By Alemayehu G. Mariam | 24 August 2009
The Masks of Dictatorship
Last week, The Economist magazine painted a chilling journalistic portrait of Ethiopia’s capo dictator. The magazine described the ironfisted ringleader of the dictatorial regime that has “run Ethiopia since 1991” in starkly contrasting terms. “Meles Zenawi, still only 54, has two faces,” proclaimed the Economist. One is the face of a poverty buster, builder of “new roads, clinics, primary schools” and undertaker of “an array of agricultural initiatives.” The other is the face of a rehabilitated “Marxist with a dismal human-rights record who is intolerant of dissent,” whose “police shot dead some 200 civilians” and who jails his opponents on “trumped-up treason charges.”
But the wily dictator wears a thousand faces: He will put on the face of the smooth-talking, silver-tongued bit player with “polished English, full of arcane turns of phrase from his days at a private English school in Addis Ababa” who is always calculating to mystify, manipulate and flimflam Western donors and journalists. There is the face of a mendacious dictator who will embellish facts and claim Ethiopia’s “economy will grow this year by 10%, though the IMF’s figure is about half as big.” There is the cynical and egotistical face of a self-deluding, self-promoting Master of Hype who has managed to extract praises from “Western governments, with Britain to the fore, for improving the miserable conditions in the countryside”, and be knighted by Blair-Clinton as “one of the new breed of African leaders.” There is the poker-faced dictator who has presided over a nation which “on the business front remains very backward, has banking which is rudimentary at best, farms mostly for subsistence, and may have only a few weeks of foreign reserves left.”
There is also the face of a “crime fighting” dictator who, by all objective accounts, presides over a racketeering and corrupt political organization to cling to power. There is the face of a sanctimonious and philosophizing dictator who will wax eloquent on the democratic “process” but “closes down independent newspapers and meddles in aid projects, banning agencies that annoy him.” There is the face of the pretentious intellectual with a “sharp mind and elephantine memory,” but who simultaneously suffers massive selective memory loss and amnesia, and feigns outrage when confronted with unpleasant facts: “He avoids mentioning famine because the specter of it may be looming again… And famine looms once more. At that suggestion, Mr. Meles narrows his eyes and growls, ‘That is a lie, an absolute lie.’” There is the face of the indifferent dictator, who like Marie Antoinette of France who urged her famine-stricken subjects “to eat cake” pleads: “There is more than enough food in government warehouses to feed the people.” The Economist says, “The UN and foreign charities are predicting a large-scale famine in Tigray, Mr Meles’s home region, by November.” (Where the hell is Jonathan Dimbelby [who revealed the Wollo and Tigray famines of 1972-73 to the world] when we need him?)
There is the face of a dictator who is addicted to blaming others for his failures: “The prime minister is quick to talk up threats to his country, whether from malcontents in the army or disgruntled ethnic groups among Ethiopia’s mosaic of peoples… Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea, his mother’s birthplace, remain lousy.” There is the face of a paranoid dictator who peers through the thick glass of an echo chamber surrounded by sycophants, “sensitive to criticism”, and has enacted “a new catch-all law that could make peaceful opposition liable to the charge of inciting terrorism.” Such is the portrait of a dictator with a thousand faces.
The Psychopathology of Dictatorship
All dictators wear many faces. Psychological studies and analyses of dictators lend insight into the psychodynamics (interplay between unconscious and conscious motivation) of the behavioral syndromes that create the many masks worn by dictators. The data and anecdotal evidence suggest that many of the most ruthless dictators of the past century – Enver Hoxha of Albania, Joseph Stalin, Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, Saddam Hussein, Agosto Pinochet of Chile, Francisco Franco of Spain, Idi Amin, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Mengistu Hailemariam, Pol Pot of Cambodia and the current dictator in Ethiopia suffer from deep psychological and emotional trauma.
In his study of dictators, political psychologist Jerrold M. Post employs the concept of “malignant narcissism” to describe the psychological chaos raging in dictators’ minds. Post argues that malignant narcissism in dictators is a manifestation of the “absence of conscience (moral vacuum), insatiable psychological need for power, unconstrained aggression, paranoid outlook and [inflated] sense of self-importance and grandiosity”. These amoral dictators see themselves as great messianic figures transforming society and saving the world. They are driven by fantasies of personal glory. They remain isolated in echo chambers where they nurture their megalomania. They see the world through a thick lens of paranoia while trapped in a permanent siege mentality. They believe they know everything, and know what is best for their country, their nation and their people. In their delusional self-exaltation, they believe they are demigods. They have a low opinion of their supporters and those serving them; they think of them as ignorant, untrustworthy and lazy lackeys and servile opportunists who will dump them at the drop of a hat. They project their failures on others. They trust no one and are ruthless political calculators who will go to any lengths to achieve their goals. They are duplicitous, cunning, calculating and cruel always masking their true nature behind a public mask of civility, sophistication and affability. Ultimately, the dictators’ sense of grandiosity, pomposity, self-absorption and conceit prevents them from being able empathize with the pain and suffering of others. It is this lack of basic human empathy that enables them to commit unspeakable atrocities, appalling brutalities and horrible crimes without so much as blinking an eye. These dictators are “unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts.”
Girma Tassew, M.D., in his psychological profile of the capo dictator in Ethiopia argues1 :
He [Zenawi] misrepresents facts, opportunistically shifts positions, ignores data that conflicts with his fantasy world, is overly confident and acts as statesman despite commensurate merits and narcissistic life achievements. [He] considers himself above the law, displays false modesty while sublimating aggression and grudges. As a narcissist, he has the emotional maturity of a child, or even an animal, but the intellect of a man. What makes this guy dangerous is his lack of consciousness combined with his high self-serving intelligence and his superb performance that has fooled and outsmarted many. As a malignant narcissist his survival is dependent upon having control or the perception of control. When the control is challenged, he feels threatened and responds as though his very survival is at stake.
From the Great Dictator to the People
In the Great Dictator, the peerless Charlie Chaplin, satirizing Nazism and Adolf Hitler in the role of the misbegotten barber turned absolute ruler of Tomania, delivers a passionate plea to the people to unite and fight dictatorship. The scene represents one of the greatest monologues in the history of motion pictures (See Youtube: youtube.com…):
Hope… I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an Emperor – that’s not my business – I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that.
We all want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone and the earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful. But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls – has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in: machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little: More than machinery we need humanity; More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me I say “Do not despair”.
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress: the hate of men will pass and dictators die and the power they took from the people, will return to the people and so long as men die [now] liberty will never perish.
Soldiers – don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you – who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men. You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate – only the unloved hate. Only the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers – don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty.
In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written “the kingdom of God is within man ” – not one man, nor a group of men – but in all men – in you, the people.
You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let’s use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfill their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers – in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Look up! Look up! The clouds are lifting – the sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world. A kind new world where men will rise above their hate and brutality. The soul of man has been given wings – and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow – into the light of hope – into the future, that glorious future that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up. Look up.”
Look up, Ethiopians! Do not despair! We are coming out of the darkness into the light. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. Let us fight for a world of reason. Let’s do away with greed, with hate and intolerance in our motherland!
The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org