A Lesson in Totalitarianism for the Tea Baggers

Last night we watched The Lives of Others, which won best foreign-language film at the Oscars in 2007.

It was very, very good — if a little longer than necessary — and particularly prescient, given that there are Americans running around claiming that Obama has imposed tyranny and dictatorship on our country.  The movie takes place in East Berlin in 1984 and tells the story of a prominent artist couple wire-tapped by the Stasi.

The Stasi bugs their apartment in twenty minutes and watches them for who knows how long, on a lead from one of the Party’s Committee members.  It’s a nightmare to imagine — but what really struck me was how well organized it all was.  Years after the fall of the Soviet Union, you could go into the old East German files, as if you were looking through any old archive.  You could find any piece of horrible information dug up through wire-taps, as if it hadn’t been a terrible breach of privacy and human dignity.

I’m a big believer in bureaucracy, although I know that sounds ridiculous.  Everyone hates red tape.  I appreciate the way government operates and must operate to get myriad things done for its citizens.  It’s imperative that we have people of all political stripes, of all backgrounds, working in bureaucracy.  One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from Betty Radice, a well-known translator of Latin,  in her introduction to The Letters of the Younger Pliny:

Pliny too is a witness to the fact that competence and honesty can survive a corrupt regime.  Someone must keep the civil administrative machine working, and it is the Plinys of all times and places who form a civil bureaucracy to carry on while governments come and go.

Pliny was a prolific Roman writer, who received a variety of administrative appointments under the Emperor Trajan.  He sums up precisely why bureaucracy is not in and of itself a bad thing, but reminds us that there’s a fine line between doing good for the people and fulfilling the will of the powerful.

We can see that in East Germany, in Nazi Germany, in many ways during the Bush Administration — and in a host of eras and countries beyond the most famous examples.   The Lives of Others does a good job looking at this fine line — particularly on an era in history that is still kept relatively quiet. If you have two and a half hours, it’s worth a watch.


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