If I were a dictator somewhere in the world right now, I’d be reading Terry Pratchett. I’d need all the help I could get, and I might as well get the best advice.
Watching the coverage, and reading the news, of the unrest in Lybia, Bahrain and elsewhere following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, I can’t help but think that the dictators should be trying to be a little more like the Pratchett character Havelock Vetinari. After all, Lord Vetinari has successfully ruled Ankh-Morpork for quite a while now as a tyranny, defined in one or other or several of the Discworld books as the only form of government that works. One man, one vote, and Lord Vetinari is the man with the vote, everyone is entitled to the vote except by reason of age or not being Lord Vetinari. If you’ve read the books, you know the jokes.
On Sunday, on a plane, I finished reading Night Watch, perhaps best described as one of the crime genre sub-plots in the world of Disc. The plot centres around Sir Sam Vimes, commander of the City Watch, Duke, and all round good-guy in the sense that we’re always on his side even and especially when he is being bad. But to say it is crime fiction is to overlook the time-travelling monks, the fact one character becomes a zombie, and the youthful assassin Havelock Vetinari hunting down a former tyrant during a revolution. Suffice to say, I think it one of the better Discworld books, but then, I usually think that of the latest one I have read.
Now, if I were a dictator, I would use my position of power to get free copies of lots of books. And DVDs. And some real art to hang on the walls, because even though I have got a poster of Jasper Knight and postcards of Max Beckmann and Franz Pforr and John Brack and Adam Elliot on the wall, it would be nice to have some originals. Why else would one become a dictator if not for the free stuff? Kim Jong-Il is famously a film buff. What are the chances that he pays $14 for a movie ticket?
My advice to dictators, like Colonel Gaddafi, whose Wikipedia page calls him the incumbent Leader and Guide of the Revolution but that may have to change soon, would be to read up on Discworld and learn how to do tyranny the right way. The Vetinari way. Where most people are free to get on with their lives. Where progress is made. Where committees are uses as a means of control rather than torture chambers. Where leopards may or may not be able to change their shorts.
At least, that would be my advice, if my advice wasn’t actually “piss off you cruel old bastard.” Using fighter jets on your people is just not the done thing. It’s pretty extreme even for people who call themselves the brotherly leader of the glorious people’s democratic revolutionary republic, who of course are anything but. Still, the world leaves festering cancers like Gaddafi and Mugabe in place, pretending it’s somehow better this way or things could be worse, when the truth is merely that it’s easier.
Which brings me back to Night Watch. In the story Sam Vimes has been taken back in time, and plays a key part in a revolution. He knows, having come back from the future, that they are essentially only swapping one mad evil bastard for another, but at the risk of life and limb he does the right thing. During the overthrow of Lord Winder, without spoiling the end of the book too much, there are a number of situations that have parallels to the current turmoil in northern Africa and the Middle East. A telling passage describes how the much-hated glorious leader of the people loses support among his inner circle in the course of an evening, allowing an assassin (one Havelock Vetinari) to walk right through the crowded room unimpeded, and out again. (What happens in the meantime I won’t spoil.) No-one could read that passage on a Sunday then hear about the two Libyan Air Force colonels who defected to Malta rather than bomb citizens (hooray for them) without seeing parallels.
So, dictators of the world, read Night Watch. It’s a how-not-to guide for being a tyrant. And, hopefully, it will give you a glimpse of your future. By which I mean your end.
UPDATE: Thank you to the kind people at WOSSNAME for their link and summary, I am sure they helped make this the most-read post for February. Find them here.