I’ve been intrigued with dictatorship since living in Ethiopia for nine months under Mengistu and reading this bad boy.

Qaddafi, in his rambling February 22nd speech said, “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution.” Fascinating. In his mind he’s superseded human form, he’s a concept. How can anyone’s sense of self trump that?

In particular, I pay more attention than average to the tragedies of Zimbabwe, where I once spent a memorable week, and North Korea. I had an extensive discussion about North Korea with Fifteen at dinner one night last week and then we streamed this documentary from Netflix. Home-school social studies, love it.

This week I also read about a few dictators in waiting including Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue and Qaddafi’s sons. And then I read Tom Friedman’s editorial on our addiction to oil. I’ve been critical of Friedman, but on this subject he’s usually excellent.

I believe most people are caring and generous. Consequently, I think many more people would commit to serious energy conservation and Friedman’s $1/gallon gas tax proposal if they clearly understood how their automobile purchases and driving habits empower dictators to oppress people. One ugly fact about ourselves that we choose to ignore is that as a result of our automobile and driving decisions our government values unfettered access to inexpensive oil more than it does some people’s human rights.

Back to Qaddafi’s unraveling. There’s at least two ways to watch and listen to him. I suspect the vast majority of people in the U.S. watch him in the same way I watched Grizzly Man, as intimate and transfixing a study of mental illness as I’ve ever seen. They write him off as a genetic aberration. The alternative perspective is that maybe he’s not an extreme outlier after all. This is what I’ve been thinking. It seems naive to me to assume there aren’t people in the U.S. with evil, dictatorial ambitions.

However, there are two all-important, dictatorial-saving impediments in the U.S. Even though our government often seems broken and our press anemic, our constitutional underpinnings remain remarkable—specifically the built-in separation of powers, checks and balances, and rule of law. Additionally, we have a history of open elections and peaceful leadership transitions that have created serious positive, democratic, non-violent momentum.

U.S. citizens aren’t inherently better than Libyans, North Koreans, or Zimbabweans, it’s just that evil, dictatorial impulses have no chance of sprouting in our constitution, history-enriched soil.

2 thoughts on “Dictatorship

  1. Great little piece Ron. You clearly seem to have experiences in these countries you speak of.

    Two points I would make.

    1. Friedman’s suggestion that we raise the price of gas to $1 a gal. would be a smart move. But it won’t happen unless the oil CEOs allow it to happen. Sadly, policy that is good for the nation but not so good for company profits is not always determined by our elected officials but by those who control the corporate wealth, which everything Congress seems to do these days is aimed at making them happy.

    2. I agree too that our long established institutions of democracy make it much tougher for an oligarchy or a one man to seize extraordinary power on their own. But I have noticed more and more that we are becoming less and less a people with political savvy and more and more a nation of consumers. Pop culture and marketing techniques have more influence over us than any understanding of balance of power mechanisms along with other intricacies of how our government works.

    We are dumbing down and are more susceptible to responding in a herd mentality way, even when we think we are free and independent. Not enough people have critical thinking skills to know when some slick bastard is leading us to ways that serve the purposes of his small select group way of thinking.

    This may sound cynical but I simply don’t see enough people coming together for any length of time to stave off an effort by one who can get people to follow him or her simply by wrapping themselves in the flag and quoting scripture as if they were the Messiah. Too many people are already geared for such an event.

    • Point one is well taken. Interestingly, most NYT readers objected on account of the poor not being able to afford either the tax or newer hybrids or EVs. With regard to your second point, also true. Not what you allude to, but it’s interesting to think about what a Madoff type character could conceivably do with a military and executive powers. Grounds for a dystopian novel maybe.

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