A blog by Barry Edelson

The Mask Cracks, a Little

As totalitarian states like China become more like us,
we run the risk of becoming more like them.

Looking at a friend's pictures of his recent trip to Prague, it is hard to imagine that this popular, glittering travel destination is the same city my wife and I visited in 1988.

It was not long before the edifice of communist Europe came crashing down, but in that bleak April 20 years ago the weight of totalitarianism felt as oppressive and immovable as it ever had. The few shops had virtually nothing in them, the hotels were spartan (we dubbed ours the Communist Holiday Inn), the food was sparse and nearly inedible (except for one black market restaurant we stumbled into quite by accident on Easter Sunday). The parts of the city that were attractive to tourists—the castle mount with the striking St. Vitus Cathedral, and the adjacent governmental palaces—were well tended on the exterior. But the city's historic center had a distinct Potemkin village feeling, and we were keenly aware that there was nothing much of substance behind the freshly painted facades. The rest of the city was visibly crumbling.

I clearly remember walking down a street in Prague during that first visit and asking, "Why on earth don't we do something about this?" The answer, of course, was obvious and instantaneous: Soviet tanks and ballistic missiles. While many people are unwitting accomplices to their own subjugation, there is little question that force of arms was the only way the Soviet Union could hold its Eastern European "allies" in its tightly controlled orbit. Given the slightest opportunity, the neighbors would break free, and so they did in short order.

There are any number of films and books, even some recent ones, that depict the misery of life under totalitarianism. Only last year, "The Lives of Others" from Germany painted a startling and disturbing portrait of the complete perversion of ordinary life under East German communism. There have been many others, from the terrifying "Burnt by the Sun" about Stalin's purge of his own allies in the Communist Party, to the somewhat milder but no less distressing "Kolya", about a confirmed bachelor in Prague who winds up as the de facto father of a young Russian boy whose mother has escaped to the West. Of course, one can always read Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" or anything by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to remember a dismal period of history whose horrors are already fading too quickly from the collective memory.

For Many, the Horror Persists

That there are millions of people who still live under the stifling rule of dictators was plainly evident in the handling of the recent natural disasters in Burma and China. We need no more proof of the nature and intent of the ruling generals of so-called Myanmar than to hear how they stamped their own names on boxes of foreign aid before handing them out to people in need. The Burmese have thus been twice victimized by the cyclone: once by the storm itself and again by the cruel indifference of their own government. A ruling faction would have to be awfully confident of the people's ignorance even to attempt something as transparently self-serving. But in most dictatorships, poverty and ignorance are not merely by-products of repression, but are objects of state policy. (North Korea is probably the world's best current example of this. One imagines the streets of Pyongyang today even more desolate and devoid of human feeling as the narrow lanes of Prague a generation ago.)

The Chinese government's response to the earthquake in Sichuan has been immeasurably better than the Burmese junta's handling of the cyclone, but its motives are still highly questionable. Did China's normally cold-blooded rulers suddenly discover how to turn on their compassion genes? The government has proven itself capable of mobilizing itself to confront the disaster, but one cannot help but wonder where this competence and caring is hiding at all other times. Where was the concern for the well-being of the people during the construction of all of those substandard school buildings that turned into mass tombs for an appalling number of Sichuan's children? It ought not to be surprising in a system in which regulation is an instrument of state power, not a means of ensuring health or safety, let alone justice or equality. Has the Communist Party really reformed itself while no one was watching, or has it merely learned better how to manage its image in a world of instantaneous, worldwide communication? Maybe they've finally learned a lesson that Burma's generals, North Korea's apparatchiks and Zimbabwe's Mugabe have yet to have beaten into their self-deluded skulls: no action by government can be hidden forever from public view.

It is impossible to consider these events in faraway places without recalling our own government's shameful response to Hurricane Katrina. Many of the same criticisms have been leveled at the Bush administration's Katrina fiasco: that the government is more concerned about its own image than about the people's welfare (remember the president's speech under bright klieg lights in Jackson Square while the rest of the city was without electricity?), that we have become too bureaucratic to manage our affairs properly, that we sweep serious problems under the rug as soon as the television cameras drift away to cover the next disaster, and so on.

We need to make a few important distinctions before this comparison goes too far. First, agencies like FEMA exist in developed countries to help people face catastrophes, and are filled with people who are dedicated to doing so. The breakdown occurs only when leadership is taken away from competent professionals and handed over to political cronies. Second, as extensive as the media coverage of the earthquake in China has been, any reporter on the ground will tell you that there are still considerable restrictions on where Chinese journalists can go and what they can say. The fact that foreign journalists have been forced to report anonymously from Burma for fear of retaliation says all we need to know about press freedoms in that benighted country. The third and final important difference is that we can actually vote our leaders out of office, even if we don't do so with as much wisdom and determination as is often warranted by their performance.

No Country Is Immune from Tyranny

Still, it is humiliating to consider that as the rest of the world compares China's immediate response to the earthquake to the United States' lagging response to Katrina, China comes out leagues ahead by almost every measure. China may still be a backwards country in many respects, not least in its form of government, but that is cold comfort to the tens of thousands of still-displaced citizens of southern Louisiana. The post-9/11 American government has shown a frightening tendency to behave the way our Cold War governments behaved, namely, too much like our enemies. A pathological insistence on secrecy, contempt for civil liberties, the branding of domestic adversaries as unpatriotic, and the reformulation of almost every federal department in order to deal with one particular threat, has led inevitably to a government that is as oblivious and insulated from the daily concerns of ordinary Americans as the Chinese authorities typically are from the problems of their own citizens.

Such a government comes to believe in its own indispensability, and employs political means to deal with issues that transcend politics. There are no political solutions to feeding the starving masses of the Irrawaddy delta, or evacuating the homeless of Sichuan, or housing the people of New Orleans. There are only humane and governmental solutions. Tragically, the one thing that our current administration does have in common with the world's most repressive regimes is that it doesn't happen to believe that the government has any other purpose more important than its own survival. This way lies dictatorship, if we are not very, very careful.

May 31, 2008

Go to top of pageReturn to home page

Send an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.