Mark Danner

Portraits in Black: Dictator, Democrat, Tyrant

Fall 2012, Tuesday 9 – 12:20, Room 03
Mark Danner
Even today, in great swaths of our world, politics revolves around the power of “the Big Man.” Dictator, Supreme Leader, Party Boss, Caudillo: Power is embodied, literally, in the person of one man and emanates from him. In this seminar, we will undertake a study of how personalized political power works and how autocrats, tyrants and dictators have been depicted and analyzed in literature – and how these workings and that depiction differs from democratic images. Our inquiry will range through history and across national traditions, from Suetonius’ Julius Caesar to Lourie’s Stalin to Asturias’ el Senor President to Vargas Llosas’ Trujillo to Penn Warren’s Willie Stark. We will be reading, among others, works by Tolstoy, Lourie, Mahfouz, Carpentier, Penn Warren, Koestler, Kapuscinski, El Saadawi, Bolano and Garcia Marquez – and, perhaps, a bit of non-fiction as well.


Main Class Requirements: This is a seminar — a discussion class – which means the success of the class depends on student participation. The most important requirements are that students*Attend all class sessions”

*Participate in discussions”

*Do all reading and writing assignments

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.

Schedule. All classes will begin promptly at 9 am Tuesdays and conclude at noon. Note that our first class will meet on September 18 in Room 3.

Reading. This seminar is about both history and the here and now. Dictators, “strong men,” caudillos will likely always be with us, and we see before us the struggle against them — in Syria, most prominently — and their legacy — in Egypt, for example, where Mubarak’s great shadow looms over the political scene. These contemporary struggles about personal political power will form the background to our seminar, which means a primary requirement of the course is to keep up with current news about foreign affairs by reading the New York Times, Washington Post and other current news sources; The Economist and Newsweek are also recommended, as is regular viewing of Al Jazeera, CNN and the BBC. We encourage you to distribute articles you find of particular interest to your colleagues.

Writing. Students will undertake one or two short in-class assignments, for which you are meant to draw on the assigned reading and on class discussions. There will also be a final paper, the details of which we will discuss in class. To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest a close reading of two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” easily found on the internet, and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.

Presentation: My Favorite Dictator. Each student will choose one dictator, either living or dead, and talk to the class about him or her for five to ten minutes. During the talk, and apart from giving a brief biography of the dictator, the student will want to answer the following questions: How did my dictator rise to power? What techniques did he use to stay in power? How exactly did he fall from power (if he did)? And what led you to choose this particular dictator as your subject?

Presentation Schedule:

6/11/12: Hatem Sandouka presents on Saddam Hussein

13/11/12: Ranin Faidi presents on Kim Jong Il

20/11/12: Muntaha Abed presents on Joseph Broz Tito; Dalia Hallaq presents on Benito Mussolini

27/11/12: Reem Natsheh presents on Ghenghis Khan

4/12/12: Besan Yaser presents on Queen Victoria; Lana Ramadan presents on Catherine the Great

11/12/12: Lina Abu Nie presents on Hafez Al-Assad

18/12/12: Walid Siam presents on Nicolae Ceausescu; Saleh Al Yemeni presents on Adolf Hitler

Office Hours: I will hope to meet with each of you individually during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,


(With Class Notes by Course Assistant Andrew Buchanan)


September 18th, 2012 — Class Cancelled Because of Strikes

September 25th, 2012 — Introduction: Autocracy, Democracy and Power — How Literature Illuminates Politics

In-Class Readings:

Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel.”

George Orwell, “Marrakech,” “A Hanging.”


– Class Introductions

– List of words for “dictator” (Autocrat. Big Man, Caudillo, Supreme Leader, Tyrant, Party Boss, Number One), what they may mean and who they may apply to

– The dictator and the Arab Spring. Can we characterize Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qadaffi, and Bashar al-Assad as dictators? What do they do that makes them autocratic? Why did they finally fall – or in the case of Assad, how has he held onto power?

