The Charge of the Heavy Brigade; or, Totalitarianism Is Thriving and It Is Our Fault
The modern dictator needs only to become a client-state to Russia or China (or to be Russia or China), and there is nothing he can't get away with. We members of open societies have the power to change that. All we need is the resolve.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
-From Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, in which six hundred British hundred soldiers were made to charge into a field in Crimea without guns and be slaughtered.
We are free, and I am terrified.
As somebody who grew up in America and now lives in Europe, I learned that Westerners are The Good Guys in my youth, I was reeducated that we are The Bad Guys in my adolescence, and as I shift into adulthood, I see that we aren’t even playing.
By lamely threatening Putin’s worst crimes, most recently the outrageous invasion of Crimea, with vague “consequences”, by failing to enforce the red Line in Syria, by allowing North Korea to go on with nuclear tests, missile tests, and operating Nazi-style concentration camps, by the very act of tolerating the worst of China’s human rights violations without economic punishment, by the general disempowering of international law, and by so much more, Europe, America and their allies have allowed the current, atrocious global state of affairs to be.
And things are getting worse, not better. The Freedom Foundation, not an organization prone to the exaggerations of normal think tanks, reported in its most recent global report this chilling statement: Half the world now lives under an authoritarian regime.
Let that sink in. Something like Orwell’s prediction of Oceania and Eurasia and Eastasia has come true for most of the people in the entire world.
This abjectly terrible thing is going on in the world right now, and because it is not singular and does not bear a name, we are not doing anything about it. New dictatorships are being spawned, and existing dictators are going from merely normal power-mad to full Idi Amin. Consider this hair-raising passage from today’s New York Times: “Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. ‘In another world,’ she said.”
It is a crucial consideration that if this global totalitarian trend were taken together, as one movement, it would represent a greater and more objectionable body of evil than anything in recent memory. There are exactly two reasons not to act: Because something doesn’t matter enough, and because something matters too much. We have expediently filed away every atrocity and outrage in the world right now into one or the other of these facile categories, and it is the most massive moral and political failing since the doctrine of appeasement of The Third Reich.
I’m very young, and so, in my memory, history has never felt like it is really happening. And yet, I must conclude that my tender age is not what makes me feel this way, because apparently everyone else, especially those in our commanding heights of power, also feels that history is over. The Enlightenment won, and then Science won, and then Democracy won, and The Forces of Good won the Great Wars, and now everything is so set that nothing must compel us to act.
In fact, there is no “must” anymore. There is no longer any reason for moral responsibility to our fellow man. We may, the modern reasoning goes, be complacent, because the cards have turned in favor of progress, and they couldn’t possibly turn back in the future, much less be turning back right now. We have Walmart, we have Tesco, we have The U.S. Department of Defense and The European Union.
The wars of the past sixty nine years are supposed to prove to us only that White Men In Charge (never mind if they are white or men) have the colonial impulse and the foolishness of privilege, and that societies that aren’t like ours are not inferior, just different. We are told to tolerate the Theocracies, and Kleptocracies, and other assorted authoritarianisms.
Well, recent events feel very much to me like history is happening, and I’m not sure I like where it is going. History is happening right now, and it turns out that it doesn’t end up feeling like the inauguration of the first black U.S. President or any of the other moments in my memory during which I have heard breathlessly that “I am witnessing history.”
I feel cold. I feel unsettled. Most of all, I feel terribly sad.
It’s not some weird accident that the citizens of over a dozen countries have risen up and overthrown or tried to overthrow their government in the past few years; Conditions, and I don’t just mean physical conditions, of freedom are simply intolerable in great swaths of the world. People are, to their enormous credit, rising up and refusing to tolerate them, even if those people often lack the power to defeat them.
Here is a list of part of what I mean. As you go through it, I’d ask you to please consider the scale of these events against that of historical conflicts which it seems to you must have been won (I’m partial to The American and Irish revolutions and to World War II). You might find that they are, from a god’s eye view, equivalently important to some of what is happening right now:
1) Russian troops being sent in to stifle the first hope for political and personal freedom and prosperity for the Ukrainian people in decades (I don’t count the doomed Orange Revolution). Beyond what we owe the Ukrainian people as fellow humans and allies, letting this go on with only minor punishment to Putin will be the clincher in a series of anti-interventionist mistakes. Inaction sets more than a few apocalyptic precedents.
The most salient issue of these is that Ukraine is a state which agreed to be peaceably disarmed of its nuclear weapons. If aspiring nuke-proliferators see that the international community will not fulfill its word and obligation to protect nuclear-free states, they will seek their own deterrents. North Korea and other cases prove to them exactly what to look for to find just such a deterrent: Securing and retaining nuclear weapons. Are we so opposed to showing real force and conviction that we will incentivize nuclear proliferation around the world?
