Tag Archives: authoritarianism

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A Revealing Sign of Our Problem

Did no one in the Kremlin see the connotation of inaccessibility represented in this image?

Aleksey Nikolsky/Sputnik

It is hard to comprehend the scale of Russian Army atrocities committed in Ukraine. Most of the world has been shocked at this former superpower’s ruthless barbarism. But the signs of Vladimir Putin’s cruel and medieval view of politics now seem everywhere.

I keep going back to the above photo of Putin meeting with subordinates. The original image taken by Russian journalist Aleksey Nikolsky perhaps two weeks ago was put out by the Kremlin and the nation’s Sputnik news agency. Most news platforms ran this strange curiosity at some point, stunning many in the free world with what first seemed like a visual joke. But the photo is apparently all too real: a vivid representation of what it looks like to live in isolation. Only those in the Kremlin seemed to miss its tragic/comic absurdity. They had what Kenneth Burke called the “trained incapacity” to not notice.

Presumably Putin and his flacks at the other end of the enormously long table were still in the same time zones. But its sheer length makes it clear that this small man wishes to sit alone, communicating his need to remain separate, special, and not to be trifled with. The idea that he could have implicitly sanctioned the use of the image must have sent cold chills down the spine of anyone who understands the nature of leadership in contemporary terms, where the goal of managing others means appearing to be first among equals: someone willing to listen, but not the voice of God. No wonder online memes had fun with several outrageous backstories to explain the scene’s ludicrous proportions: perhaps Putin was at a very long sushi bar on a slow night, or perhaps he was seated at the front of an entire bowling lane that had been refurbished as a table. I imagine the space as a good representation of a waiting room outside one of the Circles of Hell.

It was funny when movie mogul L. B. Mayer set up his office desk on a platform a considerable distance away from where people entered. It is classic Hollywood lore that he apparently wanted actors seeking more money to be humbled by the long walk. But this is obviously more consequential and disturbing.

Pathetically, this seems to be how Putin understands the nature of his ‘leadership.’

Did no one in the Kremlin see the implication of inaccessibility represented in this image? Were they culturally blind to modern notions of leadership, which typically emphasize meeting peers in the same intimate space? Some wag suggested that the distance was intentional in case someone at the other end had a firearm. I suspect the truth is more mundane. Pathetically, this seems to be how Putin understands the nature of his ‘leadership.’ Mixing with others is clearly not his thing; nor does he apparently feel the need to share even a nominal public distance with others that interpersonal communication researchers tell us is about four feet. At times Donald Trump had the same creepy instincts, presumably to avoid having to touch another person.

True, in organizing meetings it is customary for a leader who wants to control the flow of information to sit at one of the two heads of the table. Leaders who wish to dominate will want to own the geography at one end. Notice that in this image, the bureaucrats have mostly seated themselves in the ‘inferior’ positions along the table’s length, and far away. It is easy to fantasize a trap door near Putin’s chair in case anyone dared to join him by sitting up close.

In short, the photo shows us how an authoritarian mind is blind to the ideas of inclusion and shared decision-making. What we see in the photo is the bureaucratic face of the men in the palace planning atrocities to be carried out on Ukrainian streets.

Open book empty desk 4

Our Emerging Thought Police

We could reach a point where scholars may need to reject job offers from states that have decided to conceal hard truths from their students.

Among other states, legislators in Alabama and Texas are working to pass laws that would prohibit academics from teaching about the social and political histories of the nation. The very thought should send shudders down the spines of anyone familiar with the attempts of German Fascists to purify their society of “decadent” art and “alien” ideas. Most of the homegrown pinheads proposing this censorship may have never learned that the United States and the West did the world a favor by sheltering a large number of German academics fleeing to seek safety and academic freedom.  Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Herbert Marcuse are only a few intellectuals that found their way to the United States. They fled the Nazi’s thought police who found their teaching and religious beliefs alien to the culture. All focused their scholarship on culture and society, making advances in American explorations of philosophy, psychology, sociology and cultural analysis.  Indeed, Adorno and Frenkel-Brunswik’s explorations of “The Authoritarian Personality” remain all to relevant in this era of populist-fascist dictatorships. What they described as theory we now understand as fact.

The “problem” that right-wing legislators think they are addressing includes ostensibly “dangerous” leftist ideas, and the teaching of what most misunderstand as “critical race theory:” a phrase that triggers fantasies that chain out past what are useful historical and theoretical probes. The goal is to prohibit teachers in history and the social sciences from confronting the fact of American racism first institutionalized with slavery and then embedded in nearly every corner of our national life. Tina Descovich, of “Moms for Liberty” sets out very narrow guardrails: “To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, with photos, is another.”



No one alert to the challenges to any modern nation can ignore the enormous effect that racial and religious bigotry has had on its victims. The best societies have made amends. But we are still easily upside down if the classroom is subjected to gag rules imposed by non-expert and misinformed politicians. To legislate away American attempts at the useful reckonings of the past, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or ongoing attempts to weed out officials who are members of hate groups, is truly a fool’s errand.  These attempts suggest some of the excesses of fascist blindness described by Adorno and others.

                                  Camp Amache, 1942

Give legislators the power to shape the topics of education, and it can be no surprise that many in the teaching professions are nervous. To be sure, school teachers have always been subject to oversight of their lesson plans, which are tied to formal curricular objectives. That was maybe why it was never part of my public school curriculum in Colorado to learn about the Sand Creek Massacre of native Americans in 1864, or the existence of a huge World War II detention camp for Chinese Americans (Camp Amache), both in the southeastern corner of the state. Even today, apparently, a high schooler’s knowledge of these places of national shame might be too much for Tina.  And she would surely be chagrined to know that it was high schoolers in that area who encouraged the federal government to put the site within the National Park system.

At most true universities there are generally fewer curricular guidelines that can muzzle the accumulated knowledge of a respected scholar. If it were possible to do so, such limits would empty out academia of its best and brightest focused on cultural and media theory, American history, modern criticism, American literature, philosophy, sociology, ethnic and religious studies. It’s one thing for a church or private organization to impose a-priori “doctrines,” statements of faith, or sets of “first principles.” It’s quite another for non-expert legislatures or school boards to set rules that would restrict the free discovery of ideas that is the very reason for a university. We could reach a point where professional bodies representing various disciplines may need to issue warnings to scholars to reject job offers in states that have decided to turn their backs on hard truths about the American experiment.