The Indiscreet Charm of Tyranny

Ian buruma – The New York Review of Books

The military assault on Iraq may not have been a wise move. But few people, even those who were most firmly opposed to the Bush administration, can have felt anything but joy at the sight of Saddam Hussein being dragged from his underground pit. There is sweetness in a tyrant’s come-uppance. It doesn’t happen too often. Many have lived to a ripe old age; some still live on, as mummies, their waxen corpses displayed to the public. But rather than dwell upon what may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory in Iraq, I would like to consider a different question. Was Saddam one of the last of his kind? Have great dictators become obsolete?
This might seem an absurd question, for there are still too many of them around: Robert Mugabe is still busy wrecking his country; the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il runs North Korea like a nationwide concentration camp; Uzbekistan is ruled by Islam Karimov, a murderous despot and, as it happens, a US ally. Fidel Castro is said to be popular, but has never allowed an election, and his police regularly arrest dissidents. But on the whole, history’s tide has run against the Great Leaders of late. If we take the last thirty years or so, and especially that annus mirabilis 1989, the list of deposed dictators is longer than fresh ones: Nicolae Ceauçescu, Todor Zhivkov, Gustav Husák, Ferdinand Marcos, “Baby” Doc Duvalier, Idi Amin, Mariam Mengistu, the Shah of Iran, Emperor Bokassa, to name just a few. And, though horrible enough, these were provincial tyrants, small fish in the ocean of mass murderers. And the late Communist leaders were hardly great dictators, but more like autocratic bureaucrats. There is no one left of the stature of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. Not even Saddam was remotely in their league. And this alone is something worth celebrating.
I do not mean to say, like some neo-con Pollyanna, that democracy will sweep the world in the wake of armed US liberators. It may even be that some democratic states will become steadily more authoritarian. Vladimir Putin, though not yet a dictator, shows signs of intolerance toward any opposition. But the God-Kings, Führers, Great Helmsmen, Big Daddies, Number One Brothers, and Caudillos are vanishing. They might of course come back some day, reincarnated in a different form. I rather suspect that they will. For dictators cannot rule by terror alone. Terror is a necessary part of their monopoly on power, but not sufficient in itself. Dictators would only disappear forever if people were to give up their willingness, and sometimes even desire, to be ruled by them. But alas, man is weak, especially when faced with a crisis, and his desires are easily manipulated.
Before speculating on the future shape of dictatorships, I would like to return to the past, not only to reflect on the nature of the great dictators themselves, but on something that to me is more interesting, namely our fatal attraction to them. What is it about them that is so alluring, and allows them to destroy the lives of millions? Why, to be more concrete, did so many Poles cry in the streets when Stalin died, even though he had done Poland nothing but harm? Why do Chinese taxi drivers still have images of Chairman Mao in their cars, even though he killed tens of millions? If only we knew that, we might have a better chance of seeing what might still be in store for us, before it is too late.
Jacques Vergès, the radical French lawyer who once defended Klaus Barbie and now hopes to defend Saddam Hussein, put the case for great dictators in a nutshell. He admired Stalin and Mao because they had “grandeur,” unlike democratic politicians, who were by nature mediocre. The great dictators, he observed, give the people a destiny, whereas democrats can only promise happiness. Dictators embark on great missions, while the plans of politicians are inevitably crippled by shabby compromises. This view has been shared by too many intellectuals in the past, who fell under the spell of absolute power. It is the fatal romanticism that justifies unlimited murder.
I do not know who would qualify as the first great dictator in the history of man, but the Emperor of Qin, who unified China in 221 BC, was certainly a man of destiny who had unmistakable grandeur. A mere king when he conquered the states of other kings, he became the first Chinese emperor and was known as Qin Shi Huang Di, a title with divine connotations. Although his name has made Chinese shudder for the last two thousand years, the influence of his reign is still profound. He was the archetypal despot, and it is astonishing how little has changed. The Qin Emperor was a permanent warrior, a great unifier, a builder of grandiose projects, a censor of thought, and a paranoiac obsessed with his own mortality.
It was the Qin Emperor who unified the Chinese writing system, established a standard legal code, common weights and measures, and a centralized bureaucracy. His most famous grand project was the Great Wall, erected to divide Chinese from the barbarians. Since no barbarian invasion was actually stopped by the wall, one suspects that this was largely symbolic. It gave the Chinese people a sense of unity by defining a common enemy, to be feared at all times. Instead of keeping the barbarians out, it fenced the Chinese in.
