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Return of the tyrants

Totalitarianism died with the 20th century, argue some political scientists. Can a return to the ancient idea of tyranny help us understand the bad guys of the 21st?

CHICAGO -- In the introduction to his 1948 work "On Tyranny," the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss charged the political scientists of the day with a grave failure.

Confronted with the rise of Hitler and Stalin, "the kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most powerful thinkers of the past," Strauss jibed, "political science failed to recognize it." The very word "tyranny" had disappeared from the lexicon of 20th-century political science, edged out by newfangled coinages like "authoritarianism" and "totalitarianism." As an antidote, Strauss offered the work of Plato and Xenophon. "Without recourse to the political science of the classics," he argued, the nature of modern tyrannies was unintelligible.

Some 50 years on, another University of Chicago thinker issued a similar charge. In a 2002 essay in The New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla, a professor of social thought, surveyed the geopolitical terrain of what he dubbed "the new age of tyranny." The rhetoric of totalitarianism, as exemplified by George W. Bush's "axis of evil," was a relic of "the distinctive experience" of the 20th century and the twin examples of Nazi fascism and communism -- both of which, he argued, had mostly disappeared from the earth. Many of the world's bad regimes, from Zimbabwe and Algeria to Pakistan and the Central Asian republics, were neither totalitarian nor democratic. Only by updating the classical idea of tyranny -- with its more nuanced and complex vision of the varieties of political oppression -- could we properly understand them.

Last weekend, 16 prominent historians, political thinkers, and writers gathered at the University of Chicago to debate the premises of Lilla's essay, and how best to apply them to the world today. The two-day event, "Tyranny, Ancient and Modern" was part scholarly shop-talk, part policy forum.

With George W. Bush recasting the war in Iraq as a war against tyranny, and committing the United States to what he has called "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," the implications of the tyranny debate are hardly academic. Conference panelists -- among them Paul Berman, author of "Terror and Liberalism"; journalist Samantha Power; and human rights activist Aryeh Neier -- pondered a series of theoretical and practical questions: Are totalitarianism and tyranny still relevant terms? Can a reinterpretation of the concepts help guide policy? And just what are the obligations of the United States in confronting bad regimes, whatever we choose to call them?

. . .

Tyranny may have disappeared from the lexicon of academic political scientists, but it has hardly disappeared from the popular conversation. The Wall Street Journal regularly pillories Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, as well as Cuba's Fidel Castro and deposed Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as tyrants who thwart the will of their people. When Saddam Hussein was captured last December, President Bush declared, as though speaking from the pages of ancient literature, "The tyrant is a prisoner."

But just what does the word mean? As the ancients generally understood it, a "tyrant" was a king who had succumbed to base desires and ceased to rule legitimately. Greek thinkers viewed tyranny as a perversion of the spirit, a triumph of Eros over the nobler instincts of reason and restraint. Crucially, they made no simple opposition between tyranny and democracy; Socrates argued that everyone has tyrannical instincts, and that an excessive desire for freedom can itself lead to tyranny.

As Nathan Tarcov, conference co-organizer and a Chicago professor of political science, put it last weekend, a tyrant is a ruler who "rules according to his own will without limits on his power, a legitimate title, or the consent of his subjects."

Tyranny remained an important part of political discourse throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period. But by the 18th century, some scholars argue, the concept had lost any specific meaning. In his remarks, Melvin Richter, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, explored the degeneration of the term in the years prior to the French Revolution, when competing groups of monarchists and anti-monarchists accused each other of being tyrants.

By the 19th century it had become a term of partisan abuse, with little specific political meaning. Meanwhile, it had migrated into the economic and cultural spheres. For Marx, industrial capitalism tyrannized the working classes. John Stuart Mill denounced the tyranny of public opinion, and Tocqueville warned against the tyranny of the majority.

In the political realm, a new concept arose to replace it: totalitarianism. The word has its origins with Mussolini, who spoke of lo stato totalitario, or the totalitarian state. Hannah Arendt later made the term famous. In "The Origins of Totalitarianism," she described the Nazi and Soviet regimes as a completely new phenomenon characterized by total domination of the individual and subordination of all aspects of life to the control of the state.

