History is made of stories not facts. And every good story needs a memorable villain. Now that we are on the verge of sending another year into the mists of time let’s look back at the bad guys who made 2013 more eventful. This article will be a retrospection and meditation on the real life characters that we love to hate.
Retrospections suffer from “the coastline paradox”: what magnification do we use in order to have an accurate picture of 2013. Since my abilities are limited and the task is limitless I am going to take a helicopter view of the 2013 roster. I also decided to stick to my default WEIRD perspective or “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic”. Choosing a perspective is crucial since how you view a historical figure is largely dependent on timing and allegiance: Nelson Mandela was seen by many as a terrorist; figures like Ned Kelly are still controversial; while some believe that Guy Fawkes was on to something.
Bad for Good
After this prolonged throat clearing it is time for the conclusion: this was a very mixed year for villains, with many bad good guys and not enough good bad guys. The shades of grey multiplied and reached a certain number.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the numerous anti-government protests: in Brazil, Egypt, Bulgaria, Turkey and Ukraine. A common thread is the lack of unwaveringly evil villains in the struggle. Chronic disillusion might be a better diagnosis for many of these protests. In Brazil and Bulgaria the civil unrest reflected the overwhelming problems with corruption and appalling living conditions. There was no grand, final-level bad guy but no good guys either: politicians in power and opposition were equally mistrusted. It’s difficult to punch corruption in the face; it’s a phenomenon that has entangled itself into the fabrics of society.
The protests in Egypt did have a single target: president Mohamed Morsi. However, this was no tyrant abusing his power for decades. Morsi was the first democratically elected president of Egypt, quite a milestone for a country with a history spanning back to 3200 BC. Morsi was not even close to a universally despised figure. There were counter protests that matched the intensity if not the numbers of the anti-government forces. Morsi may have been a dictator in the making but his ejection from power was also less than democratic.
In Turkey the protests had a similar theme: a growing concern that the current head of state (prime minister Erdogan) is authoritarian and his actions propagate religious values over secularism and freedom of expression. Erdogan remains overwhelmingly popular: during his three terms in office Turkey saw an extraordinary increase in prosperity and geopolitical clout. Erdogan is a controversial figure but a full-fledged bad guy he is not.
In November Ukraine’s president refused to sign a free trade and association deal with the EU that prompted massive protests. The agreement was implicitly and explicitly moving Ukraine towards the EU. In the meantime Russia was sharpening its knives by preparing some economically damaging sanctions for Ukraine. Far from a blameless figure president Yanukovych had the unfortunate position to be stuck between a bear and a hard place. No one in his position could make a choice without severe repercussions.
Bad to the Bone
There was at least one irredeemable villain in 2013: Bashar al-Assad. In 2011 he was overshadowed by more seasoned dictators such Gaddafi and Mubarak. These were figures so grotesque in their appearance and crimes that Assad could not stand out in this competitive field. Fortunately the competition was terminated in late 2011 and Assad had a chance to shine. But even inexperienced dictators know that chemical weapons are the best alibi for invasion you can give to your enemies.
The last one to use them extensively was Saddam Hussein and his story certainly didn’t have a happy ending. Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons and finally received the coveted “evil” stamp from a world leader (sadly only from the UK Prime Minister). As a result the US was seriously contemplating another armed adventure in the Middle East.
Luckily there was a brave hero who came to save the day. He was also the guardian who sheltered a dissident fleeing from a jackboot government gone out of control. His name is Vladimir Putin and ladies – he is now single. Yes, the reliable long-time baddie inadvertently did something that even Westerners construed as good. Putin’s proposal for peaceful dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons probably saved further complications.
One Russian advocacy group even wanted Putin nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. They either have a great sense of humour or none at all. Putin presumably rejected the offer due to lack of room in his closet. Russia’s new old president of course had his own geopolitical and economic reasons but that applies to every world leader.
The Problem of Evil
This presents a problem for people in “the West”. People in general dislike thinking in nuances; we like to see the world as simple black and white. Putin inadvertently doing good things is bad for us. We need bad guys against whom we can measure our “superior” values and power. We need to feel that we have the sole parking permit on the moral high ground. A common adversary unites us and drives us to act. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt concludes that we humans have a dual nature: “we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves”. A common adversary switches off the selfish instinct in ourselves and we are ready to make sacrifices in order for our group to prevail.
For example, the Economist ran a poll and found out that in the second half of the 20 century the prosperous and stable 90s was the least favourite decade for Americans. Discounting all level headed arguments I believe a big reason for it was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was no longer an Evil Empire to be struggling against, no Ivan Drago for Rocky to defeat.
The secret is not just in having a common adversary but a truly irredeemable opponent. World War II is seen by many (especially Americans) as the “good war” where the forces of democracy prevailed over fascism. Next to Hitler anyone appears like a paragon of virtue. Contrast WWII with the less “straightforward” interventions in Vietnam and Iraq.
Bad guys can boost the well being of a nation. Unfortunately (as we have seen) this year has supplied a long stream of conflicted characters. Let’s continue with Edward Snowden – the courageous traitor and patriot who in the name of truth disclosed US secrets to its enemies. To many people Snowden might seem like a martyr but the jury is still out on his sainthood. In more conservative circles he is seen as a straight up traitor. Others reason that revealing government surveillance programmes has damaged the US image while not achieving any practical change. Snowden left a nation divided.
Then came the revelation that Angela Merkel’s phone was bugged for a number of years courtesy of the NSA. Data from foreign citizens had been gathered from US tech companies such as Facebook and Google. Who is the bad guy in this story? The tech companies claimed innocence, Obama pleaded ignorance and the Director of US National Intelligence stated he was just doing his job. The American public is again torn: on the one hand its great that the US has the best spying capabilities in the world, on the other – it’s not that fun when your government spies on its citizens. The scope of spying activities between presumably trusting allied countries was embarrassing.
I Told You So
There were of course some smug individuals who claimed that the pervasive spying activities are an open secret and only a starry-eyed idealist would have believed otherwise. I beg to differ. For instance, everybody knows that professional cyclists are doping because cycling records closely track advancements in medicine. And yet it makes a world of difference when a huge scandal (e.g. Lance Armstrong) reveals that everything was actually true – likewise with the spying activities.
The no-good surveillance obsessed state that puppeteers its companies and chases its freedom fighters was supposed to be China. For the past several years we were dutifully informed of Chinese cyber attacks by both respected magazines and government officials. The Chinese were supposed to be the new bad guys, the new superpower with questionable internal and external policies. Now it seems they were just not experienced enough to cover their own tracks. They may still be the bad guys but we sure ain’t the good guys. Maybe that is why in the West liberals hate the oversimplifying term “evil” but love the expression “lesser evil”.
Remember who the real enemy is
The need for bad guys is always prescient especially in politics. To paraphrase Voltaire: “if bad guys didn’t exist we would have to invent them”. Having an easy target to rally against is an instant booster of popularity (that’s populism 101). Revelations that the US is an equal opportunity eavesdropper gave Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff a wonderful opportunity. In front of an UN General Assembly she described the recent spying revelations as an "affront to the principles that must guide the relations among friendly nations".
Harsh words by diplomatic standards but her tone of voice would lead someone to believe that the translator was holding back on the juicy stuff. Lest we forget that Brazil was very protest-stricken during the summer and president Rousseff had to turn the tide of unpopularity. Good old anti-American sentiment is always a reliable rallying point. Sadly, later it was discovered that Brazil had done a bit of spying on foreign embassies. This of course does not devaluate the concerns raised by Mrs Rousseff to the general public… only it does.
The Empire Strikes Back
One other female leader managed to successfully boost her flagging popularity by rallying the nation against a common enemy: Margaret Thatcher (who passed away in April). Many Brits still consider Thatcher a “bad guy” – and would not even bother correcting the gender. Whatever your opinion on the Iron Lady one thing is certain: she radically reshaped the UK. However, in 1982 (one year before a general election) her future as PM was far from certain. Her monetarist policies caused massive unemployment and sharp drop in approval ratings.
As luck would have it Argentina decided to reclaim a series of nearby small islands that were under British rule. Despite being no more than a couple of barren rocks on the South Atlantic Thatcher lunged with particular ferocity at the task of taking them back. With a common enemy in their crosshair a historically divided nation was united. It was a matter of national pride, not grand geopolitical goals. After two and half months the Argentinian forces surrendered which paved the way for Thatcher’s landslide victory one year later.
Armed conflicts over inconsequential territories are hard to come by so enemies are sought after in other places. Immigrants have been a reliable target for a long time. The current UK Prime Minister is telling scary tales of the massive influx of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria that would inundate Britain when working restrictions are lifted in 2014. Like Russians in 80’s action movies immigrants are good all-purpose bad guys – responsible for unemployment, low-standards of living and general decadence. There are genuine concerns related to immigration but most people just want to wall them off. Politicians are happy to oblige.
Not many Eastern Europeans are rushing to immigrate to Russia but president Putin has no trouble manufacturing new enemies. Apparently scared of the prospect of redemption after the Syrian disarmament negotiations Putin signed an anti-gay propaganda law and a bill imposing lengthy jail terms to anyone who offends religious believers. The laws are so vaguely defined that upon puzzling over them your confusion will be dumbfounded. Fortunately for Mr Putin homophobic sentiments in Russia are on the upswing with more Russians denying the same rights for gays and lesbians. So in a way he made a democratic decision.
Love to hate
I will end with a brief anecdote. In one international youth forum this summer I met a young Egyptian who shared his views on the situation in his country. According to him the culpability did not fall squarely or even predominantly on Morsi; everyone in the country shares the blame. My friend has witnessed too much corruption and indecency from regular civilians to blame the government or its president for all the problems. That is why, he set out to make Egypt a better place through simple acts of decency: picking up fallen trash, volunteering and getting his peers to do the same.
Unfortunately, he is a very rare type of selfless individual. Most of us need a powerful foe to shake us from our inertia. So this holiday season I urge you to raise a glass for all the bad guys in your life whether they be dictators, bosses, or just noisy neighbours. Don’t do it because of some spiritual urge to love your fellow man but of pure unadulterated self-interest. After all these people have worked hard to make the world a more dynamic place.
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