Re: “The Dictator’s Learning Curve – Inside the Global Battle for Democracy”

the dictators learning curve

William Dobson’s book “The Dictator’s Learning Curve – Inside the Global Battle for Democracy” sets up a global theater full of dichotomy. He sees two opposing forces – the innately power-hungry dictator and co. and the activists hungry for change, that stand out-gunned, oppressed and marginalized – constantly colliding and evolving in their attempts to shape what each side holds to be an acceptable, if not a ‘just’ reality. He reveals his bias as we are gently nudged to see that one story, the story as told by the activist, holds more legitimacy and moral/ethical value; as defined through a lens of democratic ideals. A dichotomy of good versus evil, right versus wrong and legitimate versus illegitimate shines through. While he does provide an interesting perspective on how “the dictator on his learning curve seeks ways of renewing dictatorship, to keep it resilient, agile, and in some ways effective” (p.289) in the face of ever increasing public scrutiny boosted by the growth in both access to and reach of modern media technology, he falls short in providing a nuanced view of what is by no means a black and white tale of human progress out of darkness, depravity and the rule of force towards enlightenment, co-existence and the freedom of mankind. Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, or the most urgent lesson that can be draw from his writing is that we, as the public and as citizens of the world, all shoulder the responsibility of not ‘sticking our (political) heads into the sand’ and thereby allowing ourselves to be sidelined in what is or should be a global story of Us; in other words, his writing calls all of us to leave our comfortable Athenian ‘idiot’ complex behind and join those whose eyes and minds have opened in their struggle to script their own story.

Fundamentally, Dobson’s work revolves around the importance of story. It is through the effectiveness of narrative by which dictators stay in power or activists succeed. Dictators, whether it is Hugo Chavez’s constant presence on talk-shows and radio programs, the Chinese government’s tense efforts to maintain stability at all cost by banning opposition parties, independent labor unions and the right to free assembly or the Kremlin’s strategy of manufacturing opposition parties for the purpose of scripted – and thus managed – dissent, all attempt to monopolize voice, thereby crowding out unwanted, potentially destabilizing elements. Dobson reveals how dictators on the one hand constantly reference liberty, justice, democracy and the rule of law while simultaneously disheartening opponents through tactics ranging from direct use of force and imprisonment to more subtler means of coercion and cooption. Through propaganda and over-simplification, the opponent activist is often delegitimized in front of his peers and his cause found irrational or unfounded. Appearance matters and contesting stories, stories that could unhinge the ‘powers that be’ by chipping away at prevailing myths to reveal, bit by anecdotal bit, the naked ‘truth’, are dangerous!

Dobson writes that “democratic movements learn from each other, [are] bringing new and innovative tactics to the fight” (p.10), are mobilizing and are mastering the tools of propaganda. It follows that dictators must adapt and find ways to renew their legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. Business as usual is not a safe option and consequently, Dobson finds that regimes attempt to maneuver so that instead of becoming a target of a change, they co-opt threatening trends and script themselves as champion of that very change. In the final years of Mubarak’s regime, for example, officials attempted to narrate a political system under constant renovation; policies and practices were being “reformed, altered, revised, modernized, enhanced or developed” (p. 197) . Similarly, China is found to be perfecting the “art of conceding political space in order to maintain it” (p.196); elections, public hearings and the right to sue the government (all at the local level) are part of a new bargain. China and Russia, furthermore, limit government intrusion into private lives; Chinese surf their favorite Web sites, go shopping, or play video games. Nevertheless, Dobson finds that as pervasive and tightly controlled the dominant narrative might be, activists and opposition figures continue to see through and beyond the fabrications and find creative means to make their voices heard.

Accordingly, Dobson explains, the hunger for the skills required to mount resistance movements, carve out political space and script, distribute and control a counter-narrative is enormous. Activists from all over the world are coming together in training sessions and workshops. The Centre for Applied Non Violent Action and Strategy (CANVAS) founded and run by Serbia’s Otpor movement, successful in their struggle against Slobodan Milosevic, as well as lectures on Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy are but a few of the many international nodes of information sharing that have sprung up. Peter Ackerman, founder of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict is quoted as stating that “I’m just responding to demand”. The democracy promoting business is booming and dictators are taking note. Dobson writes that what authoritarian regimes fear most are their own people – discontent, political and united – and uncertainty. In fact, a dictator aiming for total control faces a tight margin of error. One might ponder whether the Tunisian uprising would have erupted as it did if Mohamed Bouazizi had not set himself on fire. Not knowing when the last straw falls, when enough is enough, is grounds for paranoia. Dobson records how security in China and Russia increased substantially as leaders lost sleep over the potential fallout of the Arab Spring; any mention of the word ‘jasmine’ was heavily censored on the web.

Activists are taking note and are empowered. Dobson recalls how opposition movements in Venezuela have been turning the regime’s own tools against it and through creative, original and unexpected forms of protest are drawing the ‘powers that be’ into a game that the people can control. In Egypt, activists showed that “movements do not require the support of security services; they just require their ambivalence” (p.247) and former members of Otpor preach that “you cannot change anything if you remain a minority” (p.245); loyalties are fluid and change often comes by undermining the established structure one subtle move at a time. Nonviolence is supported as means to effectively draw individuals into ones camp and to mitigate further polarization and hate. Pathways are best when indirect and horizontal, as Venezuelan student activists showed. In their struggle against Chavez, they chose to remain outside of the political system, refused to polarize society and instead focused on inclusive, positive values. Opposition leaders add that the problem is not Chavez but “the problem is the problems of the people” (p.127). Efficiently addressing these and creating counter-narratives, draws support from the dominant power. What emerges is an essential redefinition of the ‘political act’, away from voting and party membership (hardly sufficient) towards the everyday community revitalizing practices of questioning the dominant story, fostering inclusive relationships, speaking up against injustice and pushing for change by being the change. Dobson therefore presents a systems approach as he mentions that neither Chavez nor Mubarak started out as dictators and that their political/social environment effectively bore partial responsibility for the paths they chose; as Gasser Abdel-Razek, human rights activist, told Dobson, “the creation of the dictatorship we have, started the day he [Mubarak] took office and the people decided not to push him” (p. 222). What emerges from this is a necessity for introspection to challenge the ways that our systems project violence and inequality outward.

Finally, one might ask how the western reader, sitting comfortably in his (dys)functioning democracy might relate to Dobson’s work. I want to propose that what we should take away, above all,  is an appreciation for the workings and the power of a single narrative and consequently reproach Dobson for his own western bias. It is highly unnerving that in an analysis of ‘dictators’, he fails to mention the power and influence that western countries, in particularly the United States, have had on establishing, financing and molding authoritarian regimes throughout modern history and subverting democracy at home. It appears that Dobson falls into the category of what Jonathan Graubart refers to as ‘pragmatic liberal interventionist’, predominantly outward looking, finding fault primarily in other’s doings and aching to extend a ‘helping’ hand. Maia Zehfuss, in What can we do to change the world? reminds us that we are all involved in an interconnected global system and that change is difficult precisely because of our often oblivious aiding and abetting. Teju Cole writes that there is much more to do in changing the world than ‘making a difference’ and while I appreciate where he is coming from, I want to add the notion that any aggregate outcome is the result of countless of actions/inactions taken at the margin and that we therefore cannot escape ‘not making a difference’. This empowers us and as Toni Morrison writes “the bird is in [our] hands”. Whether we set it free to fly or inadvertently crush it, remains at heart, the big question in the narrative of all our daily lives.


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