Posts Tagged ‘Totalitarianism’

North Korea: totalitarianism in action

September 19, 2017

When I was young, I was haunted by the specter of totalitarianism—the idea of an all-powerful state that not only could regulate its subjects’ every action, but get inside their minds and convince them this was normal.

As a college student, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984 and most of his essays.

I thought the future held three great perils: (1) the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, (2) the destruction of civilization through nuclear war and (3) the triumph of totalitarianism, as manifested in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.

None of these fears came true, although the first two are still very much with us.   As for totalitarianism, there are many cruel and bloody governments in the world, but they are not, in the strict definition of the word, totalitarian.   Totalitarianism exists in only one place—North Korea—where it has endured for 70 years.

I got an inside view of North Korea by reading WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.   She is an American of Korean heritage who taught English for six months in 2011 at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUSH).

The title of the book is taken from an anthem the students sang at different times each day.    The “you” was Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, and the “us” is everyone else in North Korea.

Suki Kim said the whole idea of individual thinking was alien to her students.   For example, they found it incredibly difficult to write a five-paragraph essay, because this involved stating an argument and then presenting evidence in support of the argument.   What they were accustomed to writing was unstructured praise of their country, their leaders and the official Juche ideology.

PUSH was founded and financed by evangelical Christians, many of Korean extraction, who agreed to build and staff a university at no cost to the North Korean government, and to refrain from proselytizing.   Presumably their hope was that they could subtly plant the seeds of Christianity and that they would be on the scene when and if North Korea ever granted religious freedom.

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Tyranny, Trump and Timothy Snyder

June 26, 2017

Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Hitler-Stalin era, has written an eloquent and heartfelt little book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Centurywarning that democracy could perish in the United States of today just as it did in Europe in the 1930s.

Just as no couple making love for the last time ever realize it is the last time, he wrote, so no person voting in a free election for the last time realizes it is the last time.

On Tyranny contains 20 timeless principles for defenders of democracy.    The principles are illustrated by ominous stories of how the mass of people failed to resist Nazi and Communist tyranny and inspirational stories of how a few did.

Then come claims that Vladimir Putin is like Hitler and Stalin and that Donald Trump is like all three, and a call to be ready to resist.

Snyder has done well to remind Americans of the fundamental principles of democracy and the need to defend them.

But the need for the reminder didn’t originate with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  As Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf and others have warned, these dangers have existed since enactment of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, and before.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the government has claimed the power to engage in acts of war, order assassinations, spy on citizens, and bypass due process of law and also to imprison anyone who reveals what is going on.  Until this changes, every President is a potential tyrant, not just Donald Trump.

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Brainwashing and mind control are possible

June 4, 2014

Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist and memory researcher, has documented a disquieting success in implanting false memories by simply suggesting to a subject that he has experienced a fictitious event.

Such pseudo-events, invented by psychologists, may vary from mildly upsetting or comic incidents that, for example, as a child, one was lost in a mall to more serious incidents that one was the victim of a serious animal attack, or a serious assault by another child.

After initial skepticism “I was never lost in a shopping mall”, and then uncertainty, the subject may move to a conviction so profound that he will continue to insist on the truth of the implanted memory, even after the experimenter confesses that it never happened in the first place.

via Oliver Sacks | The New York Review of Books.

It is possible to remember things that never happened.   It is possible for a skilled psychiatric professional to implant false memories in people.

And now research with rats indicates that it is possible to work on the brain so as to delete—and restore—memories by physical means (but so far only in rats).

As an old guy who is starting to suffer from loss of memory, and whose greatest fear is dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, I think research on memory is a good thing, not a bad thing.

But a world in which memory deletion, memory activation and memory falsification were understood is a science-fiction dystopia.  It means that it is technically possible for a future government to exercise totalitarian control over the individual to an extent that Hitler, Stalin and Mao only dreamed of doing.

These far outweigh the possible benefits of these techniques, such as in treating post-traumatic stress syndrome.  And even there, I expect that, just as with psychiatric drugs, many therapists would use memory deletion techniques without fully understanding their limitations and wider effects.

LINKS

How to erase a memory—and restore it: Researchers activate memories in rats in Science Daily.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Speak, Memory by Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books.  A report on false memories.

How Memory Speaks by Jerome Groopman in the New York Review of Books.  A review of research on the neurological basis of memory.

Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson.  Science fiction.

Big Brother scene: Links & comments 10/23/13

October 23, 2013

The United States is not a totalitarian country, but there are all-too-many Americans with a totalitarian mentality.

The US government’s secrecy problem just got worse by Elizabeth Goiten for Al Jazeera America.

A federal judge ruled that the U.S. government is justified in keeping information secret when its disclosure could be used as propaganda by terrorist organizations.  In other words, the worse the crime committed by the government, the more reason to keep it secret from the public.

