Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear.  The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message.  On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group.  An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.

In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets.  He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio.  What techniques did Iago deploy?

Select your target

Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable.  Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally.  Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump.  Iago knew that Othello trusted him.

…..He holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him.  (1.3.381-2)

When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly.  There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.

Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable.  He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion.  Grounds for anxiety are baked in.  Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness.  It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse.  In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness.  People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries.  Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen.  His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you.  A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.

Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt.  Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.

And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

IAGO.  Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO.  Cassio, my lord?  No.  Sure I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running.  This is fundamental.  The target must think that they are the prime mover.  Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

How poor are they that have not patience?  (2.3.370)

Maintain deniability and a false front

The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability.  It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)

Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’  That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.

Make me to see’t or at least so prove it

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates.  And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)

And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

An hour or more not meaning any harm?  (4.4.3-4)

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy.  How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’?  And credulous people see what they want to see.

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally.  A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

Embroil others in your schemes

Born stirrers weave webs like spiders.  Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler.  Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes.  Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation.  His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

For naught I did in hate but all in honor.  (5.2.294-6)

Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride.  He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor.  For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated.  Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is.  It may be the shiftiest word in our language.

It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’.  One thing does seem clear.  What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say.  Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas.  They just want to stir people up for the sake of it.  They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now.  One Nation is full of them.

Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks?  I said elsewhere:

The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people.  Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality.  Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse.  Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better.  It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.

There is a lot of that about, too.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil.  Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did.  In part, it runs:

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’  I used the word ‘malice’ above.  In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.

The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.

MY TOP SHELF – 43 – The Leopard

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

THE LEOPARD

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Folio Society, 2000; bound in red cloth with red slipcase; translated by A Colquhoun; illustrated by John Holder.

But I’ve still got my vigour; and how can I find satisfaction with a woman who makes the sign of the Cross in bed before every embrace and then at the critical moment just cries ‘Gesummaria’?

This beautiful little book was written by a Sicilian prince about a Sicilian prince who had to come to terms with a failure by God, a failure by his wife, and the end of his caste.  It is a beautifully elegiac period piece about old Sicily and the impact on it of Garibaldi.  It is a free standing masterpiece.  It owes nothing to Joyce or Proust.  It is at once plain but eerily nostalgic.  Like the Kesey novel, a great book led to a great film.  It starts this way.

‘Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.  Amen.’

The daily recital of the Rosary was over.  For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

That evening, Prince Fabrizio would call on his favourite courtesan, for reasons suggested in the citation, and take the family priest, a Jesuit, into town to accompany him.

A protégé of the Prince falls in; love with the daughter of a very vulgar new man on the make, and they will marry and fuse the classes.  In the wonderful Visconti film, Burt Lancaster plays the prince; Alain Delon the young lover; and Claudia Cardinale his wife to be.  There are great set pieces in the book and the film.  There is the visit to the country estate of the prince, and a mansion so vast that people get lost.  There is the hunting sequence where the prince unburdens himself to one of his men – and then, in a reversion to feudalism, locks him up to prevent his revealing a secret.  There is the ball and a supper.  The film does not treat of the very moving two last chapters.

The author’s princely house had gone broke in two generations.  The aristocrats elsewhere had been more roughly handled a lot sooner.  Lampedusa never left his house without his copy of Shakespeare in his bag.  He kept The Pickwick Papers with him to comfort him on sleepless nights.  He regarded The Charterhouse of Parma of Stendhal as ‘the summit of all world fiction.’

Here is another more or less random sample of the soft and lovely tone of this book.

He got up and passed into the dressing room.  From the Mother Church next door rang a lugubrious funeral knell.  Someone had died at Donnafugata, some tired body unable to withstand the deep gloom of Sicilian summer had lacked stamina to await the rains.  ‘Lucky person’ thought the Prince, as he rubbed lotion on his whiskers.  ‘Lucky person, with no worries now about daughters, dowries, and political careers.’  This ephemeral identification with an unknown corpse was enough to calm him.  ‘While there’s death there’s hope,’ he thought, and then he saw the absurd side of letting himself get into such a state of depression because one of his daughters wanted to marry.  ‘Ce sont leurs affaires, après tout’, he thought in French, as he did when his cogitations persisted in playing pranks.  He settled in an armchair and dropped into a doze.

The book caused a sensation in Sicily when it was published not long after the death of the author in 1957.  A Cardinal of Palermo thought that it was one of the three factors that had led to the dishonour of Sicily – the other two were the Mafia and a social reformer.  I suspect that the author would have sympathised with the German scholar who said that the Sicilians had perfected the Counter-reformation – the problem was just that they had never experienced the Reformation.

