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Sic Semper Tyrannis

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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This was written in 1983 as the introduction to an anthology of science fiction stories. These were the days of the Cold War, and at a time when it wasn't at all clear that the West would win that war. We're in a different situation now. Some things have changed.

Alas, some have not.

March, 2006




 Jerry Pournelle


 If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. 

 Thomas Jefferson


 The Greeks said tyrannos, a word that originally meant no more than "master." But free men cannot endure masters, and "Tyrant" soon took on other meanings, until the very name was hateful. When he struck down Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth shouted "Sic semper Tyrannis!”—Thus be it ever with tyrants!—as full and complete justification for his act, and indeed it would have been so had his fellow citizens accepted that Lincoln was no more than a tyrant. Learned authorities, of religion and morality alike, have proclaimed that tyrannicide is not murder. 

 Booth's act did bring forth real claimants to mastership men who would be tyrants over part of the land if not all of it, but our institutions were too strong for them. The Constitution and the Union stood and endured. Indeed, the very times were fair for democracy and freedom, here and throughout the world. The tyrannical misrule of Ferdinand of Naples, universally regarded as the worst despot of Europe—his own people called him "King Bomba"—ended in the same decade as our civil war. A Republic was established in France. Greece was freed from the Turks. Germany received a constitution, as did Austria. Electoral reforms swept through Britain.  Civilization and freedom were on the rise --- 

 The dream ended in The Great War of 1914. The history of the twentieth century is the story of the rise and fall of tyrants. . Rather more have risen than have fallen. First Russia, then Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain, all fell under the rule of masters 

 New wars began. The Great War was “the war to end war”; its 1938 continuation became "the war to make the world safe for democracy.” At enormous cost Italy, part of Germany, and most of Western Europe were rescued; but Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria Romania, Poland--for whose independence the war was in the first place---and all the Russias were abandoned to Stalin, whose powers would have envied by the most despotic of the Roman Emperors. 

 When Stalin died the world hoped for change. It was not to come. For a few years it looked as if the Soviet Empire would mellow. There was even talk of détente with the West.  Now alas, we find the changes were illusory.  Yellow Rain falls on the primitive people of Laos and the hardy mujahadeen of Afghanistan. At Sverdlovsk, old Ekaterinberg, city of doom for the Tsar and his family, an explosion in a military laboratory spread anthrax—Black Death—across the land. Thousands died. Now there is chilling evidence that the Soviet Empire has gone beyond experimenting with gene mechanics and cobra venom to produce new biological terrors. 

 Despotism spread from continent to continent. Nearly all the Peoples of Africa were abandoned to Bhogassa Nkrumeh, Idi Amin Dada. Kenyatta, and their ilk.  Things are no better in Asia. Javanese imperialism rules the former Dutch colonies. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, China—the list is nearly endless. 

 Far from a century of liberty, this has become a century of masters, and there is little relief in sight.     


 Why should this be? One may understand how one man might gain control of the new "nations" in Africa or other lands with little or no experience in government; but how explain the constant rise and fall of the caudillos in South America? How to explain Hitler and Stalin? Why should free citizens welcome a master? What is the attraction that tyrants hold? 

 It is not so difficult to see why nations might turn to a strong leader after a military disaster, or in times of civil war, but that is not the whole of it.  

 The sad truth is that democracy itself is often unstable. Intellectuals lose faith. Democracy is not flashy. It falls out of fashion. The intelligentsia feel scorned, unappreciated, and turn to new theories.  

 There are other pressures. Republics stand until the citizens begin to vote themselves largess from the public treasury. When the plunder begins, those plundered feel no loyalty to the nation—and the beneficiaries demand ever more, until few are left unplundered. Eventually everyone plunders everyone, the state serving as little more than an agency for collecting and dispensing largess. The economy falters. Inflation begins. Deficits mount. Something must be done. Strong measures are demanded, but nothing can be agreed to.  

 In Weimar Germany the price of a postage stamp went to 8 billion marks. In China, Latin America, many of the new African nations, inflation has exceeded 1000%. The middle class is destroyed. The economy collapses. Democratic institutions cannot cope.


 Enter the strong man, who will save the state.  