I’ll here quote James Goldgeiger in The New Republic: “The Russian military’s deployment into Crimea should revive doubt in any budding or current nuclear weapons state about the value of external guarantees and thus strengthen the argument for nuclear weapons possession. The Obama administration must respond forcefully by seeking to isolate Russia within the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; expanding sanctions against Russia’s elite under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act and freezing assets; ending the fiction of the G8; and reaffirming NATO’s role to protect member states from threats to security.”
2) The use of starvation and camps by North Korea to utterly destroy a society and to reduce a whole people to tortured slaves. Every aspect of every facet of North Korean life has been reduced to abjection and leader worship. A recent, exhaustive U.N. human rights investigation led the investigator to fully equate that nation’s the camps (and things aren’t so rosy for those outside the camps) to “Nazi-era atrocities.” 200,000 people live in them, many of them born there. According to the few people who have gotten out of them, torture by starvation and beating and rats, baby killing, and rape run rampant. The worst tortures are reserved for pregnant women.
3) The takeover of every country of the “Arab Spring” (sans Tunisia) by either Islamists or military rule or both.
4) The use of gassing sleeping children in a civilian neighborhood, engineered starvation, mass displacement, and the bloodiest war this century has yet seen, by the lunatic Bashar Al-Assad whose psychopathy and ruthlessness are as atrocious as they are obvious. This unacceptable conflict in Syria is of course creating other problems around the region due to the nearly 2.5 million refugees flooding into countries like Jordan and Lebanon with a destabilizing effect.
5) The bastardization of the U.N. Security Council, which was established to keep the peace around the globe, and which actually might have done so had we had the follow through. The fact that China and Russia are permanent members with full veto power is what stops unilateral action against criminals like Assad, whom Russia is propping up and to whom Russia sells weaponry. China is the sole partner of the nation that formally calls itself “The Glorious Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. You can guess who stands in the way of humanitarian intervention there.
6) The growing brutality of what has become a homophobic police state in Uganda, where, as of recently, it is criminal not only to be gay, but also to not turn in gay relatives to the savage authorities.
7) Mugabe’s travesty in Zimbabwe.
8) The ongoing religious genocide by Burmese Buddhists against that country’s Muslims.
9) The worldwide promotion of Wahabi Islamic principles enabled by Saudi Arabian petro-wealth, from which springs Al Qaeda.
10) The power-clinging of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, and the spraying of protesters with bullets that attends said clinging.
11) Pretty much everything happening in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country.
12) Ditto the North.
13) The brutal regime in Azerbaijan, which is especially noteworthy because a recent event there highlights what has become a disturbing geopolitical trend: The government of Azerbaijan announced this past summer the results of their sham democratic elections before the polling began. I hasten to inform curious readers that the incumbent leader won. Why do we insist that countries pretend to be democratic if not because we know that open societies worldwide is the only moral goal? Why, further, are we content, as the holders of all the power and wealth that they are striving for a piece of, to tolerate their simply playing at democracy?
14) And the big ones: China and Russia. There is not space here to discuss this, but suffice it to say that China’s saber-rattling over Japanese sovereign territory has supplanted Pakistan and India as the likeliest birthplace of World War III, that Chinese citizens are manipulated and controlled and stifled beyond what will ever be tolerable, and that the size of an economy is not a wall that stands between truth and righteousness. And suffice it to say also that Russia, with her 1800-odd nukes in a land who’s leader is increasingly picking fights, which has a vast system of imprisonment for dissidents and enemies, which uses brutal skirmishes into Soviet-era satellite states to distract from its economic and human rights offenses, and which is now attempting to bring Ukraine back under its ever-stomping boot, yes, this Russia, is hailed as an ally of Europe and America. Putin’s failed state is holding the world for ransom as it bleeds its people dry, and feeds weaponry to virtually every despot and warlord around the globe, and renders its leader and his friends the wealthiest people in the world. Together, Russia and China are using their power with the UN Security Council to veto every potential humanitarian intervention to further their callously personal gains and are undoing the advances in International Law which are our inheritance from World War II, and which were established to be the mechanism that prevents another World War.
I stop here only for space, simplicity, and sanity.
Call me melodramatic, but my head rings with the chilling lines with which Auden begins his poem September 1, 1939, on the occasion of another great historical step forward for totalitarianism:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
We know, as Auden did, that the despotic evildoers are our enemies, and that theirs is the blame for the violence and the war that always eventually sprouts from the ways of life they impose on “their own” people.
And yet, the modern dictator is doing as he pleases, maybe because he has oil, or maybe because his people don’t look enough like Westerners to seem to matter. Probably, though, it’s because he must only become a nominal client-state to Russia or China, and then there is nothing he cannot get away with.
