Twelve Essays for These Times by Joe Rohde

Welcome back! Or, possibly, welcome for the first time.

Joe Rohde is a Imagineer, in short. I’ll let you click here for way more info than that. Joe first came to my attention when I learned that he was responsible for Animal Kingdom – the United States’ best Theme Park, in my opinion. I began following Joe on twitter and Instagram and saw him speaking about a number of topics that weren’t necessarily Disney-only: art history, pre-Columbian South America, architecture, race, class, and a million other little-discussed topics in the mainstream that have all come to shape our culture.

This post is a compendium of twelve of Joe’s Instagram posts, photos linked to the original posts with their captions posted below. I showcase these essays in an attempt to bring about understanding of the times we’re currently living in from a man I wholeheartedly respect. I have edited nothing for content, clarity, or size.

I’m proudly anti-fascist (just like my grandfathers in WWII), and stand with my marginalized fellow world citizens in saying #BlackLivesMatter.


I thought I’d repost a series of IG essays from almost exactly two years ago, July 2018, describing the features of autocracy based on historical examples. They avoid any references to current events, although a lot of this will sound way more familiar than it did two years ago. Analysts say that if only 3.5 percent of a population actively counters an autocracy, it fails to take hold. 3.5 percent. In American that means about ten million people, just in case you’re counting crowds. So, Solidarity is important, because “divide and conquer” is one of the first rules of an autocracy. Race is a great tool for divide and conquer. Which brings us to The Black Lives Matter movement, an alarm call for everyone, because the injustice leveraged against that community poisons the whole system. Like Covid. Black lives matter because they are especially vulnerable to unjust social forces, so the powerful, whether official or not, can normalize behavior towards human beings that simply should not be accepted anywhere. That’s infectious to a society. We need a kind of political herd immunity towards injustice…just for moral reasons. But for the pragmatists, we can plainly see that the defenseless and disadvantaged are the test case for what can be done to any of us. When a man can be deliberately suffocated in public right in front of people, why be surprised when a pregnant woman is stomped on until she miscarries, or a blinded helpless woman kicked in the head, or projectiles fired point blank into peoples faces, elderly people assaulted and left to bleed, journalists shot at, passive bystanders attacked and other egregious misuses of power? If we allow inequity to be unaccountable, why be surprised when suddenly we face unidentifiable armed men who cannot be held accountable because they cannot be identified? BLM asserts that what we claim to be the rule of law is applied unequally. That makes it not the rule of law at all, but the rule of power. That power, unrestrained by law or empathy, will exercise its force upon everyone. We must fight for equality before the law, because power, once gained is rarely given back. You have to go get it.


Autocracy. People don’t naturally gravitate to autocracy. Humans prefer a bit of hierarchy, but one in which the members have some influence over their leader. We aren’t naturally democratic, but we’re also not naturally slaves. We’re kind of share and share alike primates. So humans need to be convinced to opt for autocratic systems. One of the ways this is done is by creating a sense of emergency. “There is no choice. The situation has gotten so bad that we have to have a strong hand to bypass the normal rules.” When the filth and corruption and violence have gotten SO bad that anything is better, then the people will accept the normally unacceptable dictates of an autocrat. So, of course, autocrats promote a vision of a world in collapse, a disaster, a situation so bad that extraordinary steps must be taken. Hitler with his Reichstag Fire and “enemies within.” Duterte with his drug war. Robespierre and the Terror in France. I mean, this goes way back. It’s what Caesar tried to do and Augustus succeeded in doing. “I’m not here to break anything. It’s already broken!!! I’m your only hope to fix it.” But this line of thinking means that the autocrat requires a permanent state of emergency to prevent people from saying, “Whew! Glad that’s over! Okay dude, thanks, but step aside.” So, magically, there is always a new crisis. Often invented. For example, there is a good chance that the Chechen bombings that threw Putin into power were not done by Chechens. Scapegoats, wars, terrorism threats, economic trials all work to support exceptional executive power. Chicken or egg? Doesn’t matter. Crisis abets the consolidation of power.


