How can people in totalitarian societies seem so happy?
October 10, 2010 9:55 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the psyche of people living under totalitarian regimes.

Having watched tens of documentaries about totalitarian regimes (I have a special interest on the subject), it always strikes me how many people in those countries defend the regime and cheer the dictators.

It's one thing when people are being interviewed by foreign journalists and closely watched by government thugs; that situation I understand. But what I don't get is those people who voluntarily attend military parades and cry on the sight of their tormentors, like in this article about North Korea's succession.

I understand that many people at those parades are also part of the regime, but if you take Fidel Castro's speeches in Cuba or Kim Il Sung's funeral in DPRK, you see that many people are genuinely happy or suffering, respectively. What goes on in their minds? Is it any sort of psychological disorder? If so, does it have a name? How can people in the DPRK cheer the government when most of the country is dying of hunger?
posted by dcrocha to Human Relations (40 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
You could extrapolate Stockholm syndrome out onto a larger scale to explain at least some of the behaviors.
posted by griphus at 10:01 PM on October 10, 2010

Cult of personality has a lot to do with it. It's a form of idolatry that charismatic leaders use to force their followers or subjugates to follow them. Eventually they know of no freer system.
posted by dfriedman at 10:06 PM on October 10, 2010

Have you read 1984? it deals extensively with this, especially the idea of doublethink.
posted by wayland at 10:07 PM on October 10, 2010

How can people in the DPRK cheer the government when most of the country is dying of hunger?

It's a little more complex than that. This is the abstract (full article evidently requires subscription, sorry; you could also find it in your library, though) of an interesting New Yorker article from just a few months ago about the recent currency reform and growing disillusionment in North Korea, for example.
posted by scody at 10:09 PM on October 10, 2010

Best answer: Part of the explanation lies in your title.. "seem so happy".

From my experience of living in a country that used to be totalitarian (Russia/USSR), I can say that many people pretended to be happy because expressing dissatisfaction (however obliquely) in a totalitarian state isn't everyone's mug of kvaas.

Of course, this is not to deny that many people must have either bought into the propaganda against their own interests, or were part of that section of society that benefited from the regime (e.g. most civil servants).

That and some pre-Photoshop creative editing is all the explanation I have ever thought about.
posted by vidur at 10:10 PM on October 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I can say that many people pretended to be happy because expressing dissatisfaction (however obliquely) in a totalitarian state isn't everyone's mug of kvaas.

Yeah, I can second this. When I asked my grandmother, who grew up under Stalin, what it was like to have people in her town just disappear, she said that no one talked about it as no one wanted to ever get caught talking about it.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (written by a man who did an eight-year stint in a gulag) goes into these conditions, and the ability to survive within them.
posted by griphus at 10:15 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend reading Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm.

To quote the first sentence of the product description written on amazon, "If humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom, it will probably turn to authoritarianism."
posted by null14 at 10:36 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I highly recommend the book Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demmick. It profiles a half-dozen North Koreans (defectors now living on South Korea) and is an in-depth look at ordinary life in NK. Demmick is a journalist and I found it both well-written and well-researched. To sort of answer your question, what I gathered from the book is that two things were going on:

1) some people, the "true believers," WERE crushed when Kim Il-Sung died. They'd been raised their whole lives being told that he was a combination of ruler, father figure, and demi-god, who was responsible for every good thing that ever happened to North Korea. (Paraphrasing, but you get the idea.) His face is everywhere, his picture hangs in their homes, his voice is always in their ears, he's practically a religious figure...and then he's gone. And it's scary, because he's been the bedrock of the country since it gained independence from Japan and as they're constantly being told, he's the one keeping the American infidels from invading at any second. So with one death the people lost a family member, political leader, a protector, and a spiritual icon.

2) as mentioned above, not everyone bought into this, but those people had to fake it, because the country was full of snitches just waiting to rat out someone who didn't have the appropriate grief. People kept track of who went to the shrine and how often and how explicit their grief was, so even if you didn't feel it, you faked it really well. Demmick even has stories of kindergartners in hysterics because their parents told them they had to be really sad at KI-S's shrine.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 10:52 PM on October 10, 2010 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Well, as someone who was born in the Soviet Union and studies it professionally today, I would warn you against drawing too firm a line between totalitarian and non-totalitarian countries. Stalinism worked, in a practical sense, for a lot of people, and there were plenty of reasons to believe that it could deliver a brighter future than capitalism--after all, what Soviet people saw when they looked outside their borders was a capitalist system that had just collapsed into a massive depression and then, in many countries, turned into fascist dictatorship.

