Parade magazine, that little Sunday supplement that you find inside some newspapers, has published its annual list of the world's worst dictators. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe tops the list, taking a big jump from sixth place last year, while the 2008 champion, Kim Jong Il, slips to third place due to rumors of failing health. Parade ranks dictators by repression of civil liberties, extent of the ruler's absolute power, and the misery suffered by his people. Mugabe has certainly run his country's economy into the ground, but it seems late to dub him the worst dictator after he's just agreed to share power with the major opposition leader. You might not trust Mugabe's word, but any sharing of power should knock him down a few pegs on the list, unless you interpret "worst dictator" in a different but equally valid way as the one least successful at consolidating or retaining absolute power. Likewise, something seemed wrong about putting Hu Jintao of China in sixth place on the current list. The People's Republic is certainly still a repressive regime, but as I understand it no one person in the current government is a dictator in the way Chairman Mao was.
For some reason the list puts me in an irreverent mood. I couldn't help wondering whether the criteria that identify the worst dictators can also tell us which ones are the world's best. More seriously, I think the American obsession with dictators obscures the real problems many countries have. Our mindset encourages a belief that any nation's (Iraq's, for example) problems might be solved simply by removing the evil ruler, as if there are all sorts of creative forces in any country that are just held back by artificial obstacles like tyrants or (as some would say in America) taxes. But if history were so simple we should never see dictators. Individual evil alone can't explain their recurrence through history. Making lists like the magazine's is no more constructive than this week's list of hottest hotties. What are Parade's readers going to do about it all, after all? Write to the President and ask for war? Probably not this year -- so Mr. Mugabe can breathe easy on that front, at least.