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Summer Reading

It's a bright and sunny day; I've got the office window open, the cats are dozing on the sofa, and in between fitful bursts of writing I'm daydreaming about heading for one of Edinburgh's many public gardens with a book and a bottle of water.

Speaking of books, I haven't been reading enough lately. On the fiction front, stuff is piling up; I was meaning to read and review Cory Doctorow's Little Brother some weeks ago, and I've just been given advance copies of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains and Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids to review. Or blurb. (Or drool over incontinently while muttering "precioussss" — as one does to advance copies of books by authors whose work induces much fannish squeeing.)

But enough of that. What I have been reading is mostly research around some of my current writing preoccupations. That'd involve dictators, and secret police, and other twisted epiphenomena of politics gone bad. On the secret police front, to try and get a feel for what living in a police state actually means to the ordinary people on the receiving end of it, I can solidly recommend Stasiland by Anna Funde. The creepy sense it conveys — of how our existence as social organisms is mediated by the society around us, and how people who in other societies might have been drawn to the professions of plausibility (insurance sales, real-estate, advertising) instead ended up forming the serious-minded backbone of the East German secret police, the Stasi — feeds directly into other explorations of how social architecture controls human behaviour. For a more theoretical exploration of this problem, Philip Zimbardo should require no introduction; his The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People turn Evil is a timely and relevant reminder of the Stanford Prison study, and an explanation of just what it tells us about the effects of inhumane social systems on the behaviour of the inmates (be they prisoners or guards) — in this case, with specific reference to Abu Ghraib.

Drawing the focus in from the wide picture of abusive societies, I've also been reading up on dictators — actual individuals who wield unrestrained executive power. Dictators never cease to fascinate; Hannah Arendt's thesis about the banality of evil notwithstanding, something about these men frequently transcends our expectations of brutality and petty malice, rising to the level of surrealism. They're frequently uneducated, frequently thuggish, and mostly use their position in the military to seize power in chaotic circumstances with a large measure of blind luck on their side; once in power they find themselves propelled onto the world stage, blinking and twitching under the bright lights like rabid groundhogs. Subsequently, they usually give the shocked audience an object lesson of what happens when the ultimate lottery drops an enormous pay-off on the head of a complete asshole — but do they have any insight into their own condition? Riccardo Orizio, in Talk of the Devil, tracked down and interviewed seven deposed dictators, from Idi Amin Dada and Jean-Bedel Bokassa (former NCOs in the old imperial powers' armies, made good in the wake of the western withdrawal from Africa) to the schoolmasterly and severe General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a former general in a rather different imperial power's service (made good in the chaos of the 1980s that marked the onset of the collapse of the Soviet empire) and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.

I'm probably not giving anything away if I mention that they don't come over well — although I'd have a devil of a job parodying a real dictator of their ilk in fiction. (Many of the antics of Idi Amin, for example, would have been perfect for an episode of Heil Honey, I'm Home! ... albeit slightly too blood-drenched to show on British network TV before the 9pm watershed.)

Finally, if that's not enough to demonstrate that the triumph of the will is no guarantor of good taste, I'd like to recommend the high weirdness of Dictator's Homes: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colourful Despots by Peter York and Douglas Coupland. A lush, photographic travelogue accompanied by an acerbic style commentary, it's as much a tour through the subconscious desires and longings of these little men, gifted with too much power and too little restraint; much as your (or my) furnishings and surroundings can tell you a lot about us, so, too, do the palaces of dictators expose their fears and neuroses. (Which goes double for Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu's bathroom habits; readers with a weak stomach probably ought to skip that section.)

Summary: this stuff isn't just banal, it's deeply strange, with a salad portion of evil on the side. Implications for the student of the human condition: significant.



For an excellent look at the Stasi, make sure you watch The Lives of Others. It's a German film from a few years ago. I think it was nominated for a few awards. Probably the best distopia/secret police/espionage movie I've seen in a while.


"...seize power in chaotic circumstances with a large measure of blind luck on their side; once in power they find themselves propelled onto the world stage, blinking and twitching under the bright lights like rabid groundhogs."

Reminds me of a certain Russian oligarch who is frequently in the news...


The colourful lifestyle link doesn't work.


Till: the link is fixed now.


They're frequently uneducated, ... with a large measure of blind luck on their side; ... they find themselves propelled onto the world stage, blinking and twitching under the bright lights like rabid groundhogs.

After watching* The Last King of Scotland I was struck by parallels between Idi Amin and his lifestyle and Elvis. No really. There's a hint of strangeness to some of what Elvis did with his wealth, the brash self-promotion, the over-the-top decoration of his house, the collecting of deputy badges, surrounded by yes-men, drug use etc.

I note that I worked in Insurance Sales for a year before moving into the back office and getting involved with the pricing. I dread to think where I'd have ended up in a police state (I hope the equivalent move would be into cryptanalysis or accounting).

* and earlier reading


I'd be interested to see what you think of "The Steel Remains". I've loved every one of Morgan's books except "Market Forces".


The question I have is whether these people are just sociopaths and how common their psychology is in the general population. We see similar behavior in corporate executives except that the restraints prevent mass bloodshed although they sometimes achieve the next best thing - employees toiling in misery and the odd mass layoff to make sure everybody understands who is in control. We see few examples of dictators, a somewhat larger selection of CEOs, but I wonder what percentage of the population might act similarly - 1%, 5%, 25%...?


Exactly what Andrew G. said. I await your comments.


When I was in Sofia last year showing my English boyfriend my country of origin, we went to the National Hostory Museum, which is now housed just outside the city, in what used to be Todor Zhivkov's residence. While the scale of it is somewhat mindnumbing (particularly because I think this was purely a residence, rather than also a working environment), what was more striking was the sheer tastelessness and bling of the place. And this is with all the actual furnishings stripped out and replaced by a well thought-out and arranged museum.

As to what it feels like to live in a totalitarian state, look no further. Bulgaria (and the Soviet Union by extension) could only dream of the level and perfection of brainwashing that has been achieved by some Western societies (the US in particular, but some of Europe's not *that* far behind).


That's *History* museum, and I really should not rely on my touch typing as much as I do. ;-)


What, you didn't get enough info on the Stasi reading Len Deighton?


Mili: I am thoroughly aware of the level of ambient political indoctrination and media control going on in the US (and here in the UK we've got our own trouble (including a government hell-bent on building a surveillance system that would have made the Stasi wet themselves).

(As Chomsky put it: when you have a dictatorship, you can keep people in line with police and state-controlled media, but when you're trying to look like a democracy you've got to use more sophisticated tools to achieve the same degree of conformity by providing the illusion of dissent.)

Joel: Deighton was writing spy thrillers. Which means that his perceptions of the Stasi are filtered through the sensibilities of a writer of spy thrillers. More importantly, he wasn't interested in how ordinary folks managed to live in that environment; he was interested in dissidents and spies.



Although I think Deighton got into the lives of ordinary people somewhat in passing in SS-GB.

