At the height of a famine which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, the Ethiopian government…
Toward the end of 1984, at the height of a famine which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, the Ethiopian government launched one of the most farreaching social experiments of recent memory. The plan, as explained by government officials, was to relocate between 1.5 and 2 million peasants from the country's mountainous and relatively arid northern provinces to what were officially described as “uninhabited virgin areas” in the nation's central and southern regions.
Government spokesmen justified the resettlement project on both humanitarian and economic grounds. The northern provinces, it was pointed out, were the most severely afflicted by drought and famine, to the point where the very survival of the peasantry depended on a thinning-out of the population. Furthermore, it was claimed that resettlement was essential if Ethiopia were ever to develop a viable, self-sufficient rural economy. Without a population redeployment, officials warned, Ethiopia would forever remain a ward of international charity.
This latter point was reiterated forcefully, even angrily, whenever Western governments expressed doubts about the wisdom of uprooting and shifting masses of people around the country in the midst of a catastrophic famine. Western misgivings were unwarranted, officials insisted; instead of carping about resettlement, the wealthier capitalist nations should be promoting it by contributing generous sums of development aid specifically for this project. Nevertheless, to assuage the apprehensions of foreign governments and relief agencies, Ethiopian spokesmen stressed that candidates for resettlement would be chosen on a strictly voluntary basis, that the program would be carried out in an orderly and humane fashion, and that each resettled family would receive a private plot of two hectares and “cattle, seed, fertilizer, and medical assistance for at least one year.”
These reassurances did not dispel the worries of foreign governments, which were donating millions of dollars in famine relief, or of the multitude of relief organizations which raised money and helped administer the distribution of food and other humanitarian goods. The relief agencies in particular were by then well-acquainted with the Ethiopian regime's callous disregard for the well-being of the rural populace, as demonstrated by the diversion to the military of foreign-donated food designated for famine victims and the ruthless methods used to prevent food from reaching provinces where insurgent movements were challenging the authority of the central government. Despite all this, objections to resettlement initially were either suppressed or couched in the mildest possible terms. Specialists in international development were even quick to point out that, in theory, resettlement might contribute to the recovery of Ethiopia's farm economy.
However, no one outside the Communist world believed that resettlement should be the center-piece of agricultural policy, or that it should be undertaken on a mass scale during a time of severe famine. And in the most revealing reflection of the prevailing Western attitude, governments and relief agencies almost without exception refrained from financing or participating in resettlement, including those which in the past had supported collectivist farm schemes in other Third World nations.
In fact, cynical observers theorized in private that resettlement was being put forward not because of official overzealousness or panic, but as part of a deliberate strategy having nothing to do with feeding the hungry. Rather, they noted that the “overpopulated” areas which were to supply candidates for resettlement just happened to be the very regions where opposition movements were in open rebellion. In this view, resettlement provided a convenient smokescreen for the depopulation of troublesome regions, a classic counter-insurgency technique. Some theorized as well that resettlement was meant to advance another longstanding goal: agricultural collectivization. Ethiopian officials repeatedly denied any intention of using force to increase the percentage of farmland organized along socialist lines. But as a foreign diplomat predicted: “Certainly in a year or so we're likely to be informed that the people have unanimously expressed their desire to be collectivized.”
The resettlement program is now slightly more than one year old, and despite extraordinary measures taken by the authorities to stop embarrassing information from reaching the outside, we have come to learn a great deal about the consequences of the project. The evidence suggests something far more serious than imagined by the most skeptical observers. Among the conclusions: resettlement was never conceived of as a voluntary enterprise, and the overwhelming majority of resettlement families were compelled to participate; thousands upon thousands died in holding camps, en route to their new homes, or after having arrived at the resettlement sites; many of the resettlement sites were not uninhabited, as the government had asserted, and families already living there were uprooted without compensation; resettlement sites more nearly resembled penal labor camps than the private farming plots advertised by the government; family separations were a frequent occurrence during the resettlement process; resettlement has been exploited to further the creation of the most radical form of collective-farm enterprise; Western assistance intended to feed the hungry has been routinely redirected to the resettlement program.
Moreover, a compelling body of evidence strongly suggests that Ethiopian government policies played a much more substantial role in exacerbating the effects of famine than was previously recognized. This is not to say that responsibility for the famine rests entirely on the shoulders of the country's political leaders. But the Ethiopian case differs in a number of crucial respects from other famine-ravaged African nations like Mali, Niger, and Sudan. Ethiopia has suffered not so much a natural catastrophe as a deliberate state-sponsored atrocity, with nature providing the authorities with the means to break the rural society's resistance to radical change. Thus the parallels which can be applied to Ethiopia are less with Africa than with previous instances of totalitarian agrarian extremism: the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; China during the Great Leap Forward; the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930's.
There is one important difference between developments in Ethiopia and previous cases where Communist policies, purposely or otherwise, led to the starvation of millions of peasants. The previous instances—especially in the Ukraine and China—took place under ideal totalitarian conditions, with the borders of the affected areas sealed off from foreign journalists, relief workers, and diplomats. Even today scholars continue to debate how many people died in the Ukrainian famine, a controversy which may never be satisfactorily resolved due to the sketchiness of Soviet demographic data. And even less is known about conditions in rural China during the early 1960's. Ethiopia, by contrast, was reluctantly forced to give the outside world a glimpse of internal conditions once it decided to apply for international relief.
That the regime was sensitive to the implications of seeking aid outside the Soviet bloc was made clear by its having waited until late 1984 to initiate an appeal for help, a date well after famine had begun to claim Ethiopian lives. The date is significant, for in September 1984 the regime played host to a mammoth celebration, complete with processions orchestrated by North Korean advisers, to mark the tenth anniversary of the revolution that brought the Communist regime to power in Ethiopia. Only after this extravagant event, costing upward of $100 million, did the regime see fit to inform the world that millions of its people were starving to death; within Ethiopia itself the famine was seldom referred to in the state-controlled media. Many residents of Addis Ababa, the capital city, learned the true dimensions of the famine only in conversation with foreigners.
