Wednesday, December 27, 2017

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

I finally got to this pocket-sized book, which is full of the kind of lessons that were passed down from my folks and that I've been saying for decades and of some others that I'm hearing over and over in the past year. The behaviours are nothing new, and it is good to be reminded, but it's the background that's missing from my summary: Snyder's (no relation) clear link between pre-holocaust behaviour and now, what helped and what hindered. From a thorough understanding of history, Snyder gleaned twenty tips to help us avoid global catastrophe or at least preserve some semblance of freedom for ourselves in the coming years:
"The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why" (11).
I merged them all down to five to better remember them all:


Snyder's concern, like Arendt and others before him, is how small acts can be a slippery slope to outrageously barbaric behaviours. We have to watch our use of language and symbols and generally learn from work on in-groups and out-groups. He says, "Take responsibility for the face of the world....Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so....The world reacts to what you do" (32). We have to widen our in-group to include the entire world, and prevent any manipulation that could convince us some people matter less: "What might seem like a gesture of pride can be a source of exclusion" (35).  Even if we don't agree with a tyrant's principals, if we appear to endorse them, it will have an affect. This is also important - and easiest - online.

Then he gets darker:
"Beware the one-party state....Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office" (26). When tyrants win, it's because "Most people were distracted, some were imprisoned, and others were outmatched" (28). "Be wary of paramilitaries....the use of violence in the United States is already highly privatized" (43). Trump "encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions" (45). "Be reflective if you must be armed....evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no" (47).   The "Holocaust began not in the death facilities, but over shooting pits in eastern Europe....regular policemen murdered more Jews than the [death squads]" (49). "Some killed from murderous convictions. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out....Without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible" (50). 
What yourself and your friends for those little dismissive remarks that could start the ball rolling.


We need to work on community engagement in real life. "Make eye contact and small talk...stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should no trust" (81).

"Defend institutions...choose an institution you care about--a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union--and take its side" (22). They can't survive without our support. "The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions....Some German Jews voted as the Nazi leaders wanted them to in the hope that this gesture of loyalty would bind the new system to them. That was a vain hope" (24). "Contribute to good causes. Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life....Sharing in an undertaking teaches us that we can trust people beyond a narrow circle of friends" (92).

As Maude Barlow says, in FLOW, "There's no technology to match a foot march." Snyder agrees, "Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside....Mark new friends and march with them" (83). "For resistance to succeed...ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds....Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets" (84).


For any groupthink or mob mentality to take hold, it just needs a distracted or apathetic group of people. We have to take a minute to consider the ideas being presented before we blindly agree. We also need a populous educated in scientific method and logical reasoning. He doesn't go down that road. Instead, he reminds us of Milgram's shock experiments and cautions us, "Do not obey in advance" (17). It seems like a no brainer, but when things get weird, remember not to voluntarily submit to bad ideas or adapt to harsh behaviours. When 'weird' is harmful, it's can't be allowed to become the new normal.

We need to develop the courage to rise about the crowd: "Stand out....It is those who were considered exceptional, eccentric, or even insane in their own time--those who did not change when the world around them did--whom we remember and admire today" (52). And we have to do this, especially, under difficult circumstances: "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives....When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power....the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial....Do not fall for it" (103).  "James Madison nicely made the point that tyranny arises 'on some favorable emergency'" (110). This is reminiscent of Milton Friedman's, "Only a crisis - real or perceived - produces real change," a disaster capitalism mantra that has been used to help the 1% profit off of misery. If we keep falling for it, they'll keep getting richer off the backs of the exploited.

"Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do" (110).  We have to ensure we're always awake and aware in our interactions with others. I like to think that I couldn't be one of Milgram's subjects who shocked a confederate until he seemed unconscious, but I can't be sure I couldn't be convinced to go down that road without some personal vigilance over myself.


It's the push to make an exception that precipitates atrocities. We need to be unwavering in what is right. "Listen for dangerous words....Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary" (99).  Rules are destroyed by having us focus on the exception. Leaders do this by "manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety" (100). "Remember professional ethics....German lawyers could convince themselves that laws and rules were there to serve their projects of conquest and destruction, rather than to hinder them" (38). "Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional" (41).

It's not just a matter of refusing to condone anything overtly harmful, but also of developing a sense of decency around private matters. "Rather than reporting the violation of basic rights, our media generally preferred to mindlessly indulge the inherently salacious interest we have in other people's affairs. Our appetite for the dangerously political" (89). "Establish a private life....Have personal exchanges in person....Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks" (87). "We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us" (88). "When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order" (90).


We need to read off-line: "Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles....Take responsibility for what you communicate with others" (72). While there is lots of great reading online, "When we learn them from a screen however, we tend to be drawn in by the logic of spectacle....But the work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not" (77).  In the media, "Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is "breaking" until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean" (60). "We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it" (61).

"Believe in truth....If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights" (65). "Truth dies in four hostility to verifiable reality.....'endless repetition,' designed to make the fictional embrace of contradiction....self-deifying claims" (66-68). Something can have a glimmer of truth and still be wrong. He writes of the wiggle room created that allowed people to say, quoting Eugene Ionesco, "I must admit, for example, the Jews....Three weeks later, this person would become a Nazi." In Rhinoceros, he depicted that creeping transmogrification that turned humans into animals capable of stomping all over each other. It starts when we question the very existence of truth.

We need to look at the world clearly. He describes two distorted ways to look at history: "Inevitability politicians...portray the present simply as a step toward a future that we already know...a certain, usually desirable, goal....The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma" (119). Equally problematic, "Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood...reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation....the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures" (121). We need to understand the complexity of our relationship with historical events: "History allows us to see patterns and make judgments....It must be hoped that [we can] become a historical generation, rejecting the traps of inevitability and eternity" (126).

If we can better educate ourselves and others, stay awake and alert, and get together on this, then maybe we can better work towards ending some of the atrocities of our time. He doesn't say that bit. He's just concerned with Trump on this one. But wouldn't it be nice?


Anonymous said...

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, DMF, I'll have to check that out with my morning tea tomorrow!