Sunday, May 28, 2017

On Tyranny: History Instructs

Hillary Clinton, at Wellesley, NYT, 27 May 2017,
by Jess Bidgood & Katharine Q. Seelye. Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters.
"As the history majors among you here today know all too well, when people in power invent their own facts and attack those who question them, it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society./That is not hyperbole. It is what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done. They attempt to control reality. Not just our laws and our rights and our budgets, but our thoughts and beliefs." Hillary Clinton commencement address, Wellesley College, May 2017
Timothy Snyder, Yale historian and author of The Bloodlands, was in Toledo at the public library to talk about his latest little book called "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century."  He said he sat at his computer the day after the shock of Trump's election and wrote the book right then and there. He made use of his extraordinary knowledge of the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin and the murderous havoc they caused during and after World War II. He's an expert on authoritarian regimes.

He saw red flags everywhere during the presidential campaign. Trump's overblown rhetoric and Hillary-hatred; his attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, anyone he didn't like; the whipping up of a false nationalist fervor; the way he framed and repeated his rants ("Build a Wall," "Lock her Up"); his ignorance of history; his ego-driven obsession with numbers and winning; the focus on himself and not the issues, which he knew little about; a facile disregard for Rule of Law; and perhaps most disturbing of all, his attacks on the media, the charges of "fake news" against any news he didn't like, the embrace of such outlets as Breitbart, his denigration of facts and truth.

Snyder notes in his book that Trump fact-checkers at one time "found that 78% of his factual claims were false."  That's a pretty high rate of lying. "Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld," Snyder emphasized. Yep, his attentive audience nodded, and we are living with that "counterworld" today.

"On Tyranny" is a series of lessons on how to resist the totalitarianism Snyder sees in the rise of Trump. Lots of us saw it; experience is confirming it. The truth and timeliness of Snyder's message was not lost on this informed and appreciative audience. Marcy Kaptur, our representative in Congress, introduced Snyder.  It was Marcy who introduced me to The Bloodlands when I returned from Ukraine. It's her favorite recent history book, and it's become mine as well. Snyder wrote about eastern Europe caught between Hitler and Stalin.  He revisioned the history of WWII and the murderous legacy of the times, the consequences of which are still felt today. I felt them in Ukraine.

And they have only became worse with time. The rise of Putin's fervent Russian nationalism, his ramped up propaganda machine, his invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, his interference in our world as we know it and his goal to destabilize Europe and the US, confirm that totalitarianism is alive and well, and as devastating to human kind as it ever was.

Now, Snyder fears, it is alive and well in America too, and it will destroy our democracy, as the Founding Fathers feared it would, unless we deliberately confront it head on. Snyder repeats some of the obvious truisms about resistance--be an informed citizen, defend democratic institutions, remember professional ethics, beware the one-party state, stand out, investigate, be a critical thinker. But what for me resonated the most is the very issue Hillary Clinton addressed in her Wellesley commencement address. "Believe in truth."  Snyder puts it as succinctly and firmly as Hillary did: "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 is.  If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.  The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights." 


Hillary warned us. 
I believe this. The whole phenomenon of questioning what is fact and what is "alternative facts," what are lies, what is real, has swept us onto the terrain of tyranny. People who believe they have facts when they have false information and false news on which they base their votes and their allegiance leaves the rest of us who know it's false news hanging out to dry in a kind of no-man's land. Hillary warned us time and again during the campaign. But a fictional counterworld had already arisen, it doesn't take long, and it spelled tragedy for the United States. When facts don't matter, when truth doesn't matter and becomes awash in "alternative facts" made up by tyrants, we are in dangerous territory. It's where we are today.















































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