To minimize the likelihood of unpleasant publicity, the authorities have limited foreigners' access to the countryside. No foreigners are permitted to enter the areas where candidates for resettlement are rounded up or to visit the holding camps where peasants are kept while awaiting transportation to their new homes. Nor are foreigners permitted to inspect the resettlement sites, the only exceptions being carefully-screened delegations which are shown the same few Potemkin Village-style model settlements. Of necessity, some relief workers are allowed to visit various parts of the countryside to distribute food and other aid; they hear stories about atrocities, and occasionally witness them. Generally, however, relief organizations are reluctant to protest government actions out of a justifiable fear that their projects will be closed down. This fear was confirmed this past December, when a French organization, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières), was expelled after publicly criticizing the resettlement program.1
Nevertheless, relief workers have privately given Western journalists important information. Moreover, because of government-imposed constraints, some of the most illuminating research has been conducted outside Ethiopia, primarily in Sudan, where nearly one million Ethiopian peasants fled to escape drought, war, and resettlement. Interviews with these refugees provide the basis for the most comprehensive—and disturbing—study of the resettlement program, which was compiled by Cultural Survival, an organization of American anthropologists primarily concerned with the plight of oppressed indigenous minority groups.2
Perhaps the most important question raised by the Cultural Survival study is the degree of government responsibility for the famine. This issue, in turn, leads directly to the question of whether resettlement is essential to the recovery of the country's rural economy. As noted earlier, many development authorities were of the opinion that a population redistribution would alleviate Ethiopia's chronic food shortages. According to this view, the northern provinces, from which candidates for resettlement were to be selected, suffered from a complex syndrome of problems, including ruinous farming practices and overpopulation, as well as periodic drought.
There is, no doubt, considerable merit to these analyses; but the question remains whether the purely agricultural—as opposed to the political—problems of the region justify so complete and radical a solution as mass internal deportation. On this question, the testimony of Ethiopian peasants is quite revealing. Many, for example, report being scheduled for resettlement despite having an average harvest the previous year. Thus their designation for resettlement is understandable only within the context of the regime's military priorities.
Or again: because the most drought-ridden areas of Tigre province were situated in territory controlled by the Tigre Popular Liberation Front, the regime apparently decided to find candidates for resettlement exclusively in areas under secure government domination. Nor was there any rational basis for the selection of families for resettlement; indeed, it is inaccurate to speak of a selection process. As we shall see, peasants in a particular area would simply be seized en masse by soldiers and packed off to a holding camp. In some instances, peasants taken away from their farms left behind crops ready for harvest.
A government capable of deporting successful peasants in the midst of famine is capable of a great deal. Thus, in Ethiopia, the government played a direct role in the killing of hundreds of thousands of people through a series of actions purposely designed to create havoc in the country-side. One of the most sinister policies was the campaign against the “hoarding” of grain. Initially the drive against hoarding was limited to exhortations against the stockpiling of grain and mutterings about “kulaks,” who allegedly had enriched themselves as a result of the post-revolutionary land-reform program. However, in the period leading up to the famine, soldiers conducted thorough sweeps of peasant areas, confiscating surplus grain at gunpoint, a policy justified in the name of socialist egalitarianism. Yet peasants from the Wollo region, for example, cited the stockpiling of grain as having enabled them to survive frequent periods of famine; it was only after the Marxist rulers had decreed hoarding to be a criminal act, and then moved forthrightly to enforce the new revolutionary standard, that these peasants faced the prospect of starvation.
In the northern provinces, an additional problem was the fact that land reform led to reduced acreages for many individual peasants, with the surplus land transferred to collective farms administered by the peasant associations, one of the many mass organizations established after the revolution. The result of all this was a sudden decrease in peasant productivity. As one refugee explained: “There are farmers in our area who can produce in one harvest enough food for seven years. But no more. This is not because the land has changed but because the government takes it all.”
Another problem was a requirement that peasants work long hours for state farms run by the peasant associations or the military. In addition, peasants were expected to attend political lectures and literacy classes, meetings which were usually devoted to official explanations of why, in one peasant's words, “they are taking our grain, our money, our people.” The result of the myriad meetings, classes, assemblies, rallies, and work details—all obligatory and without compensation—was to leave the peasant with practically no time to devote to farming his own fields.
All this helps explain one of Cultural Survival's most startling findings: that many peasants believed the famine was entirely the product of political decisions. Not one refugee interviewed in the Yabuus (Sudan) relief camp cited drought as a major or even subsidiary cause of famine in the region of Ethiopia which they had fled. Rather, the two most frequently noted reasons were the 4-5 days per week of compulsory work on collective farms and a category labeled simply “imprisonment prevents farm work,” which says a great deal about the state's priorities. Despite a desperate need for increased food production, peasants were jailed on such charges as failure to pay taxes, resisting the confiscation of land, trading outside government channels, refusing to arrest a neighbor as part of militia duty, working the fields during a political seminar or literacy class (frequently mentioned by refugees), suspicion of assisting the Oromo Liberation Front, and publicly objecting to government decisions.
Still another problem was the confiscation of guns. The major result of this policy was to give free rein to foraging animals, such as baboons, who were capable of destroying an entire year's harvest unless killed or driven away. In disarming the peasantry, the authorities were clearly acting to undermine prospective insurgencies. Yet at the same time the government was aware of and unconcerned by the implications for agricultural production. The fact that individual peasants were forbidden to kill wild animals while crops in collective farms were carefully protected indicates that the confiscation of guns was yet another element in a broad strategy to eliminate the private farmer from the Ethiopian economy.
In short, the state helped create the conditions it now cites as justification for a radical and inhumane reorganization of rural life: resettlement.
In designating peasants for resettlement, the regime gave wide authority to the various totalitarian structures which had already played so central a part in subverting the position of the private farmer. Local peasant associations were assigned a resettlement quota, to be filled by whatever measures were necessary. Compulsion of one form or another was almost always required, since few peasants would readily agree to enlist in so dubious an enterprise. An often-employed tactic was the promise of food, as in the following example, from Welo Province:
Board chairmen or members of the peasants' association announced that the government was going to distribute food aid in the nearest market town. . . . The advice to go to the nearest market town was followed without distrust. “The old and the sick came, children and youths and famine victims,” says Ahmed Mohamed. “Some very old people were even brought on camels. I carried my sick wife into town on a stretcher with the help of a neighbor. We were all full of expectations.” But at the assembly centers the peasants were rounded up by soldiers and militia men. . . . During these operations anyone in town looking like a peasant was captured and also resettled: the Koran student who was in the marketplace, a young man who wanted to visit his mother, peasants selling grain, young men selling wood in the town.
A similar ploy required all peasants in a particular area to bring their oxen to the village for vaccination, where the peasants were seized and processed for deportation.
On other occasions, troops were sent into an area to conduct dragnets for resettlement candidates. Peter Niggli, a Swiss relief official who talked to Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, described how these sweeps were carried out:
The resettlement takes place without prior warning: villages in the vicinity of the garrisons are enclosed by military troops or militias at night or in the early morning hours, and all inhabitants the troops can get hold of are rounded up. The people are told the lie that they will be brought to a political assembly in the nearest town. . . . The troops caught the candidates for resettlement asleep, in sick-bed, while harvesting, ploughing, threshing, while herding cattle, repairing a fence . . . or simply arrested them in the streets if they happened to pass through a village that was to be resettled.
Nor was the regime above exploiting the presence of foreign relief workers. Thus Tigrean peasants were enticed to a feeding center where Red Cross representatives were supposed to distribute aid; instead, the relief workers were told to stay in their quarters while soldiers took the peasants off to resettlement holding sites. Relief workers also reported instances of soldiers conducting sweeps for resettlement victims in relief camps during the dead of night, and of a policy by some camp administrators to issue food rations only to those famine victims who agreed to participate in the relocation program.