The reason for the Qin Emperor’s reputation as a brutal tyrant was not just the huge death toll among the slaves who built his Great Wall, or the draconian nature of his legal code, but the way he monopolized the truth. Again, like all tyrants, he wished to control not only the present, but also the past. History was in his possession. He was the first great book burner. The traditional task of scholars was to measure the virtue of kings by invoking the Confucian classics, and criticizing their rulers if they were found wanting. An idealized past of virtuous rulers was used to judge the present ones. The Qin Emperor did not wish to be judged or criticized; his rule was the beginning of everything, and history was bunk. So the classics were torched and the scholars buried alive.
Not only humans had to conform to the tyrant’s view of reality, but inanimate objects too. Enraged by a persistent storm that impeded his progress during a mountain climb, he had all the trees felled by slaves and the mountain painted red, the color of a condemned criminal. When the fall of a meteor was deemed to be an omen of the Emperor’s death, he had the offending stone melted by fire and the people who lived in its vicinity executed. The thought of his eventual demise was so intolerable that anyone or anything that reminded him of his mortality had to be eradicated.
We don’t really know what his subjects thought of their emperor at the time. As Kafka described brilliantly in his short story “The Great Wall of China,” the farther away people lived from the wall the more remote the center of power was. In fact, we only have limited knowledge of the man himself. His notoriousness was largely due to his bad press among the Confucian scribes whose fortunes revived under his successors on the dragon throne. For many centuries the Qin Emperor’s Great Wall was associated with tyranny and bloodshed. But in modern times something interesting happened. The symbol of oppression became a symbol of modern nationalism, universally admired for its grandeur. And the Qin Emperor’s own reputation was also rehabilitated, in the early 1970s, by Mao Zedong, who saw himself as his modern heir. The violence of the Emperor’s rule was praised for its revolutionary spirit. And the burning of books and burying alive of scholars was seen entirely in a positive light, as a case of “emphasizing the present while slighting the past.”
This is a common characteristic of radical dictators; they create a tabula rasa whic cannot be challenged by meddlesome priests or fussy scholars. The immediate past i by definition inferior, even evil. Still now one hears people respond to critica descriptions of Mao’s China by saying that China under Chiang Kai-shek wa infinitely worse. In the same way, Leninist-Stalinist tyranny is sometimes glossed ove by pointing out the horrors under the tsars. In the propaganda of postcolonial dictators the evils of colonialism justify the violence of their rule. Mass murder is cleansing purifying, wipes the slate clean. Those who emphasize the past to chastise the presen are conservatives, like those Confucian scholars, and revolutionary tyrants are neve conservative
The violent break with history, the illusion of a tabula rasa, appeals to a certain kind of youthful idealism. There is beauty in destruction. Think of the relish with which thousands of Chinese students took hammers and axes to the priceless treasures of Buddhist or Confucian temples. The idea that a completely new society can be forged through sheer human will is attractive to dreamers of grandeur. During the Cultural Revolution, armies of Red Guards thought they were exercizing their will. In fact, they were acting out the will of their oppressor. To make enough people believe that he, the great leader, represents the collective will of his people is an essential skill for a tyrant…
In fact, of course, few dictators are totally one or the other. There is no such thing as a clean slate. Even revolutionaries use the past, but usually a remote, mythical past, as a masquerade to lend legitimacy to their aim to destroy. If Mao was obsessed by the Qin Emperor, Stalin liked to compare himself to Ivan the Terrible. Pol Pot talked about reviving the glory of ancient Ankor. Saddam Hussein, a keen student of Stalin, wished to be likened to Saladin, who recaptured twelfth-century Jerusalem from the infidels.
Although obsessed with his image in the West, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ruled Iran as the heir of Cyrus the Great. The Shah’s Great Civilization was a mixture of rapid and often hopelessly flawed modernization and the fantasy of a pre-Islamic past. In 1971, the ruins of Cyrus’s capital, Persepolis, were the stage set for the Shah’s coronation. Celebrations took several days. Hundreds of French chefs were flown in. The Queen of England was presented with rare Caspian horses. An entire city of palatial tents was erected. A ton of caviar was consumed by the crowned heads and other global dignitaries, invited for this greatest of all durbars. Armies dressed like soldiers of Cyrus and Darius marched by in their thousands and the Shah was crowned as the Son of Aryans, the King of Kings of Iran.
