How you create a compliant population in a ‘free’ society

While Obama’s fans are basking in the glow of his re-election victory, Glenn Greenwald describes his continuing war on political dissidents in the US and his determination to create a climate of fear so that people will hesitate to speak openly, a technique perfected by authoritarian regimes.

In a free society, those who wield political power fear those over whom the power is wielded: specifically, they harbor a healthy fear of what will happen to them if they abuse that power. But the hallmark of tyranny is that the opposite dynamic prevails: the citizenry fears its government because citizens know that there are no actual, meaningful limits on how power can be exercised. A nation in which liberties are systematically abused – in which limitations on state power are ignored without consequence – is one which gives rise to a climate of fear.

This climate of fear, in turn, leads citizens to refrain from exercising their political rights, especially to refrain from posing meaningful challenges to government authority, because they know the government can act against them without real constraints. This is a more insidious and more effective form of tyranny than overt abridgment of rights: by inducing – intimidating – a citizenry into relinquishing their own rights out of fear, a state can maintain the illusion of freedom while barring any meaningful dissent from or challenge to its power.

He gives concrete examples of how this is done, in the case of the harassment of documentary producer Laura Poitras (whose case I have discussed before), doctoral student in Islamic studies Pascal Abidor, criminal defense attorney Lisa M. Wayne, Wikileaks advocate Jacob Appelbaum, and a supporter of Bradley Manning’s legal defense David House.

In essence, the bargain offered by the state is as follows: if you meaningfully challenge what we’re doing, then we will subject you to harsh recriminations. But if you passively comply with what we want, refrain from challenging us, and acquiesce to our prevailing order, then you are “free” and will be left alone. The genius is that those who accept this bargain are easily convinced that repression does not exist in the US, that it only takes place in those Other Bad countries, because, as a reward for their compliant posture, they are not subjected to it.

President Obama’s attitude towards civil liberties is appalling and reeks of rank hypocrisy. I don’t know if he cares about his legacy but the words Shakespeare gives to Mark Antony at Julius Caesar’s funeral should haunt him: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”


  1. sunny says

    Obama would have made a good pastor in an evangelical church. The only things he is good for are making nice speeches and making people feel better about themselves. He will make a fortune on the lecture circuit after his term ends.

  2. Glenn says

    Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, said Obama speaks like a politician, not up to the standards a preacher should live by.

    No, Obama will continue to take the cash from the subverters of the people’s will.

  3. philippeorlando says

    Are you for real?
    Listen, I’m an atheist who voted for the Green Candidate, so don’t count on me to defend Obama, but really, do you believe what you write here on this post about Obama?
    I think you give too much credit to the guy.
    Obama is just not the guy in charge. I think at worse he’s complacent, certainly not progressive, not very courageous, but I’d stop there! I doubt he is what you describe.

    Maybe you must face a US reality here. As long as the President will come from the ranks of the two big dominant parties he will NOT be free.
    That stuff on this post is borderline conspiracy theory. IT’s not Obama, it’s the Pentagon and the CIA that decide about that stuff, Obama is going along because, well, I think he doesn’t have the choice.

  4. NoAssume says

    First, a nitpick: A society in which the ‘powerful’ fear the populace is actually pretty terrible as well.

    Second, if he can learn to control the populace, good for him and us. Long live authority!

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