have called them collectivists in the past, but that ship has sailed. They are really nothing more than authoritarians with no real discernible agenda other than the expansion of their own power over the individual.). In the other corner we have the Classical Liberals (this is where I reside) disgusted at the abandonment of Constitutional principles for expedience. In the third corner are partisans equally willing to exert authoritarian principles, but right now are standing in opposition to the “elected” power structure. Then amassing in the far corner, the great unwashed, the general public who has been given bread and circuses, those who ignore the death of Constitutionalism, but study the intricacies of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s marital acrimony.
Things, candidly, do not look particularly good.