As for 1984, that book is chock-full of utter nonsense written by someone who had zero real experience of what life under Stalinism was actually like, and its popularity testifies more to the power of liberal-democratic myth-making than anything else.
posted by nasreddin at 11:08 PM on October 10, 2010 [27 favorites]

I am seriously not trying to be snarky, but I feel the United States of America has very serious social, economic and political problems and yet there are many people there that are incredibly disadvantaged but also patriotic. I see a direct parallel between them and the people you find so incomprehensible.
posted by saucysault at 11:19 PM on October 10, 2010 [47 favorites]

In the rest of the world, we wonder how the citizens of the US manage to sincerely and with genuine passion defend such a thoroughly inequitable healthcare system. People die of cold and of hunger in the UK, too, but the people still ritualistically made a martyr of a dead aristocrat.

Regarding the identification of people with economic and political systems I recommend, as I always do, Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle where "dictators" can be just as spectacularly representative as any celebrity:
Stars — spectacular representations of living human beings — project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner... On one hand, a governmental power may personalize itself as a pseudostar; on the other, a star of consumption may campaign for recognition as a pseudopower over life. But the activities of these stars are not really free, and they offer no real choices...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:53 PM on October 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Guy Delisle's Pyongang, an autobiographical graphic novel based on time spent working in North Korea, gave me some interesting insights on this topic (e.g. if you had been brought up to believe that your government was working for you and that capitalists were evil, how would you know otherwise?)
posted by pavane at 11:54 PM on October 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

Because it's all they know. I think psychologically it's similar to people who stay in abusive relationships because they love their abuser and don't know better, or people who come from abusive families and still love their family.

Also, no country is perfect- I totally agree with the postabove about people loving the US despite some of its opressive practices. It's easy to point a finger from the outside, but a lot of time people in these regimes are blocked from outside info, being promised things, and have a love of their country because it's where they are from and what they know.
posted by bearette at 12:21 AM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wonder how much of it is cognitive dissonance? People convince themselves that this is the only option worth pursuing, and do so rabidly, to prevent themselves from realising that they could be better off with something else. Kind of like how Gollum convinces himself that the ring was meant to come to him, because it was his birthday present, even though he knows that he killed his friend for it.
posted by Solomon at 1:22 AM on October 11, 2010

Best answer: I remember the hysteria that swept the UK when Diana died. Everyone *I* knew was wandering around thinking the country had gone completely insane, yet people were lining the streets in their millions to throw flowers before the hearse of a woman that they'd never met & the country came damn close to revolting against the monarchy.

I imagine that portion of the population that exhibits that kind of 'follower' behaviour exists in every human society: they want to be led & whichever leadership is in power must be right. If they weren't right, they wouldn't be in power would they?

(Cue obligatory link to Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarians".)
posted by pharm at 2:21 AM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I (not an expert, by any means) think about the parallels of places like North Korea and cults--a charismatic leader, constant bombardment of the individual with the message of that leader, and so forth. One of the factors that I didn't see anyone mention above is one of the most fascinating to me: poor nutrition. In some religious cults, extremely limited diets are not an economic necessity, but a part of the doctrine. In North Korea, there just isn't enough food to go around. Either way, surely poor nutrition negatively impacts the individual's critical thinking skills and makes a more pliant subject.
posted by thebrokedown at 2:52 AM on October 11, 2010

Read Tony Judt on Czeslaw Milosz: "And indeed, when I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students just why a "captive mind" was not a good thing. Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: Why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one?"

Then read "Captive Minds." Understand that you don't need a charismatic leader, and that it isn't just "followers" who are suckered in. One lesson of the 20th century was how easily and often the intelligentsia are coopted by such regimes.
posted by oddovid at 4:03 AM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

"My country, right or wrong"?
"America: love it or leave it"

Though I would hesitate to equate such crowd-sourced, grassroots, and commercialized ideology with the state apparatus of totalitarianism in the Third Reich or Stalin's USSR. In the USA, if your small Everytown, USA is a totalitarian polity, you can still move to the big city. I shudder at the prospects of Tea-Party-izing New York City.
posted by bad grammar at 4:52 AM on October 11, 2010

Fiasco: What has always seemed strange to me is the view from many outside the US that all three hundred some odd million of us all agree with the healthcare system, etc. This is a pretty big country with lots of different ideas, and opposing ideas are published in the media all over the world. I do think, however, that saucysalt has a point about unquestioning patriotism among many Americans.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:01 AM on October 11, 2010

Best answer: I was raised to adulthood in a totalitarian regime, Yugoslavia. Granted, it was a totalitarianism of a more benign form than you'd find in North Korea, but still.