The sheer scale of the lunacy of dictators like Idi Amin Dada and Adolph Hitler makes satire difficult. The best attempt I can think of is Chaplin's turn as Hitler in The Great Dictator, especially the dance with the globe. And in any case, the grim things they do silences many satirists by their dark weight.

Shorter Chomsky: if all you've got is a secret police, everyone looks like a thought criminal.


I'll second Tim's recommendation for the Lives of Others. Besides being an excellent film about the Stasi, the lead actor (playing a Stasi officer) was in real life a former East German actor who was watched and persecuted by the Stasi. (Talk about knowing the role).

Also, off topic....or maybe not. I was part of the welcome crew in DC. I suspect that some of the sights you were seeing was part of your ongoing research. What are your impressions of the Imperial Capitol?


You must be too young to have read Alan Coren's Collected Bulletins of President Idi Amin


I'll second Tim's praise for The Lives of Others. It might prove useful to your research, Charlie, as the central character is a low-level Stasi functionary, a team leader and instructor at the training academy, whose only life is in his job. There's a great deal of information about, not only how, but why such systems work, at the day-to-day level.


Mmmm...might almost be describing W. I am reminded of wondering who the "evil media mogul" character from Mark Clifton's occasionally brilliant and greatly flawed *When They Come From Space* is based. Because he's probably based on someone(s). The question I always wonder about is why anyone ever follows these people.


I'm a fairly new reader so this is my first comment. First, Charlie, I have to say your comment about "heading for one of Edinburgh's many public gardens with a book" really has me pining for Auld Reeky.

Second, I'd recommend the documentary General Idi Amin Dada, by Barbet Schroeder if you can find a copy. It's a Criterion disc, so it's not always easy to find. Well worth the effort though. Idi Amin even performed the accordian music for the film. Riveting stuff.

Finally, there's a novel called Ivankiada by Vladimir Voinovich that you might like as well. It's more about life inside a closed, beuraucratic, totalitarian society.

You probably already know about both, but I thought I'd chime in anyway. Enjoying the diary, keep it up!


I remember visiting one of the holiday villas of Ceausescu after the fall of communism in Romania - something hardly possible now, alas, since the place is now once again in use to host local and foreign dignitaries. Tasteless opulence doesn't begin to describe it; an amalgam of clashing styles and precious art thrown about without the least hint of subtlety or class. And speaking of bathrooms: they were placated with Italian marble, and the faucets were pure gold. I kid you not.

Imagine now a man who lives his life in such opulence. Imagine he's surrounded by yes-men who bow to his every whim, while praising him for his genius. It's not that I'm defending dictators; it's just that I believe that some of the responsibility should be shared with their entourage. Those corrupt, spineless politicians who make dictatorship possible.

I'll give you two examples of the insanity that ruled Romania under Ceausescu. The first links directly to his seaside villa: while he was in residence, the soldiers from the local military garrison spent a few good hours each morning churning the sand on the beach in front of the villa, so that only the finest, softest grains remained. The beach was subsequently guarded, of course, so that no mere mortal would intrude. This I know first-hand, from people who served in the Army there.

The second is more anecdotal in nature, but it is very much plausible. In one of his countless work visits, the great leader swept his hand and told the local party chief that a particular neighbourhood of old one-storey houses in his town should be scrapped, and new flat blocks should be built instead. After he was gone, the party chief, with the help of the visit's recording and a theodolite, managed to measure where said arm swipe has pointed, and demolished precisely between those points. Which also resulted in the demolishing of only half a house, but I guess that's the anecdotal part.

Imagine having that power. If you could level cities with a gesture, if your every whim would be satisfied, if your every word would be worshipped... would you remain sane?


Alex, I think it's hard to tell what each of us would do if we suddenly came into some real power. I do remember playing a game as a kid where everyone else was an animal and I lucked out into being the human. I could point at anyone, say "bang" and they were dead. That's the power of life and death over all I surveyed. Woot! I ended up behaving, um, badly.

I suspect similar changes of personality happen when people become very wealthy or powerful.


Johan: I read a very interesting essay by, I think, Robert X. Cringely, about his meeting with Colonel Ghadaffi. Who was a lovely chap, friendly, intelligent, and with a fine sense of humour ... except that there was always an extremely dour security officer hovering in a corner of the room, and Cringely had a feeling that if Ghadaffi accidentally made a crack about shooting the national football squad for losing a match, the people around him might not stop to ask if he was joking.


As far as �writing preoccupations (that) involve dictators, and secret police, and other twisted epiphenomena of politics gone bad.� I highly recommend A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers by Lawrence Weschler.
I was able to take a class of his on the political use of torture and post totalitarian societies coping with its aftermath. Very enlightening, in a horrific sort of way, for the students of the human condition.


Sociopaths comprise something like 2 or 3 percent of the population, but as Milgram and Zimbardo point out, the majority will follow almost any agenda if it's presented by someone in authority. Since sociopaths tend to the manipulative, under the right conditions they can rise to control "good" people into committing evil. It's almost like the Miller-Urey experiment creating amino acids every time it's run.

Opposition in these circumstances takes courage because most will be against you, but: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".


I think of Stalin as the canonical example of an all-powerful ruler of a totalitarian state, if for no other reasons than he had the highest body count, and practiced terrorism even on his own inner circle.

The fascinating thing about Stalin's rule is that millions of his subjects were aware that he was the ultimate source of political power in the USSR, and that his power was enforced by secret police, disappearance, and torture, but a majority of them insisted he himself was a benevolent ruler ("the Little Father") whose subordinates twisted his orders into the policies that kept the police state going.

Dictators make use of sociopaths as their instruments, but they themselves are almost (maybe not even "almost") always psychopaths. I wonder if they started out that way or if the acquisition of that much power drove them off the deep end. It wouldn't be an academic question if we knew of some diagnostic behavior that could identify such people before they became immune to the law. Of course, then we'd have to figure out what to do with them, but I'd rather have that problem than the ones they create after they've got the power.


On a related note, I recommend Kathleen Taylor's "Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control". This is a good look at techniques people use to influence each other and at the processes in the brain that affect the way we form opinions. She starts with the more extreme form of brainwashing and then moves on to more conventional marketing and PR, finishing with how to resist the more pervasive, less violent end of the spectrum. It won't tell you much about dictators or secret police, but is interesting none the less.


Maybe I'm reading too much into the comments, but it seems as if the US/UK social control came from a single source. I can think of two or three overarching messages that come down the media pipes, but they are not at all intended to make everyone march to the same tune.

I think of the Cops/CSI/Law & Order meme (the police are both right and good, always), the corporatist meme (good consumers are good people), and the general political meme (I/the people I support could usher in a utopian nirvana if only we could gain absolute control of two branches of government, or ignore the pesky Constitution). To think that any group that pushes these memes is more virtuous than another is, at a basic level, to buy into the propaganda, right?

Like I say, maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but to think that your politician/company is only getting half the point.


*Like I say, maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but to think that your politician/company different is only getting half the point.

It was the Interweb censors what stole that word. Stupid world shadow government minions.


Brett, the simplest explanation I've got for the social control thing is that we're living in a Vernor Vinge novel, specifically "A Deepness in the Sky" (and the Emergents have just, well, Emerged).