E M Forster called The Leopard ‘a noble book’.  He said that it was not an historical novel, but ‘a novel which happens to take place in history.’  It does in truth deal with issues we all face, and it does so in a way that is almost musical or painterly.  Like the movie, it is something I can and should enjoy at least once a year.

 

Passing Bull 220 – It takes two to Tango

 

Opinions might vary about whether governance in Australia is as bad as it now is in England or America, but one thing is clear – especially to Australian baby boomers.  For much of the fifties and sixties, Australia was consigned to a form of one party rule because the unelectability of one party made the election of the other party almost inevitable.  The simple truth is that in a two party democracy, governance is only as good as the opposition to the government.

We suffered no great harm in the fifties or sixties because the ruling party practised a soft version of ‘liberalism’ – a benign Tory paternalism – that it combined with agrarian socialism, and the nation was on the up in a quiet phase after two world wars.  The downside was that the cosiness to the Mother Country and royalty left us tugging our forelocks like far away colonials and killed off any movement toward independence.

That relative immunity is not the case now in England or America.  Trump got elected because of the weakness of his opponent.  Johnson may be re-elected for the same reason.  And so might Trump.  Each has done all he can to show that he is entirely unfit for office, but each stays in place because the alternative is so unattractive and inept.  In England, minor parties are scrambling to get ‘Never Johnson – or Corbyn’, and in America, something like panic may induce a billionaire to try to buy a nomination.  It reminds you of the time in the Roman Empire when they put the purple up for auction.

Our current government is hardly any better.  It did all it could to deserve losing office, but it now looks clear that it is still there because the alternative was unelectable.  Sections of the press still chortle over this – even though their preferred man did not get the job – but for those of us who are not tied to either major party, and who are at best cool about the whole lot of them, the result is a very sad failure of governance.

We are left with a prime minister who could be a useful Mayor of Box Hill, but who is way out of his depth in his present office.  He made his name sending armed forces against unarmed refugees; he hugged coal in Parliament; he defended the indefensible in the banks; and he subscribes to one of those evangelical sects of holy rollers that are disembowelling American politics.  The best that could ever be said of this man is that he is Australian mediocrity made visible.  And in the name of God, we know all about mediocrity down here.  It’s what we have aspired to since the English first opened their jail here at Botany Bay.

Can anyone think of a way to ‘impeach’ an opposition party?  If you look around the world, democracy is in trouble everywhere, and disenchanting those coming after us.  New Zealand looks OK, but even Germany and the Scandinavian nations are showing signs of stress.

Democracy, too, may hang on, again for the want of a better alternative, but it is hard to resist the impression that we are on the cusp of lasting change, and the question then becomes whether we will get it by evolution or revolution.

Bloopers

Perhaps because so many on the left were in some measure compromised in their attitude to communism, and the left dominates cultural production in the West, the crimes of communism go substantially unmourned and the heroes of anti-communism are never afforded heroic status.

The Weekend Australian, 9-10 November, 2019, Greg Sheridan.

It is sad in 2019 to see a man viewing the world through a sectarian prism of 1959, but Mr Sheridan gives the Pope some of the credit for the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  As he does with Ronald Reagan.  It is curious to see commentators of that ilk give any credit to human agents for the death of communism in Europe when they are committed by their ideology to the conclusion that communism was doomed to death by the iron laws of economics.

Can anyone think of a way to impeach the press?

MY TOP SHELF – 42 – THUCYDIDES

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Thucydides

Everyman, 1910; translated by Richard Crawley; rebound in quarter navy calf with gold embossed tangerine title on French blue boards.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.

The war described in this great work of history is the war between Athens and Sparta about four centuries before the birth of Christ.  This is sometimes said to have been the time of the flowering of Greek civilization.  We need to bear two things steadily in mind.  There was no such thing as a Greek nation – there was only a bunch of city-states generally at war with a number of the others, and held together only by an unashamed arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world who were dismissed as ‘barbarians’.  Secondly, the relevant notion of ‘civilization’ may be one that exists mainly in the heads of Oxbridge dons who have never been out in the real world.

The Greeks treated outsiders with contempt and their women as doormats; they routinely buggered young men; their economy was based on slavery; their religion involved sacrifices to very personal gods who treated humanity like wanton boys treat flies; Athens ran a protection racket that it called an empire, and it did so ruthlessly; the Athenians were saints beside the Spartans, who were a military caste that would make the Prussians look like a Lutheran Sunday school.

