“The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one. It needs your great concern.”
“We aspire to make the child a source of enlightenment within the family, which includes his parents and his siblings, so that he may bring about positive changes. He may also teach his family some of the rules of good conduct and respect…” This isn’t Maria Montessori or Sir Ken Robinson or some other celebrated champion of education. It’s Saddam Hussein, speaking before Iraq’s Council of Planning and the Arab Baath Socialist Party as a young vice-president full of gargantuan ambition. On Democracy by Saddam Hussein (public library) — free on Kindle for Amazon Prime subscribers — collects the three speeches Hussein delivered to the Council in 1977-1978, shortly before he took the presidency in 1979 and, as humanitarian journalist Jeff Severns Guntzel puts it in the introduction, “his iron fist [was] first ungloved.” Accompanying the texts are a number of works by artist Paul Chan.
In the speeches, Hussein considers democracy as he argues that “the Arab Baath Socialist Party did not and should not become an authoritarian Party, because there is no objective justification for that.” Whether Hussein’s remarks are an expression of a conflicted man’s efforts to rationalize and reconcile opposing desires for domination and righteousness, or evidence of how power warps idealism and ideology, or merely the deft political spins of a conniving, vile dictator — or, perhaps, some combination of these and other complex motives — is left for the reader to decide. But whatever the underpinning drivers, the syllogism-encrusted speeches themselves stand as a jarring piece of cultural history and political philosophy, exploring how everything from education to the media can be used as a weapon of “democracy” — and, as history has proven, of its opposite.
The first speech, “Democracy: A Source of Strength for the Individual and Society,” was delivered on July 10, 1977. It was there Hussein extolled the virtues of using children as vehicles for the dissemination and defense of his ideology:
You should win over the adults through their children as well as by other means. Teach the student and the pupil to disapprove of his parents if he heard them talk about the State’s secrets, and to inform them that this is wrong. Teach them to criticize their parents politely if they heard them talk about the secrets of Party organizations. You should place in every corner a son devoted to the Revolution, with a reliable eye and a wise mind. He would receive his directives from the Revolution’s responsible center and carry them out, store old formulas and treat them in a proper way, psychologically and socially, while he maintains and respects family unity.
You should also teach the child at this stage to be wary of foreigners, because they act as spies for their countries and some of them are elements of subversion against the Revolution. Therefore befriending a foreigner and talking with him without supervision is not permissible.
As is the case with much of the speeches, what begins as a benign enough, noble-seeming even, idea quickly unfolds into a disturbing distortion — in this case, a romanticizing of martyrdom:
Avoid being polite at the expense of doing the right thing. If you do so you will succeed and win people’s love, though you will face some difficulties.
Sustaining some losses is necessary not only as part of the sacrifice and the struggle in the circumstances of the underground stage; we have also to suffer losses as we develop and build up in the course of positive action. The first Iraqi who did away with the veil was the first victim made for the sake of all Iraqi women. The first woman who worked in a factory was the first victim made for the sake of all working women. The same goes for the first woman doctor, first woman lawyer, first real revolutionary, etc.
Hussein follows up with an equally incongruous treatise on justice:
Observing justice and fairness is a human duty that is faced with real difficulties in one’s home, among friends in the Party or in one’s relation with the minister or in the minister’s relation with the director-general or the undersecretary. Sometimes one might even reach a stage in his career where he says to himself: ‘Since people want to depart from justice, why should I continue to be just?’ An action such as this is certainly deviation, and it should never be part of our policy or conduct. Rather we should allow for some losses and accept a degree of sacrifice in order that the right and just course may be firmly established, because this is the way of real revolutionaries who believe in the justice of their cause and in their people.
It has been proved by experience that even the people whom you treat severely with justification would first reject you and be annoyed by you, but after a while they will like you. And when severity has nothing to do with personal intent or design to harm, they will accept it however harsh it is. Sometimes they accept some aspect of it even when it is wrong, provided that it is not related to a personal motive or a grudge, and it should not be a consistent policy.
