Scapegoating is a distraction tool. By pouncing on the bait and passionately defending the scapegoats, well-meaning westerners assist the dictators achieving their goal: to distract attention from power grab, the erosion of rights and wholesale corruption.
Scapegoating is not the goal but only a symptom of a predatory regime. You can’t achieve success against these regimes by defending the scapegoats. You need to address the underlying problem the political elite wants to distract attention from.
Just three examples:
Bashing gay people
Dictators and strongmen all over the world prefer to divert the anger and frustration of their trapped citizens at people who are different. Ethnic, sexual, racial or even religious minorities serve this purpose very well because they are weak and the dictators can appeal to a primordial dread of the different – which is a hallmark of the authoritarian mind.
Lashing out at some of their own kind also provides a pressure valve for citizens, who are otherwise not in control of their own lives. Instead of lashing out at the government that limits their economic control, they can lash out at each other, at a minority, or anything that is conveniently weak and safe to attack.
In the meantime dictators divide and conquer. Defenders of gay rights clash with attackers of gay rights – and in the meantime the dictator is free to steal, murder, grab more power and erase more human rights.
Even international institutions, foreign governments and other organisations will throw themselves into the mud fight – and thus boost the autocrat. Yes, the need to help the gay community will be urgent. Yes, innocent people will be under attack. And still, by stepping up in their defense, you will effectively pay ransom to the terrorist (the autocrat) and cement him in power.
Because even international condemnation helps the dictator. The logic is this:
If the whole world is attacking him, hugging those gay terrorist, then
1) the whole world is attacking us (Collectivism 101), and
2) it must really be the most important issue right now. (Not by any chance the state of the constitution, the economy torn up by cronies, or the poor mental state of citizens whose minds have been boiled by relentless and inescapable propaganda.)
When a dictator chooses to bash gay citizens, he is counting on the international reaction. It is predictable. It is also just that: a reaction. Nothing serious or challenging to his power. It can be written off as (leftie, green, western, etc.) hysteria. It is also a “proof” of an attack on the dictator’s precious sovereignty (i.e. his right to screw with his citizens in any way he wants – again, Collectivism 101).
Even the gay community would be better helped if international do-gooders would stay focused and address the underlying issues, the autocrat prefers not to bring up. No one has a bandwidth to be sufficiently outraged about two things at the same time. The autocrat knows that and supplies the one thing he wants you to bash. His opponents will stupidly stoke the same outrage by defending the victims.
Making governments that are hostile to citizen rights go away would help everyone. And everyone needs that – even when they can’t see it from the gay-debate sand thrown in their eyes. Don’t make it an LGBT issue because that would just trigger a civil war of opinions – that ultimately helps the regime to stay in power.
The scapegoat du jour is obviously the ‘migrant’ – escapees of war, poverty or murderous regimes, as well as people mistakenly believing that the world is theirs to live in – and not a playground of kings anymore. Migrants are everything one needs in a scapegoat: different ethnically, religiously, racially, and there is even sex in all that discussion of rape. Who could resist being dragged into this debate?
Viktor Orbán plays this game well. His migrant-bashing is not about migrants at all. He did not seal the borders to keep migrants out of Hungary – no sane migrant would want to settle here. He did that to pose as savior and to trigger the predictable outcry of western governments and do-gooders – something he can use as proof that he’s right and he is attacked.
What he was distracting from is cronyism, entire industries played into crony hands, his own enrichment through fronts, various scandals that were plaguing his inept government, and masses of people losing any sense of economic control over their own lives. He successfully distracted attention from his own power grab, making it look like necessary to keep the hordes of barbarians out.
By jumping on the bait, western governments helped making the non-issue (for Hungary) looking like a real one, and confirmed what Orbán had claimed. They also cemented him in power. He even ran his next billboard campaign against “Brussels” that he claimed wanted to hurt the country. (Dictators successfully equate themselves with the country in their subjects’ minds.)
Even the problems of migrants would be better helped if international do-gooders would stick to the core problem and focus on making anti-citizen regimes go away. If regimes are forced to serve their citizens, rather than managing and ruling over them, even migrants will have an easier time – both staying at home or integrating in a new country.
The most spectacular recent example of the international community jumping on a Hungarian bait is the case of the death penalty. It wasn’t about death penalty at all. Anyone remembers the scandal that immediately preceded Orbán’s death threat? No? I thought so.
It is because threatening with the death penalty was yet another case of distraction, executed to perfection. It came as an answer for increasing calls to scrap the law that played the entire tobacco production and retail industry into a hand of a single crony.
People almost gave up huffing and puffing over the shameless grab of an entire industry, incensed by the daily reminder of National Tobacco Stores everywhere, all uniform and crony-made. But there was a dangerous unintended consequence to the law. It made made working in tobacco stores dangerous, ultimately causing the death of a shopkeeper. And when the public demanded to scrap at least that one line of the law that mandates the covering of shop windows to make it a cozy place for robbers – Orbán refused to retreat.
Remember, an authoritarian must never retreat. Not even on the tiniest issues like a pointless, unimportant line in a law. It would make his subjects feel empowered and prove that resistance is not futile. Today he allows the pointless window covers to be taken off – tomorrow they will demand his hands out of the public purse. These nasty citizens get emboldened if you let them.
So Orbán did what Orbán does best, he threw in a distraction. It happened to be the threat of a death penalty. And pundit upon pundit, politician upon politician piled on to express their predictable and beside-the-point condemnations. Mission accomplished for Orbán. There were no words about the window covers anymore – even though tobacco shop robberies never stopped.
So the threat to the scapegoats is real. Yet, helping them doesn’t help them. Damned if you do – damned if you don’t. What can you do when you want to help?
If you want to protect a regime’s scapegoats:
- Help them, not their cause. This is not the time to fight for their rights under the anti-human regime. Provide them shelter instead.
- Don’t engage in discussions over the (imaginary) sins of the scapegoats. Don’t start to deny and explain why the accusers are wrong. Don’t let yourself to be pushed in the corner of defending and embracing scapegoats. Scapegoats are just people, too, and if you let the debate hang up on their good deeds – just to argue against the avalanche of (often fake) news detailing their crimes, you will end up with nothing. It is beside the point. So don’t try to argue that the scapegoats are flawless snowflakes – just because the regime claims they are blood-fanged demons.
- Instead, keep focusing on creating a healthy society that doesn’t condone a dictator or strongman.
- Preferably by empowering its citizens. All of them. And don’t just defend them from the autocrat. Help them regain the sense of control over their own lives and economic future – so they don’t need to vent frustration at designated scapegoats and other weak groups. Autocrats only thrive over citizens who feel helpless over their own lives. Not those who are frightened, but those who feel defenseless. Not those who are poor, but those who feel helpless in getting out of it.
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N.B. I used the word “dictator” short for any autocrat or power grabbing regime, whether they qualify as “dictatorships” by whoever’s definition. Don’t use the excuse “but he is not a dictator” to escape facing the conclusion. I also used the word “citizens” often, but really just meant “subjects” under an oppressive regime. The difference is not just constitutional, but a state of mind.
Featured image: Hüseyin Şahin