The many people here who talk of Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance and cult of personality are pretty much missing the point. Saucysault and Nasreddin get it mostly right.

People in formerly Communist countries today and always amazed when I tell them that it is illegal to distill one's own liquor in America, or to sell alcohol without a license. Generally, they think I am joking when I tell them this; it's a sort of fundamental human right to many of them. It's just one tiny example, but one which most Americans have a hard time perceiving in terms of an abuse to their personal liberty.

Imagine never really having to worry about money, or a job, or housing. That's pretty much how it was in Yugoslavia. The trade-off may have been a life without the level of luxury that Americans enjoyed, but people were, in many ways, happier for it. Old people, especially, liked the Communist system and the leader of Yugoslavia for the majority of the country's existence, Tito. Life was better for many than before Communism. Many of the burdens of a patriarchal society were quickly eliminated; women rose to equal positions and equal pay to an extent still not known in America. Old people who'd lived through ethnic battles, mini-genocides and centuries of hatred were amazed at how quickly this strife just disappeared (only to reappear when we become "free"). The literacy rate was sky-high compared to what it is in America, this is still true in places like Cuba. Books were nearly free. Schools were top-notch. Healthcare was free. Everyone had generous paid vacations; my family went to the beach for two months each summer, courtesy of the state, and we had a wonderful time. Corruption was kept in check.

It wasn't perfect, but it was genuinely a place that one could feel pretty proud about. You had to be pretty careful about criticism of the state; my father was briefly imprisoned by virtue of an open mouth. The state was a little heavy-handed about censorship and some distortion of history, but to be fair . . . probably less so than the Texas Board of Education is today.

People look back at those times and many feel nostalgic and regretful that it all ended. More than two decades after "freedom" most things are worse than before. Schools are inferior, joblessness and poverty affect people more, corruption is rampant to the extent that it's pretty fair to say anyone doing well financially is probably doing something illegal.

But probably the best sort of freedom we had was to know exactly where things stood. We all know where the system was fucked up, and when we were being lied to. We may have been powerless to stop it, but we were in no sense swayed by propaganda to do much differently than we otherwise would have. (Hugely isolated places, such as North Korea, are a different story. They are also much rarer than you'd think.). Americans, even if they really do have this freedom - I'd debate the point - rarely exercise it. I laughed out loud at the insinuation that we might not have "known any better". No one wore blinders; we knew the truth of our situation far better than most people in the "free" world knew theirs. I'll disagree with nasreddin's interpretation of 1984. It was never about Stalinism - the popular and self-serving thought in the West - it was a prophecy about the West, and its foretelling seems increasingly relevant to the West. The country whose citizens are most closely monitored isn't China or North Korea or Cuba, you know. (Everything else nasreddin said is spot-on.)

And as nasreddin said, Stalinism did work for many people; this despite the fact that Stalin was one of the world's most prolific murderers. Many people in Russia long for the return of someone just like him, despite the fact that few families were untouched by the horrors of tat era. For many, still, it was better than the past and better than the present.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:07 AM on October 11, 2010 [152 favorites]

A lot of people have said good things, so I'll throw in an interesting book recommendation: Jochen Hellbeck's Revolution on My Mind is a history of diary-keeping under Stalin.

You might expect diaries to be sites of resistance, of people expressing their individuality in the private sphere, but in the narratives Hellbeck has uncovered, diary-writers admire the ideal of the "socialist self" and are constantly monitoring their own actions that they may better live up to that ideal. I thought it was a really interesting take on individual psychology under socialist/totalitarian regimes.
posted by besonders at 5:19 AM on October 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also: the weeping masses at a NK dictator's funeral or the cheering hordes at the Mass Games are hand-picked. You don't get to see the starving villagers or the dissident prisoners or even the generically unreliable average people in NK broadcasts. One of the remarkable things about 1988-1992 was the sudden appearance of loads of normal people who could come up with hundreds of reasons to fight against communist oppressors in countries with said oppression. Look up the meaning of "perestroika" (restructuring) and "glasnost" (openness) and, yeah.

