Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Failure of Imagination: Underestimating the Influence of Saddam's Totalitarianism

The recent deaths of Saddam Hussein, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Augusto Pinochet, the poisoned Russian spy along with the current debate on the extent of American intervention in Iraq have brought certain truths. The first being that political totalitarianism is awful on every account. This realization may seem obvious to anyone, but in monitoring current media chatter and listening to the reactions of everyday people to newsworthy events elsewhere in the world, it is apparent that there has been little effort to articulate in any detail the affect totalitarianism has on a people and how it leads to such widespread antisocial pathologies in countries that succumbed to totalitarian rule.

In our comfortably prosperous and civil environs that is middle-class life in America, such extremely depraved acts as assassination by radioactive intoxication, state-enforced execution with a taunting chorus recorded for posterity by camera phone and the tactics of militant forces that thrive in radically undermining any separation between armed forces and civilians appear incomprehensible to most of us. From our perspective of a society that takes for granted the prevailing rule of law and basks in limitless freedom to express oneself and make as much money as we endeavour, there is little difference between one dictator responsible for killing a few thousand of his countrymen for the sake of permanent political stability, rule of law and prosperity for his country and another totalitarian ruler who exterminated several hundred thousands of his own subjects for the sake of sowing permanent tribal division, economic degradation and political anarchy. Jeanne Kirkpatrick pointed to this difference, and urged that American foreign policy acknowledge it. But due to the extraordinary circumstance of growing up in a country where one hasn't experienced any degree of authoritarian rule for more than 230 years, many Americans are naive to the fact that most of the populations of the world are subject regimes that are far more invasive and deterministic in one's individual life than we can imagine.

If one looks at areas of the world where devastation by civil war, terrorism, or subjugation my Mafia clans or medieval tribalism, one can explain much of it through failed totalitarian experiments. In Russia, totalitarianism for seven decades begot a stunted and increasingly one party "democracy" that quashes opposition by whatever creative means, and in which the mafia is a major factor in daily life. In Cambodia, the Kmehr Rouge has achieved a sort national lobotomy that has prevented the country from being self-governing and deficient of and educated class to follow Vietnam's path to economic self-sufficiency. In numerous African countries, short-lived attempts at establishing socialist utopias have often lead to a radicalization of tribal animosities, to the extent that genocide and hacking off people's limbs are par for the course. In Afghanistan, the Islamic totalitarianism of the Taliban only succeeded in incarcerating women completely, as well to remind Afghans why it's more pragmatic for them to bow to those threaten with unrestrained violence over a democratic yet defenseless government of Karzai. In the aftermath of Castro's eventual passing, I don't expect Cubans to suddenly transform itself into a capitalistic democracy any time soon.

The largest totalitarian experiment in the Soviet Union has much to teach us about the system's adverse social effects. Although Russia under the Czar denied any modicum of personal liberty to its vast peasant class at the hands of the aristocrats, Stalin made sure freedom was only practiced by him alone. He made sure that everyone agreed to the Soviet state's omnipotence and ruthlessly ridding those who did not. What many people outside the USSR and other similar totalitarian systems is the extant to which it effects permanent changes that damage the psyche of subjected citizens that take several generations to eliminate. Paranoia becomes a tool of self preservation, as the social trust we take for granted in the U.S. is obliterated by a constant policy of purging suspected political enemies. People learn to be two-faced, carefully expressing one thing in public and voicing something contrary privately, which results individuals being skeptical about an other's true intentions. Such uncertainty erases all sense of trust, and essential ingredient in the building of any enterprise comprising of strangers that must cooperate. Nepotism becomes the rule in who gets to do what where, and competition between families rules out the neutral arbiters. Financing a business becomes a family affair, and for those families who do not have the means to pay for anything are beholden to underground mafias, who serve as surrogates to states who only serve the elites that control them. Where public trust is gone, one is evaluated no longer as individual with an independent conscience but rather one is identified as a member of a clan devoid of any real individuality. These observations are far from new, and have been better explained by Francis Fukuyama's book on the value trust from one society to the next.

