Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tropes of tyranny

The father of Malawi, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, whose longevity in years and in office might well depress opponents of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe still further, is currently the subject of a posthumous personality cult, reports the Globe & Mail's Geoffrey York.

I don't like the notion of universal traits--I'm too much of a cultural relativist for that--but three comments in the article by ordinary Malawians gave me pause.
  • "He built hospitals, schools, universities - it's all because of him. The roads you travel, the development that you see in Malawi yesterday - it's all because of this man."
Why, regardless of place and culture, do people insist upon this bizarre synecdoche, which is even permitted to become almost literal in the case of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and his god-like father--all other North Koreans being, in effect, little more than their bodily extensions? Bertold Brecht had a thing or two to say about that:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada.
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War. Who
Else won it?

  • "Most of the atrocities in that time were actually done by people around him," [a caretaker at the Banda mausoleum] told a group of tourists. "When he was angry, he would say, 'I don't like this person, remove him.' People would misinterpret it and torture the person and jail him."
The classic Henry II defence: but lacking in cathedrals and knights, the Malawians had to make do with the more mundane police-stations and dungeons that are also, like the exalted notion of leadership, a near-universal feature of the modern nation-state.
  • "He himself was very good, even if his followers were bad."
"Ah, if the Tsar only knew." The trope of distancing, the fear of the gap between a leader and his people at once metaphorical and literal. Kafka raises that to the level of nightmare:

An Imperial Message

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his death bed and whispered the message to him. He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who have come to witness his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would be gained. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally did burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream to yourself of that message when evening comes.

The "imagined community" of a nation has displaced the literal community: and, in its sheer magnitude it constantly threatens alienation from those who rule and speak in our name, and this is the case even under more democratic regimes.

Why, then, are the tropes of tyranny seemingly transcultural? Perhaps the answer, or at least a partial one, is this: as is the case with our current "universal" understanding of human rights, the modern nation is itself universal, and its construction, bearing a frankly Western institutional legacy, brings with it certain values and understandings that cross all borders. Simply look at the attire of the man above, who opened a replica of Eton College in his country in order to teach his impoverished people Greek and Latin.

But what, some might ask, do Western values of liberal democracy have to do with tyranny? Quite a bit when you think about it, and I'm not even referring to the sordid fact that our standard of living and the cheap imports that sustain us depend to a large extent upon tyranny at the source. Even tyrants (Stalin, Saddam Hussein) somehow required the validation of popular "elections"; their leadership, with its
stylized gestures, are different only in their local context and degree from (say) that of a Prime Minister who keeps a large portrait gallery of images of himself, or another one who says, "Just watch me."

In the modern tyrant we see as in a distorting mirror the everyday images of Western governance: elections that change nothing substantive, aloof leaders, social and economic hierarchies, a coercive state apparatus. To be sure, fear is generally replaced by that other political calming mechanism, apathy (unless you find yourself in a state of exception like Abousfian Abdelrazik or the various unfortunates Canada has rendered to other countries for torture, or holds on security certificates). But somehow Dr. Hastings Banda, in his three-piece suit and tie under the blazing African sun, seems rather too familiar, in ways that should trouble the genuine democrats among us.

No comments: