Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder

I said yesterday that I would mention a phrase that Chrenkoff created: it's Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder. Here's only a part of what he said about it (if you think this excerpt is long, it's not an atypical length for his posts):

But there is another aspect to the "culture matters" argument, one that does not get nearly enough attention. It has nothing to do with religion, ethnicity, or national character; it is the social and moral legacy of life under a dictatorship. Iraq, quite simply, like many other recently liberated societies around the world continues to suffer from a Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder.

For the Westerners, the PTSD is a difficult condition to understand. We take so many things for granted - from comedians being able to joke about the President, to the assumption that the next government employee we encounter will not be expecting a bribe from us - that we are quite ill equipped to fully comprehend what life under a totalitarian system must really be like, much less what mental and spiritual legacy its victims have to labor under long after the statues of the Leader are pulled down.

We all "know" about the secret police knocking on the door at night, adulatory TV programs exalting the president-for-life, the pervasive corruption, queues and shortages, or the silly propaganda. Nothing, however, in our generally safe and comfortable existence would helps us understand just how pervasively difficult, destructive and dispiriting the experience of life under a totalitarian regime is. For most of us, life in Saddam's Iraq would have been no more real than the Middle Earth of the colonial New England. And failing to understand the condition itself, by extension we find it equally difficult to understand how the mental attitudes and habits of the past cannot be shaken off overnight but instead linger on, making the reconstruction and transition to normalcy such a difficult and painful process.

I speak from some experience here. While the late communist Poland and the Baathist Iraq were in many ways very different societies, shaped and constrained by different set of geographic, historical and cultural factors, there is a common denominator between all totalitarian societies the world over. Here are some bad habits that people consciously or otherwise pick up to help them fit in better and survive under a dictatorship, but which prove quite troublesome and counter-productive once the shackles finally fall off:

Distrust of the state and the authorities - the state is the enemy and the oppressor; you collaborate to the extent it is necessary to survive, no more. You don't owe it any loyalty and are quite happy to try to sabotage it in every little way you can - by breaking minor laws, petty embezzlement, cheating, dishonesty, lies, passivity or indifference.

A prison mentality - you might hate the state, but you still have an expectation that the hand you cannot bite will provide for you; feed you, clothe you, give you shelter and a job. Since the state has crowded out most, if not all, of the private sphere, logically only the state is able to provide for one's needs - you're quite literally at the mercy of a monopoly.

Lack of initiative and abdication of personal responsibility - as the state is seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent and the area of your personal sovereignty heavily circumscribed, this state of affairs breeds resignation, fatalism and passivity. Why would you bother to try to do anything if you can't achieve much? How can you really take responsibility for your condition if you're just a powerless puppet at the mercy of the Leviathan? And so you wait for things happen to you, as they always do, instead of trying to make your own fate. The system simply doesn't provide any incentives to think and act otherwise - initiative is not rewarded and can even land you in trouble, working hard brings in no more benefits than working little; effort and imagination more often than not hit the wall of limited practical possibilities.

Distrust of others - it's not just the state; you don't trust your fellow citizens too - at worst they might be spying on you for the authorities, at best they are competing with you for scarce resources. Either way, they're out to screw you over. So you only look after your own.

Circumstances change; and when they do, they usually change much faster than our habits. Closed economy may become a free market, dictatorship a democracy, theocracy a liberal society, but our mental adjustment to new realities lags behind.

Not only is this essay very interesting and insightful, but it's been written by someone who emigrated to Australia when he was a teenager. Even native English speakers can't write this well!

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