Thursday, October 20, 2005

More on Dictators, NYRB Nov 3

As you may know, I've objected to Ian Buruma's essay "The Indiscreet Charm of Tyranny", in the May 12, 2005 New York Review of Books. Then I had the opportunity to expand more fully on my objections to his book review "Kimworld" from the August 22 issue of the New Yorker at emdashes. Here's Buruma's review, here's Thomas Riggin's eloquent reply, and here's my recommendation for a film on the subject.

But I think someone at the NYRB has taken responsibility for countering that original tyranny piece by Buruma with another, more serious, reflection on the conept of "dictator" and the writing of history. In the Nov 3 issue of The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Spence reviews a political biography titled Mao: The Unknown Story. Spence is critical of the work, on these grounds:

"Despite its length, Mao: The Unknown Story avoids seriously grappling with other factors that made the twentieth century such a terrible one for tens of millions of Chinese, irrespective of what Mao may have done: these would include the depth and savagery of the Japanese assualt on China, the nature of the Chinese labor movement, the realities of peasant deprivation in republican China, the collapse of local order and the spread of banditry, the strength of organized criminal gangs, the significance of Chiang Kai-shek's lack of political and military skills, the social, regional, and class differences that separated the Communists from one another, and the technical aid, including police training, and military communications, furnished by the United States to the Nationalists.

By focusing so tightly on Mao's vileness - to the exclusion of other factors - the authors undermine much of the power their story might have had. [ . . .] The countless Chinese who did struggle for change are denied any role in their own story, and become mere ciphers, their lives and deaths without purpose. [. . .] Locked into their misery by the force of one man's personality, the Chinese people as a whole are denied all agency."

His objections are that this kind of biography-of-a-dictator approach sidesteps history, as it is made and lived by "people as a whole." A very similar objection to that made by Thomas Riggins vis a vis Buruma's account of Kim Jong Il and 20th C Korean history.

Maybe it's a problem with the concept of "dictator" altogether. Maybe lumping all these different contexts together (between the articles mentioned, and the film, the concept has been applied to Mao, Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and Kim Jong Il) by using common terms denies the specificities of history (bad news for Buruma, who seems to be structuring a major work on this theme, and these figures) . . . but its a popular concept and persistant in contemporary rhetoric.

Take a recent BBC world service report on international war tribunals. A quote from a political scientist at Princeton on the effect of the trials, perhaps "the next dictator will think twice, before doing something."

This unfortunate quote points out the utter ridiculousness of this way of thinking. Dictators exist in relationship to historical circumstance, mass movements, populations, the whole enchilada. Its not a question of their personal decisions, or their personal lives, or their personal evil-ness. This shit is not located in the individual.

Why is it important to make this point, now? Because (some) people bought the rhetoric that overthrowing Sadaam would solve everything abroad. Because (other) people hope that the end of Bush's reign will solve everything here at home in the US. But in neither case is this even remotely true.

And to continue the speculation surrounding Kim Jong Il, his sex life and its political implications or lack thereof, I bring you, as found on the blog Multi Medium, and elsewhere . . .

. . . . something entitled Cunnilingus in North Korea. Don't click on it if you don't want to see it.

Ok, now apart from anything else you're thinking right now, think about what happens if you put this phrase in google. Think about the fact that this has no images.

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