Dictators are supposed to be dumb, or at least crazy. Muammar al-Qaddafi was a ranting lunatic with a goofy fashion sense. Kim Jong Il had a weird hairstyle and a penchant for surreal sloganeering. Those generals in Burma were brutes given to consulting soothsayers on major decisions and shooting people at the drop of a hat.
But these caricatures — for that is what they are — actually tend to obscure some unpleasant facts about modern life. Qaddafi reigned for 41 years in a country where fractiousness and rivalry were the order of the day in the era that preceded him. Kim Jong Il died in his bed after ruling North Korea for 17 years — despite policies that condemned his country to humiliating poverty even while its neighbors rose to new heights of prosperity. And those generals in Burma? They came to power in 1962, and though they’ve started loosening their grip a bit lately, they still clearly call the shots.
All of these dictators managed to cling to power far longer than they or their people had any right to expect. They were evil, all right. But you can’t call them dumb. Measured by their own criteria, they were actually pretty successful.
This is something that we’d be advised to keep in mind if we’re going to help the forces of freedom to prevail in the world. And this, indeed, is one of the lessons of Will Dobson’s fascinating new book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Dobson, a former FP editor who now works for Slate, got the idea a few years back when he was invited to a strategy game with some pro-democracy activists who were trying to undermine an authoritarian regime in their home country. When Dobson asked if he could play the role of the dictator, he was met with blank stares. "We’re not in the business of teaching people to repress other people," he was told.
The problem, of course, is that you probably won’t have much luck beating despots unless you understand what they’re up to. In his book, Dobson sets out to rectify that error by exploring five current authoritarian regimes and their strategies for maintaining control. He interviews Chinese Communist Party members and Russian dissidents. He follows Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim on a frenetic day of campaigning that dramatizes the challenges of organizing a unified opposition in a country riven by ethnic divides. In Venezuela, he records a memorable encounter with a once high-ranking ally of Hugo Chávez now doing time in jail — a striking testimony to the capriciousness (or, perhaps, ruthless flexibility) of the regime. And even though much of his reporting from Egypt predates the fall of the Mubarak regime, his sharp analysis of the disposition of forces there is as illuminating as many of the accounts that have come out since the revolution.
The key message that emerges from Dobson’s investigations is that today’s autocrats are not idiots. They have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Putin is not Stalin, and Hu Jintao is not Mao Zedong. In many cases, Dobson writes, modern dictators understand that it’s in their interest to observe the appearance of democratic norms even while they’re subverting them.
Chávez, for example, loves holding elections, and on election day you can pretty much vote for whom you want. That most Venezuelans end up voting for the president reflects the enormous effort he has put into manipulating the media, the courts, and the bureaucracy every other day of the year. "Election day is not a problem," a former Venezuelan election official tells Dobson. "All the damage — the use of money, goods, excess power, communications — happens beforehand."
As Dobson notes, Chávez has implanted these black arts into Venezuela’s political culture so effectively that it’s hard to imagine how even the admirably revitalized opposition can compete. The president’s control of the airwaves is so deft that he appears to have suffered little political damage from soaring inflation and a skyrocketing murder rate. It could well be that only nature, in the form of the cancer now ravaging the leader’s body, is capable of putting an end to chavismo.
Some of Dobson’s most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The Chinese communists, he concludes, are the least complacent of today’s modern authoritarians. They’ve devoted intense study to the collapse of previous dictatorial regimes, from Ceausescu to Suharto, and they’ve worked hard to draw corresponding lessons — so far with remarkable success. As Dobson points out, most observers in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989 would have been shocked to learn that the Communist Party is not only still in power today, but thriving. "The Chinese Communist Party understands what its vulnerabilities are," Dobson told me recently. "No one needs to lecture that government on what they need to worry about at night." (Hint: Corruption and inequality lead the list.)
As for Putin, Dobson grudgingly credits him with figuring out how to maintain control without resorting to Soviet-style extremes. Twenty-first-century Russians can travel abroad or avail themselves of the Internet largely to their heart’s content, since Putin understands that completely isolating his citizens from the world at large is a game with rapidly diminishing returns. Instead, like Chávez, he’s focused on controlling the media that matter (like national TV) and carefully manipulating laws to tilt the political playing field in favor of the state. And so far, at least, he’s managed to pull the whole thing off without putting large numbers of opponents into concentration camps.