As should be evident by now, the government paid little attention to humanitarian niceties in its headlong rush to move as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. Since many resettled peasants were grabbed while working in the fields or traveling about their districts, a not surprising side-effect was a high incidence of family separation. Although, of course, precise figures are not available, a comment by a peasant who fled the resettlement program hints at the dimensions of the problem:
Everything occurs, but not a complete family: men without their family (the majority of cases), men with one child, women with some of their children but never with all of them, children or youths without a family but with one brother and men with relatives but without wives and children. . . . And it makes no difference whether someone was ill or not, or whether a woman was pregnant or not.
Once a peasant had been taken away by the military, he was confined to one of the holding camps. These often were nothing more than jails, where the peasant shared quarters with common criminals. Despite the high priority given resettlement by the government, and the generous transport assistance provided by the Soviet Union and other Communist-bloc countries, peasants often had to remain in the holding camps for weeks while arrangements were completed. Starvation rations were the norm, and it was not uncommon for peasants to go without food or drink for several days. Mortality rates were extremely high, to the point where concern was expressed by relief officials from the United Nations (no small matter, since the UN, practically alone among outside agencies working in Ethiopia, consistently supported resettlement and downplayed or explained away the “mistakes” committed by the government). Similarly horrible conditions due to overcrowding obtained during transit from the holding camps to the resettlement sites.
Then there were the resettlement sites themselves. As already noted, the government had made a number of promises: each settler would have a decent-sized plot; farm implements and oxen were to be made available; there were to be separate houses for each family, with running water and metal roofs, and schools and medical facilities were pledged for each settlement area. Peasants were even shown a film, supposedly of the resettlement area, depicting mile upon mile of grain waiting to be harvested.
The reality was altogether different. Peasants arriving in the Asosa region found a wild and uncultivated tangle of weeds and grasses. As one stunned peasant later described the landscape of Asosa: “Around us grew grass and bamboo as tall as men. I felt like garbage that had been dropped in the middle of nowhere.” There was no housing for most of those assigned to Asosa, and thus the first order of business was building houses for the political cadres, the militia, and only then the settlers themselves. Peasants were not permitted to build individual homes; they were housed in barracks-like units holding 200-300 persons each.
Conditions were similar to the accounts—all too familiar by now—of Stalin's slave-labor camps, or, more recently, Vietnam's New Economic Zones. The peasants worked long hours at hard physical work. Their only compensation was a meager food ration. Sometimes they would be told to work at nearby state farms, again without pay. The workers were kept under constant armed guard to prevent escapes and keep shirking to a minimum. The death rate at the resettlement camps was extremely high; it is conservatively estimated that death claimed between 50,000 and 100,000 of the 400,000 peasants resettled in the program's first eight months.
Nor, as it turned out, were all the resettlement areas uninhabited. Some had been successfully farmed for years, and as was the case for those coerced into relocating, the program proved a curse for the original residents. Their lands were expropriated by the state, which then amalgamated adjoining plots to form state entities. Those displaced faced the unpleasant alternative of moving in with relatives or joining a state farm, where working conditions were decidedly inferior to conditions they were used to as private farmers.
One might well wonder why the government would uproot one group of peasants and replace it with another group of uprooted peasants. In fact, this policy does not reflect mismanagement or administrative confusion but rather a deliberate move to advance two government objectives. First, the regime has attempted so thoroughly to disrupt the traditional social and economic patterns of the countryside that the peasants will gladly accept the relative security of collectivized agriculture. As Stalin demonstrated in an earlier time, even the most obstinate peasant will capitulate if he is squeezed and battered with sufficient resolve.
A second reason, which again borrows from the Stalinist arsenal, is related to Ethiopia's persistent nationalities problems. Traditionally, Ethiopia has been under the domination of one group, the Amharas, and resentment over the subordinate position of other nationality groups predates the 1974 revolution. But anti-Amhara sentiments which simmered under Emperor Haile Selassie literally exploded after the new leadership of radical military men launched a drive to remake Ethiopian society, and secessionist movements have emerged in at least four regions of the country. Although the authorities betray a preference for brute force in dealing with national insurgencies, a long-term strategy aimed at the dilution of nationality cohesiveness is also being implemented. Right now, resettlement is a principal instrument of Ethiopia's nationality policy, as thousands of Tigreans have been removed from ancestral lands and settled among Oromos and other groups. There are already reports of resettled Tigreans being armed and sent into battle against Oromo secessionists, a development which, the regime hopes, will deflect Oromo resentment from the central authorities to their new Tigrean neighbors.
In addition to resettlement, Ethiopia has implemented another policy which should, over the next decade, significantly move the countryside toward full collectivization. Known as the “villageization” campaign, this project will eventually affect 33 million peasants, or the overwhelming majority of the rural populace. Villageization entails the abandonment of the scattered settlements which currently predominate in the countryside and the creation of villages where all peasants in a particular area will be obliged to reside. The actual moving of homes and belongings is the responsibility of the peasant himself; during the past year, over one million peasants have completed the process. Leaving aside the question of whether villageization will strengthen Ethiopian agriculture over the long run, one is struck by the awesome irresponsibility of instituting so disruptive a program during a time of famine when the overriding need is to ensure a successful harvest.
Here it must be emphasized that what to outsiders may seem mistaken and even inhumane priorities carry a clear logic when the government's long-range plans are taken into consideration. Ethiopia's leaders have declared, again and again and again, that they intend to transform their society along socialist lines. And by socialist they do not mean some watered-down variant of “African socialism” as practiced in Tanzania and Zambia. To be sure, other African states have expropriated the socialist label, and some claim the heritage of Lenin as well as Marx. But while the policies of such countries as Angola and Mozambique have been guided by a totalitarian inspiration, only in Ethiopia has the leadership set in motion a thoroughgoing and irreversible reorganization of society. Despite famine or other external complications, in Ethiopia the march toward socialism proceeds undeterred.
In an overwhelmingly peasant society, full socialism, in the words of two leftist authorities on Ethiopia, requires “expanding the state's control over the economy and in particular a substantial transformation of agrarian relations.”3 Ethiopia's tyrannical leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, has put the matter bluntly: “The question of whether or not to socialize the rural production relations is really a question of whether or not to build socialism.”
Yet until the most recent famine, the Dergue, or military committee, which assumed leadership after the revolution, had proceeded with uncustomary caution in its agrarian policies. Even so, the initial land-reform decree gave hints of things to come. Although its major purpose was to break the landholding domination of the nobility and the Coptic church, land reform imposed a ten-hectare limitation on peasant holdings and forbade the hiring of agricultural labor. More to the point, peasants were not given title to redistributed land but rather were given permission only to use the land.