All this pseudohistorical flimflam, all these borrowed costumes, were meant to convey a sense of grandeur, of greatness. It didn’t quite work for the Shah, whose extravagance enraged many of his subjects. Perhaps his mistake was to aim his grand spectacles more at foreign dignitaries than his own people. Other dictators arranged these things better. Whatever evils he may have committed, Nero’s games were wildly popular in Rome. And Joachim Fest, one of Hitler’s best known biographers, ascribes some of the Führer’s huge success to the German love of operatic spectacle: the Third Reich as a murderous Gesamtkunstwerk. A collective love of spectacle is an odd excuse, if an excuse it is, but the aesthetic side of dictatorship should not be underestimated, for circuses are the substitute for politics…
When asked about the lack of great leaders in our benighted world, Gore Vidal once remarked that great leaders make great wars. Shakespeare wrote well about such men: Coriolanus, for example, the mama’s boy inside a crust of shiny armor. In the words of his friend Menenius, his “wounds become him.” Making war is his way of ruling.
The beauty of Shakespeare’s portrait of the despot as warmonger is the combination of personal psychology and politics. Coriolanus has to be a war hero, because his mother demands it of him: “To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak.” But the politics are just as interesting. War is a necessary distraction from other problems, which might stir up rebellion.
Napoleon’s promise that he would “surprise the world by the grandeur and rapidity of my strokes” was based on the same principle. The French economy was still suffering from the ravages of revolution, but popular discontent was diverted by the victories of the Grande Armée. Civil liberties were curtailed, but glory, bread, and circuses made up for the hardships. The people were swept away by patriotism, and royally entertained. The problem is that once a dictator has chosen this route, he must, as they say, stay the course.
It is also worth noting that hubristic wars are often sold to the public as wars of liberation. On the face of it, Mussolini’s declaration of war against the United States was mad. But this war to free civilized European values from rootless Americanism would soon be over, for the Duce promised that a single bombardment of New York would be enough to bring the Americans to their knees.
One victory is never enough, however. Like any gambler, the compulsive warrior has to keep on upping the ante. Wellington once compared Napoleon to a cannon ball: he had to keep moving for fear of losing all momentum. Hitler operated on the same principle, gambling for ever bigger stakes. By the time his armies were being decimated in the frozen steppes of Russia, it was too late. Germans were beginning to shed their illusions. And yet the Führer himself was still obeyed. His power lasted to the very end. Even among the ruins, it seems to be hard for people to stop believing in a leader they had once worshiped.
Great leaders fight great wars against external enemies, but also against enemies at home. The bloody purges of class enemies, Trotskyists, capitalist roaders, landlords, feudals, bourgeois revisionists, imperialists, spies, stinking intellectuals, Bolshevik Jews, capitalist Jews, or just any old Jews are part of the same savage perpetual motion necessary to keep a tyranny going. The fact that purges and massacres are often quite arbitrary, and no one, not even the leader’s loftiest paladin, is exempt, is built into the system of permanent war. It is indeed a necessary condition, for by institutionalizing his own paranoia, the leader keeps everyone in a constant state of terror.
Chairman Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution just as things were calming down in China, when cooler heads began to prevail, and people could start to relax a little. But as his revolution lost its momentum, Mao felt his power slipping. This was the origin of his Cultural Revolution, so much admired by radical intellectuals in faraway cities. And if the tyrant runs out of plausible enemies, because he has already killed them all, he will simply invent new ones, which is why in the world of great dictators the killing never stops.
The terrifying thing about dictatorship is people’s willingness to believe in the divine aspirations of dictators. The hundreds of thousands of screaming, crying, praying, book-waving, flag-waving men and women in Beijing, Berlin, Moscow, or Pyongyang, worshiping their leaders, are not only doing so because they are forced to; many, perhaps even most, really are caught up in the hysteria. This is partly a matter of crowd psychology. Collective emotion can spread like a brush fire. I saw this myself once in Pyongyang, shortly after the death of Kim Il Sung, when we were dragged to a hideous monument to mourn the Great Leader. Professional mourners wailed through loudspeakers about losing “our Father.” Schoolteachers, followed by the disciplined ranks of their pupils, began to weep, and at the sight of adult tears, so did the children. Was this emotion genuine? Were they really sad about the dictator’s death? It is difficult to know, and perhaps a silly question, for sincerity in the midst of mass hysteria is impossible to measure. But the desire to worship gods is surely part of being human. And when traditional gods are banned, humans have a way of taking their place.
