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The Dictator's Learning Curve

Journalist William Dobson looks at the ‘nimble’ tactics of autocrats in an age of social media.

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We watch with Dobson as the Chinese use not tanks and guns, as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but “street repair” closures and sidewalk-washing tasks to clear crowds who’d thought they might try a “Jasmine Revolution.” It’s a far subtler form of power, but just as effective.

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That’s also true of the book. Dobson seems least plausible where he’s at his most brash. “[I]f you order a violent crackdown ... you now know it will likely be captured on an iPhone and broadcast around the world. The costs of tyranny have never been this high,” he declares.

That’s a tempting aphorism, but it’s a conclusion not entirely supported by the evidence Dobson has marshaled.

In fact, one theme runs throughout Dobson’s observations but is never directly addressed: Dictators have learned that indifference to the media actually bears little cost, provided other parts of the political strategy – say, the will to use violence – are strong. All the smart phones in Syria haven’t helped halt the regime’s yearlong violent crackdown on protesters.

And media go both ways: Last year, as the violence was beginning, President Bashar al-Assad’s wife was the subject of a flattering profile in Vogue magazine.

It can also be difficult, in some of his more broad pronouncements, to distinguish between dictatorship and more benign exercise of power. Modern dictatorships, he writes, “seek to blend repression with regulation to gain the most from the global political system without jeopardizing their grip on power.” Although one has to wonder if this strategy is actually new. Wasn’t the hopscotching by Ethiopia – or Afghanistan for that matter – between US and Soviet “spheres of influence” during the cold war also a manipulation of the then-prevailing political system in order to assert or maintain power?

Dobson is the expert here; I’m merely an engaged reader. And even when his pronouncements raise an eyebrow, he’s still a companionable writer.

In fact, Dobson’s is a terrific book to argue with. And it’s hard to think of a higher compliment for a book about Big Ideas.

Jina Moore is a freelance foreign correspondent and a nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine.

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