Michael Totten

The Totalitarian Impulse

Apropos of yesterday’s screedy post about binary-thinking activists and the bovine mentality that enshrines a party-line, there’s this from “Annette” on the Feedback page for my most recent Tech Central Station article about Hotel Rwanda.

Ill bet mr totten is a down the line liberal. how do i know this? he never mentions the name of the president of the united states at the time. guess who? bill clinton.

I probably spend more time than necessary studying totalitarian regimes, but I can’t quite help myself. I find them morbidly fascinating, in part because it’s sometimes hard for me to believe such places really exist. Even while walking around inside Libya and seeing the real-world results of contemporary totalitarianism all around me, it was hard to imagine just how much raw totalizing power was behind it.
Anyway, when I read comments like Annette’s above the first thing that often comes to my mind is this: how would such a person behave if he or she were in a position of power inside Stalin’s Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler’s Germany, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? It takes a special kind of person to pour over someone’s work looking for the most trivial details and omissions and using such meaningless data to jump to sweeping conclusions, usually followed by denunciations. It gives me the creeps, whether I’m the target or not. Who can adhere to such rigid party-line orthodoxy? A lot of people — millions of people — are dead because others who think this way have seized the levers of power. Thank God our political system prevents people like Annette from turning into anything more sinister than mere harmless cranks.
I do see this sort of behavior more on the left these days than the right. But it’s not a left-wing thing, not really. People on the right do it, too, and people on the right do it to me.
UPDATE: On a related note (well, related to yesterday’s post, which is sort of related to this one), please see the always-brilliant Norman Geras.