What political totalitarianism does, then, is to eliminate individuality in all forms, particularly in one's thoughts. Once the totalitarian regime expires, it is not a given that such individual self-consciousness automatically returns. When an overarching identity defined by membership in a state is repealed, what replaces it are the layers of identity tied to simpler social structures: ethnicity, kin and family. To repeal those layers of identity to the individual is impossible in a social environment where one does not treat other individuals and humans with dignity, independent thought and sincerity. A free-society run by trustingly civil individuals is a huge leap in the history of social evolution. Totalitarianism does not derive from people deciding withdraw their individuality to become part of a larger political identity. Instead totalitarianism draws off pre-existing loyalties to ethnicity and kin to forge a far-ranging loyalty to the state. One one hears the common argument of how can a people maintain a free society when they have never know freedom, it's another way of stating that individuals in that that society haven't learned to trust each other. Contrary to the Marxist proposition that the final end of social evolution is the formation of a classless society based on economic equality (which to in my opinion is really about condensing several classes into one, which then becomes a 'state') I believe that totalitarian-enforced socialism is nothing more than a continuation of long tradition of abolishing individualism in favor of groups, from the family, to clan, to political party. Thus, when totalitarianism fades, the family, the clan and a the political party once again take precedence. In this context individualism never came to being in the first place.

From this perspective, much of what is happening in our world becomes comprehensible. In Iraq, Saddam for many decades was able to completely destroy any faint democratic notion remaining among his people, he used his ethnicity and his Tikriti-based kin to submit all other ethnic groups and clans to his and his party's rule. Individual identity was secondary to what ethnicity and clan one belonged to, and whether someone was a Baathist or not, or simply whether he did not like someone not as dignified individuals, but what threat they posed to him personally or how they could enhance his power. For this to happen, hundreds of thousands of people who did not belong to his group were slaughtered for none other than who they were. Kurds, Shia, Marsh Arabs, or even his kin who consorted with people outside his family were all people who betrayed Saddam's narrowly defined totalitarian identity. With Saddam gone, to where did the power devolve? To the next level of social structures: the clans, the religious leaders and religiously affiliated political parties. Demographic isolation is currently taking place in Iraq, with each of the three major ethnic groups claiming their own territory, with multi-ethnic cities changing into singular bastions of one ethnicity or becoming the home of a powerful clan. Such movements of people have made American objectives for a stable federal democracy in Iraq a tall order. Although such a goal is admirable and any country with an existing political culture amenable to democracy would jump at the chance America has given Iraq, the totalitarianism instituted by Saddam and his Baath party has diminished the ability for the Iraqi people to understand and embrace the golden opportunity before them. The post-Saddam era for many Iraqis seems to have presented an opportunity to rather exact revenge on the former ruling group.

When I read about the current difficulties facing American-led coalition forces in Iraq and the horrors afflicting Iraqi civilians from terrorism, I tend to see these events from a different perspective than what drives the contemporary debate on Iraq. In my mind it is easier to indict American military strategy, Iraqi political fractiousness, or the intelligence of George W. Bush than to confront the totalitarian reality that was Iraq under Saddam. This reality is not only beyond our comprehension, it is beyond our imagination. Totalitarianism brings out the worst in human nature and uses it as an instrument to wield control. More gruesome and more lethal forms of torture were developed under totalitarian regimes, systematic executions and show trials were means for the authority to communicate power and induce fear in the population. Islamic fascism takes the totalitarian ethic further by injecting fanatical religious conviction into the mix, thus inflicting cruelty and mercilessness not only to members within a political polity, but outside it as well. In addition to executing on the spot any villager who does not demonstrate loyalty to the controlling Islamic fascist, they will capture torture and summarily execute foreign soldiers and humanitarian workers with little regard to international law or any modicum of human dignity. Whenever one of those beheading videos are broadcasted, or reports of terrorist militants using schools and mosques to stockpile weapons and coordinate plots are written about, or blatant footage showing terrorists using civilians as human shields, I can’t help but think about the many years of totalitarian brutality in its many various forms that have led to such a sordid outcome.

But what I also cannot comprehend is the reaction of so many people to such blatant evil. Such resignation, such complaisance, such futility in trying to explain it away as a just reaction to what the Americans did beforehand. That is not how one should respond to this subhuman depravity. One should instead support efforts to eliminate it outright by force of arms. Any other alternative such as talking it out or making concessions will not stop totalitarian violence. Such misguided efforts through accommodation helps explain why many totalitarian regimes last for long periods of time long after the political subjects have tired of it.

One of the conclusions reached in investigating the 9/11 attacks was that there was a failure of imagination in preventing such an unconventional terrorist plot. Much of what made 9/11 such a traumatic event to the American psyche was its surreal quality, a sense that these attacks could not have taken place in reality, but rather somewhere in our imaginations, as if in a dream. I fear that much of the world has failed to imagine what the Iraqi people have been subjected to under Saddam which not only has affected American efforts to stabilize Iraq but also how most of us have no reasonable answer to a powerful evil staring right at us. If we cannot take a firm stand against totalitarianism and its evils in front of our faces, whether on the battlefield or on our television screens, how can we expect to protect our own freedom from it?

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