Another ominous sign was the anti-private-peasant rhetoric employed by Mengistu, who complained about lazy and unproductive peasants and denounced “kulaks” for resisting collectivization, hoarding grain, and taking over the leadership of some peasant associations.
Mengistu's analysis was not entirely incorrect. After a surge triggered by the initial land reform, farm production entered a steady decline in response to the policies set down in Addis Ababa. Peasants saw no reason to sell their grain at the artificially low prices decreed by the state, especially since there was little to purchase because of general economic deterioration. And although a collectivization program, organized with the assistance of East German advisers, was launched in 1980, by 1984 state farms accounted for a mere 8 percent of farm production. While state farms continue to receive the overwhelming share of state agricultural investment funds, they have never turned a profit, and thus serve as yet another drag on the Ethiopian economy.
Had it not been for the famine, it is likely that the collectivization drive would have continued at its initial modest pace, particularly since the government, already bogged down by insurgent combat, was unlikely to risk driving Oromo or Tigrean peasants further into opposition. Then famine created unforeseen opportunities for rearranging the rural economy. A starving peasantry would be less prone to fight the drastic measures—like resettlement—which invariably accompany collectivization. Likewise, the international community would be more likely to ignore or excuse acts of repression that in ordinary times might incite charges of human-rights violations. Finally, famine opened the possibility of acquiring assistance from conscience-stricken foreigners which could be used to advance collectivization. As matters have turned out, foreign sources have generally refused to give money for resettlement or collectivization. Yet the regime has been able to divert humanitarian aid for the resettlement campaign by, for example, using foreign-donated trucks for the transportation of peasants to resettlement sites.
Ironically, it was a previous famine, in 1973, which contributed to Haile Selassie's downfall. But even today it remains unclear why what began as an almost bloodless coup degenerated into a brutal Communist dictatorship. Although there was a degree of pro-Communist sentiment among the pre-revolution-ary student class, there were no underground parties of any consequence. And while the Soviets had long coveted Ethiopia's strategic position on the Horn of Africa, no evidence has been uncovered to indicate Kremlin complicity in the coup which toppled Haile Selassie. One can, of course, explain the Dergue's march into the Soviet camp as stemming from its desperate need for military assistance to put down the various secessionist threats. Yet this is unconvincing; after all, the United States had provided generous amounts of military aid to the Emperor, and would have continued to give aid to a pro-Western government (although the U.S. would not have sent in troops, as the Soviets did in the form of Cuban proxies during the Ogaden crisis in 1977-78). In any event, it was the Dergue's extremist and intrusive policies which set off the wave of secessionist movements; whatever his shortcomings, Haile Selassie was much shrewder—and far less murderous—in his dealings with the country's various nationality groups than the revolutionary leadership has been.
Nor can it be reasonably claimed that a hostile United States “pushed” Ethiopia into the arms of the Soviets. Successive American administrations have, if anything, been excessively tolerant of Ethiopia's military leaders, given their increasingly pro-Soviet stance and wretched human-rights record. Even after America had been denounced and humiliated, the opinion still prevailed that the Dergue would eventually turn toward the U.S. in order to extricate itself from the wreckage of irrational economic policies. Instead, in response to the famine, Mengistu has demanded—and received—American humanitarian assistance while at the same time moving ever closer to the Soviets.
A more plausible explanation of the course the Ethiopian revolution has taken is that the Dergue initially saw Marxism as a legitimizing instrument, a rationale for the continued dominance of a group of inexperienced soldiers. But if at first the Dergue's revolutionary credentials were somewhat contrived, the leadership has since come to embrace Communism as a matter of conviction. Communism appeals to the Dergue for the same reason it has appealed to the radicalized elites of other Third World countries: it seems to be a means of transforming a backward society while bypassing the normal stages of development. And insofar as it holds forth the promise of total state power, Communism is doubly appealing to a man like Mengistu, who sees himself as an African Castro and compares Ethiopia's role in Africa with Vietnam's in Asia.
Mengistu's revolutionary scenario calls for nothing less than a telescoping of the European revolutions of 1789, 1848, and 1917 and a transformation of his country from absolute monarchy to full Communism over a period of several decades. In putting forth this mad agenda, Mengistu has until now avoided the kind of forthright opprobrium that the West has reserved for South African apartheid or even the Philippines under Marcos. Mengistu even has his Western admirers, such as the British observer who placed the Dergue's reign of terror in a broad historical perspective: “Ethiopia is compressing the history of Britain from the Norman conquest to the Industrial Revolution into one generation. . . . In that context, the number of deaths is minuscule.”
Well before embarking on his campaign to bring socialism to the countryside, Mengistu succeeded in placing urban society under firm state dominion. Most industries, banks, and businesses have been nationalized, as has urban land. As the urban economy has deteriorated, these measures have been strengthened. Strict limits have been imposed on the amount of housing space permitted urban dwellers; those who exceed the limit must relocate, pay additional taxes, or take in tenants. The state has also decreed limits on the size of private businesses; those exceeding the limits are liable to nationalization. At a time when a number of Communist regimes are encouraging a modest level of private initiative, Mengistu is moving in a direction guaranteed to damage further an already sagging economy.
To enforce its rule in the cities, the Dergue early on set up urban kebeles, a Communist version of the neighborhood association, but with far more expansive authority than similar organizations in the non-Communist world. The kebeles were given the power to determine who qualified to live in a particular residence, as well as wide patronage power over jobs, rationed food, and travel permits (necessary for long-distance travel within Ethiopia). The kebeles conducted literacy classes and seminars on Marxism, and kebele cadres kept a close watch over the comings and goings in the neighborhood.
In addition to the kebeles, the government imposed strict urban residency restrictions; impoverished peasants who attempted to live in the cities without official permission were seized by authorities and dumped outside the city limits. These measures, combined with a general police-state atmosphere, explain why visitors have so often remarked on the absence of abject poverty in Addis Ababa.
The kebeles became especially important during the so-called “Red Terror,” in 1977-78, when thousands were killed in the capital city. Kebele paramilitary units carried out door-to-door searches for suspected members of underground opposition groups, mostly high-school and university students (who admittedly employed violent tactics in their own right). Often those killed would simply be left on the streets, bedecked with placards inscribed with revolutionary slogans, as a warning to other potential “class enemies.” Others were piled in a heap at the morgue, where bodies could be claimed only after payment of a stiff fee by friends or family.
Mengistu did not find these practices embarrassing. Quite the contrary. In a 1977 May Day speech, he declared: “The recent role played by workers, peasants, and progressive men in uniform in weeding out anarchists and infiltrators has proven the Marxist-Leninist theory that the working class is the most revolutionary of all classes.”