(And please note: the argument that life under Generic Dictators is bad and America good comes from the Teddy Roosevelt era, when it was, to put bluntly, a much more obviously valid argument.)
posted by SMPA at 5:58 AM on October 11, 2010

Patriotism does not require a great country, merely a country.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:11 AM on October 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I feel I kinda left my thought unfinished up there. I think it is human nature to accept your situation, including country you live in, and to make it bearable you take the optimistic view that yeah, this place may have SOME problems but ultimately the advantages (including familiarity) outweigh the disadvantages. Change is scary and unknown, sometimes it is better to stick with the devil you know.
posted by saucysault at 6:17 AM on October 11, 2010

Best answer: Sort of to stress Dee Xtrovert's point, in Portugal they recently had a vote as to the greatest Portuguese of all time - you know, this includes Vasco de Gama and others from their age of exploration. The winner? Their recent dictator Salazar.

My wife tells me that many people, especially in the countryside, had it good and still openly long for the dictatorship. Never mind that independent thought was being horribly crushed and entire families disappeared in the middle of the night. It didn't happen to them just to those wierd liberal elites in the cities.

Oh and third place in the poll was Aristides de Sousa Mendes - one of my personal heros as well. He was famous for defying Salazar which just goes to show how schizophrenic people are about these things.
posted by vacapinta at 6:17 AM on October 11, 2010

Dee Xtrovert's story is true for people who were dirt poor before the revolution. Those who were wealthy probably don't have such nice things to say.

Of course people like the idea that they can have a vacation and a job and a house without worry- that is a highly unnatural state. It only works because there is some other input to the system, whether that is money from the USSR or natural resources to sell to neighbors at high prices, or a hidden peasant class slaving in the fields so the bourgies in the cities can have vacations, or they are running off wealth stolen from others (Cuba, Venezuela). Some people enjoy the fact that those rich fuckers finally got what they deserved, and will suffer great indignity so long as they know someone else who was better off than they were is not worse off.

Also, some people simply choose to be happy.
posted by gjc at 6:27 AM on October 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you get a chance to see the Edgar Reitz film/series Heimat, it follows the story of very normal, recognizable people in very small-town Germany from 1919 to 1982. The episodes from the 1930s and 1940s show a range of reactions by ordinary, fallible people to situations that come in from the wider world.
posted by gimonca at 7:09 AM on October 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've never lived in such a society, but I've read a great deal about them (especially Russia, China, and Vietnam), and I think nasreddin and Dee are on the money. I realize it's hard for those of us whose personal experience is in "Western"/"first world" countries to make the mental leap of understanding the experience of those in such societies, but the first step is to rid yourself of the obsession with the "totalitarian" part. To us that's what stands out, but 1) it's an almost meaningless oversimplification, and 2) to the people living there, it's just part of the air they breathe. You might think about pre-Civil War America as an analogy: white people, unless they were a member of the tiny minority actively concerned with the issue, didn't go around thinking "I'm living in a country with slaves!" They just went about their lives and rarely gave it a thought, usually in the context of election campaigns where it became an issue.

You might read Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism for further insight.
posted by languagehat at 8:30 AM on October 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: For perspective, here's a quote from Kornei Chukovsky's diary for 18 January 1935, not long after the murder of Kirov and Stalin's pointing the finger at the Opposition leadership, accusing Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and others of being "morally responsible" for the murder, which later led to their arrest and execution:
I am very nervous about the affair involving Zinovyev, Kamenev, and the others. I read the indictment yesterday. It appears they were using literature as a smoke screen to mask their sorry political goals. And I believed that Kamenev was truly interested in Shakespeare translations, that he cared about the Pushkin celebration, that he was pulling strings for the Pushkinskii Dom journal, and that his life was absolutely transparent. I thought that he himself had realized he was done for in politics and that he had retreated into literature in all sincerity, following Party instructions.[...] and all that, it turns out, was merely a screen for his political adventurism[...]

Is it true? I don't know. It seems to be.
This is an extremely intelligent, well-connected man, familiar with many of the top Bolsheviks and personally acquainted with Kamenev, with whom he'd been working (Kamenev was the head of Academia Publishing)—and still he was willing to believe a blatant lie about Kamenev's activities, because it had been officially announced. Extrapolate from that to how ordinary people thought. Most people in any society tend to believe what they're told by official sources.