The absurdity that arises from Hussein’s effort to reconcile paradoxical concepts rings even more deafening with the hindsight of a decades-long war:
There is no contradiction between democracy and legitimate power. No one should ever imagine that democracy would debilitate him or diminish respect for him and his legitimate power, because this is not true.
There is no contradiction between exercising democracy and legitimate central administrative control according to the well-known balance between centralization and democracy. It is only those who are poor in ability and knowledge who imagine that there is a contradiction between democracy and centralization, between care for others and comradely and brotherly treatment, on the one hand, and maintaining the role and position of leadership, on the other.
Democracy consolidates relations among people, and its main strength is respect. The strength that stems from democracy assumes a higher degree of adherence in carrying out orders with great accuracy and zeal.
Pay attention to citizens’ demands and grievances and do not feel weary or bored by the persistence of these demands, because if you save a wronged person, partially or totally, you will be doing a great service to the people and the principles of your Party. The sense of injustice is a serious thing. There is nothing more dangerous than a human being who feels he is wronged, because he will turn into a huge explosive force when he feels that no one in the State or in society is on his side to redress the injustice.
He begins the second speech, “Democracy: A Comprehensive Conception of Life,” delivered on July 26, 1977, with a direct meditation on the nature of democracy:
The question of democracy is an extremely complicated one. It needs your great concern, each from his own position and through correct practices.
If someone’s principles shake in practicing the correct formula of democracy, his relationship with people working with him and those who are lower than him in the Party or in professional ranks, and he does not treat that correctly by returning to democratic formula and means, including collective work, he is neither a true revolutionary nor a true advocate of principles. Any time, anywhere, a revolutionary person should, besides principled considerations that he should not forget, exchange places, metaphorically, with his juniors. Thus the picture is turned over and he imagines himself in the lower person’s shoes. He is the one suffering injustice and not the director-general or the Minister. He is the citizen, not the director-general; he is the Party member in the lowest rank and not the one in the highest rank. He imagines how he can deal with the relationship, how he considers it, from his position as a director-general, with a certain minister; how he suffers, gets annoyed, or revolts when democratic justice is not practiced toward him in the proper way. He has to imagine how he would feel when something wrong is done to him as a result of not practicing democracy, or as a result of practicing democracy in the wrong way between him and his superiors, and how he would stick to that and demand proper ways and means of practicing democracy.
One of Hussein’s most grimly prescient meditations, particularly in the timely context of censorship, explores the relationship between government and the mass media:
Democracy will remain one of the most difficult issues preoccupying human thought, political thought, and constitutional formula now and in the future, in Iraq and elsewhere, because democracy is a human as well as a major political issue. … Take, for example, the information media. They are revolutionary and democratic means for making people aware and open-minded, and also for superiors. In order that the information media carry out their task in a proper way, a great deal of care is needed not only from the person or persons directly in charge of it, but also from all of us. We are required to take good care of the media not to spoil them but guide them, cooperate with them, criticize them when mistakes are made, and provide them with the means of strength and development in order to play their role properly in orientation and supervision. Some Ministers or those lower in rank and responsibility complain of unconstructive criticism unleashed sometimes by certain information media against governmental departments. To start with, I admit that sometimes there are inaccurate and incorrect practices in this field. At the same time, those working in the media repeatedly complain of government departments being indifferent to them and uncooperative with them, sometimes of not being taken seriously, saying that a newspaper correspondent or a journalist is occasionally treated as an opponent or even as a foe when he comes to an office, instead of having the door open for him and being given correct information, so that his criticism of matters will be practiced and objective.
The proper way to make the media sector play its role in surveillance and public awareness is not by rejecting this role or defining it in such a narrow way as to make the task in its correct form almost impossible. Rather it should be put in the right form. And to make the media sector function in the proper form we all have to interact with it positively, faithfully, and assiduously.
Inadvertently presaging the mechanisms of the Arab Spring, Hussein admonishes:
When facing falsehood and deviation, the force of righteousness is turned into a great power. When the wronged person cannot express it with proper accuracy through his own individual effort, others will express it by other means. And it will take its correct course in expressing itself whether by the wronged person or by other people in society.