Alex, I think it's hard to tell what each of us would do if we suddenly came into some real power. I do remember playing a game as a kid where everyone else was an animal and I lucked out into being the human. I could point at anyone, say "bang" and they were dead. That's the power of life and death over all I surveyed. Woot! I ended up behaving, um, badly.

I suspect similar changes of personality happen when people become very wealthy or powerful.

There was an interesting take on this recently with the (*hoick*) RPG 'Aberrant', which took a long look at precisely what would happen if a bunch of people woke up and found themselves with superpowers.

The results weren't pretty.


Regarding dictators, I would heartily recommend R. Orizio "Talk of the Devil", containing interviews with such luminaries as Jean-Bedel Bokassa (THE 13th apostle, to hear him tell it) and Enwer Hoxha's wife. Good reading!


ON a vageuly relevant front, I've been watching "The Prisoner", and thinking how you could re-do it in the modern day and escaping would be even harder...


H. Anderson: you didn't actually read the blog posting that kicked this discussion off, did you?

Guthrie: I'm currently re-watching "The Prisoner" on DVD. I gather there's some talk of a remake series ...


The comment in #13 reminds me of a story (almost entirely untrue alas) that Hitler was a great fan of Chaplin, and that seeing The Great Dictator was a deeply hurtful personal blow. It always seemed like an idea that somone writing about powerful, personally invulnerable dictators should develop as a melancholy sort of victory for a fictional artist.

In reality Hitler did actually have copies of the film available to him, and eyewitnesses claim he saw it, however Nazi propaganda portrayed Chaplin (mistakenly) as a jew, so it's doubtful Hitler was anything more than curious about the film.


"Power tends to drive you mad, and absolute power sends you absolutely round the bend. Great men are almost always bad men."

(With apologies to Lord Acton, although I hope putting the following line to his famous quotation in makes amends)


Andrew G @ 6: When I picked up a copy of 'Market Forces' recently, the sales clerk actually warned me that it was nothing like 'Altered Carbon' and he hadn't enjoyed it. I haven't read it yet, so don't know whether I'll like it or not. I've enjoyed all the other Morgan books I've read, though.

I'm currenly reading Doctorow's 'Little Brother' and wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone.
It's one of those stories that had me grinding my teeth in anger at the behaviour of the State and trampling of the rights and freedoms of the populace.
I had the same reaction watching the episodes of 'Spooks' about an attempted coup against the British government.
In both cases it showed how easily a situation can be manipulated to turn a so-called democracy into a police state in a very short period of time. And with the tacit complicity of the population.


A dictator that no-one has mentioned yet is Caius Julius Caesar. I just finished an excellent book on him:

Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2006. Caesar: The Life of a Colossus.

Goldsworthy puts Caesar into the context of the late Roman Republic as it was tottering towards its end. Caius was, in addition to being a very capable general, an excellent politician. Personally, he was charming, learned, the perfect guest, and (almost uniquely among Romans of his milieu) merciful to his defeated enemies.

However, he was also ruthless and amoral, and perfectly willing to commit atrocities if he thought it would further his cause. And his cause was himself, first, last and always.


I'll put in a plug for Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians, which treats the human tendency to follow leaders. Intriguing and chilling. And a free e-book as well.


For sheer gaudiness the 30 year reign of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic is hard to match. His grip on the country was total, and he damn near deflowered every virgin in the country. One of many Latin caudillos propped up by the U.S. government and disposed of when he no longer served any use.


Charlie @28:

Yes. The never-ending State of Emergency that started in America around WWI does remind me of that. I believe the quotation is "there's no room in a lifeboat for democracy". Over the last century I would say that the pauses (for America): 1919-29 and 1992-2001 have only come when the government couldn't find a credible bad guy. Even in the 2nd pause, we sure did have a couple of convenient emergencies.

I've often thought of police state (and dictators) as opposite hacks on the peer pressure instinct. Which, in my view are the bases of ethics. (IIRC from my days as a Philosophy minor, ethics are externally drawn standards of behavior; morals are internal standards of behavior that exist without (or inspite of) external forces. At least, that's how I'm using the terms.) Dictators, by definition lacking peers, do as they whim -- no matter how trite, stupid, or deadly. They are beyond ethics. It makes them socio- or psychopathic by definition. And I'm not sure that pathological self-indulgence can be considered a moral position.

The subjects of a police state (in this model) are unable to form peer-groups beyond the most basic survival consensus. The only peer reinforced ethic is staying afloat, usually by compliance with agents of the state. External cues to any other system of ethics (theology, history & philosophy) are systematically destroyed or subverted in successful police states. The agents of such a state end up in the same ethical vacuum. If they happen to discover alternate ethical systems, they are presented with the moral dilemma that forms the heart of Farenheit 451 and 1984. Lots of people just choose the one that's most convenient for resolving the peer group conflict. And you get Abu Ghraib or the Blue Wall of Silence. Or Enron, where even the whistle-blower was more of the 'first rat off a sinking ship' variety.

Sometimes a group manages to keep a counter-ethic alive (like Poland's Solidarity movement) long enough to "raise the bottom" on the police state's collapse. However, the only way out of the single ethical system trap from the inside is morality. As the Stanford Prison Experiment illustrated, a shocking number of completely ethical people are amoral. (It gets confusing here because the folks running the SPE obviously violated their professional code of ethics, but were socially ethical within the context of the Experiment's society. And again in open society once the SPE was ended.) I'm not sure how the moral person would survive long enough to effect change in a police state. A person with a moral code that is not in line with the state's desired ethics becomes a competing ethical alternative, triggering the bureaucratic survival reflex. I imagine that many moral Soviet citizens ended up dead or in gulags. Also, there's the interesting side road of whether morality is just the internalization or imprinting of a certain code of ethics. If so, how could it survive a multigenerational police state.

Sorry for the completely uncited, unsolicited brain dump. I've thought about pieces of this often, but something about the Emergents comment got me spun up. Being a ChemE student now, I rarely get to put all that liberal arts training to use. I look forward to reading the result of all this research.


Wanted: titles/ISBNs of first six* must-read Chomsky texts. Dammit, I've been wearing a Tom Tomorrow cartoon t-shirt which mentions NoamC for years, but haven't read any of NC's work since I finished the psycholinguistics course way back when.

[*] Deterring Democracy featured on the shirt/toon and on the list to read. So okay, five for now.

Semiotics: so you'll understand *how* a politician is lying to you.


Brett L @39:
There may be counterexamples, but AFAIK history records few or no absolute maintainers of a moral subset within (and opposed to) a police state beyond a decade or so. (Feel free to correct me if am wrong.) At best, a new moral subsociety may be reborn from the ashes and the renewed perception of all that is wrong in one's world.

No need to apologise for the brain dump. I, for one, look forward to subscribing to your newsletter.


Correction to #41:
"absolute maintainers" meant as a class-wide movement, rather than a number of staunch individuals. Which is a mealy-mouthed way of saying my head is parked twixt my arse-cheeks.