Autocracy. Autocrats are devoted to the myth of their own special personal exceptionalism. They are pathologically narcissistic. Because the autocrat lacks a clearly defined philosophy or platform, his or her legitimacy is simply held up by their own personal assertion. They are emphatically “who they are,” not a selfless representative of a higher power. Therefore, any criticism of the system is taken as a personal attack. There is, in fact, nothing else to criticize, because the autocrat sees himself or herself as a replacement for laws, institutions, and ideas. So, in a way, it’s true that a criticism of the state is a personal attack. However, because the attacks are seen as personal, autocrats also see them as very serious and threatening, calling for retribution and censorship. Narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism. In an autocracy, criticism of the leader is treasonous, because the leader has replaced the law, the constitution, and any behavioral tradition with his or her self. “L’etat? C’est moi!” As Louis XIV said. “the State is Me!!” This is one of the reasons autocrats surround themselves with cronies and relatives, because these people are less prone to be critical. Being insiders, they have the time and access to cajole the autocrat, not to directly criticize. This contributes to the autocrats insulated world view, in which there is no criticism, so that even mild public criticism shocks and offends the autocrat, resulting in disproportionate smack-downs. Some autocrats eventually convince themselves that only they can lead the nation into the future, and that any form of regime change to counter them is unacceptable, especially democratic elections, which are unpredictable. See: Papa Doc Duvalier. Franco. Saddam. Mugabe. Mao. Stalin. Putin…All more or less lifers.


Autocracy. Scapegoats. Someone has to be blamed. The crises don’t need to actually exist to excuse the use of power. They can just be invented. But the autocrat must have a scapegoat. This is because the autocrat is really a trickster. People need to be looking the other way or they will notice that they’re being tricked. Autocrats do not have a real political philosophy. Their desire to rule is narcissistic not idealistic. Therefore, their policies may or may not work. Lots of stuff can just be screwed up. Marcos was a disaster. Russia has an average per capital income less than India’s. North Korea is a mess. Venezuela has nearly collapsed. Autocrats are not expert governors. The autocrat does not focus on solving the problems that may have led to his/her rise to power. They focus on gaining and using power, period, because they are narcissistic. They need problems as an excuse for extraordinary power, or there’s no need for an autocrat. So. Instead of getting solved, these problems keep going, and keep getting blamed on scapegoat targets to throw focus away from the autocrat. Since the myth of decline fuels autocratic rule, there’s no incentive to solve the problem, only to blame it. And because autocrats are narcissistic, they truly believe it’s not their fault…so it MUST be somebody else. As one scapegoat gets used up, either by elimination, disempowerment, or irrelevance, another must be found. Everybody thinks they’re not the target until, as with Pol Pot in Cambodia, it becomes clear that an autocrat will victimize literally anyone and everyone to maintain power.

Number five from my July 2018 IG posts.

Autocrats and nostalgia. When Augustus Caesar took power after the civil war with Antony, he started a campaign of distinctly backwards-looking art and ceremony…very Old School. His pitch was that he was restoring the Roman Republic to the good old days. That was not really true. In fact, he was radically gutting the power of the representative government and setting up a media-driven dictatorship. The media was made marble, mosaic, and bronze. This is the Myth of Decline and the Romance of The Golden Age in action. Marcos used the same argument in the Phillipines. Putin goes on about the lost glory of the USSR. Hitler evokes the ancient Reich of Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, plus a lot of whining about lost glory after WWI. By staging the present as rotten, and mythologizing the past as an idealized model, you can get people to abandon the status quo and support an autocratic revolution. The myth of decline devalues the present as rotten, devolved, failed. Decline, even where it is real, is usually restricted to some subset of society while the whole is still quite viable…but that scrap of truth is waved as proof and people follow suit. The autocrats fetishized past is not the real past, but a romanticized story. And the autocrat has no true intention of restoring the past. That’s just something to say to get people to go along with the personal exercise of power. When Marcos took power, the Philippines had about the same economy as South Korea!! When he was ousted, it was more than ten times poorer, hardly “great again,” which was his slogan, but never his goal. His goal was self-aggrandizement.


From the 2018 IG essays. Autocracy and the perversion of legality. The reason it’s so important to stop autocrats from getting an edge is because if they get a chance they will pervert the law. Rule of law means all people are subject to the same standard. Never underestimate the role of narcissism in autocracy. Autocrats believe themselves to be the source of order, not subject to it. This is true throughout history…but a recent example is Turkey. In Turkey, Erdogan stripped the courts of impartial judges and replaced them with cronies, restaffed police forces, restructured the electoral system so that there were no legal ways to stop him. Gangs of thugs would attack media outlets that criticized him, without fear of punishment because the police and judges were already bought off. When a leader does this, all legal means of opposition are cut off. This leaves opponents with no recourse but civil disobedience, like the many demonstrations in Turkey. These are illegal. So now, the autocrat becomes the law and opposition to the autocrat is a crime. An actual crime. So, with the excuse of a failed coup, Erdogan just arrested everyone who might oppose him, along with thousands of teachers and professors. Hungary and Poland now have laws that make it functionally impossible to win an election as an opposition party. Legal but not rule of law. Autocrats are the opposite of the rule OF law. They represent rule THROUGH law, which is no law at all but power. This suits the autocrat because, being narcissistic as autocrats typically are, law is an impediment to their personal power while power is the ultimate expression of personality.