– Discussion of why other Arab autocrats fell, how they lost power. Possible answers: younger population, higher education, lower employment, faltering economies, greater technology available — all factors that work to diminish the legitimacy of the autocrat and lead people to civil unrest.

– Discussion of legitimacy as a leader’s right to power, or of what gives him the authority to govern; how legitimacy can be passed on to future rulers.

– Role of power and control in dictatorships, how a ruler must control his people entirely, including his officers and armies. If he appears weak or gives his officers a chance

– Application of the above to the recent actions of Bashar Al-Assad

– In class reading: Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel”; discussion of its form and content


October 2nd, 2012 — A Day in the Life: How Dictators Gain, Keep, and Transfer Power

Readings: Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor (Vintage, 1989 [1978]), 176.     Pgs. 4-56.

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, and Alastair Smith. “Introduction” to The Dictator’s Handbook (Public Affairs, 2011).

– Overview of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s life

– Provides the basics of what a dictator must do: Gain power and legitimacy, then maintain power, and finally pass power and legitimacy down upon death/retirement

– Discuss Kapuscinski’s The Emperor: how he sets up the book with interviews taken anonymously after the fall of Haile Selassie, how he organizes the plot as a normal day in the palace

– Look at how Selassie maintains and controls power in the first section: how does that relate to our discussions of what a dictator must do to maintain power? Relate to Bashar al-Assad

– Discuss the rules for keeping power:

1.    Develop Loyalty
2.    Encourage rivalry and competition among subordinates
3.    Control Information and Knowledge
4.    Keep intentions secret
5.    Insulate yourself from blame

– Discuss how Selassie uses his three governmental groups (Bureaucrats, Aristocrats, and Personal People) to enact these rules

– Compare to The Dictator’s Handbook and how political power is characterized, specifically in the case of Bell, California
– Analyze the three factions necessary for gaining and maintaining power:
1.    Nominal Selectorate (The Interchangeables)
2.    Actual Selectorate (The Infuentials)
3.    Winning Coalition (The Essentials)

October 9th, 2012 — The Image of the Dictator: Propaganda and Film

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor (Vintage, 1989 [1978]), 176. First Half.

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, and Alastair Smith. “Chapter One”, from The Dictator’s Handbook. (Public Affaris, 2011). pp.     1-20.

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator (film).

– Introduction of Chaplin’s and The Great Dictator

– Screening of Film

– Discussion of the film regarding themes of propaganda,  representation and current US

– Discussion of scenes of the film and comparisons between Chaplin and Hitler (Hynkel)

October 18th, 2012 — Class Cancelled Because of Strikes

October 23rd, 2012 — Class Cancelled Because of Strikes

October 30th, 2012 — Rule of Three Dictators: Selassie, Stalin, Akhenaten

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor (Vintage, 1989 [1978]), Second Half.

Richard Lourie, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (Da Capo, 2000), 272.

Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth.

– Brief overview of each of the three dictators

– Discussion of the Stalin book; how it is written in counterpoint style, what sections of the book are real history and which are confected, why this style,

– Elements of the Narrative; use of suspense as a driving force in the book, structured around two timelines, one moving toward the event known as “that”, which is Stalin’s role in the murder of Lenin, and the other following the cleanup of this event and its final stage, the assassination of Trotsky

– Voices of the narrative: what is interesting about the first person voice; how do we see Stalin’s “personality” through this; what does this accomplish; what does it do that historical research cannot?

– Comparison of Stalin to Selassie, Stalin as totalitarian and Selassie as authoritarian; how do their regimes compare; how did each come to and eventually leave power?

– Discussion of the dangers of progressive policies under dictatorships, represent a weakness in the power structure and often lead to the fall of the regime

– The personality of Stalin; what did he do right? How was he able to be a leader who revolutionized the state while also maintaining total power? (answer: he killed 23 million people)

– Stalin’s childhood (as shown by Lourie): His role models, Ivan the Terrible, and “cruelty as the cutting edge of history”; how Stalin used fear and power in “The Great Terror” to solidify and maintain rule

– Review of The Dictator’s Handbook and the terms interchangables, influentials, and essentials

November 6th, 2012 — In Search of the Truth: The Midterm Quiz

Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenanten: Dweller in Truth.

