Hero vs. Zero

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / July 01, 2009
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Doublethink, Doublespeak

George Orwell may have understated the situation in the Big Brother totalitarian state of Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” He would be amused to learn that in the police state of Two Thousand and Nine Ethiopia, Big Brother has been unceremoniously replaced by THE P-R-O-C-E-S-S!

Jason McClure of Bloomberg News reported last week the capo dictator in Ethiopia had declared that “there is ‘zero’ chance that opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa will be released from prison in time to compete in the elections scheduled for next May. He also said Birtukan’s jailing is not a pretext to eliminate political opposition… The prime minister also defended local elections last year, in which opposition candidates won just three of 3.6 million seats, saying that ‘democracy is about process, it’s not about outcome…If the process is clean and you get zero, tough luck.’” (Italics added.)

Aha! “It’s About Process, Not Outcome!”

It is about process, not outcome. In other words, it is about smoke and mirrors, window dressing. It’s about putting on a show, going through the motions. Democratic elections have nothing to do with the outcome of legitimately elected leaders. They are about the process of putting on a three-ring elections circus so that people can go through the motions of voting for “leaders” who have already been pre-selected and elected for them. By the same token, courts are not about the outcome of impartial administration of justice. They are about manipulating the legal process to serve Just Us. Trials have nothing to do with the outcome of due process, which is truth-finding based on established legal principles, vindicating the innocent and convicting the guilty, or serving the ends of justice. They are about the process of putting on a kangaroo court show to convict the innocent, exonerate the guilty and exalt criminals. Governance is not about the outcome of informed decision-making, practicing the rule of law, effective delivery of public services, accountability, transparency, legitimacy and the rest of it. It is about the exquisite process of clinging to power like blood-sucking ticks on a cow.

A constitution is not about the outcome of establishing and permanently securing the rule of law so that citizens are protected from arbitrary and abusive use of government power. It is about the process of ensuring the rule of an outlaw who trashes every known human rights law. Parliaments are not about the outcome of formulating sound laws and public policies in a deliberative legislative forum. They are about the process of rubberstamping the delusions and fantasies of a dictator. Federalism is not about the outcome of a clear division of constitutional power between a national government and constituent political units. It is about setting up a fictitious process called “ethnic federalism” for the purpose of creating deep ethnic, cultural, linguistic and regional cleavages to facilitate dictatorial rule.

It is all about The P-R-O-C-E-S-S, stupid! If you haven’t got it by now “tough luck!”

From Doublethink, Doublespeak to Zerothink, Zerospeak

The age of Big Brother and the dark Orwellian future has been replaced in the brave new Ethiopia of the 21st Century by the age of the Big Processor who communicates through zerothink and zerospeak. It is no longer that “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” For zerothinkers and zerospeakers, the outcome of war that people die or suffer and entire communities are laid to waste is unimportant. What is important is the process of using war to extort economic and military aid from donors to cling to power indefinitely (in zerothink, that would be “forever and ever”). In zerothink, it is not about freedom or slavery. It is certainly not about the outcome of human freedom, which is free thought, free expression, free association, free press, free elections and so on. It is about the process of using the idea of freedom to justify tyranny and brutality, and to hoodwink the rest of the world into believing that dictatorship is the only path to freedom. In zerothink, it is not that ignorance is strength; it is about the planned process of creating and maintaining a nation of ignoramuses by denying them free expression, sound education and a forum for a free exchange of ideas. It is about keeping the population weak, confused, divided and domesticated. It is about the process of locking up the population in the proverbial Tower of Babel where no one speaks the same language or understands each other. In the brave new Ethiopia of zerothink and zero speak, it is all about processing: Central processing of lies; micro-processing of corruption, digital processing of propaganda; physical processing of opponents into torture chambers; network processing among nouveau riche supporters; co-processing of fear and loathing and re-processing of rigged and stolen elections. It is all about using The P-R-O-C-E-S-S to control, pacify and subjugate the population.

But one day, it will all be about service of process!