Usually, totalitarianism’s march is so repugnant and unspeakable that its threats of war are matched by opposing threats from whoever is both just and powerful. But no more. Not even 1984’s prodigious imaginativeness could have foreseen the current reality; Orwell did not consider that his prediction might come true for just part of the world while the other part had the power stop it but simply chose not to for reasons of expediency.
Russia’s is militarily invading Ukraine, especially the culturally-Russian Crimean Peninsula, in order to sway the power shift that is currently taking place following the popular uprising against that nation’s now-former dictator, and possibly in order to reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian superstate. Besides for a geographical buffer state in between Russia and “The West” (at least someone thinks the idea of a literal military clash of civilizations is credible), why would Putin bother?
Well, Vladimir Putin has actively and explicitly expressed to world leaders that he sees the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy in recent history, and that he seeks to undo it, just as he seeks to reassert Stalinism (or at least the authoritarian bits of Stalinism that Stalin actually gave a shit about) as the modus operandi in Russian Society. Never mind the work of The Velvet Revolution in The Czech Republic, nee Czechoslovakia, which has showed us that the nations of Eastern Europe are more than capable of becoming modern as soon as megalomaniacs stop smothering them. Never mind the work and thought of dissidents in states of the former Soviet Union like Hungary’s Georg Konrad who show, in words even more beautiful than Thomas Jefferson’s, that the hunger for happiness and freedom and the capacity for culture and philosophy is not and will not ever be dead to the subjects of brutal regimes. Never mind that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn showed us, in his The Gulag Archipelago, the human, or rather inhuman, reality of what it takes to keep a police state running. Never mind that Putin is allowed to go on because of the support his surrounding cadre of super-rich oligarchs, which oligarchs bank and school their children in The E.U., and that Western Society therefore has enormous non-military tools for beating back his current appalling misbehavior in Ukraine.
“No,” we think, “we can’t risk it.”
We are content to pat ourselves on the back with things like Obama’s vague, lame, Neville Chamberlain threat of “consequences” for Putin’s interfering in Ukraine, and red lines, like that in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s mad, auto-genocidal clinging to power using starvation and gassing and bombs. This is wrong in the moment, but it sets even worse precedent. Indeed, one Democratic senator has come out today to say that the current Crimean crisis happened because of the bungling weakness of the U.S. response to Syria’s ongoing slaughter.
This isn’t good statecraft, it isn’t realpolitik given the state of things, and it damn sure isn’t ethical. It wouldn’t even be good parenting.
Let us not forget that totalitarianism is not an abstract concept defined in contrast to ourselves. Authoritarianism means the criminalization of certain beliefs, it means the stifling and constipating of an entire culture, and its logic inevitably, inexorably, marches citizens towards gulags and death camps. I would also say that it verges towards war, but in fact it verges only towards the use of threats of war to accomplish the dark options of sinister agendas: Kill the Jews; Cull the gays; Rape North Korea’s pregnant prisoners to death in camps; abolish the Slavs; Exterminate the Kurds; Expand the empire; Feed the leader beyond his already exaggerated greed for power and blood.
Of course, added to the above list of possibilities for totalitarian options are the certainties of needing to disempower women and to silence intellectuals.
The mass-psychology of The Cold War, obviously retrospectively lunatic and disastrous in outcome, came from the following line of thought, the first and last clauses of which I stand by: “We would rather fight and die, and we would even rather destroy the world, than live under totalitarian despotism.”
So what happens next to this evil? What is the response by The West, which has more money and might and defensive capacity than any society in the history of the world? Do we fight against it?
Do we just stop its march?
No, not even that. Our response has been as weak as our rationale. We are allowing it to grow so long as we can be publically convinced that this is “in our interests” and that it is “not worth the blood and treasure”.
The crazed argument for inaction is circular and it is logically, as well as morally and politically, wrong. It seems to go like this:
We must not intervene with force of any kind in any circumstance, because each individual circumstance must be weighed by a standard of “in our interest”, which here means “it saves more Western lives than it loses, and it secures more Western money than it costs.” Because no individual global event meets the above criteria (see: “each”), we must allow them all to go on, even if doing so erodes our ability to make credible threats of force in the future against this growing trend (instances of which trend happen to work against our actual interests by sponsoring terrorism, destabilizing heavily armed regions, and specifically promoting anti-American and anti-European sentiment).
More pithily: We don’t intervene because they will get away with it, and they get away with it because we don’t intervene.
Intervening in a forceful way, either economically or militarily, may cost us more than it gets us in any one of these cases, but let’s not forget the big picture: The vast majority of money and military power in the world lie in the hands of Europe and The United States of America. The Russian military and economy would not even qualify for a competition, much less win one. Now, the lessons of asymmetrical warfare (Vietnam, Afghanistan) and the ability of dictators to resist sanctions (Cuba, Iran) should not be forgotten. But neither must the age-old rules of power, which dictate that he who will not use his power can be treated as though he has none.
