Tyranny Unveiled

 

FEAST_OF_GOAT_2-165x246I used to read a lot of novels. Now, alas, I don’t. Perhaps I am working too hard. Perhaps I waste a lot of time on the Internet. I really do not know. What I can say is that I really miss losing myself in a good story.

Just how much I miss it was brought home to me over the last few days. I have been working on an essay on Machiavelli’s Prince. This is a work that is now 500 years old. I gave a talk on the subject at Harvard just over a year ago, and I gave another version of the talk at a conference held at Columbia in December. In the course of trying to turn the talk into something publishable, I found myself pondering the difference between ancient and modern tyranny — between the likes of Polycrates of Samos and Joseph Stalin. It seemed to me that Machiavelli might have something to do with the reorientation of tyranny — with its acquisition of an ambition to transform human character and social relations that was absent from the aspirations of Cypselus and Periander of Corinth; Peisistratus, Hippias, and Hipparchus of Athens; and Hiero of Syracuse.

I do not mean to say that the ancient prototype is dead and gone. It is alive and well in many a corner of Africa; and, back in the third quarter of the last millennium, when I was young and the world was fresh, it was alive and well in many a corner of Latin America. Juan Peron, Perez Jimenez, Anastasio Somoza, Fulgencio Batista — those were the days!

And the most impressive ruffian of the lot was Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. He was a force of nature. He ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron hand for more than 30 years. He brought order to a hitherto anarchic land. He constructed roads and reasserted the nation’s sovereignty with regard to borders, immigration, and public finance; he turned the national police into a well-trained army; and he fostered in the island republic a vibrant and, by the standards in Latin America at the time, prosperous economy. His was what political scientists call a developmental dictatorship.

But Trujillo was also a megalomaniac and a monster. He fostered a cult of personality. He named schools and parks after members of his family; he renamed the capital Ciudad Trujillo after himself. He surrounded himself with well-educated and highly-cultured toadies — lawyers and men of letters who were ready, willing, and even eager to sing his praises and do his bidding. He was perfectly prepared to have the thugs also in his employ assassinate his critics abroad and murder his opponents at home. He named incompetent and venal relatives to high posts, he allowed his sons to run amok, and he amassed immense wealth and eventually controlled something like 40 percent of the Dominican economy. For the purpose of seduction and humiliation, he paid visits to the wives of his ministers in the afternoons while they were at work; and he promoted those who dispatched their nubile, virginal, teenage daughters to his country estate to be deflowered by the man they all called “the Chief.” It was not for nothing that Dominicans called Trujillo “the goat.”

I wanted to write about him and, in a few words, to capture the ethos of his tyranny. Then, I discovered on my shelf a novel concerning the man written by Mario Vargas Llosa. I do not remember purchasing The Feast of the Goat. But there it was. It must have been given me — but by whom I have no notion.

In any case, I read it, and I could not put it down. It taught me by putting me through a series of experiences. I learned what it was like to be in Trujillo’s entourage, what it was like to plot and assassinate the man, what it was like to be one of the women he took advantage of. Vargas Llosa is a master. He knows Dominican society. I suspect that he met many of the individuals whom he depicts. But, most important, he has a sense of regime — a capacity for understanding the manner in which a form of government shapes its citizens — especially, those close to the center of power.

If you have the time, secure a copy and read the book. If you don’t have the time, read it anyway. I especially recommend its author’s portrait of Trujillo’s successor Joaquin Antonio Balaguer Ricardo and of the manner in which, after the assassination of the goat, he managed to sideline the Trujillo family and usher the Dominican Republic in the direction of liberal democracy. Vargas Llosa’s account of Balaguer’s maneuvers is a study of statesmanship of the highest order.

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  1. The Mugwump Inactive
    The Mugwump
    @TheMugwump

    “What is the nature of tyranny?” is the question I’ve been discussing with my seniors this year.  The topic is certainly worthy of study, but I have not attempted to take the next step by examining the character of the tyrant himself.  I suspect the answer resides in the virtue known as self-control (or the lack thereof).  No leader can be truly great unless he can control both his carnal appetites and his personal ambition (ego).  George Washington seems to be a rare exception.

    • #1
  2. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    The Mugwump:“What is the nature of tyranny?” is the question I’ve been discussing with my seniors this year. The topic is certainly worthy of study, but I have not attempted to take the next step by examining the character of the tyrant himself. I suspect the answer resides in the virtue known as self-control (or the lack thereof). No leader can be truly great unless he can control both his carnal appetites and his personal ambition (ego). George Washington seems to be a rare exception.

    You might look at Xenophon’s little dialogue Hiero and at Leo Strauss’s commentary on it. Vargas Llosa is awfully good.

    • #2
  3. Drusus Inactive
    Drusus
    @Drusus

    Great suggestion – I’ll definitely pick it up.

    • #3
  4. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Is The Feast of the Goat as good a read as All The King’s Men ?

    • #4
  5. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Ansonia:Is The Feast of the Goat as good a read as All The King’s Men ?

    An excellent question. Yes, I would say, yes. But you set the bar high.

    • #5
  6. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Thanks for the suggestion Paul.  I’ll download it and read it.  I prefer books during the reading stage, but not the storage phase.

    • #6
  7. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    I got The Feast of the Goat about an hour ago and can now say this : By the end of the first chapter you’re absolutely hooked.

    • #7
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