The life of a Spartan was devoted to the State; this was required in order to hold down a conquered people called helots; if a child survived eugenic testing, it was consigned to the care of a state-officer at the age of seven; at the age of twenty he went into barracks; as part of his military training, he would go out and hunt and kill helots.  To Plato, the Spartan approach was close to ideal, and in The Republic he set out a blueprint for the fascist state.  A war between Athens and Sparta was likely to be very ugly and terminal to the ability of the warring states to hold out foreign predators.

This great work of history commences in this way.

Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those in the past.  (All citations are from Rex Warner in the Penguin version.)

In the course of a debate at Sparta at the start of the war, the Athenian envoy says:

We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up. Three very powerful motives prevent us from doing so – security, honour, and self-interest…it has always been a rule that the weak should  be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power….now, after calculating your own interests, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong.

That is the law of the jungle, and it is not now espoused by Athenian envoys in Berlin.  The Athenians display the same realpolitik much later in the war in the debate over Melos.

We on our side will use no fine phrase saying we have the right to our empire because we defeated the Persian….since you know as well as we do that when these matters are discussed by practical people the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

The people of Melos accept that ‘you force us to leave justice out of account and confine ourselves to self-interest.’  They just want to be friends.

No, because it is not so much your hostility that injures us; it is rather the case that if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.

Hitler, Stalin and company thought like that – exactly?  But did they ever say so in public?  Athens’ war-time leader, Pericles, riffed on the imperial theme in one of his orations.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.  Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire, though there may be some who in a mood of sudden panic actually think that this would be a fine and noble thing to do.  Your empire is now like a tyranny; it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go….those who are politically apathetic can only survive if they are supported by people who are capable of taking direct action.  They are quite valueless in a city which controls an empire, though they would be safe slaves in a city that was controlled by others.

In this brutal world according to Darwin, could a democracy – another question – run an empire?  Not so, according to Cleon, in words that might be born in mind by those regimes that have to stand tough to hold down subject peoples.

Personally, I have had occasion often enough to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others….because fear and conspiracy play no part in your personal lives, you imagine this is so with your allies, and you do not see that when you allow them to persuade you to make a mistaken decision, and when you give way to your own feelings of compassion, you are being guilty of a kind of weakness which is dangerous to you and which will not make them love you any more.  What you do not realise is that your empire is a tyranny exercized over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests to do them a favour; your leadership depends on your superior strength and not upon their goodwill.

The Spartans did not bother with so much talk.  The author remarks that ‘Spartan policy with regard to helots had always been almost entirely based on the need for security.’  One time they announced the helots could choose those who had done the most for Sparta implying that freedom would be theirs.  About 2000 were selected and they put on vine leaves.  But the Spartans reasoned that the ones who showed most spirit and stepped up to claim their freedom were the most dangerous to Sparta – so they killed them ‘and no one ever knew exactly how each one of them was killed.’

They were the same in war.  The enemies of the people of Plataea persuaded the Spartans to put to each man in the defeated city: ‘Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in this war?’  (Couthon had a similar question during the Terror.)  ‘As each man replied ‘No’, he was taken away and put to death, no exceptions being made.  Not less than 200 Plataeans were killed in this way…The women were made slaves’.  But that was war, and in war, Athens was no better.

When the author deals with the coup of the oligarchs near the end of the war, he records that the Four Hundred appeared accompanied by 120 ‘Hellenic youths’ who looked after the rough stuff, the precursors of the Brownshirts.  Fashions rarely change for fascists.

But it is in describing the civil war at Corcyra that this historian shows writing of astonishing power.

There was death in every shape and form.  And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it.  There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there…..

In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards….But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances…

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.  What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely one way of saying that you were a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; an ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.  Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.  Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.  To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching.  If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition.  In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all.  Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership….Revenge was more important than self-preservation.

Has there ever been a better picture of Paris under the Terror or of Berlin under the Nazis?  But our author is not finished.

Love of power, operating through greed and personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils…It was in Corcyra that we saw the first examples of the breakdown of law and order.  There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed rather than wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, who wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions carried out by men not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions.  Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend, even where laws exist showed itself proudly under its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for he pernicious power of envy, men would not have so exalted vengeance above innocence, and profit above justice.

Those who have trouble coming to grips with the barbarous denial of humanity achieved under people like Alexander, Caesar, Genghis, Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler can accept this insight into our perilously fragile condition at the rim of a live volcano from this Greek historian writing these words thousands of years ago.  This book, as it seems to me, is one of the great breakthroughs for the human mind.