– Midterm Quiz: Portraits in Black Seminar

– Please answer at least four of the following questions. Make sure you answer all the subsidiary questions contained in each question. Use specific examples drawn from the reading and from our class discussions. The more specific you are, the better you will do. Do your best to answer more than four questions for this will bring additional credit.

1. Discuss the difference between an authoritarian ruler and a totalitarian one. Be specific, making sure you cite Haile Selasse, Joseph Stalin and Akhenaten. Would the authors of The Dictator’s Handbook agree with this distinction?

2. Why did Akhenaten fail in his mission to revolutionize Egypt? What exactly was his project? Could he have succeeded and, if so, how? Would, say, Stalin have been able to accomplish the same task? If so, why might he have succeeded where Akhenaten failed?

3. What led to the overthrow of Haile Selasse, after he had ruled for so long? What role did the attempted coup d’etat play in his ultimate downfall? Be specific, citing incidents in the book.

4. What does the phrase “personal people” mean as used by Kapuscinski in talking about Haile Selasse and those he brought in after the coup attempt? What was bringing in “personal people” meant to accomplish? Does this conform to the advice and analysis found in The Dictator’s Handbook? If so, how?

5. What was the “that” that Stalin dreaded Trotsky discovering? Since Trotsky was in faraway Mexico City with very few supporters, why Stalin believe he was a threat to his rule? Do you agree with his estimation?

6. In his novel about Akhenaten, Naguib Mahfouz gives, in the voices of the various officials of the court and others, many different views of the pharaoh’s character and motivations. Which do you find most convincing? Why, in your view, did the pharaoh do what he did – and why did he fail?

7.  Discuss the view of politics set out in The Dictator’s Handbook. What do the authors believe distinguishes dictators from presidents? What in their view is the guiding principle of attaining political power and surviving in office? What is their distinction between interchangeables, influentials and essentials and why is it important?

– Presentation on Saddam Hussein.

– Discussion and Overview of Mahfouz and his life

– Discussion of the historical context of Akhenaten; when and where did he live, what do we know from history about him and the Amarna period?


– A look at the book: How is the narrative structured? Who is speaking and why? 

– Discussion of the multiple perspectives in the book, accomplishes showing the mystery surrounding Akhenaten, such that even the person closest to him, Nefertiti, could not give a truly clear picture of him
November 13th, 2012 — Ideals and Reals: In with the Old, Out with the Old

Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenanten: Dweller in Truth.

– Discussion of the Politics of the US election

– How did Obama effectively campaign and win the election? Discussion of the important voting groups that helped Obama win (African Americans, Women, Youth, and Hispanic)

– How has Obama changed the way politicians campaign in the US? Use of rallies and popular social and cultural figures, the use of polling and technologies, getting people out to vote in key areas

– Discussion of Akhenaten: Who was he as a person? How do we see him in the book?

– How did he come to power? What did he do with it? He got legitimacy from his father, but then tried to overhaul society by instituting a new religion around Aten (in place of Amun)

– Once in power, does not defend the country with violence but tries to work things out with peace and love.

– Who were the most important people around him? How did they keep him in power? A look at his military commanders and ministers, and how their abandonment of Akhetaten removed his essentials, and he fell.

– Comparison of Stalin and Akhenaten: both totalitarians. Could Stalin have succeeded in achieving Akhenaten’s goal? What would he do differently? Could Akhenaten have succeeded at all in Stalin’s eyes?

November 20th, 2012 — The Image of (Womanly) Power

Nawal El Sadawi, The Fall of the Imam.

– Opening discussion of Sadawi. Writer, Doctor, Politician, Feminist Activist; a woman of many talents. A look at her life, where and when she was, what she did, the jailing and death threats, etc.


– What are some of the main themes of The Fall of the Imam? Looking at images, such as the hole in the pants, the images of animals, and the natural versus the unnatural.

– What is the purpose of the repetition in the book? Does it further Sadawi’s point?

