Sunday, June 17, 2018

Scars of dictatorship: Part I

The Nazi and communist periods run across Czech history like a scar, and these days it seems to be festering, rather than healing.

In the particular incident I’m referring to, a historian who works at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes was criticized by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, for calling out behavior that has echoes of the kind of thing that happens in totalitarian regimes. But we need to back up and look at why there is an Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR).

The underlying idea is that when a nation has been through a dictatorship, its society has been warped by the crimes of that government, and as part of the healing process, it is useful to have a body whose job is to document those crimes and understand the damage they caused.

There are the relatively obvious harms, of people being jailed or killed for saying the wrong thing, having the wrong friends, coming from the wrong parents. Those are bad enough, and the people who were killed are never coming back, and the people who were jailed are never getting those years back. But at least the harm is visible and easy to understand.

Both regimes, however, created a kind of damage that was more woven into the fabric of society, which made it harder to see and much harder to talk about “right” and “wrong.”

I think Americans view a totalitarian regime as some sort of alien organism, something outside the society. There’s the general public, who are “good,” who are “victims,” and there’s the regime, which is perpetrates evil.

Reality is much more complicated.

Every society I know of includes some people who are all too happy to support a government that stomps its boot on the public’s face, so long as they themselves get to be the boot, and Czech society under Nazism and communism was no different. Some people are sadists who enjoy having power over helpless people; the goon squad of a police state offers them life fulfillment.

And even for people who aren’t willing supporters of a dictatorship, the regime creates endless difficult choices. I may personally think freedom of speech is important, but now the government is calling for people to condemn this other person who spoke out. If I sign the condemnation, I’ll be acting against my own beliefs. If I refuse to sign, I’ll be endangering my job, my access to decent housing, my children’s opportunity to go to university.

Perhaps the most insidious is the inner accommodation that can easily happen. I may start out as a believer in free speech and political pluralism, and I make my compromises with the regime unwillingly but fully aware of what I am doing. I preserve my values on the inside and make only the bare minimum of compromises needed to try to preserve an acceptable life for myself and my family.

The problem is that that’s a very difficult condition in which to keep myself—the inconsistency between my inner beliefs and my outer actions is a constant source of stress. One way to resolve that is to bring my inner beliefs to the surface and outwardly oppose the regime. The consequence of that is loss of job, or loss of freedom, or loss of life, depending on the seriousness of my action and the nature of the regime.

The other resolution is to shift my inner values, to come to see things more through the regime’s eyes, to accept its narrative. The government certainly offers me a story in which all of its actions are justified, all of its policies are for the good of the public, and all of the people in prison are there for good reason. All I have to do is accept that story, and the inner conflict goes away.

And even if I continue to resist on the inside, I may not be a fan of those who make their resistance visible and thereby draw the regime’s retribution. Look, I know I’m not going to stick my neck out, so why do you have to? First, you’re making me look bad, because your action makes it clear that acquiescence is a choice. Second, if you weren’t making a ruckus and provoking the regime into asking us to condemn you, I wouldn’t be faced with this morally fraught choice of whether to sign the condemnation. Here’s the bottom line: life is already hard enough under this regime, and you’re just making it more difficult for all of us.

Those of us with the good fortune not to have lived in such a society should be slow to condemn those who lived in them, because we can’t know how we would have behaved. Statistically, most of us would have put our heads down and done what we had to do to get through the day. A very few of us would have heroically resisted. And some of us, most certainly, would have eagerly been the boot.

For people who lived in the Czech lands between 1939 and 1989, those weren’t hypothetical behaviors. Rather, those were their actual options. Each of them knows what choices they themselves made, and they have their opinions and suspicions about the choices made by others.

In principle, the ÚSTR was created to document and understand that conflicted past, that tension that runs through the society, and often through an individual.

The problem is that, just like a totalitarian regime itself, an institute like the ÚSTR isn’t some alien organism that comes to a society from outside. It is created by the society itself, and it operates in a society still affected by the warping influence of living under a dictatorship.

This week provided one example of the difficulties that can create, which I’ll discuss in the next post.

I wrote about another issue involving the ÚSTR back in the fall:
Just how bad was it?
The point of an argument
It's not a game
It's really not a game
Fan mail

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