Another bit of useful reading is this excerpt from Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows, especially this: "There was one surprising thing: people sentenced for a genuine reason, for active opposition to the Soviet state, believed that all political zeks were innocent – and that they should all of them, without exception, be freed. But those who had been framed, those who had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges – these millions of people tended to believe that only they themselves should be pardoned. They attempted to prove that all the falsely accused ‘spies’, ‘kulaks’ and ‘saboteurs’ were indeed guilty; they attempted to justify the brutality of the State."
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on October 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: There's a simple game-theoretic calculation being made, here: supporting the regime and doing what's expected of them might help them. Opposing the regime or simply not going through the motions of what they are told most definitely won't help. And especially in the Soviet Union, there was a system of rewards where you could access better things and amenities, but the "currency" to purchase these things wasn't money but rather political connections gained through loyalty.

And ever totalitarian state has a base of support. Even the Khmer Rouge had significant support among the peasants, and their armed political supporters were rewarded, ensuring their loyalty.
posted by deanc at 9:17 AM on October 11, 2010

Response by poster: @Dee Xtrovert

Great answer; a follow up question goes: during the entire life of Yugoslavia, USSR money was flowing nicely (same with Cuba). Once USSR broke down, wasn't it destined to become another Cuba or Albania? We will never know, I guess.
posted by dcrocha at 10:24 AM on October 11, 2010

Dee Xtrovert's story is true for people who were dirt poor before the revolution. Those who were wealthy probably don't have such nice things to say.

This varies. My family was relatively wealthy and quite prominent prior to the advent of Communism in Yugoslavia. No one in my family ever joined the party, and as far as I can recollect, no one thought too much about it. How were we affected? Hardly at all. My father was a bookseller and printer, he owned several businesses and none of these were overtly touched by regime change or new policies. Nothing was seized or nationalised.

In Russia, of course, most wealthy people were heavily and negatively affected. That said, few wealthy people came by wealth honestly, and very very few people were wealthy or even what we'd call middle-class. They would have accounted for a tiny percentage of the population, a small fraction of the percentage of, say, Americans. You can't make an accurate judgement about the situation without realising that in Russia, the "dirt poor" meant nearly everyone.

Of course people like the idea that they can have a vacation and a job and a house without worry- that is a highly unnatural state. It only works because there is some other input to the system, whether that is money from the USSR or natural resources to sell to neighbors at high prices, or a hidden peasant class slaving in the fields so the bourgies in the cities can have vacations, or they are running off wealth stolen from others (Cuba, Venezuela). Some people enjoy the fact that those rich fuckers finally got what they deserved, and will suffer great indignity so long as they know someone else who was better off than they were is not worse off.

But virtually none of these scenarios actually apply to Yugoslavia. There was a split between Tito and Stalin which ultimately led to Yugoslavia becoming outside of the USSR's satellite system. For decades, we received more aid from the USA than from the USSR, though not enough to keep afloat the sort of system you described. This state may be highly unnatural, but it's not unknown today (more or less) in many nations, nor was it unsustainable in places like the former Yugoslavia. In fact, even after the devastation from war, most of this unnatural state still survives reasonably well.

Great answer; a follow up question goes: during the entire life of Yugoslavia, USSR money was flowing nicely (same with Cuba). Once USSR broke down, wasn't it destined to become another Cuba or Albania? We will never know, I guess.

Again, this was partially answered, but it's absurd. Yugoslavia wasn't dependent on Soviet aid and the money rarely flowed at all. On a per capita basis, Yugoslavia was and remains (collectively speaking) much wealthier than the countries of the former USSR. So the answer is no. Also, your other examples are weak . . . Soviet money didn't really flow to Albania, either. And although it can be fairly be said that the USSR helped prop up Cuba for decades, it's hard to say what this means, because a pointless American embargo of Cuba has separated Cuba from its primary trading partners for more than half a century. Yet Cuba survives. You can argue it all you want, but if America had not imposed this generally reviled (by most of the world) embargo, perhaps Cuba would have thrived. That we will probably never know.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:04 PM on October 11, 2010 [8 favorites]

gjc wrote: Of course people like the idea that they can have a vacation and a job and a house without worry- that is a highly unnatural state....