Because, in most cases, history has turned on the convictions of a few individuals far more than on the whinging of mobs. Which is why we are far better off than we might be in the best of all democratically-possible worlds.


#23 & #24 ...
I'd say 1 to 2 % sociopath. You get them in all organisations, and, when they become MANAGERS, it all starts to fall apart, because there are always too many bottom-lickers, who won't (or more likely CAN'T - it's not in their nature) say NO /WRONG/ STOP!
Stalin / Mao / Pol Pot / Adolf / Julius C ... etc.
Surely their most defining common characteristic is their SELFISHNESS.
"ME FIRST - and since I'm in charge, everyone else can go to hell."
This where christian teaching ALMOST has it right - they have traditionally regarded PRIDE as the prime "sin".
But I think it is the self-centred egotism that does it, which is not necessarily pride. In fact, a lot of these peole are deeply insecure, which is why they indulge in vicious persecutions.
And we're back to Joseph Vissarionovich Djugvlashii again, are we not?

I would recommend the late Alan Bullock's: "Stalin and Hitler Parallel lives" as very illuminating of the darkness.


Oh, and "Edinburgh's Gardens" ..
As a Londoner who likes Dunedin - Waverley, with the Castle, and the trains, or the Botanic Garden are my favourites.
Calton Hill has too many tourists.


My parents and Alec ("A.D") Hope were great mates, and I'm sure I won't be cheating their lads out of a sale, so:

The Pleasure of Princes

What pleasures have great princes? These: to know
Themselves reputed mad with pride or power;
To speak few words -- few words and short bring low
This ancient house, that city with flame devour;
To make old men, their father's enemies,
Drunk on the vintage of the former age;
To have great painters show their mistresses
Naked to the succeeding time; engage
The cunning of able, treacherous ministers
To serve, despite themselves, the cause they hate,
And leave a prosperous kingdom to their heirs
Nursed by the caterpillars of the state;
To keep their spies in good men's hearts; to read
The malice of the wise, and act betimes;
To hear the Grand Remonstrances of greed
Led by the pure; cheat justice of her crimes;
To beget worthless sons and, being old,
By starlight climb the battlements, and while
The pacing sentry hugs himself for cold,
Keep vigil like a lover, muse and smile,
And think, to see from the grim castle steep
The midnight city below rejoice and shine:
"There my great demon grumbles in his sleep
And dreams of his destruction, and of mine."


Brett: your brain dump #39 is in no way unwelcome. (It sheds some light, too, on one of the core failings of the Soviet Union -- the concept of New Soviet Man, which relied on an over-optimistic view of human developmental and ethical plasticity. Of course communism would work, if you could rewire everybody's brains ...)

G. Tingey: they've done good things to St Andrew's Square recently, turning it from a closed-off lawn surrounding a dour monument into a light, open grassy meeting area two minutes from Prince's Street. And the council seems to be trying to do the same thing elsewhere in town.


Whatever the merits of "The Lives of Others" as a film, and its message about what it's like to live in a police state, don't watch it for insight into how the Stasi really operated - that's not how you run surveillance. It's about as accurate a depiction of intelligence work as, say, "Goldfinger" was.


Power does not corrupt. If it did, leaders who attempt to wield their power well would be infinitely more rare than they are. They dont always succed, but the world has seen many, many leaders both absolute and limited who - tried - to do right.
What power does is reveal. It is a bright and merciless light that pushes your inner heart onto a stage for all the world to behold. This may be an ugly, a common or a beautiful spectacle, but power, in and off itself doesnt change who you are. It just makes you so much more yourself, because all the restraints go away.

Dictators tend to be much worse people than the average man, not because of the inherent corrupting influence of power, but because you mostly have to be a pretty dire grade of asshat to want to sieze power in a coup to begin with.


Charlie: I don't suppose you'll be in Charlotte Square in August?

Personally I gave great memories of Blackford Hill, but then it and Arthurs Seat were close to where I grew up and great places to play as a kid.

I recently read "Kingdom Come" by J.G. Ballard. Now I admit I haven't read any of his for a *long* time, but the study of the shopping culture and obession was scarily (sp?) believable. I really ought to pick up some more of his stuff.

Alternatively, just pop into Till's (great little 2nd hand bookshop) at the corner of the Meadows near the Dick Vet and pick up anything that catches my eye.

Of course, if I'm in Edinburgh, I'd have to be reading Halting State with a worried expression ;-}

(Yes, I, too, miss the City of the Enlightenment.)


#48 Dictators tend to be much worse people than the average man, not because of the inherent corrupting influence of power, but because you mostly have to be a pretty dire grade of asshat to want to sieze power in a coup to begin with.

In a political system without working elections, I can see that one would find a coup to be the best (or even only) solution availabel to effect change.

Strange as it sounds, my only direct interaction with Stasi was on the whole quite pleasant. I was on my way to a maths conference in Dresden and me and my group found ourselves completely lost at a train station in DDR-Berlin, so I asked what I thought was a porter or station attendant or something in my best school German if he knew where platform whatever-it-was was and after staring at me for a second or two, he was more than happy to point us in the right direction. I suspect he wasn't used to people not recognising Stasi uniforms.


Control of the media is fairly vital for a police state, or for controlling the masses. I'm afraid I don't know much about dictators, but media control is something I have a little more knowledge on. To be fair though, I gathered it from Chomsky (READ THESE BOOKS: "media and democracy" by chomsky, and the classic on media control, "manufacturing consent" - the first is a short light introduction, but changed the way I think. the second is an much more in depth study). Also - this is an excellent resource on media control in the UK, and well worth a look.

Something that crops up a lot on the media lens website is (i think this is the term) cognitive dissonance. an new idea is completely at odds with an entrenched idea, with the result that the person simply won't accept it.

For example, chomsky interviewed by andrew marr in the late 90s. chomsky states something along the lines of "western media is strictly controlled" andrew marr states "but if that was the case, there would be all these conspiracies etc we wouldn't know about"
chomsky: "what about Cointel Pro?" Marr: "what's cointel pro?"
afraid no references but it was a newsnight interview.

I assume this is a factor in police states, particularly since control of a body of people requires control of information. Making sure that the majority of information people get on a day to day basis is "on message" (i hate that phrase), results in significantly improved control (information is power, as they say).

An interesting adjunct to this is the work of clay shirky, on easy group forming. If anyone is after a fascinating read, find "here comes everybody". actually it relates fairly well to "little brother" by cory doctorow, a lot of the ideas seem to flow from one to the other. (little brother is worth a go too).


Wanted: titles/ISBNs of first six* must-read Chomsky texts.

I'd say Manufacturing Consent is the must have Chomsky (co-written with Ed Herman) book.


Thinking a little on palaces etc. (because thinking about police states is too scary), there's a tendency for rulers in general and dictators in particular* to build monuments. These help to legitimise their rule by signalling that they're here for the long haul; they're not some warlord in to loot the treasury and clear off. Their rule will be stable or whatever they allow to happen. I note in ancient times Nero's Golden House, the Flavian Amphitheatre better known as the Colosseum, half of Rome in the case of Augustus, Alexandria (in fact, all 20 or so Alexandrias) and the pyramids and temples of Egypt. Some of these had practical uses as well - a palace is often a working building. Also as most of these were built by people brought up in noble or royal families they tended to be in good taste.

