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The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy Hardcover – June 5, 2012
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Praise for The Dictator’s Learning Curve
“Intelligent and absorbing…Dobson has interviewed more than 200 people, and his closely observed accounts of dictators’ increasingly sly methods to control their populations are haunting….The Dictator’s Learning Curve is agile and light on its feet, but among its salient points is that pro-democracy movements need to be more than that. Happy thoughts and hippie clothes are not enough….Mr. Dobson’s book, with luck, will find its way into the hands of people who aspire to be free. They’ll find optimism here, but hard realities as well.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Tough-minded without being cynical, and hopeful without being optimistic, The Dictator’s Learning Curve is a rare book—and a bracing read.”
“Dobson has invested time and insight, from China to Venezuela, and Egypt to Russia, trying to capture the shape-changing nature of modern authoritarianism, and the resourcefulness and wit of its opponents….[He] captures empathetically the skill and insight of modern neo-despots – in much the way their more successful opponents do….Rare is the book on dictatorship that can end on an uplifting note that its narrative carefully substantiates."
“When Dobson is in conversation with the people who are finding new ways to work against the more 'nimble' systems of today’s autocrats, the book is at its best. We meet a Chinese free-speech lawyer, a Russian environmental activist, and an Egyptian cop-turned-human-rights-lawyer-turned-exiled-dissident, who offers tips to youth activists on what police response they can expect. We meet Egyptian protesters who take the brunt of later-2011 military violence, and we join in an afternoon walk that’s actually a political protest in Beijing. 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.”
—Christian Science Monitor
"After a remarkable year in which citizens of a dozen countries have challenged their authoritarian governments, readers will welcome veteran journalist Dobson’s overview of the complicated dance of adaptation by the world’s dictators and those who resist their oppressive power....A timely, valuable contribution to readers’ understanding of global unrest."
"[Dobson] writes with exemplary clarity and a sharp eye for color....Timely, authoritative, and as readable as a novel, this is one of the season's most resonant books—not least because it ends on a note of guarded hope for the future."
“William J. Dobson’s exploration of the contest between contemporary dictatorships and those who rebel against them is valuable because it offers a sober analysis of both sides. Dobson traveled nearly 100,000 miles researching this book, which takes a close look at the face of modern authoritarianism....His book may be about the struggle for freedom of other countries’ citizens, but there are lessons in it for the preservation of our own.”
“[A] thoughtful journey through formidable dictatorships of our time...Instead of offering caricatures of vintage dictators, Dobson observes the more dangerous trend – of dictators adopting the form of democratic governance, while draining it of any substance.”
“Colorful and sharply reported.”
“Fascinating...Some of Dobson's most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The Chinese communists, he concludes, are the least complacent of today's modern authoritarians.”
"Fascinating...What makes Dobson's book truly outstanding is that there is none of the naive optimism that accompanied much of the reporting...about the Arab Spring....[A] brilliant book."
“William J. Dobson vividly portrays [the] struggle against authoritarian rule....Dobson’s coverage of Venezuela’s internal political struggles is particularly fascinating. He had spectacular access to well-placed sources in this oil-rich country, including political prisoners.”
“Dobson’s book ends up not only a sophisticated but also a wonderfully readable account of the latest installments in an age-old type of struggle.”
“Dobson has interviewed scores of protesters, security experts, opposition political candidates, elite power brokers, and a former Egyptian police officer who, from his computer in the United States, guided protesters occupying Tahrir Square....As a result, the reader gets a wide-ranging overview of political strife as we live it now.”
—The Weekly Standard
“Timely...Dobson chronicles in detail the ingenious but sinister ways in which modern authoritarian regimes are suppressing dissent.”
—The Journal of Democracy
"[A] deft, incisive book....The mix of perspectives results in an impressive overview of the global struggle between authoritarian power and determined advocates of political freedom."
—Publishers Weekly starred review
“A brilliant and original analysis of the nature of modern authoritarianism.”
—Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“William Dobson is that rare thinker who combines a gift for storytelling with an understanding of how the world works. Marrying a historian’s judgment with a journalist’s eye for detail, he spots the emerging trends that others miss. The Dictator’s Learning Curve offers an essential perspective on a crucial struggle.”
—Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom and The Post-American World
“A vivid real-time portrait of the movement for democracy. Among its virtues, Dobson’s book clarifies the ways in which the recent challenge to dictatorship represents a coordinated worldwide effort, and the ways in which each country's struggle is unique.”