Like thet way that modern-day corporatism buoyed by the essentially forced exploitation of dwindling resources backed by the millitary-industrial-complex and financial models so far removed from reality that the cost of something reflecting its actual value is a joke - all legitimized by a limited changing of the puppets that serve these entities along with some consumer choice is a "natural system"?


posted by lalochezia at 3:13 PM on October 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

The nice thing about a totalitarian regime is you're not required to think to the same extent as if you live in an individual-based capitalist regime. Once you surrender that direction (and if that's your prevailing culture, why wouldn't you, or a majority of your population?) it's probably quite easy to be happy. You have cut that area of decision out of your thought, and without needing to make decisions or judgements either way, you might as well be happy. In a similar way in the West people ignore the realities of e.g. prostitution and slavery, because it makes them uncomfortable and would threaten the social structure if allowed to be acknowledged.

Which is an extended explanation of what null14 says.
posted by westerly at 3:56 PM on October 11, 2010

The nice thing about a totalitarian regime is you're not required to think to the same extent as if you live in an individual-based capitalist regime.

I'm sorry, but that is ridiculous nonsense, although it is certainly what many people in liberal-democratic countries tell themselves.
posted by nasreddin at 3:58 PM on October 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. Post-war interviews with residents, and analysis of the Third Reich experience of a small town in central Germany.
posted by Rash at 9:13 PM on October 11, 2010

I grew up and now live in Singapore, but lived in the UK for a few years in my early twenties. Singapore is by no means a totalitarian state, although a much stronger case can be made for labelling it an authoritarian one. In my mind, if authoritarianism is a spectrum of positions, with a multitude of criteria/ characteristics, totalitarianism is one particular, extreme form of it. With that in mind, here are my two cents.

I posit that part of what political regimes generally do is construct an identity for their state. This identity takes many forms, but in authoritarianism, due to the prevalence of the regime's influence on the media and on education, what you have is the preeminence of the regime's viewpoint, as well as suppression of competing viewpoints. This problem is differently presented in democratic/ liberal capitalist regimes, as the state-sponsored viewpoint is by no means guaranteed a monopoly, so you have more viewpoints vying for the same space in the nation's psyche. In Singapore, for example, the media has been completely and thoroughly subjugated by the state, such that its purpose is no longer merely journalism, strictly speaking, but also includes concepts as 'racial harmony' and 'social stability'. You can probably translate that for yourself.

Additionally, once a particular regime has been in power for over a generation, you begin having entire demographics which were, in their formative years, indoctrinated to a particular viewpoint. Indoctrination varies widely, of course, and I cannot speak for those under other regimes, but in Singapore de facto compulsory education and a state monopoly on primary & secondary education means that the vast majority of 20-60 year-olds today were subjected to the process of state-sponsored education (and thereby indoctrination). With emphasis placed on values such as subservience, docility and... uh... 'don't rock the boat' (sorry, can't think of a pithier phrase), you now have an entire generation who would rather preserve the status quo than agitate for change. It isn't just education/ indoctrination; scattered, intermittent acts by the state or leaders of the state aimed at quashing dissent have served to discourage potential opposition from forming.

The end result is a moribund political climate, with a distinct lack of feasible alternatives to the incumbent regime. With the advent of the (largely uncensored) Internet, you have more visible opposition, but by and large people are generally content. What that contentment results from is of course up for debate. 45-odd years of training and indoctrination, the persistent erosion of any democratic urges, and psychological warfare/ propaganda can combine to form a powerful force in the direction of contentment.
posted by WalterMitty at 11:20 PM on October 11, 2010

The nice thing about a totalitarian regime is you're not required to think to the same extent as if you live in an individual-based capitalist regime.

Just to expand on why I called this "ridiculous nonsense." In a totalitarian regime, you have to think more, perhaps much more, than in a liberal-democratic one (and capitalism, by the way, has nothing to do with it). In a liberal democratic regime, your opinions don't really matter. If you want to have political beliefs, but don't want to think about it too hard, you always have a prefabricated set of opinions you could get from your parents, and in the vast majority of cases you'll neither be scrutinized nor criticized for doing so. Sure, you can chitchat about politics with your buddies, vote, or be polled by Gallup--but there's no penalty for just voting the straight ticket.

If you live in a truly totalitarian regime, politics always has to be on your mind. You can't just learn the buzzwords and stick by them; you have to be able to defend and articulate your beliefs, even if they are the exact official party line, or you can be suspected of anything from social irresponsibility to sabotage. God forbid you be in conversation with a stranger and reference the wrong theoretician, or express ambivalence about Party decisions, or not express ambivalence about them, or use "private property" when you mean "personal property." If every action is imbued with political significance, you have to be able to practice a sophisticated form of hermeneutics to determine which elements of a signal comprise the party line and which comprise the deviation. Mistakes are often fatal.

