Kapuściński and the Autocrats
Source: Book and Film Globe | Neal Pollack
The late Polish journalist, like no other writer, understood societies in crisis
Everyone’s busy checking Orwell out of the library and pretending to read 1984 right now, because apparently we live in an “Orwellian” reality. But if you really want to understand, or at least try to understand, what’s going on in America, I recommend reading Ryszard Kapuściński instead. Kapuściński was a Polish journalist who had more courage on an average Tuesday than you or I have had in our entire lives. He spent decades reporting from the most dangerous war zones on Earth. He would find what’s going on in the States tragic and comic in equal measure. Kapuściński saw what really happens when societies descend into revolt.
[…] Kapuściński had many specialities as a writer, but his best literary trick was explaining autocrats, how they work, and how societies function under them. In particular, his masterpieces, Shah of Shahs, about the end of the Iranian monarchy and the rise of the caliphate, and The Emperor, about the terrifying reign of Ethopia’s monarch Halie Selassie, can help shed some understanding on what’s going on today.
Ethiopia doesn’t exist in the American consciousness at all, except for guilt-making commercial pleas for aid during period famines, and as the source of culinary delicacies like injera bread and zilzil tibs for urban sophisticates. In the middle of the 20th century, though, it was a larger player on the world stage, first because Mussolini’s Italy invaded it, in a precursor to World War II. Then it’s “Emperor”, Halie Selassie, became a favored pet among the Western elite, even receiving Time’s “Man of the Year” award for resisting Mussolini even though he was hiding in the English town of Bath at the time.
In reality, as Kapuściński writes in his brilliant book The Emperor, Selassie was merely a savvy bureaucrat who wheedled his way to the throne, whispering society to bend to his whims and stealing countless billions to deposit into Swiss bank accounts. Whereas Shah of Shahs is a more on-the-ground “you are there” style of book, The Emperor comes in after Selassie death in 1975, when it’s relatively safe to talk about him and his misdeeds. Kapuściński, who covered Ethiopia during Selassie’s reign as well, seeks out the surviving members of Selassie’s court, as well as some of his former servants, to provide an account of life in the insanely privileged court of a country suffering from inconceivable poverty and starvation.
The pattern is somewhat similar to Iran’s: an elaborate system of favors and rewards, hoodwinking naive Westerners into donating capital and cash, and absolute incompetence at every level of society. Monstrous violence follows. Eventually, and pathetically, Selassie falls in a military coup. The palace empties. The Emperor has no clothes.
Kapuściński is equally harsh on these societies after the autocrats fall. What replaces the strongman is often just as murderous as before, if not more so. The mullah-ruled Iran is a mess of repression, spying, superstition, renunciations, and meaningless, bloody street demonstrations. In post-Selassie Ethiopia, he writes of the bizarre phenomenon of “fetasha“, which authorizes every citizen to search every other citizen at all times, without explanation:
“To get things under control, to disarm the opposition, the authorities order a complete fetasha [Amharic for search], covering everyone. We are searched incessantly. On the street, in the car, in front of the house, in the house, in the street, in front of the post office, in front of an office building, going into the editor’s office, the movie theatre, the church, in front of the bank, in front of the restaurant, in the market place, in the park. Anyone can search us because we don’t know who has the right and who hasn’t, and asking only makes thing worse. It’s better to give in. Somebody’s always searching us. Guys in rags with sticks, who don’t say anything, but only stop us and hold out their arms, which is the signal for us to do the same: get ready to be searched. They take everything out of our briefcases and pockets, look at it, act surprised, screw up their faces, nod their heads, whisper advice to each other. They frisk us: back, stomach, legs, shoes. And then what? Nothing, we can go on, until the next spreading of arms, until the next fetasha. The next one might be only a few steps on, and the whole thing starts all over again. The searchers never give you an acquittal, a general clearance, absolution. Every few minutes, every few steps, we have to clear ourselves again.”
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