Tears for the Tyrant

by John Derbyshire


Daniel Foster is quite right: More often than not, those North Korean tears are real.

There were similar displays in China when Mao Tse-tung died. In conversations over the years I’ve asked many Chinese friends & relatives who were adults at the time whether they wept, and if so whether sincerely. The answers fall into three groups.

1. Sincere weepers.   A great many people — at least half — wept sincerely. They loved Chairman Mao. He’d brought peace after decades of war, civil war, disorder, and corruption. The price of that order looks steep to us; but that’s because we take civil order for granted. After a long spell of desperate chaos, most people will take order at any price. Furthermore, great numbers of town people had an “iron rice bowl” — security at least of food, shelter, and warmth, in return for undemanding work. It’s surprising, and depressing, how many people will settle for that. Sure, everyone knew about the famines, the purges, the Cultural Revolution, and the petty persecutions. People rationalized that away, though, under the pressures of patriotism and the desire to stay out of trouble. Never underestimate the human power of rationalizing away! Mao got a pass on much of the bad stuff: people blamed lower-level officials. The proverb you hear a lot in this context is: “The [Buddhist] scriptures are true, but the priests distort them.” I fictionalized a weeper on p. 242 here (available in e-Book! … as soon as I can master this damn formatting), though in fact the poor girl is too upset even to weep.

2. Swept-alongers.   Most of the rest told me: “I didn’t feel grief myself, not like you do for a relative; but everyone else was upset, and it’s hard to resist being pulled in.” Basic crowd psychology: It’s infectious, like yawning.

3. The Awkward Squad.   A few have told me: “I pretended to cry, because I might have got in trouble for not crying, but it was fake: in my heart I hated the s.o.b. and was glad he’d died at last.” Those few all had a certain distinct type of personality: skeptical, contrarian, prickly, stubborn, and antisocial — the Awkward Squad. The first job for anyone serious about being a totalitarian dictator is to identify these people and hustle them off to the camps. They are only a small minority: the rest can easily be manipulated.

There were similar displays of collective grief when Stalin died. The movie The Inner Circle gets a good scene out of it.

And as a matter of fact, there is still grief for Stalin. At any rate, prowling around the Kremlin the other day, I got sight of the little necropolis where Soviet leaders are buried. I couldn’t get close, and my cheapo camera has no distance capabilities, but I could make out Stalin’s monument. There was a pile of fresh-looking flowers heaped around the base.

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