The question of shop signs and Stalin's legacy

"Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies, The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
C.S. Lewis, In Freedom

No more are these words by C.S. Lewis more appropriate than on the 50th anniversary of the death of Josef Stalin, March 5, 2003. Stalin�s shade still lingers to darken even the brightest democracy, living on in the "omnipotent moral busybodies" about whom Lewis wrote.

Stalin�s police state controlled all aspects of daily life, from the macroscopic to the microscopic. His personal will, his tastes, his ideals, and his goals were imposed on everyone and everything. He brooked no challenges to his authority nor tolerated dissent.

The state decided what literary and cultural works could be published. The state decided what artwork was allowed to be displayed, what music could be performed, what poems could be read, what editorials could be written, what ideas could be expressed. The state even decided what signs could be displayed in shop windows.

"No one understood better than Stalin that the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade, but to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought immediately reveals itself as a jarring dissonance."
Alan Bullock, in
Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

Fifty years later, Stalin�s ideas are still alive. There are many states where citizens have no freedom over what they can say, write, paint or what they can display. There are even states so rigid and repressive that they tell small shopkeepers what they can and can�t display in their own store windows - right down to the size of the letters they are permitted!

It�s easy to condemn demagogues and dictators. Their arrogance - evident in every manifestation of their will - makes them obvious targets for moral outrage. But far more insidious are Lewis� "omnipotent moral busybodies," those kind, well-meaning benevolent but unrelenting dictators who would control and repress us "for our own good." They are Stalin�s descendants, carrying his torch to future generations.

In a democracy - even in a republic where there are more controls - sometimes the rights of the minority are repressed for the "greater good." Such is the case in laws that require seatbelts while driving, non-smoking in public places, and helmets for motorcyclists. There is simply a far greater good in maintaining these laws than any perceived damage done to individual "rights."

Lewis also said,

"The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy."

Personal taste is not public good: it is subjectivism, the antithesis of democracy. Personal agendas do not benefit liberty: they hinder it. They open the door for Stalinism to creep in. Pretty soon it�s dictatorship by committee - committees peopled with well-meaning, dedicated but unelected members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia. They erect increasingly restrictive rules that slowly squeeze the life out of a community and bleed it until it is colourless.

Those laws and bylaws that hamper and constrict businesses, clamp down on dissent, free speech and free expression are often created to further some publicly stated goal like "beautification." But they really mean "uniformity." They strip the living skin off democracy in order to pound all the square pegs in the community into the committee�s round holes.

"The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away for expedients."
Edmund Burke

Language bylaws in Quebec do this with remarkable efficiency. They have reduced a brilliant, glittering and attractive multicultural society into a dreary monochrome French one. The richness that was once Montreal is now impoverished by monoculture, in the same way a planted "forest" of one species of tree is poor. Language laws broke the bones of liberty in Quebec.

On a municipal scale, sign bylaws that try to remake the community into an image of some besotted nineteenth-century caricature are similar in their effect. They reduce the joyous clamour of capitalism into a dreary lookalike contest, all because a few well-meaning members of a committee decided it was in the "best interests" of all merchants to be hamstrung by this imperfect vision of the past.

Ironically, anyone looking at photographs of the period they want to emulate will find it doesn�t conform at all to the Disney-like daydream of these committees. It was dirty, bustling, cluttered, unregulated and exuberantly capitalist. Quite opposite to the sterile imagery foisted on merchants and businesses today. What the do-gooders really want is not some visual utopia, but rather uniformity and conformity - Stalin�s dream, Stalin's legacy.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Non-conforming shops signs and highway signs have become the unwitting voice of dissent and protest against those who would impose such uniformity on us. Signs are the bastion against the greying of the community, the bulwark to prevent being bulldozed by the dull monotones imposed by our "omnipotent moral busybodies." No matter to these busybodies that free expression is a right guaranteed by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

One only needs to look at that pinnacle of civilization, the suburb, to realize the evils of uniformity and the numbing impact conformity has on the human spirit. A vital, vibrant community is not a uniform one.

In Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote,

"I heartily accept the motto, �That government is best which governs least�; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe -"That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."

Governments should govern less. We are massively, horrendously over-governed in all aspects of our lives and commerce. Excessive government leads to Stalinism, to enforced uniformity that chokes the life out of the people.

Anywhere that freedom of expression is curtailed by the state, anywhere that members of the state can impose their personal tastes and ideals on the citizenry at large, Stalin still lurks in the background. Anywhere where the state forces conformity in art, culture, publishing - and even shop signs - Stalin lives on.

Our personal freedoms are fragile and easily lost through negligence. We should never forget Stalin nor cease to oppose his cohorts of "omnipotent moral busybodies" lest we lose our freedom altogether.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill eloquently elucidated the importance of free speech in his essay On Liberty:

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity, as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

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