Putin, says Dobson, also appreciates that one of the biggest dangers to any autocracy comes at the moment when it loses touch with popular sentiment. So what do you do when you’ve tamed parliament so thoroughly that you can no longer use it to generate useful feedback about the needs and fears of the citizenry? In Putin’s case, you create a new body called the "Public Chamber," a sort of large-scale advisory panel — including representatives from authentic non-government organizations — that offers "the advice, counsel, and criticism that a toothless Duma cannot." It just doesn’t have any power.
And this, of course, is precisely where modern autocrats run into trouble. The fact that authoritarian regimes feel compelled to act like they’re really listening to voters reflects the extent to which democratic norms have become part of the woodwork. It’s no coincidence that Russia’s new culture of civic protest has been galvanized precisely by government vote-rigging. Nowadays Russians actually expect their votes to count, so going through the motions of an election no longer suffices. Malaysians, meanwhile, have been voting in more or less real elections for years — but the evidence is mounting that people there want their votes to be more than a legitimizing rubber stamp for a benignly despotic state. The political landscape is shifting accordingly.
Even for the most savvy of autocrats, then, these are testing times. Despite his cold-eyed assessment of the relative maneuverability of today’s undemocratic regimes, Dobson firmly believes that the forces of democracy are in the ascendance. "The Arab Spring is just a blink," he says. "The tide has clearly been in the direction of freedom and pluralistic societies." The rapid spread of information is making it harder for governments to concentrate power, thus chipping away at the very essence of authoritarianism. A rumor of government misbehavior in one part of China can immediately trigger riots in another place thousands of miles away. "This is not something the Ming Dynasty had to worry about," Dobson observes. "So you can’t tell me that the tasks these regimes have to worry about haven’t become more complicated."
Dobson might well be right. But even if he is, that’s certainly no reason for democrats to rest on their laurels. For the moment, at least, there are plenty of dictators to go around. And they’re still learning.
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Wole Soyinka, the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is one of the world’s greatest writers, living or dead. I restate this very obvious fact in light of what I intend to dwell on in this piece, that is, the writer’s current campaign for peace in the world. When the Nobel Committee cited the political dimension of Soyinka’s lifework, it was principally to speak to his rounded personality, to draw attention to the irreducibly humanistic character of his writing, and its reflection in his public morality. In an age when writers and intellectuals, weary of the polarizing tendencies of the Cold War, were apt to set up false distinctions between ethics and aesthetics, here was a writer untroubled by such a choice.
Eschewing direct political involvement could help writers as individuals avoid or challenge the brutality and cynicism that go with causes, while focusing more on the largely objective vocation of letters. But what is a writer to do whose life is bound up with politics, a writer who identifies with a political space in which writers are murdered or jailed or exiled, a writer whose sense of being is violated by a state of tyranny? Distinctions are academic in such a state; the best you can ask for is that that writer uphold the integrity of his art and the sanctity of his life. Recently, Ben Okri slipped into this magisterial attitude, saying that a writer was better off just writing. True enough, except that a writer is also a human being, as Odia Ofeimun argued in his response to Okri, and some human beings are talented enough to juggle several balls in the air at once. There is no reason to expect such a person to suppress other potentials he/she might possess.
Soyinka, who is currently in the news as the recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada (June 12) is one such writer. The Osogbo-based artist Susanne Wenger (Adunni Olorisa), once said that Soyinka did not consider his hands too well-manicured for the dirt of politics. His assimilation of the features of the ancestors has convinced him to see all life as one, Wenger told interviewers in words to this effect, and constantly plunge in a messy situation to see what of it could be redeemed. In a rare display of self-analysis soon after he left Nigeria to escape Abacha’s murderers in 1994, the man told a reporter of The Observer (of London) that in his life he had often acted as a lightning rod, the entity that bridges communal ignorance with a rope of self-sacrifice.