 For more than two thousand years the decline of democracy has been the precursor of the tyrant, who comes on stage as the nation's protector. Sometimes he will do no more than end the strife: better a single master than hundreds who cannot agree. Julius Caesar was such a one, Francisco Franco another. They promise no more than order. They do not seek to reconstruct the nation, and they do not construct a full-fledged totalitarian state. So long as their rule is not opposed, so long as the people are silent, then most are safe. 

 Nations could do worse than adopt King Log. Even John Stuart Mill said that a degenerate people, unfit to rule themselves, should think themselves fortunate to have a Charlemagne or an Akbar. 

 There are other masters; masters who will do more than hold fast to the old ways; they will usher in a new era. The theorists proclaim it. Times have changed. Old institutions, devised in simpler times, are outmoded. Modern times demand modern, streamlined, efficient government- government that can sweep away the dead hand of the past, and bring forth the new dawn. 

 A new friend of the people comes forth. He will end the babble of political parties and factions and class war He will give meaning to life; will lead a crusade against poverty, squalor, ugliness; will transform the nation into a land beautiful and shining. He will be the Hero, of whom Carlyle said,  

 His place is with the stars of heaven. He walks among men; loves men, with inexpressible soft pity--as they cannot love him: but his soul dwells in solitude, in the innermost parts of creation. Thou, 0 World, how wilt thou secure thyself from this man? He is thy born king, thy conqueror and supreme lawgiver not all the guineas and cannons under the sky can save thee from him.


 Hitler was hailed as a semi-mystical hero who would purify Germany; and Cariyle was quoted to good effect in praising him. Yet, surely, we, in this nation, and in this century, are above such mystical twaddle? Perhaps. Yet— 

 In 1929, on his fiftieth birthday, Stalin was hailed as: the greatest military leader of all times and nations; Lenin's Perpetuator Creating the Theory of Construction of Socialism; The Theoretician and Leader of the Fight for Peace and Brotherhood among the Peoples; the Military Genius of Our Time; Mirrored in the Literature of the Peoples of the World; Teacher and Inspired Leader of the World Proletariat; Coryphaeus of World Science; The Peoples Happiness; Brilliant Thinker and Scholar. The praise for Great Stalin gushed forth, and not merely in the Soviet Union. Western intellectuals seemed equally eager to heap praises on the dictator who was transforming Russia into a modern nation. The era of social engineering was at hand.   

 By 1938 Stalin had murdered more than 12 million people, nor was this any great secret. The full horror was still hidden, but it was impossible to hide it all. The evidence was there, but Western intellectuals refused to look...  Even when Stalin formed a pact with Hitler, giving  him access to still more victims, a hard core of intellectuals continued to give him allegiance. Why should they not?  They had already accepted the worst.  

 Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the horrors of the slave gangs constructing the White Sea Canal; Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Professor Harold Laski, and many others lauded this great "engineering feat." George Bernard Shaw applauded the Soviet "experiments" in penology and reformation of criminals. 

 In the midst of the Great Purges in the Soviet Union, the American ambassador, Joseph E. Davies, reported that Stalin had "insisted on the liberalization of the constitution" and was "projecting actual secret and universal suffrage." Western intellectuals found democracy tiresome. They wanted to believe that society could be transformed; that the Soviet Union was a model for the future. Had not Lincoln Steffans, "America's philosopher," said it? "I have been over into the future, and it works." 

 Self-deception never ends.


 The truth is that no nation is safe. Tyrants seldom come openly, their hands dripping with blood, their eyes blazing with hate. More often they come as friends of the people, tireless workers for the public good, heroes who will save the nation; who will cut the Gordian knot of parliamentary babble; who will carry out the people’s will. 

 They come with promises. If we will disarm ourselves, they will provide professionals to protect us. If we give over our property they will assure us jobs. Crime will be abolished. Poverty will vanish. Together we will build a nation worthy of the future. 

 The temptation is large, because we all, at one time or another, have longed to have an end to striving; to create the future and have done with it. Can we not, by one supreme act, solve all human problems? The way will be hard, but after heroic effort the straggle will be over. War on poverty; war on ignorance; war on illness; war on cancer, mental illness; one supreme act of war, and then eternal triumph. The strife will cease . . . 

 We know better, of course. We all know the price of liberty; eternal vigilance. Jefferson said it well: "the tree of liberty is a delicate plant. It must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”


  From “Day of the Tyrant” THERE WILL BE WAR VOLUME IV Copyright 1985