By Bonny Ibhawoh,
One of my favorite movies is the 1930s comedy, Ninotchka starring Greta Garbo. In the movie, three Soviet agents are dispatched to Paris to sell off imperial jewels to raise money to buy tractors for the USSR. When the Grand Duchess, former owner of the jewels discovers this she deploys her lover to recover her gems. He starts seducing the three bumbling Soviet agents with the luxuries of capitalist life. The delay of the sale is noticed in Moscow, and Comrade Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is dispatched to Paris to settle the matter. The movie unfolds around the satirical image of the young idealistic Communist, Comrade Ninotchka, fighting against corrupt Western ways.
Upon arrival in Paris, the three other Russian agents meet her at the train station where she gives them an update on developments in their Stalinist Russian homeland. “The last mass trials were a great success,” she says in a thick Russian accent. “At zee end, there will be fewer, but better Russians!”
You have to see the movie to understand why I find this line so hilarious. Although the line is uttered in the context of humor and comedy, it conveys the absurd logic that dictatorships throughout history have used to justify mass killings as aspirations towards national utopias.
The line, “There will be fewer, but better Russians” conveys the need for:
- Skepticism of aspirations of national utopias whether coming from the right or the left, or religion. Nazi Holocaust reflects genocide with right wing conservative inclination. The Cambodian genocide reflects genocide with leftist inclination (claim to communist influence, egalitarianism, anti-imperialism). Both aimed to create fewer but “better” citizens.
- Skepticism of state and personalist nationalisms; cult of personality.
- Skepticism of the tendency to conflate the community with the state and the state with the regime.
- Skepticism of code words used for exclusion and repression masquerading as nationalist discourse – terms such as “upholding national purity; maintaining the sanctity of the nation; upholding national values; cultural degeneracy/ virtue.”
- Skepticism of State prescribed sanctimony. The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have state Committees for the “Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.” Who determines what’s “virtue?” and who determines what’s “vice”?
The lesson of history is that we must be alert to and skeptical of state aspirations toward national utopias. The quest for “better” citizens is often the prelude to pogroms, mass murders and genocides.
“I have heard of the arrogant male in Capitalistic societies…”