In the latest annual report from the charity Human Rights Watch, director Kenneth Roth, in his usual thoughtful mood, sounds a nuanced note of hope for the world:
The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendent, democracy on the decline. That view gains currency from the intensifying crackdown on opposition voices in China, Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. It finds support in military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad. And it gains sustenance from the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in once- or still-established democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, and, until a year ago, the United States.
But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot.
So, many an autocracy may be more fragile than it appears. And autocrats, he implies, have a shrinking menu of options to choose from in the face of public discontent. You can shut down media sites, jail opposition leaders, neuter the courts but if that fails, you have to start shooting people. Or run away.
What can democracies learn from this? Do better, says Roth. Thought-provoking stuff, and well worth reading the whole thing.
I have supplied copies of the pre-publication edition of my book Bread to about 40 people by now, and some have come back with comments. At one point my book talks about ‘doing small things well’ even if ‘big things have collapsed all around you’ (p 39 of the draft).
Both my suppliers-of-comments applied that idea helpfully to aging and decline. I hadn’t thought of that. In my book I’d applied it to failure and shattered hopes. Perhaps I should start thinking about decline: certainly I notice that on walks that I have taken for thirty years, formerly with our dog, and now alone, lots of extra hills and slopes have apparently been fitted. I couldn’t probably manage a dog now though that is strictly speaking a health issue rather than age in my case.
The fun part about decline, my correspondents tell me, lies precisely in doing small things well even when big things have slipped out of one’s grasp. How wonderful, when declining, to aim to be the sort of person who lifts the spirits of everyone who they meet. How wonderful to be joyful, kind, giving, happy, even as the body seizes up.
And you meet people like that. For them the downward slope to physical dissolution is rather overtaken by the upward slope towards the glory of God.
A fine thing to aspire to, as the night falls.
You can still download a free pre-publication copy of Bread just here:
And a reminder: I do welcome comments, via the comment section here, and I especially welcome honest reviews. To do those, go to your favourite review site (Amazon, for example) and just share a few honeyed words about what you think. Readers are smart: be honest about the deficiencies; it won’t necessarily stop them buying the book. I think you may have to wait till after publication day on Feb 19 2022 to paste in your honeyed words.
(Here’s one: Question: a snake and a lawyer fall from a 12-storey building. The snake is slightly smoother and more slippery than the lawyer. Who hits the ground first? Answer: Who cares?) And it’s true despite the wanton gluttony of commercial law: I heard, second hand, that £100m of the £700m or so spent rebuilding Wembley Stadium a few years ago was lawyers’ fees. No earth was moved but some chargeable hours were sure clocked up.
But it’s true. I’ve been thinking a lot about autocracy, as you do, how someone takes over the country and tries to dismantle whatever structures would preserve democratic legitimacy.
Such niggling strictures so get in the way of the aspiring autocrat. So who is first in your sights? The journalists and the lawyers and the lawyers who have become judges. What you need to do, aspiring autocrat, is dump the independent and principled and clever poeple, and replace them with compliant people. Ideally, the compliant ones will be so dim that they think they have their new jobs on merit.
This battle is being played out all over the world, and it’s a conflict of the slow (the lawyers and journalists) against the rash, impatient autocrat. Judges in Malawi threw out a crooked election. The EU is arguing with the Polish government about its policy of sacking independent judges. Judges in the US threw out nearly 50 claims of a crooked election.
Then, helping the helpless. I’ve watched defence lawyers, unthanked individuals, defend abjectly needy people in court with careful preparation and beautiful logic. (I am passing over the cynicism here that also dogs much of legal practice.) At their best, I think lawyers are about the rule of law, all of us equal under the law, rather than the rule of low cunning, or the rule of One.
Let’s count ducklings. You have one duckling over here, and another duckling over there and so there are two ducklings in a subregion of total time and space that includes both the ducklings and you, the observer.
But there are serious problems with this.
How do you know the two ducklings are separate entities? One apparent duckling could be simply a reflection of a real duckling. Given the link between ducklings and ponds, this is not unlikely.
Or of course perhaps only one duckling exists in the whole universe, and all the the other ducklings are themselves resonances or echoes of this Single Universal Duckling.
Such a posited Single Universal Duckling would have to encompass all the possible ages of ducklings as observed throughout the Universe in order to match observation. This would be an extraordinary entity: smeared across time but confined in space, an Eternal Single Universal Duckling or ESUD. Hatching from an egg would also be difficult: the ESUD would have to be hatched, hatching and not hatched all at once, all in some realm of reality that is simultanously beyond human grasp but not beyond a duck’s rear end. This is possible but perhaps unlikely.
So to reiterate, for 1 +1 to equal 2, you not only have to actually have two entities, but there has to exist the means to confirm that the two entities are indeed two entities and not reflections or projections of a single entity and you, and the ducklings, have to be in on the secret.
The conclusion? (This, by the way, is the conclusion of all scientific papers everywhere and at all times) More research is needed.