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Sunday, January 19, 2003

The mind in chains.

Planning a visit to Iraq? If you're lucky, you might get a few moments to talk to an Iraqi without your government "minder" overhearing your conversation. You might ask a professor how he views the U.N. weapons inspections. He might answer like this:

"We love Saddam Hussein, not only love him, we adore him, he is the symbol of our unity. Without Saddam Hussein we will die, believe me."

Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times offers a disturbing portrayal of life in Orwellian Iraq:

Since most interviews between Iraqis and the Western press are organized and monitored by minders from the Ministry of Information, many Iraqis take the prudent step of garnishing their remarks with some praise for their president. This is an old-school totalitarian regime, after all, where criticizing the president is illegal, and parents have been known to disappear after their children parroted anti-Hussein remarks heard at home.

Foreigners with long experience here believe this is a matter of conditioning, of fear and self-censorship that have become innate. Iraqis are raised from childhood to sing — often literally — the president's praises.

They are also taught to mistrust foreigners. So when they find themselves talking to a foreigner, they respond as if by rote, often with safe, stock phrases.

There is nothing new about this aspect of totalitarian states. Czeszlaw Milosz described the psychological dynamics of totalitarianism brilliantly in his book about the Stalinist transformation of Eastern Europe in The Captive Mind (1951):

Of course, all human behavior contains a significant amount of acting. A man reacts to his environment and is molded by it even in his gestures. Nevertheless, what we find in the people's democracies is a conscious mass play rather than automatic imitation. Conscious acting, if one practices it long enough, develops those traits which one uses most in one's role, just as a man who became a runner because he had good legs develops his legs even more in training. After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one's self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one's vigilance. . . .

A constant and universal masquerade creates an aura that is hard to bear, yet it grants the performers certain not inconsiderable satisfactions. To say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one's adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one) — these actions lead one to prize one's own cunning above all else. . . .

Milosz offers a philosophical and psychological examination of the allure of totalitarianism. If you want to understand the mind of a tyrant, though, you might want to read Mario Vargas Llosa's newly translated novel The Feast of the Goat, about the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. It is not a pretty picture. It is also not, unfortunately, an obsolete one.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 19 January 2003 at 3:58 PM

Previous: Apology for a tyrant.
Next: 'Democracy' in Iraq.

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