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We pay a lot of lip service in this country to the notion of freedom, democracy (note the lower-case d) and self-government. But despite the many and varied lessons history teaches us from the most ancient civilizations to the present day, the idea of a benevolent dictatorship still appears to hold a measure of allure for a lot of folks.
It is absolutely appalling and terrifying how comfortable some people can get with the idea of a strong man or woman stepping up to take control (usually in times of trouble or difficulty) and straighten out a situation that has gone awry. That is how a great nation and a good people can lose their freedom â not from the marching jackboots of an invading force, but by people voluntarily surrendering their liberty little by little to a leader who claims to be able to restore order and to enforce obedience to his or her particular notion of the rule of law. We should take to heart Benjamin Franklinâs injunction that, âThose who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.â
If you look closely, you can see this happening here in Rhode Island with what has come to be called the receivership law. It is staggering â not to mention disheartening â how quickly so many people have warmed to this law and actually think it is a good idea. Like Winston Smith at the end of George Orwellâs 1984, we have come to love Big Brother.
In Central Falls, one man has been sent in by the state to essentially be the government. What he says, goes, even if it goes through a hand-picked âreceiverâs councilâ for essentially cosmetic purposes, as happened with that citywide winter parking ban everyone hates. Who is to stop it? The elected mayor has been effectively deposed; the City Council replaced with a three-person panel who the receiver chose and who can be replaced by him if they dare to disagree or dissent.
Now East Providence is on a glide path to getting a receiver, going from an overseer to a budget commission in the head-spinning span of just several weeks. A receiver is their next stop on what seems a fast-moving train.
Is Woonsocket next? A lot of people are looking at its wobbly finances and seeing a city on the move toward receivership. Pawtucket, under rookie Mayor Don Grebien, seems to be righting itself enough to avoid state intervention, at least for the time being, which was by no means a certainty one year ago.
The thing that flabbergasts me is that so many people seem to think that having communities be ruled by an unelected receiver is a good idea and want more of it. John DePetro on his WPRO radio show has talked several times about the idea of having someone step in to fiscally troubled communities and taking control to straighten out their finances.
Last week at Governor Chafeeâs news conference after he convened with municipal executives, a fellow member of the press corps rhapsodized about how Central Falls is âa perfect example of where somebody comes in with a sharp knife and decimates the way things used to run, and now all of a sudden they donât have as much of a financial problem as they used to have.â Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee stepped forward to respond, but his argument was, alas, strictly an economic one. He said receiverships and bankruptcies instantly lower the property values, not only in the communities affected, but in neighboring cities and towns as well. OK, but I would have felt better if he had added: âAnd, by the way, government of the people, by the people and for the people is still a pretty darned good idea.â
Yes, democracy can be messy, and inefficient, and things will not always go the way you want them. But if they donât, you have the opportunity at the next election to change the people who are calling the shots.
Wielding a sharp knife and decimating the way things used to run may seem like a good idea, but what happens once the guy with the knife starts doing things you donât like? By then it is usually too late. Rulers who wield sharp knives usually have a few extras to take care of people who start to make trouble. Autocratic rule can be much cleaner and more efficient â Mussolini famously made Italyâs trains run on time â but it inevitably leads to tyranny and oppression, even if it comes in so mild a form as a municipal receivership.
If you donât believe me, ask the people in Central Falls who suddenly have to find someplace to park their cars for the rest of the winter. Itâs called baby steps.
n This presidential election is starting to remind me of 2004.
That year Democrats hated President George W. Bush. They hated, hated, hated him with a fury that glowed white hot in their stomachs and their souls. When Democrats compared Bush to Satan and Hitler, they were trying to insult Satan and Hitler.
Bush supporters even came up with a term for it: Bush Derangement Syndrome. The very idea of the man just sent Democrats around the bend, pulling out their own hair and talking to themselves a mile a minute.
Thatâs the place where Republicans seem to have arrived today with President Barack Obama. The very mention of Obamaâs name touches off a sputtering, spitting rage that makes them lose all reason and perspective.
In 2004, Democrats believed that Bush was so dumb, so inept, and, yes, so evil, that they thought the whole country would see that he had to be beaten in order for the republic to survive. Perhaps due to that overconfidence, they sent out lame-ass Sen. John Kerry, who even they didnât like all that much, to knock Bush out of the White House.
Of course, it didnât work. Bush wound up doing even better in 2004 than he did in 2000, when he actually lost the popular vote to then-Vice President Al Gore.
Republicans this year are making the same mistake. They seem to believe their distrust, disrespect and hatred for Obama is going to be enough to beat him.
It looks like the Republicans will be sending out Mitt Romney, who they arenât all that crazy about, to try to beat him and political observers are starting to think that isnât going to work.
Romney is the only candidate they have who isnât given to snarling (Newt Gingrich), babbling (Ron Paul) or drooling (Rick Perry) in public.
Out of the cornfields of Iowa came Rick Santorum, a Catholic who attacks gays so often and virulently that even the fundamentalist Protestants who own a sizable chunk of the GOP embrace him. (If you are easily amused, and not easily offended, Google the word âsantorumâ and see what pops up.) But he is barely even going to slow Romney down.
Gingrich is staying in the race for just one reason: the vengeful joy of giving Romney a few last kicks in the groin before being ushered off the stage. Ron Paul is staying in for as long as he will be given a forum to spread his libertarian ideas and issues (which, by the way, are not as wacky as the national media try to make them sound), but he isnât going to be elected president of anything, least of all the United States of America. Perry is staying in because, hell, heâs already raised all this money that he canât do anything else with, so why not? Heâll go away when his money runs out because at this point, nobody is going to give him any more.
That leaves Santorum, who Romney is going to dispatch back to obscurity before the Florida primary at the end of this month.
In 2004, Kerryâs opponents managed to use one of his greatest strengths â his reputation as a Vietnam War hero â against him, giving the English language a new verb: to swift boat. This year, Democrats are going to tie Bain Capital around Romneyâs neck like a giant rabid albatross, trotting out middle class workers whose jobs were eliminated or worse, moved overseas, when Romney waltzed in and padlocked their factories.
Whether or not that will work remains to be seen.
Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.