(Sidenote - do hereditary autocrats, being brought up to wield power by successful autocrats, have some of the counter-productive tendency to "behave badly" trained out of them? Bad behaviour that reinforces their rule continues of course.)

In the 20th Century it seems that warlords in it to loot the treasury build these monuments as part of the looting the treasury.

* especially tyrants to use the Ancient Greek terminology to differentiate them from autocrats who came to power peacefully (who were known as kings)


The claim that Britain has 4.2 million CCTV cameras is not well founded. The Radio 4 programme "More or Less" on the 12th May (archive available on the BBC website) tracked down the original source, a rather heroic extrapolation based on a survey of just two streets in Putney in 2002.


What strikes me about dictators such as Caius Julius Caesar, compared to many of the modern dictators-by-coup, it that they come out of the existing ruling class. He has the education and the social graces, and has followed a path through civil and military life (that's something you wouldn't expect to see now).

In some ways, he's the Roman ideal writ large. He leads armies. runs the civil government of vast territories, and does this successfully.

And then there was Franco. How does he compare with other dictators? How much were his actions driven by a desire for personal power, and how much by a desire to make another Civil War impossible? I wonder what he thought of Cromwell in England. Both died peacefully in bed, and left a country which didn't collapse into chaos: that looks pretty successful to me.

How many dictators would stand the comparison with Machiavelli's description of The Prince?

I know I wouldn't make a good dictator. I'd be too soft on some, and too inclined to "Who will rid me of this turbulent troll" on others.


I don't think one can really compare ancient tyrants with modern, totalitarian dictators. Completely different sets of assumptions both in them and in the rest of the world.


Brett: on the 4.2 million CCTV cameras, I think it's probably an underestimate. Firstly, there are a hell of a lot more public council/police cameras now than there were six years ago. Secondly, cameras are dirt-cheap and ubiquitous now; a set of eight, plus frame grabber card for a PC, plus offsite backup via broadband, sells for about £250, and CCTV surveillance is a prerequisite for business insurance for many retail premises. Take the chip shops on the other side of my road, for example: one's got four visible cameras, the other has five (one pointed at each cash register, plus several for the punters). The pubs all have multiple cameras, both pointing at the bar and at the public areas. The shops ... I'd be surprised if the block opposite me, a stretch of about 60 metres of retail premises with 10 establishments, had less than 50 cameras. Meanwhile, Lothian Buses proudly boast that all their buses have either six (for the short single-deckers) or eight cameras aboard.

There might have been less than 4.2 million CCTV systems in the UK in 2002. But given that there are roughly 2 million shops (each with 2-8 cameras), 100,000 pubs (ditto), probably 30,000 buses (average: 6) and so on, I'd be astonished if there were less than 10 million out there today, and unsurprised to learn the figure was closer to 20 million. Although as most of these are "private" cameras they probably wouldn't be counted for official purposes (which tend to focus on police/local authority kit).


Just make sure your cats don't get ahold of these books.


We should have some better figures for Scotland fairly soon, a new and rather more comprehensive survey is in progress and will be published in July. It's just the oft-cited factoid that Britain has more than anywhere else and specifically has 4.2 million cameras is rather shaky. After all it is possible that the extrapolation was based on some rather atypical streets. I'm not sure the figure of 2 million shops is entirely plausible, Britain has a population of about 60 million so 2 million shops is 1 shop per 30 people, which doesn't seem an adequate number of customers. According to some figures on the Office for National Statistics website there are about 950,000 retail outlets in the UK.


Oddly enough, the original dictators were constrained by a limit of 6 months with optional re-ups by the Senate. Amazingly, a number of power hungry politicians actually accepted that restraint before Sulla started to crack Rome's instistutional integrity. I imagine the explanation is that most of these men emerged from the existing ruling cliques with the purpose of reinstating that class' privilege, rather than these modern accidental leaps into a power vacuum.


Believe it or not, I only read Charlie's original post before commenting, so apologies for being slightly repetitious to #55. However, Julius Caesar was probably the least conservative and most destructive of the dictators (not counting the actual emperors that followed.) Destructive both in the sense of deconstructing the old system and also in the sense of butchering a staggering number of people. (See the end of Saylor's The Triumph of Caesar, where he quotes an ancient source for well over a million deaths on the battlefield, not counting collateral deaths and massive enslavements.)


Charlie #32- I came to the PRisoner late- everyone else who was susceptible to it seemed to have seen it at school. I only started 2 years ago, then stopped, then started again last week.
A remake, with a combination of original episode order, with some of the deliberately added ones added as well, up to around 12 episodes, would be pretty good. One or two fo the episodes struck me as being weak and a bit silly, but ones like "Hammer into Anvil", with #6 turning the system against #2, and "Free for all", with the rather trenchant comments on democracy, as well as some amusing banter, would I think transfer to a more modern setting without any trouble at all. Not to mention the possibilities for slagging off the current security circus.

And the costumes would have to be designed by a good designer.
Ohhh, the paranoia. I think most ordinary people would crack quickly in such a setting. Which is of course the idea.

I also recomend "The Authoritarians", I read it earlier this week, its very interesting.

As for the UK, the media is effectively cowed. I know what Cointelpro was, because it has cropped up on various "alternative", and "left wing" places I go to. Yet the media ignores it.
ONe similar example here in the UK is the supression of dissent by using anti-terrorist legislation. There have been many instances of peace protestors, anti-Iraq war demonstrators (by the coachload) being stopped by the police and prevented from carrying on their lawful business until they have been delayed and harassed as much as is necessary.

Does the mainstream media care? No, because peace protestors and others are viewed as outsider scum.

The disturbing thing is in looking at newspaper website comment threads, where there is a tremendous number of right wing oriented people, many of them mad. Yes, some mad environmentalists and left wingers pop up occaisionally, but they are vastly outnumbered by the kind of people who say "Bring back hanging, it never did me any harm", and "Political correctness was the last gasp of communism and should be banned" and stuff like that. (slight parody intentional, or I'll go mad)


Adding to the general list of unsolicited suggestions re. dictator research...

Have you come across Colin Wilson's "A Criminal History of Mankind"? The central model, the Right Man or Violent Male theory, was created by AE van Vogt while researching a book on concentration camps and later developed by Wilson.

They suggest a (possibly the) major trait of the kind of individuals who become successful dictators - that they are certain that they are always right. This absolute surety of the rightness of their actions underlies all they do. (Also noteworthy is their violent reaction to anyone who dares questions their rightness.)

Wilson uses this idea to re-examine human history as the tale of rival Right Men and their influence. I'm not sure he fully makes his case in the wider sense, but the Right Man model seems to fit a lot of what I have learned about these types.