Lower-level officials were even more candid in their celebration of violence. The execution of a high official was described as “the revolutionary process manifesting itself at the highest level.” An official of one of the many mass organizations declared: “What one observes in this country today is open class struggle—in other words, violence is primary.” Or as another official elaborated: “One might look at the whole thing from a moral point of view—why kill people? . . . But the question of violence cannot be approached from a purely abstract moral level.” Although they admitted the possibility of mistakes, these were “insignificant compared to the successes.” These young revolutionary enthusiasts, who gloried only yesterday in the purifying effects of violence, are today prosecuting a collectivization campaign whose mortality rate vastly exceeds the numbers deliberately murdered during the struggle against the urban opposition.
While Mengistu's Red Terror succeeded admirably in demoralizing the urban populace, it failed to win popular loyalty. With the exception of those directly connected to the Workers party of Ethiopia, there exists no mass constituency for Communism, the Dergue, or even Mengistu as a national leader. The Russians are universally despised, and Western culture and Americans remain highly popular. While the unpopularity of the regime's policies has not deterred it from pressing ahead on both the domestic and international fronts, it has caused Mengistu to refocus the drive to “reeducate” the Ethiopian people. Borrowing a page from the experience of other Communist societies, the Dergue has placed its hopes and energies on instilling in the younger generation socialist values and a hatred for all things American.
One of the most important components of the Dergue's educational plans is the establishment of a series of orphanages where the political cadres of the future are being carefully indoctrinated. The orphanages were putatively designed for children of parents killed during the various wars which followed in the revolution's wake. Many of the students, however, are not orphans, but children separated from their parents during the resettlement campaign.
According to Blaine Harden, a reporter for the Washington Post, the showcase orphanage is called the Revolutionary Ethiopian Children's Village. A banner at the entrance carries the slogan: “We growing children are determined to follow the method of our father, Comrade Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam.” Mengistu's image appears on practically every wall, as do Marxist sayings such as “We shall combat all anti-socialist tendencies.”
From interviews with the children, it can be gathered that the regime may eventually reap political dividends from its new strategy. One student dutifully described President Reagan as an “oppressor.” Asked about foreign relief efforts, another student responded: “The Soviet Union and the East Germans give food. And African countries give medicine. No other countries give help.” The same student reported having heard that Ethiopia had fought a war with the United States, and that Ethiopia had won. And when asked about the general state of affairs in her country, she answered that conditions had improved dramatically since the revolution: “Before, we did not have enough ammunition. Now we have enough to fight our enemies. We don't have to beg.”
We of course cannot know for certain if the children interviewed by Harden—with their distorted view of history and militaristic attitude—are representative of those raised in the special orphanages. We do know that the Ethiopian government is sufficiently satisfied with the results to have announced ambitious plans for the establishment of a number of additional institutions. Although the regime's plans cannot be realized without foreign assistance, the possibility cannot be discounted that democratic governments will end up contributing to the rawest kind of militaristic and anti-democratic indoctrination. As Harden notes, the Revolutionary Ethiopian Children's Village was financed by a $13 million grant from Sweden and an additional $1 million from UNICEF.4
It remains to be seen whether Mengistu can create a mass base of support for Communism. If he should fail, as seems likely, it would not be the first time that a Communist regime has survived though despised by the people over whom it rules. Yet even by the normally low Communist standards of political legitimacy, the Ethiopian case is unique. In practically every other Communist nation, at least some segment of the population—sections of the working class, the intelligentsia, even the peasantry—has been initially favorably disposed toward radical change. Moreover, most Communist regimes, having gained power, are at first able to enhance their popularity through policies of redistribution or patronage; it is only later, when mass repression and confiscatory policies like collectivization are introduced, that the true nature of the system is revealed. By contrast, the Ethiopian revolution materialized out of violence and has been sustained solely by the leadership's willingness to annihilate anyone seen as an obstacle.
To fulfill Mengistu's dream of transforming Ethiopia into the first truly Communist state on the African continent will require the assistance of the capitalist world. The Soviets have made it clear that they have no intention of permanently subsidizing another developing country; one Cuba is all they will support. Based on past experience, Mengistu no doubt concludes that the West will eventually set aside its objections to his domestic regime, and provide the means to build Communism, whether out of humanitarian concern or because of the lingering hope that Ethiopia can be persuaded to modify its global alignment. Already there are signs that some Western governments, Italy and Canada in particular, have begun to donate a modest supply of aid for the resettlement program.
Rather than caving in to Mengistu's unyielding demands, however, the democracies could actively resist resettlement with the most effective means available. Unless concessions were offered by the Dergue, an unlikely prospect, the United States might impose a moratorium on all aid to Ethiopia, and exert pressure on foreign governments and private relief organizations to do likewise. The inevitable arguments would be raised; resettlement is a fait accompli, and cutting off aid would only punish the Ethiopian people for the crimes of their rulers. But at the present time the evidence suggests that resettlement itself may be responsible for more deaths than famine, which has abated with improved rainfall. Doctors Without Borders has proposed a total moratorium on assistance to Ethiopia by governments and private relief organizations for a three-month period, during which an international commission could conduct an on-site investigation of the resettlement program. The commission would issue recommendations regarding a more humane implementation of the program, and address the broader question of whether resettlement is necessary as a means of breaking the famine cycle. A decision to lift the moratorium could then be based on the commission's findings and the Ethiopian government's willingness to make the recommended changes.
Beyond the question of whether to maintain humanitarian aid, there must be a recognition that Ethiopia is not a Chile or even a South Africa, with a little extra killing thrown in. The Dergue's rule combines the most lethal aspects of Communism, militarism, and Third World brutalism; among postwar regimes, only the Khmer Rouge has exceeded the Ethiopians in savagery.
Ethiopia also reminds us of how politically alike are geographically and culturally disparate Third World Communist regimes. Mengistu's methods are certainly more deadly than, to take another timely example, those of the Sandinistas, but the similarities are all too apparent: the disdain for the rights of national minorities; the determination to collectivize agriculture against all common sense; the neighborhood spy committees; political indoctrination camouflaged as a literacy drive; the rewriting of history; even resettlement (which the Nicaraguans have instituted in provinces where pro-contra sentiment runs high).
A major difference is that the Nicaraguan revolution has been subjected to a microscopic examination by experts, journalists, and diplomats from around the world, while Ethiopia has been largely ignored. There is also the reality of American pressure, until now the principal obstacle to the consolidation of totalitarian rule in Nicaragua.
Unluckily for the Ethiopian people, the predominant superpower in their region has not only failed to restrain the excesses of Ethiopia's political leaders; the Soviet Union, calling on years of experience in its own land and elsewhere, has played a crucial part in conceiving and executing a plan which has turned Ethiopia into yet another Gulag state.
1 See Mass Deportation in Ethiopia, a report issued by Doctors Without Borders and written by the organization's executive director, Dr. Claude Malhuret.
2 Politics and Famine in Ethiopia, by Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, Occasional Paper #20, Cultural Survival, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts.
3 Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution (London, Verso, 1981).