Towering the irony is Hussein’s vision for what we might call “open-source government” today:
Meet with the people who contact your offices, brothers, and meet with the civil servants working at your offices and respond to them according to proper contexts and procedures. Then you will find that you have benefitted a great deal, because the democratic issue and the practice of authority are not a scholastic issue. It is not like the old-fashioned teacher-student relationship, when a teacher used to come into class, give his lesson, and leave after the students had memorized it. The democratic issue and the practice of power require considerable interaction with people, for while you teach others a lesson, the people lower than you in responsibility will teach you many lessons through various types and through the views they voice from their own positions, and on the basis of their own experience and education.
What is required to understand people’s general concerns in society and work by inviting them to discuss the issue of production and productivity: listen to their views about the correct things they see in government departments that make them perform tasks in a better way, and interact with their views. Discuss the defects in government departments and in the work of the civil servants, then find the suitable solutions for them.
The relation between you and the people should not be supercilious. And remember that the correct framework of the relation is to be an interactive leadership relation.
In the third speech, “Democracy: A Principled and Practiced Necessity,” Hussein explores the national and international principles of democratic rule:
The democratic practice is a principled point of departure expressing the Party’s unwearied policy and its ideological perceptions, which derive their basic characteristics from the particularity of the Baath ideology and its practical applications. The democratic practice is thus the genuine, principled vision and expression of the people’s will and conscience within the framework of sound revolutionary perception, which avoids in its calculations the fall into the illusions of liberal ideas, and defines the spheres of this practice in their proper conscious tracks.
Democracy, in the Arab Baath Socialist Party’s view, is of a well-defined revolutionary base deriving its characteristics from its association with our socialist ideology. In its Baathist particularity, it motivates the citizen and the people and reactivates their hidden resources, formerly restricted by depression, deprivation, fear, and hesitation. This active motivation of the citizen’s and society’s capabilities turns their revolutionary movement into a great force on the path of the revolutionary process and its evolution. Keeping the sources of anxiety and fear in the life of the citizen and the people like a nightmare threatening their life and future will seriously reduce their power to the weakest state possible.
He cites a growing sense of global awareness:
Respect for the opinion of the individual along the path we guide him and not the path we are driven to is an urgent practical and political necessity in addition to being a principled duty. The general trends and development taking place in the world are in the interest of democracy. Naturally everything develops in this direction. Interaction with the people’s public life and respect of the people’s opinion have become a fact, receiving growing attention from peoples of the world. The authorities derive their powers from it.
The citizen has been able to benefit from the world’s culture and information. He now can receive any radio broadcast and listen to and watch world television, in line with the development of technology and science. Science and technology have developed to the extent that the citizen can see, through directly transmitted television, the political and social life of the world and learn a great deal. People’s awareness, education, and aspirations will expand accordingly.
…but not before taking a stab at America, with an embedded reminder that “democracy” is defined by cultural context:
We are in the age of democracy’s progress and dissemination in the world. This explains the Americans’ use of the issue of democratic freedoms against the Soviet Union and socialist states through the slogans of human rights and freedom, although in their general policies in and outside their country they strike hard at democratic freedoms and human rights as we understand them.
After criticizing the political regime in Egypt, he offers a perfect articulation of the gobsmacking syllogism at the very heart of all three speeches, this notion that “democracy” is a good, but a good to be bestowed selectively upon an idle citizenry by a deigning leadership:
The right way is to ask farmers, through a democratic procedure whose bases we lay down, to choose their representatives. Those whose stands are questionable and those affected by the agricultural reform laws should be excluded. This is people’s democracy, which means isolating the influence of anti-revolutionary elements on a class basis, and in their political and ideological stands and tendencies, in accordance with appropriate and well-defined formulas and methods and enabling the sons of the Revolution to exercise democracy according to the central conditions laid down by the leadership.
On Democracy by Saddam Hussein, absolutely fascinating and sufficiently unsettling in its entirety, comes from Chan’s Badlands Unlimited — a different breed of publishing outfit that believes the “historical distinctions between books, files, and artworks are dissolving rapidly” and seeks to publish “new works by artists and writers that embody the spirit of this emerging dissolution.”