This post originally appeared on The Latest. (Yes, it’s a new one for a change.)
Politicians and dictators who like to rewrite reality find themselves in trouble when the actual reality is stark enough.
Declan Walsh writes in The New York Times about how you “can’t arrest a virus.”
According to him, the autocrats of the world, such as Russia’s Putin or Egypt’s el-Sisi, are resorting to their usual tactics in face of the current coronavirus crisis.
However, as these strategies are largely based on shows of force and variations of “Don’t contradict me or else,” they may be ill-suited for handling a crisis where you have to face up to reality.
The thing about forbidding people from contradicting you is that it’s essentially saying that reality is not allowed to contradict you. The ever-relevant handbook for this idea is George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Towards the end of the novel, a high-ranking member of the Party explains its ideology of Doublethink at a deeper level. This ideology is what dictators and cult leaders everywhere apply to control their followers and their thoughts, but, being satirical, Orwell’s Party is especially clear-sighted and explicit about how it really works.
The Inner Party member in this scene defends a kind of metaphysical idealism: the only thing that’s real is what people believe is true. This is the logic by which every autocrat really operates when they try to control things by controlling what people know and think: “Don’t contradict me or else.”
In 1984, the character claims that this makes the Party omnipotent. They can make anything happen, because they can make people think anything is true. There’s no matter of fact about how things really, objectively are, not when the Party controls both people’s minds and historical records.
So if some dictator now parades around his country and says that COVID-19 is under control, and forbids anyone from saying otherwise, is that going to make it so that it is?
Not really, no. But that’s kind of what they do, anyway. Taking reality humbly as it is is not their strength.
This is why Walsh states in his article that the autocrats of the world may find their power challenged by the crisis. Of course, the opposite may also happen, with the crisis giving the excuse to limit people’s rights.
A less serious version of the ignoring of external reality, yet a good story to make the point, is the case of Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson. He downplayed the threat of the virus first and boasted that he’s going to go on shaking hands with people, and now he’s in intensive care because of that same virus.
He may not actually have caught it from shaking hands with someone, of course, but the story pretty much makes the point either way.
Of course, a lot of the harm from this attitude falls on the weak, not the leaders themselves. President Trump has been exclusively breathing the fumes from his blazing trousers in place of oxygen for a long time, so this latest round of ignoring the evidence may not harm him – just everyone else in the US.