Have to agree with guthrie@62 on suppression of dissent in the uk. A good example is the g8 protests, around scotland & the UK when the G8 met in gleneagles a couple of years ago. anti terrorist laws were used to stop & search anyone within X miles of gleneagles. many busloads of people stopped, searched, held up, purely for being within the zone. then there was the anarchist protest the monday before, on princes street in edinburgh. don't get me started on that one (but heavy handed would be understating it). anyway, flickr has some images.


accelerationista: Yes, I remember the G8 meet, I had friends who went there and reported back. (It was somewhat overshadowed by the unscheduled London Transport interruption, if you ask me, which rather reduced the impact the heavy-handed policing might have made on public opinion ...)


I also do not recall anyone making much of TV footage of the pro-fox hunting demo that got a bit violent a few years ago. There was a second or two of it when a policeman deliberately lunged forwards and smacked some innofensive* middle aged woman about the head with his baton, in front of the cameras. But no great fuss was made, the very idea that the police could beat up whom they liked seems ingrained nowadays.

*Yes, I appreciate that someone protesting for foxhunting may well be offensive to you. Nevertheless, she had every right to protest, and no right for the policeman to hit her. Had she been a Rangers fan in Manchester like those who were on tv doing a pathetic tactical withdrawal down a street, I really wouldn't have been bothered. (The police retreated in a mess, not backing each other up, some staying behind, others running faster, as a result they just about got swamped.)


Interests to declare: I know the people who guessed the 4.2 million, and/but I work for the people who fund _More or Less_... And my knowledge of British CCTV, though unrivalled for the period before 1970, is a little flaky thereafter. But.

The local authority/police open street stuff has got a bit cheaper, but the civil engineering bits of it - concrete, posts, cables - haven't come down in price nearly as fast as the cameras, and it's this segment that has always driven the cost. People to watch the screens are also expensive, and there's a limit to how many they can watch.

OTOH, the till-cams are ubiquituous. A coffee shack the size of a desk has six. Multiply that out and I think that we're way past 4 million.


Brett @59, you're assuming people buy at only one shop.


"As for the UK, the media is effectively cowed. I know what Cointelpro was, because it has cropped up on various 'alternative', and 'left wing' places I go to. Yet the media ignores it."

It's probably due more to the fact that the actual, original COINTELPRO was shut down 37 years ago (mid-1950s to 1971), and while it's interesting as history, we've had several separate generations of dirty tricks by those sorts of people since then, from both sides of the political fence.

Now, if you described the actions of the FBI in the COINTEL program, you'd get a lot of "yeah, we knew about that, and it's still going on in a different set of clothes," but the original is as dead as NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which became NASA).

If you find someone with an unhealthy focus on COINTELPRO, you usually find someone who hasn't paid much attention to actual politics since about the end of the Vietnam War, except to tie recent events to something that happened 40 years back.

Of course, if you mentioned that one of the targets of COINTELPRO was the Weathermen, that would also be interesting, especially since one of the known followon operations after COINTELPRO was created specifically to investigate the Weathermen. Similar programs were targeting groups ranging from the Gay Liberation Front to the KKK. Yes, everyone assumes the government is still doing similar things, but on a much smaller scale per program (more programs), not on a huge, do-it-all scale like the old guys did.

On the "cameras" issue: you may see a lot of cameras in a store, but how many of them are hooked up to anything except power for the LED on the front? Sure, a convenience store might have four cameras, hooked up to a monitor showing all four images in lowres Crap-O-Vision, but how many are actually anything, or have people actually paying attention? Usually one, at the till, and it usually just catches the clerks stealing from the store.

There's a giant shopping mall near my house. I had a bicycle stolen there, in direct "view" of a camera. The security (hah) guards wouldn't talk about it. turns out that while they have a dozen or so cameras, they have to manually select the one or two they want to record AFTER they see something happening. If no guard is in the video room, nothing gets recorded, to give the mall company a legal out in case something bad happens.

So take that 4.2 million. Divide it by ten (try watching more than a half-dozen images at once for any length of time), and you either get a helluva lot of unwatched video, or you have to hire nearly a half-million people just to sit around and stare at them. On three shifts a day. Plus weekends.

Did they hire a couple of million people?


Charlie, I'm curious if your reading on dictators touches on something I encountered in reading about the Mafia some years back. Psychologists and criminologists studying the Mafia's leaders as the thing fell apart found in prison interviews and a study of the guys' histories that they had one key feature in common: they were more willing to use violence than most people. They were comfortable striking first and continuing to strike until opposition surrendered and/or died. This is what made them successful in criminal enterprises, and also what made them unsuccessful in trying to muscle in on legitimate ones where targets were willing to call the cops.

I've often wondered how much of that trait is present in the history of dictators.


A lot of the CCTV gear just isn't good enough to be useful in identifying a stranger.

If you can compare them to a known face, it's much easier. They don't catch crooks. They persuade them to plead guilty.

(information from a former police officer)


cirby, on store cameras: they come with frame-grabber cards for the PC. These seem to be replacing the older security VCRs designed to stash multiple camera inputs -- typically merging four of them into quadrants of a frame and recording five frames per second. Hard disk space is cheap -- with 1Tb drives going for £130 these days, you can store a whole year of VGA video on one disk.

An increasing number of premises have a TV screen visible somewhere, just to let the punters know they're being monitored. On the buses? Go upstairs on a double-decker and you'll see an armoured LCD panel at the front, rotating from camera to camera, just to make the point.

Back in 1988 I managed a shop for 9 months that had a dummy camera; but back then, real ones cost £2000 each. Now they're £25 each, it's a different matter.

You're right about the need for watchers if the cameras are going to do more than provide evidence of a crime after the event, but I wouldn't count on those cameras not being hooked up to a data storage back end these days. It's a very quiet technological revolution we're going through -- quiet because ordinary punters don't get to see the falling price tags -- but it's already having interesting results.

Bruce: I'd be astonished if dictators (as with Mafia dons) weren't more willing than usual to use violence. Or rather, first-generation dictators. Ideology-driven authoritarian movements seem somewhat different, as are second-generation dictators. (Although we might get a clue as to why they're different if we call them the nearest cognate: "churches" and "kings".)


You mention that the mafia bosses "were comfortable striking first and continuing to strike until opposition surrendered and/or died".
this sounds a bit like a policy of pre-emptive strike.... would carry on, but don't want to bait the trolls:)

was camped near stirling, the first 1/2 of the week was wonderful - atmosphere at campsite was the best I have ever experienced. then on the 7th the news came through of said interruption of travel, and suddenly everyone was horribly worried/upset about friends/family in london. with low bandwidth to outside world, poor communications, it was a very sad end to the week.

Cointel pro - is known about in uk a bit, but the example was to illustrate the point. andrew marr is one of the establishment media (BBC) main political reporters. He must be about 40 odd now, so would have grown up as cointelpro was happening, as it all came out in the wash etc. Basically, in his position, not knowing about cointel pro is (gross generalisation) is like not knowing about the way thatcher gave a kicking to the miners (that was a big story in the UK).
On cameras - the shop based ones are limited, I agree. However the police/authority ones now all record all the time, and use software for analysis (gait recognition, probably face recognition). So in terms of staff it's not so bad. also, read recently that the US and UK both have about 20-25% of entire workforce working in supervision/policing. this sounds like a high figure, afraid I don't have a reference. think that it included management tho, which would bump the number up a bit.


