Alan Kirker


February 19th, 2022 by

East Berlin Wall, 1987

We must resist any inclination to fall under authoritarianism’s spell during challenging times, and history’s tendency to pull us into its spiral. Nineteenth-century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead states there must be clear limits to state control, in his essay titled “From Force to Persuasion” (1935):

“The compulsory dominion of man over man has a double significance. It has a benign effect so far as it secures the coordination of behavior necessary for social welfare. But it is fatal to extend this dominion beyond the barest limits necessary for this coordination” (1935, p. 289).

Adolf Hitler’s ill-conceived and reprehensible likening of different people’s ethnicity to distinguishing between different animal species underlay the rhetoric of his manifesto, “Mein Kampf” : “Every animal mates only with a representative of the same species. The titmouse seeks the titmouse, the finch the finch, the stork the stork, the wolf the wolf, etc.” (1939, p. 285). This outlook encouraged an authoritarian approach to treating people themselves as animals, perhaps not unlike the more recently cattle-prodded detainees in the Chinese prison system, as documented by reporter, author, and poet Liao Yiwu :

“I was left with the guard who touched me with his baton and pulled the trigger. Bright blue sparks stretched out into an arc. The electricity ground through my scalp as if it were pulling out all my nerves and battering my brain with a cudgel. Instinctively, I buried my head between my knees to cover my ears. The electric current surged from my neck to my feet, and my body trembled uncontrollably” (2013, p. 172).

“Officer Yu’s stun baton landed squarely on the back of his head and shoulders. His belly and legs convulsed violently. After officer Yu walked away, total silence descended upon the cell. Dead Chang’s face was purple. He sat down in a corner for quite a while, limp as a drunkard. He asked a cellmate to help him take off his sweat-soaked undershirt. “The jabbing is good treatment for my cold”, he murmured with a halfhearted laugh. The sinister groove between his eyebrows became more pronounced” (2013, p. 181).

In his novel “The Orphan Master’s Son” (2012), author Adam Johnson has new recruits to a North Korean police station consider its similar various nefarious implements: “And Q-kee took possession of a cattle prod by rapid-firing the trigger so fast that our room strobed blue” (2012, p. 233).

Philosopher Carl Cohen states that only one system of government can reconcile autonomy with authority:

“Democracy alone – of all possible systems of government – can reconcile the autonomy of the citizen with the authority of the state. No aristocracy or despotism, however benevolent, can effect that reconciliation. Every authoritarian system must and will deny the moral autonomy of its citizens” (1982, p. 470).

Cohen, C. (1982), Autonomy and Authority – The Solution of Democracy, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), (1990) Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Third Edition, (pp. 467 -475). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Hitler, A. (1939), Nation and Race, from Mein Kampf, in part. Boston, United States: Houghton Mifflin Company, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 285 – 286). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Johnson, A. (2012) The Orphan Master’s Son. New York, United States: Random House.

Liao, Y. (2013) For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, translated from the Chinese by Wenguang Huang. Boston, United States: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Whitehead, A. N. (1935), From Force to Persuasion, in Adventures in Ideas, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 287 – 289). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)


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