Autocracy. Another autocratic control technique is to create an information fog. You read about this strategy all the time. People simply cannot tell what is true anymore. The USSR, now Russia, was notorious for this. Turkey and Erdogan. North Korea. The autocrat discredits any potential source of objective comment, like the press, universities, “experts,” opposition parties, and the check and balance aspects of governmental debate. If these can be discredited, then, nobody knows where to turn to tell the difference between autocratic propaganda and actual news. It’s not that people believe the autocrat. They don’t. But they don’t know what to believe, so they cannot take action. Ironically, this technique works better than suppressing the truth. Because if you suppress it…it must be true!!! You’ve heard it before, “Truth is the first victim.” Truth isn’t eliminated. It’s just hidden in a mess of junk like a needle in a haystack. While everybody else is blinded, the autocrat can move unimpeded, hiding in plain sight. Putin is the reigning master of this technique. And modern information technology has made it particularly effective. By the way, this is a real Stalinist poster…not a parody or satire.


Autocracy. Oligarchy. Here’s a weird one. Autocratic rulers mobilize public support by demonizing the big-money system. As far back as the Gracchi, in Ancient Rome, the “mob” (derived from Latin “mobile vulgus,” or excitable crowd) is worked up by pointing out the outrageous unfairness and insulting wealth of the bigwigs. The autocrat promises to clean this up. But somehow the big guy is still in a big house. Even the supposedly puritanical rulers of Iran are sporting designer label accessories. Not even in the Russian Revolution does this redistribution actually really happen. It never quite happens. Instead, the autocrat directs weapons against just the opposite target, that is, against grass roots efforts at political power. Why? Because that is competition. The point of the autocratic regime is autocracy itself, not any sociological change. It has no ideology, only an urge towards control. Wealth usually abets concentrated power, so wealth remains untouched, redirected sometimes, as with communist revolutions, but not really dismantled and not ever shared. The rhetoric of dirty money and corrupt bigwigs has no resulting legal changes. It’s just a speech to gain support. Since the real goal is power, and money equals power, autocracies are really very small country clubs. There is one person in the center and a small number of super-rich mega-managers of monopoly-type industries private or state-run around him, her. That way the money doesn’t have to travel very far, or be checked by very many people, before it gets to the autocrat. Regardless of the revolution, somebody is drinking champagne. Somebody else isn’t. But if you point this out, you are definitely the toast.


Autocracy. Another narrative technique of autocrats is moral equivalency. “So what if I did it? They all do it!!” This can go along with the “cleaning up Dodge City” trope, because the autocrat can claim that their unsavory actions are needed to fight “great evil.” The autocrat does not claim to be morally pure, rather he or she claims that all parties are equally and relatively corruptible. Truth and good are said to be opinions, not facts. Any fault in the opposition, however trivial, is magnified to the equivalent of the faults of the regime. That which appears to be moral in the opposition is framed as an illusion. No effort goes into maintaining the Moral High Ground. There is none. Everything is relative. The strategic aim of this approach is public inertia and disinvolvement… because in the absence of a moral standard the only standard is power. In this narrative framing device, “We all do it, so don’t pick on us for doing it now.” Or “Everybody is guilty! Don’t single us out.” This creates a state of torpor and inertia in the public mind, so that people are lulled into inaction by cynicism. “Why bother? They’re all the same.” If you find yourself saying this, the likelihood is that you are the victim of this kind of psychological framing device. Anything can be made to look superior, inferior, or neutral through framing. Who benefits from your perception of moral equivalency, and from your resulting neutrality? Probably those prepared to take action. Any action. And when they do whatever they do, they’ll say, “Everybody does it.” It’s exactly the same schoolyard bully tactic as that kid who says “I know you are but what am I?”


