How does a nation lose its way?
Some of us think that just one man alone could radically change a country, if he's powerful enough.
It was an idea of years ago, this great man theory, offered by a Scotsman in the mid-1800s, in the time of idiot kings and dying monarchies. The Scot's name was Thomas Carlyle, and he believed that history could be read in the biographies of great men.
By great, he didn't mean virtuous. He meant ruthless.
But Carlyle was wrong. Great men (and women) can't change a nation, even if they are supremely ruthless and cynical. Not in a constitutional republic like ours.
It can only be accomplished when the people fall silent and give up their freedoms willingly.
It happens when their governments are corrupted and they say nothing, because to complain might mean they'd lose an opportunity to win a perk or an advantage over their neighbor.
Once numb to corruption, other pressures can silence them. When they're tired and scared about the future, when they're poor and overworked and overwhelmed, when they forget the civic right and wrong of things. Then something disastrous happens.
They lose the capacity for outrage.
And when a free people lose their capacity for outrage, they are susceptible to almost anything.
This is happening now, in the Internal Revenue Service scandal, in which one of the federal government's most feared agencies descended upon some conservative groups that were political enemies of President Barack Obama.
You know the story. You've heard it on radio and have seen it on TV and read some of it in the papers. And what I don't see is outrage.
I don't mean political outrage. I mean American outrage.
Tea party activists and other conservatives were hassled by the IRS when they sought favorable tax status. The IRS even went so far as to ask some groups how often they prayed and what prayers were said.
Remember that when this scandal became public, President Barack Obama scoffed that there was "not even a smidgen" of corruption in it. He said repeatedly that it was another "phony scandal." Later, he pledged full cooperation.
But now we've found that thousands of emails belonging to Lois Lerner, the lead IRS official in charge of the inquisition, have disappeared.
All the emails are gone, and the IRS hard drives, too -- recycled in apparent violation of federal law, just as Congress began demanding them. The government says it was all an accident, but it was certainly a happy accident for some people.
Only a fool, or a hopium smoker, would believe such a story.
So where is the outrage?
You won't find it in the news media. They aren't eager to condemn Obama for this. His name isn't Nixon. There are hordes of opinionators eager to out to mock those who dare ask questions.
The master whistles, and the dogs come running. In this, they're not much different from French courtiers in prerevolutionary France who also used ridicule as their primary weapon.
Richard Nixon, the Republican, was portrayed as evil incarnate once it was learned he was using the IRS to go after his enemies.
The man who is now in charge of the IRS, a Democrat named Obama, is treated quite differently. Criticism is characterized in most news reports as the partisan outrage of Republicans. It is therefore ignored, while the president and his mouthpieces decry the "phony scandals" that take the peoples' minds off of important matters.
But if indifferent silence is the proper response to the IRS scandal, then what will happen when the political tables are turned?
They always turn. Eventually, the party that is out of power will seize it once again.
Should we have any doubt that there are establishment Republican corporatists who are also itching to put their thumbs on the tax scale, just as big-government Democrats have done? They're not in politics to protect liberty -- they're in it to wield government power.
But if the party in power can send out the IRS and club its opponents to the ground, and if we remain silent and numb, a lot more than political advantage is threatened.
Ultimately, our liberty is too.
There are other scandals going on now, of course. Our part-time-worker economy is scandalous, as is the president's imperial use of executive power by ignoring Congress.
So are his drone strikes that kill American citizens without trial. And the NSA that can read our thoughts even as we type them.
Last week, as the comparisons to Nixon increased, Obama fled Washington for a photo-op day in Minnesota and a speech. He reached into his bag of cliches and said we shouldn't worry about partisan bickering in Washington.
"They are fabricated issues, they are phony scandals that are generated," Obama said, adding that the noise "makes people cynical."
He's not one of Carlyle's great men. He's overwhelmed, and he's trying to conjure up the old message of hope and change while the news is about lost IRS hard drives and disappearing emails.
That would make anyone cynical. But outrage is better than cynicism.
And now is a good time for outrage.