Underneath Miri Regev’s brazen plaint, “What is the broadcast corporation worth if we don’t control it?” lies her unconcealed aspiration to gain total control of the media – after she’s proved how she is itching to reshape even our culture in her image.
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This time, however, her protest presents a deeper question: What is the point of having power if its use is constrained?
Even if any reasonable person would think that debate on this issue is superfluous in democratic societies of the third millennium, reality shows that it’s become relevant again.
It is not a coincidence that there, over the pond, Donald Trump (reportedly) wondered aloud in a briefing with foreign policy experts, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” – with respect to nuclear weapons. (He denies saying it.) But if he did ask that question, in some form, it arises from the same dewy-eyed, brutal sense of amazement that underlies Regev’s question. The sense that the asker fails to grasp the limitations nations place on themselves when it comes to wielding their sovereign power.
The ease with which the discussion over the danger posed to the world by an Iranian nuke has slid into wondering what danger the world can expect from the United States if Trump wins, should shake us all.
It would therefore be a mistake to dismiss Regev and Trump as mere political irregularities, and their rhetoric as a mere, grandiose demonstration of bombast and ignorance. Borderline politicians like them react with extreme frustration when constraints are imposed on their powers.
When Shlomo Avineri writes in Haaretz that art is a reflection of a worldview while fascism is a regime, and sends us to the history books to study how nationalist ideas snowball into fascistic movements – he brings us back to the 20th century. But the unique conditions that took shape in Europe in the first half of that century were the culmination of slow processes. This time around, humankind has found a shortcut.
Contemporary history cannot be separated from technological development. Things happen at lightning speed today; politicians can and do talk with the people any time, anywhere.
It’s never been easier to brainwash people directly, and totalitarian regimes, as Edward Snowden tells us, can establish themselves by means of illegal surveillance of their own citizens. Coups can be shot down by direct appeal via smartphone.
The difference between aggressive nationalism and totalitarianism can easily vanish these days. The raw desire for power that Regev is demonstrating is no stranger in these parts, nor is the desire by other politicians to play with the tools of government that are given to them, without brakes. Why should they confine themselves to driving in the proper lane on the road if they can drive on the pavement and strew wreckage in their wake? We were all children once.
Herein lies the heart of the matter. Culture is acquired at great cost. It demands restraints that are not necessarily natural, and it cannot be assured that the efforts will ultimately lead to happiness. This insight partially resolves the question of how countries with grand cultures like Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia could deteriorate into total barbarism.
The sentiment most dangerous to democracy is that which states that liberal values are fine for managing humdrum matters, but “extreme” or “extraordinary” circumstances merit morphing into a sort of temporary dictatorship – for the greater good of the people, of course.
Anti-democratic legislation by the current Knesset is designed to make such a scenario possible, not practically, but conceptually. As an antidote to poison, we have to talk about the proximity between nationalism and fascism.