Long before The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, the book in which he challenges the logic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and reassesses the legacy of Negritude, Soyinka has fashioned a politics of responsibility that takes the whole world as its orbit. His argument is this. Humanity may be messy, but is intrinsically noble, and its existence is justified by certain inalienable rights. Any attempt to demean these rights in any one single individual or group, by an act of political or religious dogmatism, is an affront on the whole community, and should be so perceived and resisted. Both metaphorically and practically, he delves into the religious precepts embodied by Ifa to suggest how this resistance may be prosecuted. Although this is the guiding spirit of such works as The Bacchae of Euripides and Season of Anomy, to choose two examples from his oeuvre, I have found two recent essays in which this philosophy is very ur gently restated.
In February 1999, as the Founders’ Day Convocation Lecturer at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Soyinka spoke on the topic, ‘Globalization and Diversity-Conflict or Harmony?’. But his address was titled, ‘Not Mine, Nor Yours, Only Ours’. The second millennium was drawing to a close, and a world seized with the zeal to classify time and place as dates and nations wanted closure on the past. The very idea of adjudging an instant in time as the end of one millennium or the start of another sounded questionable to him, but then he asked: “Why should we not celebrate with the Christians? Why shouldn’t every century, every decade, every year by whoever’s reckoning be an occasion for universal participation, when we are seized with the consciousness of a passing era, a moment for universal stocktaking, deep reflection and new resolves?”
Soyinka was speaking at a Christian institution, and he did not hesitate to accuse the Judeo-Christian world for its share in the institutionalization of religious dogmatism. His critics often accuse him of attacking Islam, but in this lecture, Soyinka dwelt on the general suspicion of Islam, a religion that he said had proved to be the salvation of many African-Americans. He queried the arrogance that made the followers of Hinduism destroy a mosque in India, the constant murdering of people by fundamentalists in Algeria, in Iran, each justified by the bizarre principle of adherents who hold their own religious practice as the most divine. Not only Islam now, but also Christianity, Hinduism, Shintoism and every religion that sought to subdue secular authority, was the target of this lecture. He cast his lot with the secular authority because it only had managed to consign religious practice to a private space. He called for tolerance in managing this enriching diversity that govern s the present world, but did not confuse that tolerance with a complacency that would watch fundamentalism go out of hand. He pressed a verse of Ifa, Ika Di into the service of tolerance.
If religious fundamentalism was the focus of the Wake-(up) call, the more social complement of it, political tyranny, served as the object of the essay he published in the April 18, 1999 issue of the New York Times magazine. Again in a millennium fever, the magazine had been running essays and articles on the best inventions of the past 1000 years. Soyinka wrote on the best idea, and this for him was the principle of human rights. “Humanity has been straining to seize the fullness of this doctrine (the pursuit of happiness and consciousness-ideas that frame the American constitution, but which in Soyinka’s essay were distilled from Irosun Wori, another secondary Ifa verse), the right to knowledge, the freedom from anxiety, the right to security of existence inherent to the species. It is only the process of promulgating its pertinence to all mankind that has been long and costly”, he wrote in an essay titled ‘Every Dictator’s Nightmare’.
This seeming utopia might have been the basis for two of the most humane documents of the past thousand years-the American Declaration of Independence and the tenets of the French Revolution-but in each case, the ideal was watered down by human greed and lack of self-awareness. Napoleon compromised the French Revolution by re-introducing the slave trade into the Republic, and in the US, a leading author of the Constitution had a slave as wife. The collision of two forms of European absolutism-fascism and communism-in the second European War further showed what level of intolerance existed in the world. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights tried to salvage that confidence.
It is for this reason that Soyinka has repeatedly suggested the UN as the natural arbiter in the Middle East crisis. America’s role of an arbiter is compromised by that country’s allegiance to the state of Israel. Last February, when the monument erected in memory of the people killed in the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 was dedicated, Soyinka wrote and there read a poem titled ‘Vain Ransom’. It would seem that the continent was just the site for the battles waged on behalf of Islam and Christianity. Again, in that poem, he called on those who used these religions for violent purpose to respect the dignity of others.
This passionate call for peace should resonate everywhere, not just in the US and Afghanistan. In Nigeria, where opportunistic individuals actively use Islam and Christianity, the need is equally urgent. This August, there is going to be an international Orisa Congress in Ile-Ife. Participants shall attend from everywhere the Orisa are observed. The principle of such a gathering is the same as framed Soyinka’s lecture at Wake Forest: ‘Not Mine, Nor Yours, Only Ours’.