Accelerationista: Hey, I'm quite willing to point out that my ruling junta is made up largely of guys who couldn't succeed at actually competitive business and rely on favoritism of various kinds. But then I have a tendency sometimes to get impatient, and don't want to bring Charlie too much trouble.


Accelerationista: Hey, I'm quite willing to point out that my ruling junta is made up largely of guys who couldn't succeed at actually competitive business and rely on favoritism of various kinds. But then I have a tendency sometimes to get impatient, and don't want to bring Charlie too much trouble.


"cirby, on store cameras: they come with frame-grabber cards for the PC. These seem to be replacing the older security VCRs designed to stash multiple camera inputs -- typically merging four of them into quadrants of a frame and recording five frames per second. Hard disk space is cheap -- with 1Tb drives going for £130 these days, you can store a whole year of VGA video on one disk."

That's true, you can buy this sort of thing.

However, they generally don't. And even when they do, they don't usually bother with real backup/archiving solutions, and when they do, they do the weakest sort (that makes for horrendous retrieval). And since it's quad-format VGA, you effectively get four 320x240 5 fps streams. Which is what they call "crap" in the video business.

...and yes, you can get a cheap camera for £25, but then you need to wire it and hook it into a central system of some sort. Which costs as much (for large areas) as the old systems used to (or more - the old ones used cheap coaxial, but the new ones rely on PC-type cat-5 or USB connections).

"Basically, in his position, not knowing about cointel pro is (gross generalisation) is like not knowing about the way thatcher gave a kicking to the miners"

Marr is in his late 40s. He would have been 12 or 13 when COINTELPRO hit the news, in the US, while he was attending school in Scotland. It was basically five year old news by the time he was attending college. It's not shocking that he missed the significance of the issue.

So either he never knew about it by name (not uncommon for people in the chattering classes), forgot about something that nobody talks about any more, or just had a plain old brain fart. If he never heard about it, that speaks more about the quality of the BBC than anything else.


your point about marr is exactly the point I was trying to make - fair enough he may have missed events as they happened, but cointelpro was not a minor episode, it was a major demonstration of a western democracy using some rather unsavoury tactics against their own citizens. As such, it remains a clear example of the kind of democracy we live in (some would say we still live in this type of state today). For these reasons andrew marr should have known about it, in his position as one of the lead commentators/reporters for the BBC. In the UK, the BBC is regarded by many as being rather close in status to the monarchy, tea, or the weather - a british institution. The fact that he did not know about this important programme speaks volumes for the bbc, the state of the media (particularly in the uk), and state control of information. I could rant about this for a bit, but instead I will direct you to - great website on the uk media, media analysis in general.


@55: re Franco, I find it a bit out of place that you think Franco's preocupation was to avoid civil war when he was the one who started it. Also it is very much a question of luck that the transition turned out well. Not sure if you've visitted the Spanish Congress, but if you ever do you can see some bulletholes there which might clarify what I'm talking about.


accelerationista -- I'm maybe five years younger than Marr (born 1959), and I wouldn't have heard of COINTELPRO unless I'd done a lot of background reading. It broke in 1971; Marr was 12 at the time, and unlikely to have been paying a lot of attention to political news, much less news from another country. Nor is his career as a parliamentary correspondent likely to have exposed him to the internal narrative of counterculture and protest groups, who are likely to have retained institutional knowledge of COINTELPRO long after the general public forgot about it.

I am not suggesting that this sort of thing is unimportant; but it's much more obscure (to most people) than you seem to think.

(And I'm certain similar operations are on-going in the UK today. Source: people I know who're involved in various protest movements discovered that colleagues they'd trusted were plain clothes officers working for Special Branch. I'd be astonished if there weren't parallel things happening in the USA, too. We live in paranoid times.)


BTW, Little Brother is a fun and good read! I wonder if it has too much of a geek focus for the general readership, but maybe young adults are more receptive to that kind of thing than they used to.


I think you are making the point I am trying to make, and that chomsky was making in the interview (if my memory serves correctly), which was that people dismiss "conspiracy theories", information "i got from the internet" etc out of hand, as loony left wing/right wing ideas that have no basis in reality (or at least the establishment would like us to, and so lead by example). However, as cointelpro, the iran contra affair, and others demonstrate, these things happen, they happen to our government and to the citizens of western societies (UK & US in particular) rather more often than we would like to think. Information about them is not suppressed, it just takes some effort to find and assimilate it. possibly tv has something to do with this? (reduced attention spans, plus I've never heard of a documentary on terrestrial tv about cointelpro). But then those in the media industry haven't heard of it, so they don't make a documentary about it (loop & repeat)....


Little brother is worth a go (listened to the audio book & enjoyed). there are now instructions on how to do a number of tech things in the book, available on
The list includes encrypting gmail, TOR routers, and other interesting/useful things.


Since nobody else has commented on this: Anna Funder's "Stasiland" is one of my favourite books. It's a stunning read. I heartily recommend it. Read it, read it, read it.


Andrew G @56 I don't think one can really compare ancient tyrants with modern, totalitarian dictators. Completely different sets of assumptions both in them and in the rest of the world.

There's a clear difference between 20th and 21st century dictators and earlier autocrats. However, in the limited subject of dictators palaces I think there's something to gain from the comparison. As an example, Saddam Hussein built 48 palaces after the 1990 Gulf War. He already had 18. Why build more? Part of it is a monstrous, unchecked ego, part of it may be having been an exile he had a need to build permenant homes, but part of it is saying to the country and his supporters in brick, mortar and gold bathroom fittings that he's still in charge, and expects to be for the forseeable future. (Partly it may have been to create more places for his WMD bluff, but you don't really need the gold bathroom fittings for that)

I'm suggesting that part of the motivation behind the extraordinary building projects dictators like to patronise is the same motivation that lies behind Versailles, and also why banks always used to have those imposing facades with columns.


Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work , by Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Regan Books, 2006.

and this blogging by readers of the book, and myself:


Almost a decade ago, a certain author published something highly relevant to the camera debate.
D. Brin, The Transparent Society

Bluntly, he's looking prescient and we're going down the path of city one right now.


I often wonder about the traits that aid one in resisting normalized evil. A deeply embedded sense of morality? Critical thinking and reasoning? It's tricky to break down, because being able to identify something as wrong isn't the same as giving a damn. I guess that's where spiralling self-doubt emerges.


FWIW, I've found all one needs to know about authoritarianism, as well as the seemingly inexorable march from republic to empire to sewer pipe, is found in Gibbon's The Decline and Fall... (then again, I'm lazy). The instruments may change, but the song remains the same.


JVP, do you realize you've just said you didn't read the book? A rather ironic instance of your habitual self-promotion.


I'd never heard the term Cointelpro until this week, curiously enough, though I've forgotten what the earlier context was. Looking at the Wikipedia entry, I see that I was aware of the some of the individual elements, though unaware of the abbreviation (which is, let's say, a little obscure).