4 Communist authorities in Afghanistan, similarly encountering difficulties in convincing the people to embrace Communism, have also established a group of orphanages for the education and training of future political cadres. The institutions are run by the Afghan secret police. In both the Afghan and Ethiopian cases, the inspiration is Soviet. Under the Bolsheviks, the secret police (Cheka) played an important part in raising children orphaned by the revolution and civil war. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, observed that “the care of children is the best means of destroying counterrevolution.”
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Ethiopia: The Communist Uses of Famine
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Radicalism and self-injury.
As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to be uncompromising when it came to immigration. For the most part, he has delivered. An executive order that restricted refugee intake and access to temporary visas in the first days of his administration sparked a wave of popular unrest, but the outrage subsided as Trump’s assaults on America’s permissive immigration regime became routinized. Only when Trump began breaking up the families of asylum seekers did the powerful public aversion we saw with the introduction of the “travel ban” again overtake the national consciousness. The abuse was so grotesque, the victims so sympathetic, and the administration’s insecurity so apparent that it broke the routine.
Opponents of this administration’s “zero tolerance policy” for border crossers and some asylum seekers currently have the upper hand. But as the debate over what to do next heads to Congress, where the mundanities of a legislative fix will come to dominate the national conversation, the liberal-activist wing risks sacrificing its sympathy. Such activists have convinced themselves that this is an extreme situation that requires extreme measures in response. Down that road lies marginalization and, ultimately, defeat.
On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and it was deemed by activists and reporters to be a galling provocation that could not stand. Activists descended on the restaurant, shouting “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!” Reporters marveled at Nielsen’s gauche “optics,” and even speculated that her choice of venue was a subtle effort by the White House to bait their opponents into an overreaction (as if baiting were necessary). Nielsen was forced to leave the restaurant.
This is the kind of mania that can only afflict those hysterical enough to disregard the fact that Mexicans no longer make up the majority of the illegal population in America, and that most border crossers travel north from violence-plagued “Northern Triangle,” which consists of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. That kind of reaction from activists in and out of journalism is understandable—a policy that amounts to state-sponsored child abuse is a terrible injustice—but it is also self-defeating.
The logic that led to Nielsen’s ordeal is the same logic that has convinced some on the radical left to endorse the outing of otherwise anonymous U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in public fora. Activists on Tuesday night trolled through the online professional network LinkedIn to identify ICE officers, track where they live, and direct the most aggrieved of protesters to make their lives miserable. Online administrators had the presence of mind to suspend these users and scrub the web of their work, but those who want that information know where to get it. And this may not be a harmless activity. A popular activist Twitter account promoting the defunct leftist protest movement “Occupy Wall Street” posted an infographic on Tuesday glamorizing the murder of ICE agents for its more than 200,000 followers. Anyone of sound mind would ignore these incitements to radicalism, but it only takes one.
Those who are attracted to these tactics justify them as a necessarily extreme response to extremism. That might be explicable if the same tactics were not used to make Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s life miserable when the left became convinced that a two-year-old supervisory regulation allowing Internet service providers to privilege content providers was a blow to the foundations of the republic.
In January, when the FCC approved a plan to phase out “Net Neutrality” regulations, the left determined that the only reasonable response was unreasonableness. HBO’s John Oliver mobilized his viewers to bombard the FCC’s website with comments. Some of those commenting took it upon themselves to threaten the murder of the chairman’s family. “Resistance” groups began putting literature up around Pai’s neighborhood accusing him of criminal abuses. They held vigils in his driveway, held up signs invoking his children by name, bombarded his house with pizza deliveries he never ordered, and phoned in bomb threats that cleared out the FCC’s offices. They “come up to our front windows and take photographs of the inside of the house,” Pai told the Wall Street Journal last May. “My kids are 5 and 3. It’s not pleasant.”
It seems as if conflating the conduct of public and private life holds greater and greater appeal for a certain segment of the left. The attention it generates ensures that it will become a regular feature of protest movements in the Trump era. What’s more, the targets of this tactic suggest that the left will make no distinction between irritants that offend liberal sensibilities and those things that are truly obscene. That’s a slippery slope, and traveling down it sap the left of the sympathy it needs from the general public. In making Trump appointees and their families the targets of personal harassment, Trump’s opponents are discrediting themselves more than they are shaming anyone in the White House.
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A dangerous idea makes a comeback.
The word “ethics” appears prominently in the biographies of the authors who co-wrote a recent Washington Post op-ed lamenting the “taboo” associated with “talking about overpopulation.” Frances Kissling is the president of the Center for Health, Ethics, and Social Policy. Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Only Jotham Musinguzi, the “director general of Uganda’s National Population Council,” doesn’t mention “ethics” in the bio. That’s good because the Malthusian views promulgated in the piece are anything but ethical.
Inauspiciously, the authors begin by applying a coat of gloss over Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which they note had a “major impact” on public policy but that “spurred a backlash” rendering the discussion of its thesis “radioactive.” Indeed, that’s only just. Ehrlich’s claims were dead wrong.
Ehrlich claimed that the Earth had a finite “carrying capacity,” and its limits were about to be tested. He claimed that mass starvation was imminent; hundreds of millions would die. Neither the first nor the third world would be spared; the average American lifespan would decline to just 42 by 1980. Ehrlich continued to make apocalyptic predictions after his book became a sensation. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he wrote in 1969. A year later: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” Between 1980 and 1989, most of the Earth’s population, including over one-third of all Americans, would die or be murdered what he grimly dubbed “the Great Die-Off.” As recently as this year, Ehrlich—who still teaches at Stanford University—said that civilizational collapse remains a likely prospect and the chief shortcoming of his most famous book was that it failed to invoke the modern progressive Trinity: feminism, anti-racism, and inequality.
Our WaPo ethicists don’t tackle any of this. Indeed, they favorably observe that Ehrlich’s warnings render family planning in the developed world a necessity to stave off the unfortunate circumstances that would force wealthy nations to withhold food aid from the developing world to induce “necessary and justifiable” chaos and starvation. Seriously.
Because population control is not a problem in the developed world, where birthrates are declining below even replacement rates, population controllers tend to fixate on sexual habits in the developing world. The authors of this op-ed are no exception. They draw an almost always fallacious straight-line projection to conclude that—in the unlikely event that nothing changes between today and 2100—a population crisis should afflict a variety of Sub-Saharan African nations. To avert this crisis, they advocate promoting and supporting proper sexual hygiene, to which almost no one would object. But their authors’ core agenda isn’t the distribution of prophylactics. They seek to de-stigmatize abortion in the equatorial world, which is controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with faith. After all, it was The Population Bomb and its progenitors that lent renewed legitimacy to old arguments that inevitably result in targeting black and brown populations with sterilization and eugenics.
