Gee, They Look the Same
Westerners seem to hold a fondness for monarchies; pleasant rembrances of times past, the pleasures of the "court", colloquial recollections of quaint beheadings and the capriciousness of rulings, and envious mention of the 'King's prerogative' on a wedding night. Altogether a generally uncritical recollection.
We tend to think of the British monarchy today, or possibly the smaller incarnations existing in the Netherlands or Belgium, rulers who tend now to be not only civilised but also marginalised.
But monarchies were not always thus, and rather too many disappeared in the smoke of revolutions because they too closely resembled the behavior we attribute today to dictatorships - the "off with his head" syndrome.
Monarchies are not much with us today because entire populations revolted against the frequent and unpredictable brutality of the rulers, the callous and cynical lack of concern for the populace, and general bad management.
In fact, these are the same reasons most dictatorships have also been overthrown, in our more recent history. And of course, our impression of these dictatorships is not a pleasant one and our opinions of them are harsh and unforgiving - often justifiably so.
But these recollections are little more than us having what we might call both a selective and a convenient memory. We recall what we choose. Our fond and biased judgments are selective as well, often to the point of obscenity, I'm sorry to say.
The West today, led by the vocal US, is fond of demonising North Korea (for e.g.) and, while that country is not a paradise, it has not invaded and brutalised other nations, begun multiple wars or starved and drugged millions of people to death as did the Brits.
For downright brutal inhumanity, monarchies have never had much to be proud of. This is not a song in praise of dictatorships, but rather a blunt suggestion that we look to our own flaws before condemning others for what are often lesser sins.
Monarchies and dictatorships are functionally very similar, differing primarily in the method of succession planning, both being a form of government where one person holds absolute power - the exercise of which was not always predictable.
Both Monarchies and dictatorships tended to pass power to the next relative in line. The primary difference between the two is that monarchies often claimed a 'divine right' to rule, having been conveniently selected by God, whereas a dictator, sadly but still unashamedly, passed power onto his son.
But the only real difference, certainly in the public imagination, is that dictators just didn't have the class of monarchs. There truly is something special about these hard-to-get divine appointments.
In any case, once either group had power, they gave no signs whatever of relinquishing it, and usually needed their own heads chopped off to make them see the light.
Let's review. A dictatorship is a country ruled by one person who holds absolute power - of life and death if it comes to that. The power to take lives, to start wars, to commit a country to any direction or program or alliance, without fear of objection.
We can identify two styles of dictatorships in the world's recent past - those that developed on their own, and those that were installed by the US as the preferred American method of colonisation - preferred for their attributes of economy and simplicity.
Of the former, only a few mostly obscure examples come to mind today. On the other hand, we have a virtual cornucopia of the latter - more than 45 at last count, and still counting. The list is included in another article in this series.
There are many countries today which are led by a fully-functioning monarchy. Saudi Arabia and the smaller oil states in the Middle East, come to mind - all typically brutal. Monaco is one of the more pleasant ones, not likely to be overthrown anytime soon.
Then we have North Korea. We prefer to call it a dictatorship rather than a monarchy, but it's really just an old-fashioned absolute monarchy engaging in succession by nepotism.
The main difference in branding between Saudi Arabia (Kingdom) and North Korea (Dictatorship) - aside from all the beheadings - is that the US can pretty much control the Saudis but has no control whatever over North Korea. Hence, the dirty name.
Haiti was ruled as an absolute monarchy by the Duvalier family, a brutal one, too. The country was never described as a dictatorship because once again it was under US hegemony, and we save the bad words for those who won't obey us.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein functioned as a monarchy, though he was originally installed with US support. We didn't begin to call Iraq a dictatorship until Saddam fell out of favor with the US.
Noriega was for a long time the President of Panama, but the country was functionally a monarchy. As a sign of having incurred divine displeasure, he was downgraded to 'strongman' by the contemporary ruling deity, then to 'dictator', then 'prisoner'.
Could have been worse, I suppose. They hung Saddam.
Today, it seems to please the Right-Wing ideologues, especially in the US and the UK, to refer to China as a 'dictatorship' or, more precisely, as a 'communist dictatorship'. But China is no such thing.
China has a large central government with rules of appointment and succession that are entirely merit-based, and neither elitist nor with any hint of nepotism. Moreover, there is no one person in China's government with the power to initiate major domestic programs, much less foreign military adventures, without full agreeement of the cabinet and most likely the full government.
If you look at the facts, all Western democracies come much closer to a practical working definition of 'dictatorship' than does China.
But the US, despite its apparent best efforts, seems unable to either influence or control China's government. And, like every schoolyard bully, if I can't bully you, I can at least hide in the bushes and call you lots of bad names. Charming.
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