Autocracy and violence. Violence in autocracies is not just about scapegoats and it’s not just about dramatic emergencies that create the supposed need for swift uncompromising action. Violence is a kind of spectacular theater of action, fear, and clarity. Violence cuts off the need for debate or discussion and replaces it with dramatic theatrical images. Everyone loves these images…even the opposition gets sucked into the seduction of violence, which serves the autocrat perfectly. Since autocracies are actually devoid of any real philosophy or real policy, they cannot encourage debate or discussion… because they have nothing real to say. Autocracies consist almost entirely of theater. Violence is spectacular theater. Violent spectacle keeps people hypnotized and immobile like those antelope in Africa who all stand at attention watching until it’s clear that they aren’t the ones being eaten. Autocrats tend to be male, at least in the modern world, and violence is an archetypal hyper-masculine solution to complexity. We are conditioned to the movie scene of a masculine hero punching the slick elitist villain in the face. So, violence is not actually being used to solve problems. It is being used as a symbol of clear masculine resolve. This encourages others to act in the same way. So autocracies are usually characterized by lots of unofficial violence against scapegoats, women, minorities…etc. and counter-violence by opponents which proves the autocrats thesis of threat. This creates an atmosphere of fear. It has the chilling effect of suppressing the expression of dissent without the government needing to create policy. Policy would create actual content, and content encourages debate, and autocracies don’t like debate, so they don’t like content. Instead, by abetting an atmosphere of violence they benefit twice. Once from the hypnotic orgiastic indulgence of the spectators who are distracted, and once again from the fear, which doesn’t just silence opposition but suppresses clear rational thought…which, thought being content…autocrats hate.


Autocrats and war. War is the ultimate scapegoat. Once the autocrat has run out of spooky internal enemies, and “filth” that needs cleaning out, the autocrat faces the danger that he is not needed. Autocracy thrives under special emergency conditions, when “Something MUST be done!!” So, the emergency of war is often the next step in narrative framing. The ultimate “filthy other” is always an actual foreign enemy, and usually, everyone can agree on that. It’s the ace in the hole of National Unity. War requires command structures that bypass democratic process. Good for autocrats. Usually the autocrat has already stacked the government and weakened any political structure for debate. That way, the logic of war and command is easy to operationalize. War makes regime change difficult. “We can’t change horses in the middle of the stream!!!” It’s not that autocrats are warlike, or imperialistic. They can be utterly incompetent like say, Hitler. The war can be pointless, as long as it is newsworthy and scary. You don’t even need to win, as with Iran vs Iraq. Remember, autocracy has no goal. It just wants to exist. All tools are bent to that task. But war is the gold standard of autocratic excuses. So, if you support an autocrat you can expect either Civil War, Foreign War or a great symbolic War on Terror/Drugs/Crime/etc. It’s part of the package.


We will get this in right before midnight. Autocracy and the cult of simplicity. Autocrats tend to rely on the illusion that they are supported by a broad popular base…and that this base possesses a kind of native wisdom that comes from simplicity. Of course, the real power comes from money, and money comes from the few…and autocrats almost never possess an actual majority…just a technical advantage of some kind that neutralizes the actual majority. But nonetheless, the mythology sells broad popular simplicity. The Gracchi. Mugabe. Hitler. Mussolini. Hugo Chavez. Erdogan. Once again, remember, the point of an autocracy is not to accomplish anything at all except to maintain power… So complicated arguments, whether they are legal, scientific, philosophical, or political, are of no use because they all involve complex ideas that required deep professional knowledge to debate and negotiate. So, the autocrat advances the idea that “this stuff isn’t rocket science” even when it actually IS rocket science. Simplicity and reductionism masquerade as a kind of everyman, “thumbs in the suspenders” folk wisdom, when in fact, it’s really another slight of hand to avoid complicated discussions that an autocrat is likely to lose. The cult of simplicity is actually related to the cult of violence, as both of them are a way of undermining actual discussion. Instead, the autocrat reduces everything to snapshots, posters, slogans, sound bites, And creates a kind of theater of nothingness. But since human beings have a compulsion to ascribe meaning to any pattern at all, humans will compulsively ascribe meaning to the empty gestures of the autocrat. You know…the books on the wisdom of Mao, Stalin, cults around the sayings of Pol Pot…All of which and any of which are mostly redigested old aphorisms we’ve been hearing for thousands of years. This goes back to the idea that the rise to autocracy is a kind of trick, a bit like a magic trick and you have to be watchful because it plays with what you believe is true, masquerading as something normal…it sneaks up on you while you’re looking somewhere else… And suddenly… There you are are!



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