(The Soviet Union under Stalin fit this ideal type only occasionally, although I imagine the DPRK is much worse.)
posted by nasreddin at 12:01 AM on October 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

Okay nasreddin, I take your point. I was abstracting to settled and endemic totalitarianism, the sort of thing found in speculative fiction or consensual/semi-consensual arrangements such as certain D/s lifestyles*, primary schools, and the Catholic church.
I don't have a clue about reality. What I was trying to say is that in a system which isn't scared of failing, one way to be happy is to surrender control, if someone stronger than you is trying to take it from you.
*extremely rare ones, don't be offended or misled!
posted by westerly at 1:04 PM on October 12, 2010

  • It's interesting to note that the West, and the U.S. in particular, values civil and political human rights more than economic ones. Thus the U.S. has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but not the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • Our "free press" is something of a joke. Although there is occasionally (but extremely rarely) censorship from the government (usually of the "Please don't say the F-word on national TV" variety), most censorship today is self-censorship. Journalists censor themselves to keep their career or to avoid negative attention, editors censor their articles for reasons ranging from political to commercial, and the corporations controlling media routinely censor or shape the content they provide. But that doesn't matter because,
  • In a free society, you don't have to think. nasreddin made an excellent point about not really having to think deliberately when living in a free society. It seems that we make a habit of trusting what our politicians tell us (and by "our" I mean the ones who represent us -- as always, we always distrust politicians "as a whole"). We also trust that the media will report honestly about what happened. Even more crazily, we trust that the media will pay attention to the actual relevant news of the day.*
  • Even though most Americans are not Puritans, the Puritan and related Calvinist beliefs still shape, I think, a large part of the American psyche. We are supposed to work, without any real expectation of reward. I'd say overall we as a country are way more miserable and run-down than we have any right to be. It may be that the natural state of a person is to be happy, and the U.S. is simply more effective at eroding that happiness (to the fortuitous benefit of our consumption-based economic system). So maybe the totalitarian regimes are simply unable to destroy that happiness.
  • On the other hand, I lived in Egypt for a year and never once saw a political demonstration. Not because there was no cause for it, but rather because political demonstrations simply couldn't happen. Though in theory I suppose they were legal, it just so happened whenever a demonstration started, an non-uniformed group of totally random, not at all paid by the government in any way, thugs would beat up the protesters. Poverty in Egypt is endemic; being able to afford bread is a big deal and led to some riots in the past couple of years. I think it's interesting that so many totalitarian countries that once practiced socialism are keeping the totalitarianism but adopting free-market economic policies. It's telling how these countries seem to be more warmly embraced by the West when they do so. It seemed like people in Egypt that were happy were happy in spite of, or in indifference to, the political system in which they found themselves.
  • I feel that the truth is that political systems don't mean all that much to people. I certainly don't feel particularly represented by my government most of the time. I'm intensely glad that I have the political and civil freedoms that I do, but I wonder whether I'd be more bitter about the lack of universal healthcare if wasn't covered by my work, or whether I'd feel more should be done to protect our economic human rights if I was trying to live on a poverty wage.
  • We are raised to treasure the freedoms that we have here in the United States. I distinctly remember one "Remember Freedom"-type ad that came out in the year(s) following 9-11 that was basically a pan of a grocery shopping aisle and the gist was "We have choice here in the US, other countries don't, so cherish this freedom to buy whatever you want". In Egypt, most stores were small (and generally very specialized). They usually had one or two brands/choices for a given item. Did I feel unfree? No, I made do with whatever there was. It's here in the US that I feel trapped, sometimes, with too many choices, most of them utterly inconsequential.
* Action 10 News in Philly is maybe the worst news team ever? They eschewed thorough coverage of the miner's rescue, which although perhaps overhyped was nonetheless a compelling example of human endurance and at least was about something happened in another frikken country for once, in favor of a puff piece about the "new" trend of wearing jeans for a long time between washes [news flash -- the jeans might smell bad after 6 months], a K9 attacking some random guy (which could have been an interesting piece on cop/community relations but wasn't), and an exclusive report on a stunt car from the upcoming Transformers 3 that, get this, got hit by another car.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:35 PM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

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