In the long run, the best defense against anti-American propaganda is not to commit crimes and abuses of power.  This decision goes the other way.  It gives the government the legal right to enforce coverups.

We already know that the government classifies information as secret in order to cover up mistakes and wrongdoing.  This court decision says that the government has a legal right to do this.

Why I Will Never, Ever, Go Back to the United States by Niels Gerson Lohman.

A Dutch novelist describes his experience trying to cross from Canada into the United States—hours of questioning about his life followed by a determination that he should be barred from the USA because he had visited too many majority-Muslim countries.

Many foreigners report that the experience of entering the United States is much like entering the old Soviet Union before it fell.  Aside from the wrongness of giving low-level government employees such arbitrary power, is this the face that we Americans want to present to the world?

Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China by Andrew Jacobs for the New York Times.

The Chinese government demands the right to censor and alter books by Americans before it will allow them to be translated and published in China.  Many (but not all) American authors go along with this for the sake of royalties in the huge Chinese market.

Support for Legalizing Marijuana Grows to Highest Point Ever in Gallup Poll by Ariel Edwards-Levy for the Huffington Post.

Gallup reported that 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.  The war on drugs does great harm, especially to young black men in U.S. cities.  But there is a vested interest for continuing in the prison industry and especially among police departments that get income from property seizures in drug cases.

 

Two types of totalitarianism

October 14, 2013

orwell.huxley.fatpita (1952)

Maybe both of them were right.  An authoritarian state and a trivial mass culture are not mutually exclusive.  They are mutually reinforcing.

Hat tip to We are respectable negroes.

The secret state and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

August 19, 2013

Ladar Levison, who closed down his Lavabit e-mail service rather than comply with a secret government order, is in the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma situation.

h-LAVABITHe and other business owners would be better off if they stuck together and resisted the government’s secret demands in the courts.  But because of the government’s gag orders, none of them has any way of knowing whether others are fighting the same battle or they are all alone.

Levison is forbidden to say just what the government ordered him to do and what his objection was.  His secret appeal against a secret order will be tried in secret.  This is crazy.   This is bizarre.  It is like some unpublished short story by Franz Kafka.

We have a huge national security apparatus which operates in secret.  The President of the United States issues secret orders for assassinations of people deemed national enemies, based on a secret legal ruling.  These operations are subject to review by a secret court.  We the people are supposed to be reassured by congressional committees which receive secret testimony they are not allowed to tell us about.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing about the Nazi and Soviet regimes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, said that the aim of totalitarian governments was to destroy all institutions that stood between the individual and absolute power, so that any person who dared dissent felt helpless and alone.

We’re not in that situation in the United States—not yet.   But we do have a growing totalitarian mentality.  Washington is full of politicians and commentators who labels as a “narcissist”  anyone who defies authority in the name of conscience.

If the United States exists 30 years from now with liberty under law, it will be because of brave individuals such as Ladar Levison, who was willing to sacrifice a business he spent 10 years building up rather than sacrifice the liberties of his fellow citizens.

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Did the Soviet Union win the Cold War?

June 30, 2010

One of the things I once worried about, along with overpopulation, the persistence of racism and the threat of nuclear war, was whether the United States could successfully win the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union.

I never doubted the superiority of the United States as a free and democratic nation over the Soviet Union in its ability to provide a good life for its people.  But I doubted was whether a free and democratic nation had the staying power to withstand a totalitarian dictatorship’s unrelenting military and diplomatic pressure. We might be too concerned about our material comfort to wage what President Kennedy called the long twilight struggle.

My fears about this, as with the other things I mentioned, did not come true.  U.S. administrations through Reagan, despite missteps and mistakes, remained steadfast to the policy laid down by the Truman administration, to resist Soviet and Communist expansion by means short of general war. They were vindicated when the Soviet Union collapsed due to the unworkability of its political and economic system.

Now I see our situation as the exact opposite of what I thought it was back then. Rather than devote ourselves to peace and prosperity, we as a nation seek world power at the expense of peace and prosperity.  It is as if we are so used to having a global enemy to struggle against that we can’t get along without one.

The United States has continued to maintain as huge a military, diplomatic and covert intelligence establishment as if we faced an enemy capable of threatening our existence.  Rather than sacrificing our military power to our quality of life, we sacrifice our quality of life to military power.

We have come to accept as normal the practices which one defined the differences between ourselves and our totalitarian enemies – torture, government assassinations, arrests without charges or trials. Being opposed to torture is actually a controversial position.

We use Orwellian lingo – “coercive interrogation,” “preventive detention,” “preventive war,” “Homeland Security” – and these practices continue to grow under Presidents as outwardly different as George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  We fool ourselves into thinking that what can be done to people with dark skins, foreign accents and funny names can’t be done to anybody.

So maybe the United States didn’t really win the Cold War.  We defeated the Soviet Union politically and economically, but maybe they defeated us morally and spiritually.