Totalitarian Democracy

Stephen Henighan

We will not survive by shackling our brains to the sinking galleon

In 1982 I had my first argument with an American about Saddam Hussein. As an undergraduate at an American liberal arts college where everyone read the New York Times, I supplemented my reading by browsing the British papers. In one of them I discovered an exposé on Iraq. According to the article, Hussein’s regime was "more repressive than that of East Germany."

Armed with this information, I waded into the suppertime discussion of Middle East politics. The demonization of Iran was in full flow when I sat down in the dining hall. "Iraq’s no better," I said. "Hussein’s regime is more repressive than East Germany."

My classmates were outraged. "Saddam Hussein is a loyal American ally," Peter, from Pennsylvania, said.

"He’s a bulwark against Iran!"

"He’s a dictator!"

"You’re a communist!"

In recent weeks I have wondered whether Peter remembers calling me a communist for criticizing Saddam Hussein. While our exchange hardly represents the summit of refined political debate, it does highlight the historical amnesia that is a defining characteristic of the United States. In his pilgrimage from bulwark (remember which country sold him chemical weapons and covered up his first use of them?) to invasion target, Hussein has trodden the path of Manuel Noriega of Panama, the mujahedeen of Afghanistan, and Jonas Savimbi of Angola (whom the U.S. helped to assassinate in 22, after having funded him for many years). Once CNN drenches these figures in its Manichean imagery, the history of how they acquired their power evaporates. The panic of the present annihilates memory.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith’s society exists in a state of perpetual war. Sometimes the war is against Eurasia, with Eastasia as an ally, and sometimes the pattern is reversed. The population believes that the enemy of the moment has always been the enemy. For Orwell, this historical amnesia is a defining trait of totalitarianism. Pope John Paul II has called the United States an "imperial democracy." Its enforcement of historical amnesia makes the oxymoronic "totalitarian democracy" more accurate. In a totalitarian democracy, 2, New Yorkers can march against war without making a political impact because U.S. networks will not report the event; while the past is obliterated, the present is brutally censored.

I am writing this in Guatemala, where newspapers now punningly refer to the United States (Estados Unidos, in Spanish) as "Estamos Hundidos," a double-edged phrase that means both "We’re bogged down" and "We’ve collapsed." Here, surrounded by eighteen centuries of visible history, including the ruins of both the greatest civilization of pre-Columbian America, that of the Classic Maya, and the greatest empire of early Renaissance Europe, that of Spain, it is impossible not to ponder imperial decay. As a Canadian, one has to think about how we plan to survive next to a belligerent empire whose decadence has reached the stage of "totalitarian democracy."

Our prognosis is not good. Few small countries bordering empires have outlasted those empires’ death throes. Prime Minister Chrétien’s policy of not sending the Canadian Armed Forces to Iraq was initially popular, but as CNN intensified its propaganda assault, many Canadians changed their minds. Did we lose our nerve, lose touch with our history of participation in multilateral institutions, lose our grip on global public opinion, or lose our ability to think? We need to think with minds attuned to a wider range of experience than watching CNN. We will not survive alongside a totalitarian democracy by shackling our brains to the sinking galleon. Our reliance on the U.S. for 86 percent of our export markets replicates the single- crop penury of many Third World countries; it encourages a mental dependence that robs us not only of our particular Canadian history but of access to any historical perspective on the present.

We must diversify or die. The most positive moment of the Iraq crisis was the conference in Mexico City among the prime minister of Canada and the presidents of Mexico and (by telephone) Chile on how to confront the hemisphere’s wayward juggernaut. The sloganeers who dominate the opinion columns of our two anti-national newspapers proclaim "integration" with the U.S. as "natural." Yet nothing could be more unnatural than the notion that the outcome of globalization is not to join the world, but to join the neighbours. Thinking diachronically rather than spatially, it is far more "natural" for us to strengthen our links with our near-neighbours in Latin America, who share our historical experience of contending with the elephant in the backyard. By the same logic, western Canada has natural ties to Asia, while Atlantic Canada, Quebec and parts of Ontario have natural ties to Europe (though not exclusively to these places). Forging counterweights to the United States would make us not only more economically resilient, but less susceptible to the historical amnesia that turns democracy into an oxymoron.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.


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