26, 2003, 1:45 p.m.
An eternal truth.
By John OSullivan
EDITORS NOTE: This appeared in the October 27, 1989,
issue of National Review.
Michels as any reader of James Burnham's finest book, The Machiavellians,
knows was the author of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This states that in
any organization the permanent officials will gradually obtain such influence
that its day-to-day program will increasingly reflect their interests
rather than its own stated philosophy. To take a homely example, congressmen
from egalitarian parties somehow end up voting for higher pay and generous
expenses for congressmen. We can also catch an ironic echo of Michels's
law in Stalin's title of General Secretary, as well as in the fact that
powerful mandarins in the British government creep about under such deceptive
pseudonyms as "Permanent Under-Secretary." All of which is by
way of introducing a new law of my own. My copy of the current Mother
Jones (well, it's my job to read that sort of thing I take no pleasure
in it) contains an advertisement for Amnesty International. Now, AI used
to be a perfectly serviceable single-issue pressure group which drew the
world's attention to the plight of political prisoners around the globe.
Many people owe their lives and liberty to it. But that good work depended
greatly on AI's being a single-issue organization that helped victims
of both left- and right-wing regimes and was careful to remain politically
neutral in other respects. Its advertisement in Mother Jones, however,
abandons this tradition by calling for an end to the death penalty.
The ad itself, needless
to say, is the usual liberal rhubarb. "In American courtrooms,"
it intones, "some have a better chance of being sentenced to death."
That is true: the people in question are called murderers. But Al naturally
means something different and more sinister namely that poor, black,
and retarded people are more likely to face the electric chair than other
Let us suppose this to be the case. What follows? A mentally retarded
person incapable of understanding the significance of his actions cannot
be guilty of murder or of any other crime. A law that punishes him (as
opposed to one that confines him for his own and society's safety) is
unjust and should be changed whether or not he faces the death
penalty. On the other hand, someone who is guilty of murder may be executed
with perfect justice. His race or economic circumstances do not affect
the matter at all. The fact that other murderers may obtain lesser sentences
does not in any way detract from the justice of his own punishment. After
all, some murderers have always escaped scot-free. Would Amnesty have
us release the rest on the grounds of equality of treatment? Finally,
Amnesty's argument from discrimination could be met just as well by executing
more rich, white murderers (which would be fine with me) as by executing
no murderers at all. Significantly, Amnesty's list of death-penalty victims"
does not include political prisoners. America does not, have political
prisoners, let alone execute them. Why, then, Amnesty's campaign on the
That is explained by O'Sullivan's First Law: All organizations that are
not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing. I cite as supporting
evidence the ACLU, the Ford Foundation, and the Episcopal Church. The
reason is, of course, that people who staff such bodies tend to be the
sort who don't like private profit, business, making money, the current
organization of society, and, by extension, the Western world. At which
point Michels's Iron Law of Oligarchy takes over and the rest follows.
Is there any law which enables us to predict the behavior of right-wing
organizations? As it happens, there is: Conquest's Second Law (formulated
by the Sovietologist Robert Conquest):
The behavior of an organization can best be predicted by assuming it to
be controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies. Examples: virtually any
conservative party anywhere, the Ronald Lauder for Mayor campaign, and
the British secret service. That last example is, however, flawed, since
the British secret service actually was controlled by a secret cabal of
its enemies in the form of Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, et al. In which
case, Conquest's Law should have operated to make M1-6 a crack anti-Soviet
intelligence service of James Bond proportions. But these are deep waters.
Incidentally, Bob Conquest, who also doubles as a poet and literary critic,
presciently commented ten years ago on the recent controversy over the
Mapplethorpe exhibition. His 1979 collection of essays, The Abomination
of Moab (not, alas, published in this country), coined the term Moabites
to describe the false friends of art as opposed to its open enemies, the
Philistines: "The characteristic of modern methods of destroying
art is that they are carried out by those who far from being indifferent
or hostile, are deeply concerned." The Biblical Moabites were the
insidious enemies of Israel "who, from their capital at Shittim,
infiltrated temple and harem and set the children of light whoring after
strange doctrines." Today's Moabites have been out in force to defend
both Mapplethorpe and a strange doctrine of unrestrained government
funding of the arts. The falseness of their friendship consists of their
denial of any distinctions, moral or artistic or political, where Art
is concerned. Morally, they argue that if Mapplethorpe's pornographic
photographs are banned today, the Venus de Milo will have to wear a bra
tomorrow. Artistically, they discern no distinctions between different
works of art which would offer a general basis for providing or withholding
subsidy. And, politically, they obliterate any distinction between the
absence of a subsidy and outright censorship.
Once something is called Art, Bob told me over the phone, Moabites take.
it to be transcendental and beyond human criticism: "In which case
it is, in effect, a religion and thus debarred from federal funding under
the First Amendment."