. . .

At the Chicago conference, panelists were divided on Lilla's contention that only a revised notion of classical tyranny could explain the world today.

Harvard historian Charles Maier agreed that totalitarianism was indeed a dated concept. Applying a term derived from secular movements defined by mass political participation to a hidebound, quasi-theocratic state like Saudi Arabia, for example, stretched the term "beyond useful."

But Marc Plattner, coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and codirector of the International Forum for Democratic Studies in Washington, D.C., asserted that the concept of tyranny was no more useful in understanding most of the world.

Instead, he argued, analysts would do better to look at countries on a spectrum of democracies and quasi-democracies -- a "gray zone" of nations that mix elements of democracy and authoritarianism, such as Vladimir Putin's Russia. Rather than "totalitarianism" or "tyranny," he suggested, a term like "illiberal democracy" -- coined by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, author of "The Future of Freedom," to describe democratically elected governments that deprive citizens of basic rights -- might be more useful in describing many troublesome regimes today.

Still, there are regimes and movements that fall way to the tyrannical side of that gray zone. And far from being a purely 20th-century phenomenon, the writer Paul Berman argued, totalitarianism is the true modern successor to classical tyranny. It combines a revolt against modern liberalism with a grotesque perversion of the soul -- the very notion at the heart of the ancients' definition of tyranny. The austere creed of liberalism, with its foundation in reason, "is not satisfying to the soul," which craves more than parliamentary debate and legislative efficiency, Berman said. We have to recognize the totalitarian impulse as both a spiritual rebuke to -- and consequence of -- that liberalism.

Looked at this way, Berman argued, ostensibly antithetical movements such as Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's secular Ba'athism exist on a continuum of totalitarianism. Berman reiterated his support for the Iraq war as a strike against a "weak link" in the totalitarian system -- hardly a popular position at the gathering -- though he was highly critical of the conduct of the occupation. (Musing over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Nathan Tarcov concluded, "There are tyrannical desires in everyone, not just the ancient Greeks.")

. . .

The human rights activists present sounded a more pragmatic note in a discussion that sometimes seemed like a sophisticated semantic quarrel. For Aryeh Neier, president of the Soros Institute, distinguishing among oppressive regimes is less important than figuring out how to check their power. After all, he pointed out, human rights abuses can happen anywhere, even in countries that are ostensibly democratic.

For her part, Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "`A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of the Genocide," was cautiously accepting of distinctions based on the idea of tyranny. Understanding what motivates a given ruler -- power, pleasure, land, or resources -- is helpful in devising a policy to counter him, she said. If a ruler has money tied up in foreign bank accounts, for example, freezing assets makes more sense than wholesale sanctions against the entire country, as was the case in Serbia.

But Power questioned the focus on tyranny as the product of a single leader. In Zimbabwe, for example, removing Robert Mugabe from power wouldn't just be a case of "ding dong, the wicked witch is dead," she said. His power, rooted in groups of powerful supporters, would still survive. And then there are failed states like Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Congo, which are much harder to categorize.

In any given situation, she said, the task isn't distinguishing between tyranny, totalitarianism, and something else, but distinguishing between countries with "good laws carried out badly, bad laws carried out well, or no law at all."

Power was highly critical of the ongoing US policy of coddling "all too successful" despotic states like the Central Asian republics. But she expressed some cautious hope over Bush's ringing 2003 speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, in which he pledged to put the cause of liberty ahead of support for stable but oppressive regimes. Whether Bush's promises were more than "mere words," she said, remains to be seen.

Matthew Price lives in Brooklyn and is a regular contributor to the Globe.

Who you calling a tyrant?

Few would dispute that Saddam Hussein (center) was a tyrant. But the term has also been applied to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (top) and Vladimir Putin (bottom), democratically elected leaders whose governments deprive citizens of basic rights.
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