Paul Chan on Why He Published a Book on Saddam's Democracy Speeches

Paul Chan, The End and The End 2, from the new book On Democracy by Saddam Hussein

From “What Can Saddam Teach Us About Democracy?(Or, Why Did Paul Chan Publish a Book About a Dictator’s Speeches?”:
What drew you to publish a book on Saddam Hussein’s late ’70s speeches on democracy?
Well, I did it because it was profoundly confusing and interesting. I think of what Bertolt Brecht said: “We shouldn’t start with the good old things, we should start with the bad new things.” It seems to me that there’s nothing more bad and strangely new than rediscovering how Saddam Hussein thought about democracy. I think it’s perverse and completely interesting.
That was the main motivation. I thought about doing this project for a long time, ever since Jeff gave me the speeches back in 2003. Sometimes you don’t find the right form for the thing you want to do, but you don’t want to force it, you just want to sit on it. That’s what happened here. In 2010, I started a press, ostensibly to publish eBooks and paper books by artists. It was through setting up an independent press that I realized that maybe these speeches can take the form of a book, a kind of reader on and by Saddam Hussein, about democracy.

The thing that struck me most when I read the speeches in 2003 is how fluid the idea of democracy was for Hussein. After reading the three speeches, you still can’t tell what he means by democracy, and it’s confusing. But I think it’s intentionally so, because for Hussein, democracy is an aesthetic device. He’s using the term to beautify other ideas that he wants people to pay attention to and put faith in, like legitimate power or the revolution—the Iraq revolution in 1958 that overthrew the monarchy and installed the Baath party itself.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Hussein’s speeches on democracy in the late ’70s were, in a way, a harbinger of how people are using democracy elsewhere in the world.

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