Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dalton Trumbo & the Abuse of Power

A documentary on Dalton Trumbo was on PBS last night. 90 minutes, and fantastic. Man, he could write! And apparently couldn't stop writing, no matter what. I hope you got a chance to see it; if not, definitely put it on your Netflix cue. I had put it on mine when I first heard the film was coming out; I plan to see it a 2nd time. If there's a book of selected letters by Trumbo, I want it.

The program put me in mind of an-going meditation on the abuses of power.

Some weeks back the radio program This American Life had an episode about how mildly slimy Egyptian business man was caught in the post-9/11 web anti-terror hysteria. He has been arrested for conspiring to sell arms to an undercover agent. The arms came from the govt, as had the money. According to the program, the Egyptian had not previously sold arms to anyone, and had no known connection to any terrorist groups. He was bested by his economic need and his vainglory; not by any desire to overthrow the govt. Now he sits in a Federal Prison in Jersey.

The program acted like this was something new. But I couldn't help but think of the stories Abbie Hoffman told about guys agitating for violence who turned out to be undercover agents. I vaguely remember a riff in Revolution for the Hell of It in which Abbie explained how easy it was to spot these guys.

The use of agent provocateurs is older than the term. Neither incident is unique in the annals of world govt.

I think it was Jefferson,or one of his heros, who said something like, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Another truism about power is that those who have it will typically strive to get more, and to hold on to that power for as long as possible.

I consider this a typical human flaw. I can be as easily tempted by power as Barack Obama or Dick Cheney.

The Founding Fathers sought to create checks and balances that would hold the temptation of power in check. Those checks and balances have been tested, sometimes to survive sometimes to be eroded. Their ideals, I think, were tempered by the fact that only landowners had the right to vote - so our Republic began as a sort of oligarchy. Perhaps not as bad as old King George, but still far from De Tocqueville's classless ideal.


This American Life: Arms Trader