Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
It is not the ordinary that excites and drives us, but our emotions, especially fear and greed. To focus such drives, we look to a leader, and leaders often manipulate these emotions and our tribal instincts to harness us against some demonized “other”—like the Jew for the Nazis; the Rwandan Tutsi for the Hutus; or people of color for White Supremacists.
When people find themselves in difficulties, they tend to look outside themselves for the cause, and anyone who can pick out a cause, such as the European Union for the British or the influx of Latino migrants for the Americans, can become the leader of a tribe of discontented followers. These followers are people of feeling, not moved by reason. They may be discontented with their lives for a host of different reasons, but a talented leader will focus on a cause which will inflame their emotional arousal.
This has a long history. It happened through the ages whenever a religion was hijacked by greedy priests for purposes of power. It happened in the twentieth century with disastrous consequences when Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin came to power, leaders with ideologies which we can see now as political cults. Cults built on fear and greed. All with the consent of the majority, who thus found themselves trapped in a collective trance.
In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder warns that it is happening now, that the wave of discontent and division that is washing over the Western world will lead to a loss of liberty unless it is checked. He warns that our democratic heritage does not necessarily protect us from this threat. That democracies can fall, to be replaced by gulags and men with guns.
Snyder, who teaches history at Yale, received the Hanna Arendt Prize in 2011 for his book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, about the ideologically driven murder of fourteen million people. Then, in 2017, he wrote On Tyranny as a warning against the increase in totalitarian politics sweeping the United States of America and other parts of the world. Warnings such as Snyder’s book can help us be more aware of how we respond to emotional appeals like these and can therefore help us consciously respond to difficult times in a more positive fashion.
THE COLLAPSE INTO TOTALITARIANISM
In the 20th century, European democracies collapsed into Fascism, Nazism and Communism. These political systems promised to protect their people against existential threats. They rejected reason in favour of a myth. The Fascists and Nazis rejected reason in exchange for the leader’s will, the Communists used reason to work towards a mythical future foretold by the supposedly fixed laws of history, inevitably resulting in the replacement of capitalism with socialism, the ultimate triumph of the working class. Individuals were willing to give up personal responsibility for their lives and leave it to the state to decide.
This history shows how easy it is for societies to break down, democracies to fall and ethics to collapse. History may not repeat, but knowledge of history can familiarise, and it can warn. By revealing what has happened before, it can help us resist the advance of despotism.
The book puts forward twenty lessons on how to protect against tyranny. To give you a flavor, here are nine of them:
1. Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
2. Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. So choose an institution you care about and take its side.
3. Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections.
4. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
5. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights. You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.
6. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate to others.
7. Learn from peers in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
8. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. Do not fall for it.
9. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.
NOTHING IS INEVITABLE
After the end of Communism in eastern Europe in 1989-91, some people came to believe the myth of the end of history, the idea that our social and political evolution had reached its final, perfect endpoint. But the politics of inevitability is part of a self-induced coma. The acceptance of inevitability stifled policy debate. We began to think that there is no alternative. It was assumed that the free market had triumphed over all competing political systems, that it was self-regulating and that it was permanent. That there would not be further change.
This also bred a mood of longing for an imagined past. Because, for many, the burdens of freedom and democracy are too great to bear, and they are only too happy to be told what to do. For instance, when British judges ruled that a parliamentary vote was needed for Brexit, a tabloid called them “enemies of the people”, a term from Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s. Snyder writes: “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex.”
“The politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythical past prevents us from thinking of possible futures.” The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. These attitudes in a naïve and flawed democratic republic lead easily to a confused and cynical kind of fascist oligarchy.
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