 

Here and there – Dictators and Populists

 

The following citations come from the most recent book of Frank Dikotter, How to be a Dictator, Bloomsbury, 2019.  They are not a source of comfort when looking at their attenuated successors, those whom we call populists.

Preface

There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals.  There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few.  But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves.  A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius.  Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage.  All were surrounded by sycophants.  They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own.  With devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people.  A few became unmoored from reality altogether….

Mussolini

Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people accessible to all…..By one account, Mussolini spent more than half his time curating his own image…. Fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics.  Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.

‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion.’…[He insisted on being in the public eye as much as possible.]  What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.

Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’.

In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance.  Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor.  Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.

Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them.

‘The strength of fascism…lies in the lack of fascists.’  Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount….He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral. ideological or otherwise.  ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed….’

A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office….The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law….

The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen.

They lied to him, much as he lied to them.  But most of all Mussolini lied to himself.  He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth.’

The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political program.  It was deliberately superficial…

The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored. [And he had no friends and many bitter rejects and enemies.]

Hitler

‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’

He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope’.  The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and clapping.

…as Hitler turned forty on 20 April 1929, he ascribed to the ideal leader a combination of character, willpower, ability and luck.

[After the Crash] Faith in democracy dissolved, inflation took hold, and a sense of despair and hopelessness spread.  Hitler was the man of the hour.

It [invading Poland] was a huge gamble, but Hitler trusted his intuition, which had proved him right so far.  He had built an image of himself as the man of destiny and had come to believe in it….’In my life, I have always put my whole stake on the table.’

‘He can tell a lie with as straight a face as any man’, noticed William Shirer.

Stalin

The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a program or platform, but by a chosen leader….The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate.

…Stalin was a cunning unscrupulous operator who exploited other people’s weaknesses to turn them into willing accomplices.  He was also a gifted strategic thinker with a genuine political touch.  Like Hitler, he showed concern for the people around him, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, remembering their names and past conversations.  He also knew how to bide his time.

He used his position as General Secretary to replace supporters of all his rivals with his own henchman.

Just as soon as his main rival was dispatched, Stalin began implementing Trotsky’s policies.

Stalin’s underlings composed paeans to their leader, enthusiastically abasing themselves.

Sheer vindictiveness and cold calculation had kept Stalin moving forward, but over the years he also developed a sense of grievance, viewing himself as a victim. A victor with a grudge, he became permanently distrustful of those around him.

One month after his funeral, Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers.

We need not consider the others in the book – Mao, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengitsu.  We have enough to work on as it is.

Each of these dictators was an affront to humanity.  Each was a selfish, vicious, cruel man who always put himself above all others.  Each was fearfully insecure but deeply in love with himself.  Each created a world that was as tasteless as it was mindless.  An air of stupidity and vanity – emptiness – prevailed.  Their ambition was more than greedy – it was insatiable.  Although each might be seen as morally void or insane, each gave their followers ample evidence of the damage that they could do unleashed – and not one of them was ever fit to be on the leash.  At least with hindsight, each showed that they could not be trusted.  (Mein Kampf set out in detail the evil in Hitler’s mind; Lenin, as cruel a man as any, left a testament warning Russia about Stalin.)  Each loved the sound of his own voice.  Each acquiesced in sickening nonsense from sycophants and nauseating behaviour from underlings.  Somehow each charmed at least some people enough to ignore warning signs, and many of them conned sensible people who should have known better into accepting them.  Each was a big gambler because they attached little weight to the lives of their people.  (You could say this and a lot more of the above about Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon.)

Not one of them lived or died a happy man.  Offhand it is hard to think of any woman in history who has exercised such power for evil.  Each did lasting damage to his people and nation.

What these lives teach us about the current scourge of populism is a matter for you.  But it looks like political crashes are driven by the same two primal causes of economic crashes – greed (or ambition) and stupidity.

There is a third element – fear and cowardice.  Educated people did not do enough to resist or check dictators like Mussolini and Hitler borne to power on the gullibility of what used to be called the masses.  We see just that now in America.  Anyone who believes virtually anything Trump says is, frankly, stupid.  And yet many prefer him and, from fear and cowardice, educated people in positions of power do nothing to resist him.  If they do so, they will be called ‘human scum.’  Republican Senators think they fulfil their constitutional function by acting as Stormtroopers in Congress – and then sending out for pizza.  Has ever a once decent nation collapsed so quickly?

There is still nothing new under the sun.  Except this – before populists relied on mass rallies; now they rely on mass media designed by crooks specifically for use by fools and cowards.