Sunday, June 25, 2017

Twenty Ways To Recognize Tyranny and Fight It

I cannot recommend Timothy Snyder's new book strongly enough. I believe it to be essential reading, especially for those of us who may not know our history well and may be struggling to connect the dots between our past and present. - Molly
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in North Charleston, S.C. on Feb. 19, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Review of "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century" by Timothy Snyder
By Carlos Lozada

The early cautions that Donald Trump could become an American strongman, trampling our sad checks and loser balances, came in the late spring of last year — and they were both dire and a bit conflicted. “Trump is an extinction-level event” for American democracy, Andrew Sullivan declared in New York magazine, even while wondering if he was overreacting. And Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan’s broadside, “This is how fascism comes to America,” was as much an attack on a feckless Republican Party for falling in line behind Trump’s nomination as a surefire prediction of what was to be.
Now, nine months later, the warnings have become more specific and resigned, and thus even more believable. Trump may attract scorn and ridicule — think of the late-night jokeslow approval ratings and all that #NotMyPresident stuff — but he elicits ever stronger fears of homegrown authoritarianism. In the latest Atlantic, David Frum paints a plausible landscape of American illiberalism circa 2020, when voting is harder, self-censorship is rampant, Congress is submissive, graft is pervasive and truth is ever hazier. This is the gradual eclipse of liberty, “not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit,” he writes.
Historian Timothy Snyder does not offer a corrective to the pessimism of this genre — he is a scholar of the Holocaust, after all — but begins to illuminate a path forward from it. “On Tyranny” is a slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and feels only slightly less vital. Steeped in the history of interwar Germany and the horrors that followed, Snyder still writes with bracing immediacy, providing 20 plain and mostly actionable lessons on preventing, or at least forestalling, the repression of lives and minds.
Don’t count Snyder among the American-exceptionalism crowd, at least not as the concept is usually understood. “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century,” he writes. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” The U.S. political system, he notes, was designed “to mitigate the consequences of our real imperfections, not to celebrate our imaginary perfection.”
The author dwells on “the politics of the everyday” to show the small ways people succumb to or fend off the encroachment of tyranny. Much of the initial power granted to nondemocratic leaders is given freely, via “heedless acts of conformity,” long before popular docility is requested or required. Snyder recalls how, when Hitler threatened to invade Austria, regular Austrian citizens looked on, or joined in, as local Nazis detained Austrian Jews or stole their property. “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy,” the author writes.
The early days of the Trump presidency have seen acts of subversion by civil servants, including damaging leaks and social-media rebellions, signaling opposition to particular policies or actions by the new administration. Snyder emphasizes that the professional classes — civil servants as well as doctors, lawyers and busi­ness­peo­ple — bear special responsibility when individual freedoms are at risk. “It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges,” he writes. “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.”
Professional associations, with their codes of ethics, best practices and collective voices, can command attention, creating “forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government,” Snyder explains.
That hardly means there is no role for that lonely individual. Snyder devotes several of his lessons to the power of small decisions in the face of eroding democracy. “The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote,” he argues. “Our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”

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