Also, it's an old journo trick to ask a question you aready know the answer to, both to get the interviewee to explain it (because it's their interview, after all) and to hear not the answer, but how it's given.

About books and dictatorships, I have to nth the recommendation for Stasiland. A very disturbing book. Other books: The Aquariums of Pyongyang is about the experience of one man growing up in a work camp in North Korea, after his family returns from Japan, and his life after, leading up to escape to China and then South Korea.

I'd also like to recommend Mao: The Untold Story, except that I haven't been able to finish it. It's a big book, and I found myself losing track of the details. As well, Mao proves himself to be even more of a monster than I'd thought he was. I've only gotten as far as the Long March, with its description of Mao flailing about, wasting time and losing lives, in order to build himself up and draw his rivals within the Chinese Communist Party down.


I wouldn't recommend Mao: The Untold Story. It's a big book, full of a great many undocumented assertions about how bad Mao was. It's as if someone who used to write for People's Daily* is retelling everything they every heard that was bad about Mao. Maybe they're true, but the author hasn't done much to show it.

*The writing has the same rather bombastic, overblown style to it.


I guess I'm going to be the first person on this thread to mention the late Saparmurat Niyazov, better known as Turkmenbashi ("Father of the Turkemn"), dictator of Turkmenistan from the mid-1980s until fairly recently. (He ran the Turkmen SSR, and when the USSR fell apart, he kept the job and ran an independent Turkmenistan.)

For looniness and unchecked displays of control, he's hard to beat. He had a solid gold statue of himself made, with a mechanism that ensured it was always facing the sun during the daytime. He renamed the months of the year after his family members, and, in typical dictator fashion, he wrote a book and made everyone buy copies1.

The book is typical, especially in dictatorships which are allegedly Marxist, where the Great Leader has to produce some tome of anti-capitalist thought, but the gold statute made him stand out from the pack, as did his later order to yank out the gold teeth of all Turkmen who had them.

Unlike Emperor Bokassa or Idi Amin, he didn't draw too much international attention. I think this was because he actually adhered to a policy of neutrality, which means he didn't cause too much concern to the US (aside from those parts of the State Department whose job it is to deplore human rights violations), China or Russia. He also never tried to conquer his neighbors.

Most importantly, he learned a lesson many dictators should take to heart: don't leave the capital very often. A lot of coups and coup attempts are launched when the Supreme Leader is taking a vacation or is on a diplomatic mission. Examples include Nikita Krushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev and, in the not too distant past, Mauritania, where President Taya decided to attend an international conference in 2005, not too long after a coup attempt, and was deposed while he was out of the country-by the man who ran his security service.

1Contrast this with the Western democracies, where powerful folks churn out books (or, more likely, they pay a ghost writer to do it) and then mount propaganda campaigns to get people to buy Earth in the Balance, The Audacity of Hope, Faith of my Fathers, Straight from the Gut, or Where Have All The Leaders Gone?, but can't actually force anyone to buy it...except for members of their political parties or their employees.


79 is right; criticising Marr for not knowing about COINTELPRO is a very US-centric thing to do. Would you criticise a US commentator for not recognising the significance of Operation Gladius or the November 17 Movement?


ajay @92: Operation Gladio, surely?

(And while it wouldn't be surprising for a US commentator not to have heard of it, that doesn't mean that such collective ignorance isn't shameful; the Strategy of Tension (which included the Bologna station bombing), the Oktoberfest bombing, all that stuff -- an entire wave of neo-fascist terrorist activity in Europe from the 1960s to the 1980s -- can be attributed to a CIA operation.)


There's an old joke about the economist who wouldn't pick up the ten dollar bill, because if it was a real ten dollar bill it would have been picked up already. Journalists seem to have their own version of this blind spot, where if it was a real conspiracy it would have been in the news already. That there may exist government conspiracies yet to be discovered is unimaginable in this world view.

The even more pathological version of this is when journalists won't report conspiracies that have been discovered by a non-journalist, or a non-mainstream journalist, because they haven't been reported by a journalist yet! That's some catch, that Catch 22.


It seems to me that the term "decider" has very much the same meaning that "dictator" evolved from, as well as sounding very similar.


Regarding the live of ohters, as someone above pointed out, it doesn^t really show how the Stasi worked. What^s worse, it doesn^t show live in the DDR like it was. There are shots of empty Berlin streets, where no one dares walk for omnipresent fear. That^s just bull. These streets were densely populated, there was a nightlife even in the DDR. It^s a bit too dystopian. I think the makers went for easy visual identifiers. The bad thing about the Stasi was, that life did not differ too much from other countries. You didn^t see you were being watched and by whom.
Another problem with the movie is how they portrayed the role of the minister. He is shown as someone putting pressure on the Stasi to do his bidding. That unrealistic. If anything it would have been the other way around.


Just some quick thoughts, as the potential literature Charlie is pointing toward is immense, taking in fact, fiction and those odd bits in between.

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes tells of the trial of a deposed Communist dictator. Based on Bulgaria and Todor Zhivkov; the matchup between dissident and oppressor doesn't turn out the way the dissident thinks, and justice proves slippery.

The File by Timothy Garton Ash. TGA examines his own extensive Stasi file. He combines both the experiences of an individual spied on by the system and his historian's craft of examining larger themes. Former informants almost always respond to confrontation in the same pattern (I think this point comes up in the justly recommended Stasiland as well).

The Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin, both by Simon Sebag Montefiore, both excellent. As a book, Court is better because of its unity in location and theme. Young Stalin sprawls from a Tbilisi bank robbery to Siberian sex affairs to costumed conferences in Finland before moving on to the revolution. But for research it'd be hard to beat either (Though Edvard Radzinsky's 1996 biography comes close) and the details are astounding. Wm. Taubman's Khruschchev is also very very good, addressing in some ways the differences between first- and second-generation tyrants.

"The Prince of Central Planning" by Viktor Pelevin (in the US, it's in the Werewolf Problem in Central Russia collection) is a quasi-sfnal perspective on life inside the authoritrian system. Possibly with grue.

Ivan Denisovich is crucial, too.

In re 53 above regarding hereditary autocrats, I think the answer is no; or at best randomly. Iron Kingom by Christopher Clark is particularly strong on recurring father-son patterns of conflict that drove Prussian policy for many decades -- during a run of undisputed successions by healthy, reasonably competent monarchs that was in itself a defiance of the monarchical odds.


Charlie, Stasiland is a book I'll always remember for one scene permanently burned into my brain. One of the interviewees tells the tale of one particularly memorable talk with a Stasi officer. Said officer had gotten hold of a series of love letters she had written and had decided to go sentence by sentence with her through the letters in search of hidden subversive messages or sentiments. The incident brought home on an emotional level just how privacy was non-existent in East Germany.

Incidentally, if you're looking for artistic treatments of life under a totalitarian regime, have you checked out Victor Serge's The Case Of Comrade Tulayev? It's the story of a murder investigation that soon spirals into a portrait of life under Stalin at the time of the Great Terror.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on May 29, 2008 1:16 PM.

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