“Superfluous people in the service of brute power….” — Ryszard Kapuściński

“It is an interesting subject: superfluous people in the service of brute power … these people to whom no one pays attention, whom no one needs, can form into a crowd, a throng, a mob, which has an opinion about everything, has time for everything and would like to participate in something, mean something. All dictatorships take advantage of this idle magma. …It suffices to reach out to these people searching for some singificance in life. Give them the sense that they can be of use, that someone is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose. .. The ditatorial powers, meantime, have in him an inexpensive–free, actually–yet zealous and omnipresent agent-tentacle. Sometimes it is difficult even to call this man an agent; he is merely someone who wants to be recognized, who strives to be visible, seeking to remind the authorities of his existence, who remains always eager to render a service.”

This is from Ryszard Kapuściński’s final book, Travels with Herodotus, which I am re-reading right now.

Kapuściński was one of the best and most insightful writers out there about power, and how it operates. I’ve been reading him obsessively for 20, 25 years now, and he didn’t even publish all that many books. But I go back to them again and again, especially when I need clarity, strength, and a Big Picture – same way I go back to Orwell again and again, and Robert Conquest again and again, and Hannah Arendt again and again. Kapuściński is in my Eternal Pantheon. Here’s the post I wrote about him for his birthday, where I get into it in a little bit more detail. I mourned his death in 2007 like I had actually known him.

When he died in 2007, I went to the memorial service for him held for him at the New York Public Library, hosted by Philip Gourevitch and Salman Rushdie (Kapuściński’s lifelong friend). It was a day I will never forget!

Kapuściński’s first memory was watching Russian tanks roll into his small Polish town. His birth of consciousness was simultaneous with tyranny and totalitarian oppression. He eventually devoted his whole life as a journalist traveling from revolution to revolution around the world (this was the 1960s), at one point he was the only foreign correspondent in cold-war Poland, and he always reported back on the side of “the people.” He traveled to Central America, to all of the countries in Africa, all of which were exploding into revolution, tossing off the shackles of colonialism. His first book was about the civil war in Angola. He wrote about Iran. He wrote about the fall of Haile Selassie. The only thing he DIDN’T write about was what was going on in Poland. He couldn’t. And so he – by subterfuge and subtlety – criticized the Communist regime in Poland by criticizing other police states. He never made the connection – in his writing, I mean, but he certainly made the connection in his head. Like Czeslaw Milosz, like Mihail Bulgakov, like Vaclav Havel – he was tormented by tyranny in his own land, not allowed to discuss it, and so had to find wily ways to get around the censorship. His whole career was an act of subterfuge.

His final book was Travels with Herodotus, which is more autobiographical than his other books (although his books always feature an “I” perspective). But he tells of being a young journalist and being obsessed with borders. He had never been outside of Poland. Poland was in lock-down. He dreamed of crossing the border. He finally got his chance, when his news organization sent him to India. And so began his peripatetic life. Then he was sent to China, and it was Mao’s China. He recognized the signs of State-sponsored brainwashing. But he got what he wanted: he crossed the border. Along the way, he reads Herodotus’ Histories, which had electrified him as a boy when he found a copy. I think it was not published in Poland – not allowed – which tells you something: a book from antiquity is considered dangerous to the State? That’s a powerful book.

The section of the book I quote here: He describes walking around in Nasser’s Egypt, what was essentially a police state, the streets filled with unpaid yet vigilant informers. Everywhere he went he knew he was being watched. Notice he speaks in generalities – i.e. “dictatorship”. He has plausible deniability in it and yet he makes his point.

He spent his life pondering how “brute power” does what it does. And this passage clarified a lot of things for me, things which Elias Canetti covered exhaustively in his brilliant once-in-a-century kind of book, about the nature of crowds (Crowds and Power: I have written about it extensively). If you can harness that “magma” of a crowd … and get them to do your dirty work for you … well then you’re almost there, dictator.

And so, on this anniversary of D-Day, I also pay tribute to a man who spent his entire life fighting fascism with one of the most powerful weapons of all: words.

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