I used to work with a great guy, Cali Ruchala, who ran the online ‘zine Sobaka, which isn’t online anymore. Cali isn’t online anymore, but I’m pretty sure he’s happy where he is. Or, at least where he said he was going to be… but that’s not my point. I want to bring him up to cite the origin of the idea of a “cancer baby” and how it applies to authoritarian dictatorships everywhere.
Ruchala defined a cancer baby as the ineffective son of a ruthless dictator. The only reason the son rises to power is because he’s the son of a ruthless dictator. Said son is nowhere nearly as ruthless or politically sharp as his father, who usually dies from cancer, and proceeds to lose control of his nation. Bashar al-Assad in Syria is one such cancer baby, and his grip on power there is as bloody as it is slipping. Mubarak’s son in Egypt and Ben Ali’s boy in Tunisia were two cancer babies that lost power even before their dads died: the ruling cliques did not want to have them running things and thought it best to take care of the arrangements as the public rose up in rebellion. Had the ruling cliques in Tunisia or Egypt been more strongly allied to the authoritarian dynasty, the blood in both those nations would be on the level of at least Libya or Syria.
Speaking of Libya, there’s another place where the cancer baby won’t be able to take the stage, it seems. Qaddafi the Elder will fight to the death, but his son lacks the ability to rally people behind him. When the dad dies, the son won’t be far behind.
Monarchies are different, in that they can handle successions with existing institutions. They don’t suffer as badly from the cancer baby phenomenon. But wherever a strongman has taken over and ruled by the sheer force of his personality, his nation is forever one tumor away from collapse.
Now take a look at North Korea. That is an interesting place in this discussion, as one must ask if that nation is ruled by its Communist Party and the military, or if the dominant force there is still Kim Il-Sung, who is still named as North Korea’s head of state. He’s dead, but he’s the head of state and enjoys godlike status in North Korea. Kim Jong-Il, the cancer baby, has ruled over an erratic North Korea of late, and one wonders aloud if he’ll successfully transfer power to his son. If not, then what is happening in the Arab world could suddenly unleash itself in North Korea. One slip of the iron hand in that nation, and the power players in North Korea may find that they have a popular uprising they can ride to to the top with – but will it sustain them there?
Moreover, what happens if North Korea goes the way of Libya, with an actual civil war in and around the nuclear warheads? Have the nations of China, Japan, South Korea, and the USA discussed what they would do if a desperate regime opened fire on its own people? The law of the cancer baby says something is bound to happen, and I can guarantee it won’t be a minor event.