Zerothink and the Zero Sum Game Process

In the social sciences, scholars use “game theory” to understand the behavior of individuals in strategic situations in which one individual’s success in making choices depends on the choices and actions of others. In a zero-sum game, one person will lose and one person will win. The win (+1) added to the loss (-1) equals zero.

The capo dictator’s statement on the primacy of process over outcome provides a unique window into a particular zero sum game player mindset. The game strategy for the dictators is to ensure that opposition or rival elements always lose while they always win. The dictators have been playing such a zero sum political game in Ethiopia for nearly two decades. As the dictator glibly quipped, “democracy is about process, it’s not about outcome…If the process is clean and you get zero, tough luck.” For two decades, the people of Ethiopia have been forced to play a zero sum game of “process democracy” (or make-believe democracy) and have accumulated a grand total score of zero. The winning formula for the zero sum “elections process” has been finely tuned: Announce a date for “elections” with great fanfare. Set up a process for make- believe elections. Hand select and pre-elect your candidates. Scandalize and demonize your political opponents and rivals. Let people think their votes count. Declare victory before the votes are counted. Announce to the world that “opposition candidates won just three of 3.6 million seats.”

There is a better way. It is a non zero sum game based on a “win-win” strategy in which each side can gain and minimize losses through a process of bargaining, negotiation, compromise and conciliation. The dictators seem to be incapable of understanding or playing a non zero sum game. That is because they perceive the larger society as their enemy while sitting and fretting in their echo chamber of intrigue. They see any one else winning in any matter small or big (political or economic) as a devastating loss to them. They have a mindset of losers. So the real problem is the zero-sum mindset of the dictators. They must undergo a change in mindset and overcome the belief and conviction deeply ingrained in their collective psyche that political opponents committed to democratic principles are not mortal enemies, merely competitors for votes.

In a real democracy, winning and losing for political parties and candidates is the natural order of things. You win some, you lose some. The winners and losers are determined by the people who cast their votes freely, without intimidation, extortion, threats, vote rigging or other fraudulent electoral practices. Losing an election the old fashioned way (through free and fair elections) is not the end of the world in a real democracy; it is merely the stepping stone to the next round of electoral contests. The fact remains that as long as the dictators remain prisoners in their echo chambers of intrigue chained to a zero sum mindset of fear and loathing, there can be no real political change; only missed opportunities. It is conceivable that a few in the dictator’s inner circle understand that the only way they can find the peace of mind and accord with others that has eluded them for nearly two decades is by embracing a multi-party democratic system where rivals are not perceived as enemies but potential partners in a dynamically evolving and shifting competitive political process.

On the other hand, even the most skilled strategic zero sum game players expect perpetual losers to win one day, and win big. What happens then? What happens when the tables are turned and the dictators find themselves on the receiving end? (Admittedly, this question sounds silly to anyone sitting in an invincible echo chamber fortress, but suppose that were so, for the sake of argument.) Indeed, in a zero sum game, the short-term loser may be the winner in the long term by learning to develop skills useful in creating “win-win” situations where through compromise, negotiation and conciliation higher level political and social objectives could be attained. Real democracy is not a zero sum game process. It is a political outcome based on a non zero sum game model. It is not necessary for all to lose and one party to win all the time. It is possible to pursue strategies that produce “win-win” results for everyone. But that is the strategy of the hero.

Hero vs. Zero

We are told there is “zero” chance that our heroine, Birtukan Mideksa, “will be released from prison in time to compete in the elections scheduled for next May.” (Translation in zerospeak: “Birtukan is enjoying herself at the exotic, all-inclusive vacation club known as the Kality Resorts, and is unavailable for the mundane business of running for office.” But the fact of the matter is that Birtukan is not interested in participating in an election P-R-O-C-E-S-S. She is not interested in an election process in which the outcome is predetermined now, a year before it is held. She wants no part of an election process where 3 (three) opposition candidates win from among 3.6 million candidates fielded by the dictator’s party. She would rather tough it out with her “tough luck”. Our hero does not want to be part of a zero-sum election process. Truth be told, even in a zero sum game, zero plus zeros equal to zero, not hero!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at almariam@gmail.com

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