The title of Ehrlich’s book was lifted from a 1954 pamphlet issued by Gen. William Draper’s Population Crisis Committee, and it arguably inaugurated the overpopulation fad toward which pop intellectuals were drawn in the 20th Century. The effects this mania had on public policy were terrible. In the United States, population control hysteria led, in part, to the sterilization of “up to one-quarter” of the Native American women of childbearing age by 1977, according to Angela Franks’ 2005 book, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy. “The large number of sterilizations began in earnest in 1966, when Medicaid came into existence and funded the operation for low-income people.” Thousands of Native American women in the early to mid-1970s were sterilized after signing consent forms that failed to comply with regulations.
With the assistance of the U.S. government and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Puerto Rican government operated a program of voluntary female sterilization for decades, but it was “voluntary” in the most perverse sense. Pressure from employers and public incentives united to “liberate” women from the drudgery of childbearing left many women without much of a choice in the matter. A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican women found that one-third of women in prime child-bearing years admitted to undergoing sterilization.
America’s minority populations were, however, a secondary concern to population controllers. It was, as ever, the so-called underdeveloped world that preoccupies the technocrats. Toward supposedly enlightened ends, the World Bank, working in quiet concert with the U.S. government, helped to advance Washington’s unstated goal of keeping population levels in the developing world down. “In some cases, strong direction has involved incentives such as payment to acceptors for sterilization, or disincentives such as giving low priorities in the allocation of housing or schooling to those with larger families,” a triumphant 1974 National Security Council memorandum read. As part of this campaign, American philanthropic institutions working with USAID reportedly distributed unsafe and untested contraceptive devices in the developing world. “USAID has been able to put some distance between itself and many of the more objectionable elements of its population agenda,” Population Research Institute’s James A. Miller wrote in a 1996 exposé.
For decades, a pseudoscientific religion that justified coercion and eugenics to achieve “optimal” population ratios quietly guided the development of Western public policy. In a comprehensive 2012 essay in The New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin demonstrated conclusively that 20th Century population control programs were “dictatorial,” “dishonest,” “coercive,” “medically irresponsible and negligent,” “cruel, callous, and abusive of human dignity and human rights,” and, perhaps most of all, “racist.” It was, in fact, their “neocolonial” aspects that led to a left-wing revolt against population controllers in the 1970s. But the left will never be able to entirely divorce itself from the logic that led to population control because they are Malthusians at heart. From peak Earth to peak oil, the left is possessed of a boundless pessimism. Theirs is an ideology that is founded upon the belief that life is a zero-sum game; all commodities are finite and can only be distributed fairly by enlightened elites. They will always underestimate humanity’s capacity to engineer itself out of a jam.
So, yes, overpopulation is a “taboo” subject because it has justified one of the most grotesque campaigns of industrialized human rights abuses the world has ever seen. In making a veiled argument in favor of abortion, our ethicists have inadvertently made their opponents’ case for them: reproductive controls targeting women in the developing world inevitably legitimize condescension, imperialism, and dehumanization. “The conversation about ethics, population and reproduction needs to shift from the perspective of white donor countries,” the authors conclude. And yet, as was ever the case, the “perspective of white donor countries” seems always to be the place from which dangerous ideas about the undesirable procreative habits of women in the equatorial world spring. Fifty years after the publication of a book that helped to legitimize the sterilization of millions in the developing world, that kind of noxious chauvinism remains a prominent feature of the population control movement.
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The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely.
–Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
In 2015, I was invited to a conference held at a Catholic University in Spain, celebrating the first Spanish translation of The Lonely Man of Faith, the seminal philosophical essay of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (my great uncle), reverently referred to by many Orthodox Jews as “the Rav.” Published 50 years earlier, the essay contrasts two biblical accounts of the creation of man and teases out two personas, known as Adam the First and Adam the Second. In the first chapter of Genesis, humanity is created in the image of God and instructed by the Almighty to “fill the world and subdue it.” Adam the First, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests, is majestic; through his God-like creative capacities he seeks scientific breakthroughs, to cure disease, to build cities and countries, to advance the health and comfort of mankind.
But then there is Adam the Second, who in Genesis 2 is created from the dust of the earth and remains in the sanctity of the garden of Eden, “to work and protect it.” This represents the religious aspect of man, man who is ever aware of his finitude, who finds fulfillment not in majestic achievement but in an intimate relationship with a personal God.
These two accounts are given, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued, because both are accurate; both Adam I and Adam II are divinely desired aspects of the human experience. One who is devoted to religious endeavors is reminded that “he is also wanted and needed in another community, the cosmic-majestic,” and when one works on behalf of civilization, the Bible does not let him forget “that he is a covenantal being who will never find self-fulfillment outside of the covenant.” The man of faith is not fully of the world, but neither can he reject the world. To join the two parts of the self may not be fully achievable, but it must nevertheless be our goal.
In his letter of invitation to the conference, the president of the Spanish university reflected on how Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings spoke to his own vocation. As a leader of a Christian school, he said he grappled constantly with the challenge of being an hombre de fe in a Europe that, once the cradle of Christendom, was now suddenly secular:
As Adam the First understandably and correctly busies himself with the temporal concerns of this world, we encourage our students to not lose sight, within their own hearts, of Adam the Second, the thirsting Adam that longs for a redemption that our technological advances cannot quench. We hope that our students, who come to our university seeking degree titles that will translate into jobs, will leave it also with awakened minds and hearts that fully recognize the deep aspirations that lie within their youthful spirits, and which The Lonely Man of Faith so eloquently describes.
The letter reflected a fascinating phenomenon. As Orthodox Jews mark this year the 25th anniversary of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s passing, more and more of his works are being studied, savored, appreciated, and applied to people’s own lives—by Christians. As interesting as this is, it should not be surprising. The Lonely Man of Faith actually originated, in part, in a talk to Catholic seminarians, and today it is Christians who are particularly shocked by the rapidity with which a culture that was once Christian has turned on them, so that now people of faith are quite lonely in the world at large. In his essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that though the tension between Adam I and Adam II is always a source of angst, “the contemporary man of faith is, due to his peculiar position in secular society, lonely in a special way,” as our age is “technically minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being.”
Now that the world of Adam I seems wholly divorced from that of Adam II, people of faith seek guidance in the art of bridging the two; and if, 70 years ago, Reinhold Niebhur was a theologian who spoke for a culture where Christianity was the norm, Rabbi Soloveitchik is a philosopher for Jews and Christians who are outsiders. The Catholic philosopher R.J. Snell, in a Christian reflection inspired by the Rav’s writings, wrote that “like Joseph B. Soloveitchik in The Lonely Man of Faith, I am lonely,” and he tells us why:
In science, my faith is judged obscurantist; in ethics, mere animus; in practicality, irrelevant; in love, archaic. In the square, I am silenced; at school, mocked; in business, fined; at entertainment, derided; in the home, patronized; at work, muffled. My leaders are disrespected; my founder blasphemed by the new culture, new religion, and new philosophy which…suffers from an aversion to the fullness of questions, insisting that questions are meaningful only when limited to a scope much narrower than my catholic range of wonder.