—James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of China Airborne
“It is hard to imagine a timelier book than this one. William Dobson provides a new framework and a new vocabulary for understanding modern authoritarianism, backed up by detailed and gripping stories of dictators and their citizen opponents in Russia, China, Venezuela, Egypt, and Malaysia. Anyone seeking to make sense of the extraordinary tide of revolutions and protests sweeping around the world will find The Dictator’s Learning Curve an indispensable read.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, and former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department
About the Author
WILLIAM J. DOBSON is politics and foreign affairs editor for Slate. He has been an editor at Foreign Affairs, Newsweek International, and Foreign Policy. During his tenure at Foreign Policy, the magazine was nominated for the coveted National Magazine Award for General Excellence each year and won top honors in 2007 and 2009. His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and he has provided analysis for ABC, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and NPR. He lives in Washington, DC.
Top customer reviews
The positives: This book is definitely a worthwhile read. It lets us know about the courage and fortitude of people fighting for democracy in brutal and vicious regimes. I take my hat off to these people. They are heroes in every sense of the word, and I want to express my appreciation to the author for bringing their existence to my attention. In that sense, I recommend this book wholeheartedly!
The focus really is a blend of successful rebel movements, rebel strategies, and general authoritarian practices that have succeeded or failed. It isn't a study of dictatorships and their structures and evolution as much as a study of how each side defines itself and its boundaries. The duality of this approach is gripping and educational, and clearly biased in support of the resistance movements. As I, too, think the behavior of these dictators is disgusting, I'm glad to hear the skepticism of the author as he lists the meager defenses regimes offer for subjecting their citizens to human rights abuses.
I watch the news daily. I even pay attention. Having read this book, I understand the news much more, and feel better connected to the global political climate. Read it!
I also would like to read the author's explicit definitions of "totalitarianism" and "authority." Rather than expand this review with quotations from Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism," Max Weber's "Theory of Social and Economic Organization" and Georg Simmel's "Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies," I suggest that these readings enrich understanding of the last three centuries of regimes considered free, dictatorial or authoritarian.
Readers could work out for themselves whether or not Dobson's assertion that totalitarian regimes are a 20th century phenomenon. Arendt points out a specific structural relation among totalitarian regimes that she ties to failures of democratic institutions. Weber understands the role of charisma in emotional attachment to a Leader (Lenin, Evita, Hitler and more) that becomes routinized by subsequent generations. Simmel understands the nature of cloaking actual relations in a regime that underlie its public facade.
What I like about this book is that it helps refresh memories of 20th century events and stands ready to assist 21st century readers with a review of political economies of "authoritarian" regimes. Learning curves of control-driven personalities with a shaky grasp on ethics are important to document. And extant "democracies" still have the flaws described by Machiavelli in his three good forms of government that produce three bad forms of government. Broadly, it is the same flaw: failure to govern. Princes become tyrants in very few generations, aristocrats forget obligation (Weber again) to become oligarchs and deme-ocracies descend into licentiousness by voting themselves "bread and circuses."
There is another technical issue I will raise related to non linear developmental tracks in a history of governance: the hope that a group of leaders will be "safer" in terms of political voice than a single person. Plato's "Republic" raises but does not solve "the problem of the guardians." Rather, it suggests that guardians of a state are like "noble dogs" who are given training to know friend or enemy. By the time of the American revolution, a unique design for guardians was developed in the US Constitution's separation of powers. This was and is, an "unstable hierarchy" with specific rules of interaction, similar to that of "scissors-paper-rock." Compromise in this circular set of relations allows each participant some things desired, but requires skill at negotiating peacefully. Or it might result in the American habit of "disjointed incrementalism" or muddling through (William Ophuls "The Politics of Scarcity"). A five part unstable hierarchy can be found in the rules for "scissors-paper-rock-lizard-Spock" (for example, Spock refutes paper, lizard poisons Spock). Unstable hierarchies are tricky, because they demand constant attention to detail (small picture) related to the actual effort of governing (intermediate to large picture). In this century, there are a number of states that have triple authority entities. Number of actors is not salvation, but adherence to clearly balanced rules is a road to survival with reasonable freedoms. I will leave it to readers to figure out which multiple entities are in the Middle and the Far East. Are the guardians of the state armed? What about President Eisenhower's warning concerning military-industrial complexes? And how many Americans have read all of the Federalist Papers? Does the current mode of war fighting a diffuse enemy rather than conventional war for territory (see Admiral McRaven's book "Spec Ops") pose problems connected with secret "black operations" for democracies that could be exploited by dictators? What is jointly learned about "crowd control technologies" (see Dobson's Chapter 8) by interacting authorities and demonstrators?
If this "Dictator's Learning Curve" is to find its place in a history of dangerous trends of controlling populations under the rubric of a "state," then it needs some more explicit connections to human efforts to safely provide food and shelter with political voice for their populations. The potential is there in its eight case studies. Maintaining democratic rule is always labile and demands diligence from its deme.
Finally, Chuang Tzu (Zuangzi) of more than two milennia ago points out in his tale of "Binding Trunks" how Robber Wu can steal a trunk (analog of a state) if its bindings are sufficiently strong.