– A look at the Imam: What is his power structure? What is his relationship with the other (opposition) party? Who is he and how did he come to power in this society?

– Can we apply the interchangables, influentials, and essentials in this power system?

– The power of religion: what does Sadawi tell us about religion in this book? The Imam’s power and legitimacy come from religion, so how does Sadawi paint it? Is her book really even about religion, or is it more than that?

– Presentation on Jose Broz Tito

– Presentation on Benito Mussolini

November 27th, 2012 — The Rise of the Dictator

Miguel Angel Asturias. El Señor Presidente.

– A look at Egypt: Are we witnessing the birth of a dictator? Is Morsi consolidating his power in the same way Mubarak did?

– A close examination of the power complex that Morsi is building. He is overriding judicial power and claiming more power for himself in the wake of his renewed prestige after the Gaza ceasefire agreement.

– Is he building a dictatorship? He seems to be on the doorstep. How is a dictator born? Is one always a dictator? They say that dictators are not born, they are made.

– Mubarakism without Mubarak: Are the remnants of Mubarak’s regime forcing Morsi to take a autocratic stance? Can the system he inherited be made more democratic, or is it still under the reigns of a dictatorial process?

– The role of the people: People are demonstrating in the streets. Most of them oppose Morsi’s new claims to power. Can the people turn the tide? Will their continued pressure on Morsi hold him from taking total power?

– Was this situation inevitable? With the Muslim brotherhood as the only viable group after the fall of Mubarak, they were the only ones capable of winning the election. Also, will Morsi slowly claim power, little by little? Can the system he inherited be curbed?

– Discussion of Final Paper topics

– Presentation on Genghis Khan

December 4th, 2012 — Manipulations and Counter-manipulations

Miguel Angel Asturias. El Señor Presidente.

– Brief introduction to El Señor Presidente: Asturias’ life and history, his family background, his experience as legal secretary in the dictator’s trial

– How does the novel begin? What is the event that sets the chain of events in motion?

– Discussion of the city as a place of events; the concentration of the poor. Who is Colonel Sonriente? What did he do to start the ball rolling? What were some of the reactions of people higher up?

– Move to a further discussion of Sadawi; how can we compare some of the events of The Fall of the Imam to the events that begin El Señor Presidente?

– More Discussion of Final Paper topics

– Presentation on Catherine the Great: How a Woman, and a Foreigner, Conquered Russia

– Presentation on Queen Victoria: Queen, Empress, Dictator?

December 11th, 2012 — The Arbitrary and the Dictator

Miguel Angel Asturias. El Señor Presidente.

– Discussion of El Señor Presidente: How does Asturias paint the images that recur in the text? What does the dream imagery of the writing serve to do?

– The novel’s place in literary history — its place as a bridge between French and European surrealism (Asturias was then living in Paris and close to Andre Breton) and to the magical realism of the Latin American Boom, especially to its “dictator novels,” such as Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude and Vargas Llosas’ The Feast of the Goat

– How does El Presidente react to the events of the book? How does he deal with arbitrary events? Is he impaired by them, or does he use them to his advantage?

– Comparisons between The President and other Dictators we have discussed: Who does he have the most in common with? Who does he have the least in common with?

– More discussions of Final Paper

– Presentation on Hafez Al Assad

December 18th, 2012 — Dictators, Literature and Power: A Final Discussion

Miguel Angel Asturias. El Señor Presidente.

– Hand in Final Papers

– Final Discussion of El Señor Presidente: Is there any hope in this novel? It is very grim and dark, but is there any hope for the characters or their futures?

– The one point of hope is in the case of Angel Face and Camila, who marry and have a child. Most other fates, and futures to draw from the text, are very dark and bereft of hope.

– What was your favorite book this semester? Why? Who was your favorite dictator, and how do they all compare?

– Analysis with The Dictators Handbook criteria

– Donuts — from Checkers! – and course evaluations

– Presentation on Ceausescu


– Presentation on Hitler

Dictators and Our Future: A Supplemental Reading List

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch
Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat
Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian
Robert Conquest, The Great Terror
Robert Conquest, The Kirov Affair