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.