“Defeating Dictators” – A Book Review

There are many kinds of books. Yes, I know, I am stating the obvious of course. However for me its always helpful when I read a book to try and place it within the panoply of other books seeking to address similar issues. Stepping-stones thrown down within a raging river that I am trying to cross. Some of these come in the form of fiction – Russian literature going from Dostoevsky to Chernyshevsky to Gladkov and Solzhenitsyn to arrive finally at Ayn Rand. The full road of Russia’s political transition captured on the timeless pages of the classics.

Often they are non-fiction, and there are many of those today striving to help us understand our arriving ordeal; our post-modern post-Cold War world when we were in charge and our ideas reigned supreme, and what happened. This particular journey started, at least for me, with Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”; mixing the cement of victory. Of course mirrored, as it was, by Robert Kaplan’s book “The Coming Anarchy”; about what would happen if we did not take history’s end seriously and make the difficult decisions to assure its continuity. Then came the end of the end, with Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” explaining to us how it ended, how we lost our moment and again Kaplan’s “Return of Marco Polo’s World” talking us through what is coming next. Of course there are many many more and this is not a comprehensive list, but you get the point.

Because George Ayittey’s excellent book “Defeating Dictators” is one of those stepping stones. Written in 2011, after the “color revolutions” in Europe led to a feeble optimism only to be dashed by an Arab Spring that quickly became a winter, “Defeating Dictators” is a pressing shot across the bow of our ending world order. It is a clarion’s call to change, to rethink twenty years of bad policy solutions, unworkable utopian ideas and terrible implementation of an erstwhile superpower in her twilight years.

The book is written from an African perspective. And why not? It is not only written by an African, Ayittey is from Ghana; but it is directed at Africa which plays host to the most egregious governance issues and the most dictatorships in the world. But Africa is also the future; the highest population growth and the youngest population; the fastest growing economies, a continent which has the energy of tomorrow when all the other continents are old and stale and bloated and look far into their past – not their future – for shadows of glory.

Through the book, divided into ten chapters, Ayittey takes us through a natural progression in his disciplined effort in making the case for freedom, a freedom which starts with intellectual freedom – freedom of the mind – and how this freedom is best defended by the institutions of democracy. And how these freedoms are coopted by despotic regimes: from whence come their resources and legitimacy and about ancient ways of protecting against a despotism that the failure of our western model has only emboldened. All the tricks of the trade of tyranny are on display in this book; and we would be wise to pay attention for they are showcased in one way or another in a growing list of countries in what Freedom House calls a “Democratic Recession”. Now on to style; Ayittey’s writing is acerbic, almost bitter – the book drips with disdain for “coconut” leaders who use their sacred trusts to brutalize their people. It pulls no punches, railing in example after example against evil men who became tyrants.

I also can’t help but feel that this book isn’t also somewhat nostalgic. In its heartfelt impassioned defense of the mechanisms of democracy, empowered within the Westphalian nation states – systems and structures given to us by a world order which we built and then which became brittle and sclerotic for want of those who recognized she was suffering, for lack of those able to look beyond their hubris to care for her and nurse her back to health – I can’t help but feeling that this book represents a last cry of alarm, a cry that went unheeded.

It is nevertheless an important book, because in his eloquent apologia of our right to be free Ayittey channels the passionate pleas of all those who are still imprisoned and yearn for their own liberty, a liberty more under threat today than at any point in my lifetime.

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About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright, author of four novels. The most recent is "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps. Other works include "Lords of Misrule", "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio".
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