"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Avatar_JimMcCormickThe old proverb that titles this column translates as "Who will watch the watchers?" The proverb asks: What happens when those at the very heart of government, entrusted with the secret springs of power, are themselves corrupt and power hungry? Then we get a Watergate. Or if we are speaking about fiction rather than history, we might get a 1984, that world imagined by George Orwell and ruled by Big Brother.

In fiction, there are two kinds of stories about democracies being taken over by a cabal of insiders. In one kind of story the plotters are at work, while savvy "heroes" struggling to thwart the plotters and return to democratic rule. Such a story is the movie Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith, an innocent accidentally caught up in the plot, and Gene Hackman as a disaffected former CIA computer whiz who knows there is some kind of cabal at work and works successfully with Smith to expose them.

In the other kind of story, the cabal has succeeded and the baddies are running the world. The good folk are portrayed as dissidents working underground, who must find a way to overthrow the evil regime and get back to a democratic world. Examples of such stories are 1984, or the movie Brazil, or the novel The Handmaid's Tale.

The latter story presumes a right-wing takeover of a country much like America where a powerful group of fundamentalists have set up a totalitarian, racist, misogynistic society based on Old Testament scripture. Author Margaret Atwood connects the fevered thirst for domination by the fundamentalists with pathology of sexual dysfunction.

Sweden, though a parliamentary democracy, is a country that has for a long time had extreme right-wing elements that have sought power, openly and secretly. In the recent, highly popular, highly acclaimed trilogy by Stieg Larsson that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there is an elaborate plot that combines three elements: a murder mystery, a fifteen-year-long quest for revenge by a tiny female computer hacker, and a far-reaching takeover by right-wingers of key parts of the Swedish government. At the heart of these three novels, as at the center of all novels of this type, is the fundamental democratic principle of Freedom of the Press. For it is a brave, indefatigable reporter, Mikael Blomqvist, who with heroine Lisbeth Salander, destroys the cabal and returns Sweden to a democratic, wary stability.

There are many countries in the world where novels like these are verboten and where contraband copies are passed from hand to hand.

May the world always have writers who are "watching the watchers."

 

Last modified onMonday, 29 August 2011 07:12

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