Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder 

Brendan Miniter has a very interesting piece on Iraqi reconstruction in yesterday's "Opinion Journal." Brendan writes:
"During Saddam Hussein's reign, not surprisingly, Baghdad and its No. 1 resident had priority when it came to basic services. Baghdad has no power generators to speak of, so generators in outlying cities had to feed the capital, often at the expense of their local residents.

"After Saddam fell, many power engineers and local politicians apparently decided they'd opt out of the national power grid. [Authorities think] that more than a few attacks on power lines have been deliberate attempts to isolate cities that generate their own power from the rest of the country; residents there no longer want to send power off to Baghdad while the lights in their own homes flicker and go out.

"Like the blackout that struck the American Northeast and Midwest last year, unplugging a city from the national grid results in systemwide power failures. It doesn't matter that the total amount of electric power in Iraq is now exceeding prewar levels, or that it is much more equitably distributed. Thus electricity is a metaphor for the larger problem of Iraqi reconstruction: If Iraqis don't come to believe that working together is in their own self interest, then the country may indeed plunge into chaos."
He then comments on the recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled "Progress or Peril? Measuring Iraq's Reconstruction":
"The study did not address the question of mutual cooperation directly, but an underlying theme is that Americans cannot simply 'rebuild' Iraq and instead must make it possible for Iraqis to come together to solve their own problems. Instead of thinking and defining success in terms of 'nation building,' the study recommends thinking in terms of 'nation jumpstarting'--getting Iraq to the point where enough people have the skills necessary to crank up functional economic, social and political institutions."
Cooperation is a crucial element in the Iraqi equation; one that doesn't receive sufficient attention from either the pro or the anti war crowd because as Brendan says, it "doesn't fit into a sound bite very well." And cooperation is just one aspect of the cultural dimension of the Iraq problem.

Nowadays, we hear about cultural issues and Iraq mainly in the context of debates as to whether liberal democracy can be created in an Arab country. Both the realists on the right and the cultural relativists on the left are sceptical about the prospects of the democratic project in Iraq, pointing to what they see as immutable aspects of the Middle Eastern cultural make up, such as tribalism, sectarianism, authoritarianism and obscurantism, which they see as incompatible with and inimical to the development of Western-style institutions. Neo-conservatives, idealists and universalists are more optimistic. Whatever the answer to the Arab democracy conundrum, there is little doubt that culture does matter. A society where the interests of your family, tribe, or coreligionists are generally put ahead of the "common interest" will have a tougher time building a successful, modern political and economic infrastructure. As Francis Fukuyama argues, trust matters - trust outside of your immediate circle, trust between strangers, trust between the governing and the governed. Trust is an invaluable mortar that binds a healthy society together.

But there is another aspect to the "culture matters" argument, one that does not get nearly enough attention. It has nothing to do with religion, ethnicity, or national character; it is the social and moral legacy of life under a dictatorship. Iraq, quite simply, like many other recently liberated societies around the world continues to suffer from a Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder.

For the Westerners, the PTSD is a difficult condition to understand. We take so many things for granted - from comedians being able to joke about the President, to the assumption that the next government employee we encounter will not be expecting a bribe from us - that we are quite ill equipped to fully comprehend what life under a totalitarian system must really be like, much less what mental and spiritual legacy its victims have to labor under long after the statues of the Leader are pulled down.

We all "know" about the secret police knocking on the door at night, adulatory TV programs exalting the president-for-life, the pervasive corruption, queues and shortages, or the silly propaganda. Nothing, however, in our generally safe and comfortable existence would helps us understand just how pervasively difficult, destructive and dispiriting the experience of life under a totalitarian regime is. For most of us, life in Saddam's Iraq would have been no more real than the Middle Earth of the colonial New England. And failing to understand the condition itself, by extension we find it equally difficult to understand how the mental attitudes and habits of the past cannot be shaken off overnight but instead linger on, making the reconstruction and transition to normalcy such a difficult and painful process.

I speak from some experience here. While the late communist Poland and the Baathist Iraq were in many ways very different societies, shaped and constrained by different set of geographic, historical and cultural factors, there is a common denominator between all totalitarian societies the world over. Here are some bad habits that people consciously or otherwise pick up to help them fit in better and survive under a dictatorship, but which prove quite troublesome and counter-productive once the shackles finally fall off:

Distrust of the state and the authorities - the state is the enemy and the oppressor; you collaborate to the extent it is necessary to survive, no more. You don't owe it any loyalty and are quite happy to try to sabotage it in every little way you can - by breaking minor laws, petty embezzlement, cheating, dishonesty, lies, passivity or indifference.

A prison mentality - you might hate the state, but you still have an expectation that the hand you cannot bite will provide for you; feed you, clothe you, give you shelter and a job. Since the state has crowded out most, if not all, of the private sphere, logically only the state is able to provide for one's needs - you're quite literally at the mercy of a monopoly.

Lack of initiative and abdication of personal responsibility - as the state is seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent and the area of your personal sovereignty heavily circumscribed, this state of affairs breeds resignation, fatalism and passivity. Why would you bother to try to do anything if you can't achieve much? How can you really take responsibility for your condition if you're just a powerless puppet at the mercy of the Leviathan? And so you wait for things happen to you, as they always do, instead of trying to make your own fate. The system simply doesn't provide any incentives to think and act otherwise - initiative is not rewarded and can even land you in trouble, working hard brings in no more benefits than working little; effort and imagination more often than not hit the wall of limited practical possibilities.

Distrust of others - it's not just the state; you don't trust your fellow citizens too - at worst they might be spying on you for the authorities, at best they are competing with you for scarce resources. Either way, they're out to screw you over. So you only look after your own.

Circumstances change; and when they do, they usually change much faster than our habits. Closed economy may become a free market, dictatorship a democracy, theocracy a liberal society, but our mental adjustment to new realities lags behind.

Recently we have witnessed this phenomenon in the post-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Now we're seeing it in Iraq. Home Sovieticus - or Homo Baathicus - continues to roam the landscape long after a giant asteroid had wiped out their habitats.

This - the damage done to individual psyche - and not just to the physical infrastructure and institutions of the country, is what we have to always keep in mind when assessing the progress of reconstruction and democratisation in places like Iraq. If things aren't moving ahead as fast as expected, if cooperation is lacking and trust hard to find, and if the population seems apathetic and disengaged, it's just the fallen regime having its final chuckle from beyond the grave.

The task of reconstruction is not just about adding more megawatts to the power grid or renovating another school. Just as importantly - if not more so - it is about changing attitudes, habits and ways of thinking. In many ways liberating minds is a far more difficult task than rebuilding the physical infrastructure.

Is there a solution to this problem of cultural lag? How can we cure the Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder? As the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. In the longer term, the older generations - those most tainted by the old ways of thinking - move on and the young ones, brought up in the new environment, slowly take their place. In a shorter term, people still change; slowly and at paces that vary from individual to individual, but change they nevertheless do. In the meantime, people of Iraq need encouragement and good example. Every small step is to be applauded because it brings Iraq closer to a better future.

Some societies are luckier than others. Post-communist societies had time; Iraq might not possess as much of that luxury. Let's hope it has enough.


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