During the first two hundred years of the Roman Empire, sane emperors did not claim divinity during their lifetimes. They became gods only after they died, even though they were worshiped as gods by eastern Greeks even while they were still alive. The Sons of Heaven in Chinese history were not gods, but they ruled with the mandate of Heaven. They had a divine right, as did monarchs in other parts of the world. And they acted as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth, like priest-kings. In the case of Japanese emperors, their divine right was kept separate from political authority. By giving his blessing, the priest-king lent his divine right to secular rulers. This had consequences even in the twentieth century. One reason Japan in the 1930s, unlike the European fascist states, had no dictator was that no one could match, let alone supercede, the exalted status of the emperor. And even though the emperor was worshiped as a divine figure, he was stopped short of becoming a dictator. This did not prevent a catastrophe, for it meant that anyone acting in the emperor’s name, however atrociously, could lay claim to his sacred aura.
Some of the most monstrous crimes have been carried out by dictators who destroyed or emasculated traditional religious institutions, and substituted their own forms of worship. The Hitler cult was founded on the ruins of the German monarchy, and was accompanied by systematic assaults on organized religion. The same, incidentally, was true of the wartime Japanese emperor cult, which for a short time became almost the exclusive focus of religious fervor, since other spiritual practices were either banned or harnessed to the imperial cause. Stalin and Mao went even further. Neither the Japanese leadership nor Hitler was able to achieve a complete religious tabula rasa. They still had to make some compromises with established institutions. The Communist leaders had no such trouble.
As in the Inquisition, people under Stalin and Mao were persecuted and killed, not for what they did, but for what they believed or, more to the point, refused to believe. It is sometimes claimed, as a way of contrasting the evil of fascist dictators with the lesser evil of Communist despots, that the victims of Mao were not exterminated in the camps but reeducated. Even if we leave aside the fact that many so-called class enemies were exterminated simply for who they were, this kind of reeducation was hardly benign. You had to convince your torturers not only that you had renounced your evil thoughts and become a believer, but that you had done so in all sincerity. This was mental torture of the worst kind, for people were forced quite literally to lose their minds…
Authoritarian technocracy borrows its legitimacy in a variety of ways. The Eas Asian model, pioneered by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and now taken up by th secretive managers of the People’s Republic of China, is often claimed to be in lin with the Confucian tradition, or Asian values. Asians, the technocrats claim, have n interest in messy confrontational politics, which destroy harmony under Heaven. Al they want is order and a full rice bowl for themselves and their families. What th autocrats fail to mention is that Confucius, and especially Mencius, believed in th people’s right to rebel against corrupt rulers. This is precisely what happened i Taiwan and South Korea, and in the PRC as well, albeit with bad consequences Typically, the response of the Communist regime to the events of 1989 was to pile o more rice, by letting the educated urban classes, the very people who demonstrated o Tiananmen Square, get rich
Economic success has given Asian technocracies an advantage over earlier forms of dictatorship. Prosperity without politics has a wide appeal, much wider than the superficially egalitarian poverty of scientific socialism. Western businessmen, and indeed Western governments, like doing business with the technocrats, because the deals you make are unhindered by such noisome things as independent trade unions or opposition parties. But the stability of the Asian model may well prove to be more fragile than many expect, for the pact with a complacent middle class is unlikely to survive a severe economic crisis.
This new technocracy is an example of dictatorship’s most fatal temptation, the illusion that we are better off without politics, that tough leaders with the will to get things done should not be hampered by organized dissent. This is what Asian technocrats and Russian autocrats believe. But people who care about freedom and openness should be worried about trends that are visible in the United States. For here, too, human fears and desires are exploited to chip away at the rule of law and to substitute spectacle and religious faith for political debate.
I do not agree with some panic-stricken commentators who have used such phrases as “soft fascism” to describe the US today. The United States is not a dictatorship, and the chances of it becoming one are still remote. But the use of Islamist terror to justify a war in Iraq and the manipulation of popular fear to shrink civil liberties are threats to democracy and the rule of law. It would be well to remember the words of Mohammed Mahathir, the former Malaysian autocrat who locked up his main political rival in prison on dubious charges. This is what he said not long after September 11, 2001: “We know if they are under attack, they also took actions ignoring the law and the court, take actions to their whims and fancies against people who they think were involved in violence.”
The awful thing is that he is right. If even the world’s greatest democracy behaves like that, what is there to prevent others from doing much worse?

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