Yet Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thesis remains that even when society rejects us, we cannot give up on society, but we also cannot amputate our religious identity from our very selves. Adam I and Adam II must be bridged. This will not be easy, but a theme throughout Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings is that all too often religion is seen as a blissful escape from life’s crises, while in truth the opposite is the case. In the words of Reuven Ziegler, Rabbi Soloveitchik insisted that “religion does not offer an escape from reality, but rather provides the ultimate encounter with reality.” Traditional Jews and Christians in the West face cultural challenges to their faith—disdain, scorn, and even hate—but if the challenge is faced with fortitude, sophistication, and honor, it will be a religious endeavor worthy of being remembered.
And as both traditional Jews and Christians face this challenge, it will often be as compatriots, in a fellowship that we may not have foreseen 50 years ago. After attending the conference, I was emailed by another member of the administration, the rector of the university. He thanked me “for the pleasure of sharing that deep friendship which is a sign of the community inspired by the principles of the second Adam,” and added, “[I] really enjoyed the time we passed together and the reading of the book of Rabbi Soloveitchik,” which was, he reflected, “so stimulating for a better understanding of my own life and my faith.” To be a person of faith is indeed to be lonely in this world. But more and more, lonely men and women of several faiths may be brought together by The Lonely Man of Faith.
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His observations scandalized professional Washingtonians, and that made me feel the warm glow of intellectual kinship. Rhodes, according to the author of the profile, had “a healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and elsewhere.” Rhodes called this establishment the Blob, and among its stalwarts he named Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates. Even better, Rhodes turned his attention to the Washington press corps, which he described as easily manipulated—by him. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old,” Rhodes said. “And their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Reading this one Sunday morning with the Times scattered on the floor around me, I could barely stifle a cry: Ben! My Man! What’s not to like?Rhodes’s description of the working press in Washington, particularly those bright young things who flutter around partisan politics and the White House, is perfectly accurate. And anyone who has tried to catch 40 winks at a Brookings Institution foreign-policy panel or taken up a machete to hack through the tangled prose of Foreign Affairs will think the “Blob” is not only an accurate tag but maybe too kind.
I kept struggling to nurse a sympathy for Rhodes through the release this January of The Final Year, an HBO documentary that shadowed the deputy national-security adviser through his last months thinking up American foreign policy. The film showed him to be even glibber and more self-aggrandizing than the Times had let on; a bully, too. Nevertheless, his colleagues, such as UN Ambassador Samantha Power and his proximate boss, Susan Rice, were happy to help in the aggrandizing. Not only was Rhodes brilliant, said Rice, he had achieved a “mind meld” with Obama, as if he were a Vulcan beamed in to do a job on Captain Kirk. (Bad casting: Obama’s the one with the funny ears.)In the movie, Rhodes wears a perpetual scowl. This is perhaps a sign of stress—in his new book, he says he got nervous before his first meeting with Obama in 2007 and stayed nervous for 10 years—or he might worry that if he smiled his forehead would split open and all those brains would spill out, his and Obama’s.
The World As It Is confirms that I was right to cling to my sympathy, for Rhodes comes off, despite himself, as a woebegone character. He’s unappealing for all the familiar reasons, but as a powerful White House aide, he’s also feckless and overwhelmed, deploying his famous arrogance and bullying tactics as little floaties to keep his head above water. Sentence for sentence, he’s not much of a writer, which is to be expected from an author with an MFA in creative writing. Altogether, though, he draws a compelling picture of an entire swath of his class and generation. They are the twenty- and thirtysomethings who manned the Obama administration and expect soon to be our ruling class—well-to-do and mostly white, energetic and ambitious and entitled, with fancy degrees that left them with many poses and attitudes but little knowledge of the country that popped the silver spoon in their mouths.
His artlessness is touching, almost. He and his bride, Rhodes writes, are too busy with their careers to spare time for a honeymoon, so they throw one hell of a wedding bash. (“At the end of the night, Samantha Power was carried dramatically out of the wedding party by her husband.”) Ben grabs the mike from the DJ and belts a George Michael song. With all his peers in attendance, he sees it as the end of something but also the beginning:
It felt like the period on a stretch of time when we all hadn’t quite been promoted to positions of higher responsibility—before people took over departments of government, joined the cabinet, had kids, got divorced, succeeded in (or failed out of) government, or went off to make money.
Went off to make money. This is an apt description of one of the many options awaiting Rhodes and his friends, but it sounds like a phrase from another era—you think of old WASPs from Brown and Harriman setting up their sons on Wall Street after they got back from the war. It’s only with a jolt that you realize an entire set of cultural assumptions and behavior—in particular, the unquestioning sense of their own indispensability—has been transplanted from that long-gone generation of fogeys to the best’n’brightest of the 21st century.
Not all the assumptions and behavior, of course. George Marshall did not sing glam rock at his own wedding, for example. And Rhodes indulges in, and readily confesses to, unhealthy doses of self-pity. One year into the White House, he laments that the president has taken him to Hawaii for the holidays. “I walked through groups of people on the beach,” he writes, “away from friends and family for the first time in my life.” Dean Acheson may have felt humiliated that his terrible inaugural seats embarrassed him in front of his out-of-town family, but unlike Rhodes, he kept it to himself. After the Times profile, Ben wrestles with questions of identity: “You live your life knowing that the story out there about who you are is different from the person you think you are, and want to be.” (Don’t waste too much time on it.)
Rhodes’s oversharing is common to his generation and class, as are the self-absorption and self-regard it’s a token of. In the self-regard, if not the emotional incontinence, he resembled the president he served. Obama here is the Obama we’ve been hearing about for a decade now: even-tempered and frosty as dry ice, with a confidence in his own wisdom and destiny, packaged in high-flown statements that are either gnomic or banal. They do succeed in stoking the admiration of his easily impressed followers. He summarizes his theory of speechmaking to Rhodes, who’s wowed: “We are telling a story about who we are.” Rhodes twice repeats a favorite saying that his leader apparently once heard from Carl Sagan on TV—“There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth”—though nobody but Obama knows what it applies to. The president reflects on leadership. “The American people are idealists,” Obama tells Rhodes, “but their leaders have to be realistic and hard-headed.” Why, back at the University of Chicago, that there’s what they call a paradox.
Hard-headedness is not the quality that most distinguished the foreign policy Ben Rhodes helped shape. His book appears just as the signal attainments of Obama’s administration are being dismantled, with great clumsiness but also, as these things go, almost certain finality. This only adds to the poignancy. Rhodes continues to see the Trump ascendency as an aberration and not as the national upchuck it was, the revulsion a large part of the country felt toward the administration—to the class—he typifies. The World As It Is is a good book, an insider account of those who would be kings (and queens). I put it aside with admiration, and also with a paraphrase from Rhodes himself: They literally learned nothing.