soft tyranny, noun: Anything the government does that irritates Republicans.
Yesterday afternoon, we received a comment over on an article about AIG that seemed to have the generally vague language of comment spam:
“thanks for the blog, very interesting prespective, i still think b is a soft tyranny tho”
The phrase soft tyranny gave a link to a specific page in the Obama White House’s web site. Not too long after that, another comment came in from someone using a different name, but with the same IP address, offering another vague comment and another link to that same White House page using the phrase soft tyranny.
My thoughts immediately went to another phrase: Google bomb. A Google bomb is a silly form of Internet activism in which a group of people try to manipulate the way search engines work to get a particular page to show up at the top of the search for a particular phrase. When a phrase is used to link to a web page, search engines like Google note that and elevate that page’s ranking when that phrase is searched for. If there are a large number of sites that link to a page using the phrase “dirty black crows”, for example, that page is likely to be near the top when people search for “dirty black crows”. Google bombs are collective efforts to artificially engineer this kind of result.
That appears to be what’s going on with the phrase soft tyranny. Looking around on social network sites and other blogs, I see that comments including the same “soft tyranny” link are being left all over the web.
Somebody is trying to create a Google association between Barack Obama and the concept of soft tyranny. The thing is that they aren’t succeeding. Search Google for soft tyranny, and you don’t see that White House web page among the top rankings.
The reason is that the soft tyranny Google bombers appear to have a remarkably unsophisticated understanding of how the software of the Internet works. Most sites that allow comments use comment software that automatically inserts a rel=”nofollow” tag into any links in the comments that people make. We have that here at Irregular Times, as a way to discourage comment spam. The nofollow tag is an instruction to Google, and other search engines, to disregard the link in any calculations of search engine rankings. It’s a hidden message that essentially indicates to Google that the link is worthless. People can still follow the link, but search engine bots will not.
That means that almost all of the comments linking to the Obama White House with the phrase soft tyranny are failing to accomplish what the Google bomber seeks to accomplish. The soft tyranny Google bomb campaign appears to be orchestrated by idiots.
Who are these Google bombers, though, and what is soft tyranny, anyway?
The IP address of the commenter fails to provide a specific location, only informing us that the Google bomber who visited Irregular Times was using a Roadrunner service to access the Internet. However, I can say that the Google bombers are likely to be Republicans.
That’s because “soft tyranny” appears to be a particularly right wing catch phrase. Search around and you’ll find that the phrase “soft tyranny” is used almost exclusively as part of incoherent right wing ramblings that complain about liberals and government. For example, there’s the following babbling complaint by professor Alan Charles Kors about the continuing influence of people who were educated in the 1960s on college campuses today:
“From diverse motives of ideological sympathies and acute awareness of who can blackball their next career moves, they have given over the humanities, the soft social sciences, and the entire university in loco parentis to the zealots of oppression studies and coercive identity politics. In the latter case, it truly has been a conspiracy, with networking and common plans. In the former case–the professoriate and the curriculum–it is generally, with striking politicized exceptions, a soft tyranny of groupthink, unconscious bias, and self-inflated sense of a mission of demystification.”
Oy. Who has a self-inflated sense of mission of demystification there, Professor Kors?
Many sources attribute the idea of soft tyranny to Alexis de Tocqueville. They claim that the phrase comes from de Tocqueville’s work, Democracy in America. An article entitled The Soft Tyranny of the NOBama Regime, for example, cites a claim that “Modern Liberalism promotes what French Historian Alexis de Tocqueville called soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, partially leading to hard tyranny”.
Actually, I can’t find any evidence that Alexis de Tocqueville ever used the phrase “soft tyranny”. I searched through Democracy in America, but couldn’t find the phrase once. It seems to be the interpreters of Alexis de Tocqueville, and not de Tocqueville himself, who really invented the phrase and developed the idea.
What I did find in my search through Democracy in America was a poorly defined idea that government regulations and social expectations can combine to create a drag on individual achievement. It’s this kind of idea that de Tocqueville’s fans seem to be getting at when they use the phrase soft tyranny. It’s a kind of libertarian concept: Government regulations may attempt to serve the common good, but in doing so, they thwart exceptional individuals.
The people who complain about soft tyranny appear to believe that they’re just the sort of exceptional individuals who would flourish, if only it wasn’t for the burden of the do-gooder government and its regulations. I wonder, though, how long all of these opponents of soft tyranny would survive in competition with each other, the exceptional individuals that they are.
This version of soft tyranny is rather, well, soft. It reflects an attempt to inflate mere inconvenience to the level of oppression. It asks us to accept the idea that paperwork and government licenses are equivalent to the abusive reigns of people like Adolph Hitler and Vlad the Impaler. They were tyrants. The people behind the desk at the Department of Motor Vehicles are not.
The idea of soft tyranny gets even softer, though, as it leaks out into the Republican culture beyond the sphere of people who have actually read Democracy in America. Republicans seem to have taken up the phrase soft tyranny to mean pretty much anything that they don’t like.
For example, Armand Vaquer, a right wing blogger and contributing writer to Godzilla fan magazines, recently wrote in an article entitled We’re Becoming Frogs in Obama’s Soft Tyranny that:
“Obama is implementing soft tyranny through executive orders without bothering to wait for congressional action. What we have now is a government that believes that it is the sole decider on what’s in the best interest of citizens, as opposed to the people themselves.”
Vaquer’s complaint isn’t against government regulation per se, but merely in opposition to Barack Obama using executive orders rather than allowing Congress to take all control of the operations of the Executive Branch. There isn’t really anything of the pseudoTocquevillian concept of soft tyranny in his accusations. Vaquer merely accuses Obama of tyranny which seems to be soft. That’s the mumbling weakness the general use of the phrase soft tyranny, complaining about little uses of authority that don’t really amount to much.
There are serious reasons to worry that President Obama could be facilitating the machinery of tyranny in the American government. Barack Obama is continuing George W. Bush’s massive programs of electronic surveillance against the American people, for example. Obama is also supporting Bush’s legal arguments that the President has the ability to place himself above the law, declaring state secrets in order to prevent people who accuse the government of gross violations of constitutional rights, such as arbitrary imprisonment and torture, from having the opportunity to pursue justice in a court of law.
If we’re going to bother as citizens to oppose acts of tyranny in the Obama Administration, let’s focus on acts of hard tyranny such as these, rather than the supposed soft tyranny of using government funds to promote the general welfare, as the Constitution suggests. Soft tyranny, after all, appears not to really be tyranny at all, but mere inconvenience for an elite few.