Friday, February 23, 2007

Demon du jour

Here is the full text of the Comment is Free piece Demon du jour
The comments, for which you have to check the Guardian site, are fun, mostly taking the blindly binary approach that I was questioning. In this mirror universe, calling someone a mass murderer is apparently revisionist whitewashing if you do not admit they kicked the dog and robbed kid's piggy banks as well.

Are Ahmadinejad, Cheney, Mao and Chavez really as evil as everyone says?

Ian Williams

February 21, 2007 8:30 PM | Printable version

The allegation that George W Bush has read and enjoyed the 814 page Mao: The Unknown Story, is on the face of, amazing. I have just finished reading it - and, for a start, it does not have many pictures. But on another level - once you have overcome a natural scepticism about his reading prowess - you can see why both the subject and treatment of the massive biography would appeal to the president, even if he only received an executive summary.

On the one hand, Bush has taken Mao's aphorism that political power comes from the barrel of a gun to levels way beyond the puny weaponry of Mao's army, not to mention emulated Mao's idiosyncratic uses of the word "democracy".

And on the other hand, the president has previously said that he does not "do nuance", and neither does this book - which is so relentlessly negative that it almost provokes sympathy for a man who was, as the authors exhaustively document, responsible for the deaths of millions. Likewise, demonization is the weapon of choice in this administration. They practiced it on Saddam Hussein, on Fidel Castro, and on Yasser Arafat, and are currently honing it for use on Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Most Americans probably assume that these people kick their dogs, abuse their children and are totally faithless to their friends and spouses. But it doesn't work that way. Dick Cheney can be a sinister force for evil - and still love his lesbian daughter.

Even the worst rulers are complex. Think of a leader who died, faithful to one woman for many years, who was a vegetarian, a pet-lover, a non-smoking teetotaler and a sincere believer in all the causes he had espoused for thirty years. One worries whether to name him, in case Adolf Hitler is mistaken for some evangelical saint.

In fact, Milton had a more complex picture of Satan than much of the contemporary western media does of its enemies. Once people are tainted with evil, it is assumed that, like some figure from Marlowe or Webster, everything they do is evil.

I should warn that if ever I grow up, the title of my memoirs will be "I was a Teenage Maoist". I was in China during the Cultural Revolution, had a drinking competition with Chou En Lai and had the temerity to argue about English Literature with Chiang China, aka Mme Mao. The period was a useful prophylactic against the temptations of rigid political lines in later life.

Yet the new Mao book is over the top. Certainly Mao had enough hagiographies written about him in his time. But demonographies are equally uninstructive and this one fails to explain how he mesmerized a nation. The authors show him as having a monstrous ego - but do not mention, let alone explain, why he refused to allow any places to be named after him. When I was there, they had just built the Beijing metro, and party officials chuckled at their own temerity to say that the station by the Forbidden City was called "Chairman station". The Mao book presents no such complexity.

According to the book, naked self-interest motivated every decision Mao made, and the Chinese economy was a shambles when he died. But that does not explain the foundations from which the Chinese economic miracle sprang. As with Stalin's terror, there were many beneficiaries, and millions who believed along with Mao that they were building a better world. The book, and demonography in general, finds it easier to load all the sins and responsibilities on the designated demon - which abandons the responsibility to think about motivations and backgrounds, let alone the context that made such terror possible.

While it may work for whipping up war fever, this form of writing actually disarms us against real totalitarianism - against what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. A binary, black and white, cowboys-and-Indians depiction of political figures does not equip us to deal with the real world.

In fact, the most dangerous tyrants are totally sincere. They are romantics, and think they're advancing humanity and civilization. On account of their monstrous egos, they tend to see themselves as the means of such advance. (The old aphorism about the road to hell applies here.) From the Crusades to the Inquisition, from the Nazis to the Bolsheviks, it's people with "good" and even selfless intentions whose efforts to make a better world have created hell on it.

They know best, regardless of the fickle and fragile human material they have had to work with. But far from being the work of one evil tyrant, the successful demons have always known how to appeal to masses of people. It takes more than one man, or woman, to conduct a purge, a holocaust or a Great Leap Forward - or even a jihad or crusade.

To take a recent example, by loading all the evil on Osama Bin Laden as an individual, we do not have to think about his political origins, the role played by Washington in nurturing him and his ilk as proxy warriors in Afghanistan, let alone the genuine grievances that he has been able to play upon in the Arab and Muslim World.

Such one dimensional depictions are also easy to drop on demand. Just as Saddam Hussein changed overnight from the West's man in the Middle East - when he was rocketing Tehran - to the devil incarnate after Kuwait, you will have noted an almost complete silence about what's-his-name-with-the-turban, who inconveniently hid in Afghanistan rather than Iraq or Iran when wars were wanted in Washington.

Down with demonization! We should be trying to understand these people - not in the hand-wringing way of the stereotypical liberal social worker - but to understand what motivates them so that we can dissipate the romantic illusions of those who always know what is best for others, whether it is Hugo Chavez - or the Project for a New American Century.

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