We absolutely can stop Putin from doing what he is now doing in Ukraine. We can stop the next petro-state from going nuclear, we can intervene on a humanitarian basis to stop some of the worst pogroms and genocides going on in the world right now, and we can economically pressure states like China from empowering states like North Korea, if we are willing to. But only if we are willing to.
To paraphrase the indispensable Leon Weiseltier, by doing nothing, we are ensuring that there is nothing we can do.
This is the description from Goldstein’s Book, in 1984, of how society got from Orwell’s present to his fantastical dystopian future: “The earthly paradise has been discredited at exactly the moment when it had become realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation. And in the hardening of outlook that set in round about 1900, practices which had long been abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years—imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public execution, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations—not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”
The time has come to throw our considerable weight around. The moral case for action that is called for by the current state of affairs in the world is at least as strong as it was in the lead up to World War II, or it would be if it we thought of it coming from a single source like The Axis. And nothing that we would have to do to stop what is happening now would be one one-thousandth as costly as what we did then.
Indeed, it is precisely to make the above fact true that America and Europe have a standing military that costs almost 70% of all of the military spending in the world. Like all cowards, authoritarian governments are inherently fearful and paranoid, and they can be bullied and threatened. If there were precedent showing that the enslavement and mistreatment of a nation by despots was a dangerous and untenable state of affairs in this world, dictators could not do what they do. And that is why our current anti-interventionism, our inaction, is so bankrupt: The force of precedent is the precedent of force.
The totalitarian evil is not now coming from a singular source, but we can band together and become its singular enemy, and the fact that the Good Guys have the power means the force of precedent combined with the precedent of force can change the direction of history from its current gloomy march. One proper act of power, one serious leveraging of our might, plus the continued public stubbornness not to be complicit in mass murder and the subjugation of entire peoples, and we could reestablish our credibility as a modern society and put an end to much of the horror in the world.
The force of precedent means that if we were willing to intervene and maintain a credible threat against totalitarianism and genocide, we would get to take relatively rare action (relative to what used to have to be done to enforce moral standards against aggression and totalitarianism). None of the forces guilty of totalitarian population-torture or expansionism could mess with us, so none would.
This is why NATO and The UN came into being!
I’ll be more specific about what I am proposing: I am proposing that we threaten to go to war to stop genocide. I am proposing that we threaten to use severe economic sanctions against some of the world’s largest economies, China and Russia, if they allow totalitarian states to become their clients, and if they seriously collapse the freedom of their own people. I am proposing that we threaten to kill a dictator every now and then, even in light of what happened last time The U.S. made a habit of doing so.
More than any of that, I am proposing that we follow up on these threats swiftly and mercilessly when they are taken up.
Of course we pose a greater threat to Putin than he does to us. Of course China needs our money and patronage more than we need their credit. These things aren’t even close enough to competing calculations, in the analysis of whether we should act, to count as relevant. Our interests must be global, since our blood is their blood, and since our treasure stands to grow and flourish only if the flow of money continues around the world without being crudely siphoned off by thugs, who retard the world’s prosperity by stifling their own people and by, as all dictators do, refusing to bring to pass the only solution to poverty that the world has ever known: the empowerment of women.
I hope that, by now, you understand that throughout this article, by “we” I have meant the members and leaders of any nation which can claim to be an open and liberal society which promotes free and expression and even democracy and which, by and large, disallow state torture and killing. I need you to understand that this “We,” not Ghengis Khan and not Rome and not Hitler and not Putin, have pretty much all the power in the world.
And yet it is this modern world, supposedly run by super-powered open societies, which has allowed for the growth and cultivation of mass murderers, enslavers, torturers, warlords, and dictators on a scale that was never supposed to happen again. Revolutions, power grabs, coups, invasions, newly nuclear states, prison camp systems, genocides, pogroms, and civil wars seem to be everywhere I look.
If we are as powerful as we are, and if this is happening, it is happening because we are letting it. Never before has ninety percent of the power and money in the world been in the hands of open societies. This is a completely historically aberrant and awesome turn of events. Let’s do something radical. Let’s do something amazing.
Let’s change “never again” from a slogan that we all learn to deeply believe in as children into a reality, even if it means taking terrifying or unappealing actions as adults. We are not the heroic-but-doomed Light Brigade in Crimea or anywhere else. We have the numbers on our side. We have the artillery on our side. We have righteousness on our side. Right now, we can actually fucking win.
We are the heavy brigade.
Ours to make reply,
Ours to reason why,
Ours not to let them die:
Into the glory of life
Ride the seven billion.
Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.
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