Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Dictators Daily Beast and Newsweek Editor Tina Brown looks at writing about life under totalitarian regimes, recommending a new novel about North Korea, an article on "dictator chic," and one that chronicles and contextualizes the history of the Inquisition.
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Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Dictators

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Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Dictators

Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Dictators

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Tina Brown joins us once again this morning. She is the editor of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, and a regular guest on this program. It's a feature we call Word of Mouth. We hear what Tina's been reading and get some reading recommendations for ourselves. Hi, Tina.

TINA BROWN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we have several readings here that relate to dictatorships, totalitarian states of one kind or another. And we begin with a novel here by Adam Johnson called "The Orphan Master's Son."

BROWN: Yes. This is a wonderful book set in the North Korea of Kim Jon Il. And he vividly creates this strange, dark, twisted lifestyle of the people who are condemned to live there, who have no other way of seeing the world except through the prism of the distortions that the regime has served up.

And he's created this hero called Pak Jun Do, who's the son of a man who runs one of desolate orphan camps that they have there in a rural area. And the camp's called Long Tomorrows. And he's the son of a mother who was an opera singer who was stolen to go off and service, really, the elite in Pyongyang, and a father who ran this orphanage.

And so he's raised with all the orphans, and, in fact, Jun Do is a play on John Doe, because all the orphans have that surname, and that's how other people recognize that they're orphans. And they carry that stigma through the rest of their lives.

INSKEEP: I love what you say about the distortions the state has served up, because we have a novel here about a place where everything in life, to one degree or another, has to be fictionalized.

BROWN: Yes, I mean, and that's what - you know, you never think about what it must be like to live in a world of lies, which is what you get through the consciousness of Pak Jun Do. I mean, he gets a job on a fishing ship, and one of the great things in this book is what Pak Jun do is listening to on his sort of wireless radio, because he joins the ship as an intelligence officer.

And he hears the fragments of things from the outside world that he picks up, and he becomes particularly obsessed with the nocturnal reports of a young female American rower who's engage with her female friend in a kind of stunt of rowing all night in the ocean. And he picks up her little crackling sound of her reports from freedom, you know, the outlines of birds singing, and so on.

And he says: What was it about English speakers that allowed them to talk to transmitters as if the sky were a diary? If Koreans spoke this way, maybe they'd make more sense to Jun Do. Maybe he'd understand why some people accepted their fates and some didn't. It's wonderful writing.

INSKEEP: Suggesting that Koreans, or North Koreans in that circumstance, cannot even tell the truth privately. They can't think in clear terms.

BROWN: Exactly right. Their own biographies are sort of captured and rewritten and made to be the thing that you imbibe and live through. And that's why the freedom of the rower has become such a haunting thing to Jun Do. It's a wonderful book and very original.

INSKEEP: So "The Orphan Master's Son" looks way below the dictators that get so much attention. The next article that you've sent us on this subject comes from the Financial Times. The author is Peter York, and it's called "Dictators of Taste."

BROWN: Yes. I mean, this is a great sort of light relief after being so chilled by what it must be like to live in North Korea, because Peter York has this great sort of aesthetic eye. And he writes about dictator, sort of, chic, which has now taken over as the fall of all these dictators from the Arab Spring, brings all this flight money into Europe, and invades us with their taste.

And he says despot decor is increasing in certain spots around the world. He says dictators' homes are non-ironic zones. They're designed to reinforce the dear leader cult of personality, but at the same time, they're very impersonal - no room for homey imposed photographs or the pram in the hall. They're places to plot and do deals, not real private spaces.

And he goes on to describe, you know, what you really need to have a despot decor, you know, the excessive gold, the lack of private spaces. It's very amusing.

INSKEEP: There's even a photograph here of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces from the 1990s when he was in charge of Iraq, and there's some kind of - I don't know if artwork or sculpture is the word - this gigantic eagle, this gigantic bird on the wall, and there's an archway underneath the bird. You walk in underneath the bird as if you're part of it, I suppose.

BROWN: Absolutely. He says a classic dictator's home was designed to impress and intimidate and tell this person that commanded absolute power with resources, and that you, the visitor, were a worm, which was the Gadhafi word for enemies.

INSKEEP: You know, when you get into a dictator's palace here and there in the world, though, you also find, like, really lousy architecture, in my experience, like really crudely made. The corners don't seem to match up, even though the materials may be the most expensive around.

BROWN: Well, I think the whole thing has that ersatz feeling, because, in the end, it is a fake impetus, in a sense, this phony inflation of ego and power. In the end, it's not a really authentic impetus. It's purely about intimidation and making a stunt that is, as he says, makes you, the visitor, feel like the worm that they feel you are.

INSKEEP: Now, when you talk about intimidation, you've also sent us an article that reminds us there's nothing new about that technique from The New Humanist magazine and website in the U.K. And it's called "Inside the Heresy Files."

BROWN: Yes, I love this piece. It's a brilliant essay by Cullen Murphy about the Inquisition. And he talks about - because there's been there's been a huge flood of very interesting documents from the Inquisition archives in the Vatican, which now enables us to sort of read the history of the Inquisition in a very different way.

INSKEEP: We're talking about the Spanish Inquisition here?

BROWN: We're talking about - yeah. It began in the Middle Ages to deal with Christian heresies, and then was revived in Iberia and Spain, of course, when you got the very brutal Spanish Inquisition, and then has really continued for many hundreds of years in different forms later.

But he describes how, actually, you know, the Inquisition is sort of as the Spanish Imposition, one particular moment, but actually, wasn't. It has existed in multiple different forms, multiple different places and multiple different eras over the centuries. It is what you really need for successful inquisition.

It's a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time and backed by institutional power, and justified by a version of the one truth.

And in that sense, you know, you need it - it was almost like a harbinger more of modern times than ancient times, because unless you have that sustained ability to create the system of fear - i.e. communications system, i.e. law - you couldn't keep the Inquisition going.

And actually, I thought about this very much after reading this piece, because recently, I went to East Berlin and saw the Stasi Museum there, and of course it applied absolutely to the way the Stasi ran their intimidation and terror, in a sense.

INSKEEP: That would be the East German secret police and in the communist times.

BROWN: The East German secret police was very much really built on the lines of the medieval Inquisition.

INSKEEP: You know, when you said the phrase what you need for a successful Inquisition, I had a horrible image of someone in our audience eagerly reaching for a pen.


BROWN: Well, yes. I'm not exactly advocating this. It's like a do-it-yourself Inquisition. Here's the four or five things that you need.

INSKEEP: Although I wonder if the Arab Spring revolts show something, because no matter what kind of techniques you have, no matter what kind of technology you have on your side, ultimately, it requires the people to go along with you. And if they simply refuse, you can lose power.

BROWN: You absolutely can. And, of course, those systems have to be sort of smashed up. But then the question is: Can you really dismantle it? Because, you know, it only dismantles if the people themselves absolutely militate against it renewing itself, which is, of course, what we're seeing very much at the moment, you know, the fear of that in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Are we going to really have a sustained freedom, or are these terrifying systems going to become somehow quietly put back into place?

INSKEEP: Tina Brown of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you.


INSKEEP: And you can find Tina's recommended readings by going to npr.org.

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