Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Could We, You and Me, Become Democratically Damaged Goods?

We Canadians live in a significantly authoritarian state.  Ours is becoming something of a Surveillance State.  We have secret police agencies that include the state security apparatus and that liase with the corporate sector.   We have a government that has gagged our public service and, through information lockdown and manipulation, transformed it into a partisan political agency of the Leader and then did the same thing with the armed forces.  We have a government that likewise remade the state police into a partisan political agency.  We live under a government that suppresses science at every turn and substitutes for knowledge the Leader's beliefs.  We endure a government that greases the wheels of authoritarianism with secrecy, duplicity, manipulation and fuels its engine with a powerful mix of fear, anger, suspicion and bigotry in order to dissolve the connective tissues of our society.

Worst of all, we have a fledgling authoritarian government that fully appreciates the alchemy of incrementalism.  Tiny steps, each barely noticed, until, at last, the goal is reached with very few the wiser until it is too late. 

Does this leave us, as individuals, democratically damaged goods?  According to a survivor of the Communist era in Poland, Patrycja Sasnal, the yoke of authoritarianism can persist long after the oppressor is gone. 

In his brilliant book of 2009, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, Brian Whitaker, British journalist and former Middle East Editor of the Guardian, described a phenomenon of an authoritarian society. It replicates master-servant relations not only between the government and the people but also in almost every person-to-person contact: in the streets, at work, at home.

Changing a country’s political system entails not only a transformation of the foundations of state institutions. It also requires a change in the mindset of people that make up those institutions.
Such change rarely happens immediately following a revolution. The changes require a deeper, more profound social adaptation, which then reaches into people’s lives. Such is the case in most Arab countries — certainly in Egypt.

The old state had corrupted society for decades. The behemoth gave power to those working for it, from the top down and the bottom up, from a countryside policeman to the minister of the interior.

In Poland, where I was born and grew up, we know the longevity of the corrupt mindset all too well. During the Communist period, people would bow to nurses, teachers, clerks, bringing them gifts, bribing them and showing unnatural respect — just to get things done. It continued for years after the democratic transition in 1989.

Brian Whitaker’s words ...mirror those of the renowned psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm. His 1941 book, Escape from Freedom, a seminal work in the development of the social sciences, clearly applies to the Arab Awakening.

Fromm’s general thesis is that freedom is so alienating and demanding that initially people would rather escape into authoritarian, safe, predictable and stable systems. Based on Fromm’s premise, one can finally understand why so many Egyptians love General Sisi — a cunning replica of Mubarak. He is the safe, the stable and the predictable choice. But not forever.

There are at least two Egypts. One lives and works in the streets. It walks in dirty sandals and buys a dozen loafs of bread for one Egyptian pound (an equivalent to 15 U.S. cents). The other Egypt drives to work in an air-conditioned car with a chauffeur, goes to lavish sport clubs ($400/month) and sends kids to American schools ($1,000/month).

These two groups of people rarely meet. When they do, they play the master and the servant. The rich had already been free before Mubarak left and they are free now. But the poor remain restrained — all they have is a promise of a better life that they will never have, if one takes into account the state of the economy in Egypt.

Yet, they wait. They have given Sisi the benefit of the doubt, but the structural problems of their country are such that not even Sisi, the presumed “savior of Egypt,” can solve them. Another uprising is inevitable.

Authoritarianism, in effect, leaves scars.  It fractures society and exploits divisiveness to its direct advantage.  That's a knife that our man Harper never hesitates to wield.  His governance leaves us weakened, divided, confused and, hence, malleable to his will.  Stopping Harper begins by being aware of his despotic instincts, never underestimating the damage he is causing our country and our people,  and, for that awareness, being prepared to demand much better of those who would succeed him.


Owen Gray said...

When I was a grad student long ago in North Carolina, I learned what segregation was all about. It was about black men -- old enough to be my grandfather -- addressing me as, "Mr. Gray."

As they did so, they looked at the floor, knowing that it was not healthy to be known as "an uppity nigger."

Master and Servant. The time and place change -- but the dynamic doesn't.

The Mound of Sound said...

We know, Owen, that there are plenty who would welcome a return to those days.

Anonymous said...

Having been a frequent visitor to a communist country over the four decades that the regime lasted, because the majority of my family lived there, I can confirm these observations, and I am horrified and frightened by the many parallels that I see in present-day Canada, especially the blatant lying from the top, which now seems to be the new normal.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Why are the many immigrants from these countries (e.g. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, all those who defected in Gander) up in arms and shouting from the rooftops that this is not what they came to Canada for?

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, parallels do exist, Anon, and I think Harper uses incrementalism to entrench them.

As a young man I got to know several of the Hungarian refugees of 56 and Czechs of 63 but they're old men now and I suspect many of them returned once the Iron Curtain was torn down. I only wish they would speak out but perhaps they don't see that as their place.