LAST AMENDMENT* (clxvii)

AMERICAN TYRANT

Untitled, Engraved Printmaking Plate, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**

Since its timely publication in 2017, I have read and re-read Timothy Snyder’s ON TYRANNY: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century. Snyder, an expert in Twentieth Century European history, packs his short book with warnings and their signs that resulted in twenty years of fascist and seventy of communist rule in Europe. He explains in preface:

“Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people. They put a face on globalization, arguing that its complex challenges were the result of a conspiracy against the nation. . . .

“We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”

Regardless of whether Snyder's lessons are known they have gone unheeded by giant swaths of Americans who are steeped in fear, hatred and “perceived inequality” and “helplessness.” Elected officials, who have sworn oaths to execute sacred duties of oversight, quake in fear of the personal and political consequences of anything short of fealty. They fawn and prostrate themselves before Trump in their abdication. The United States now appears well along the path to tyranny.

These deeply worrisome times grow more so by the day. In this post, I list Snyder’s twenty lessons as his reminder of the fragility of liberal democracy and hope for added awareness. In each chapter, he elaborates on the lesson with historical examples and perspective. I strongly encourage everyone to obtain and carefully study his book.

Anyone who has paid attention since January 20, 2017, will recognize and understand many if not most of these lessons in their breach.

Lesson 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 they offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”

• Snyder calls this “anticipatory obedience” which he deems a “political tragedy.” “At the very beginning, anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation.” In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the SS took the initiative to devise methods of mass killing without orders to do so. They guessed what their superiors wanted and demonstrated what was possible. It was far more than Hitler had thought.”

Lesson 2: “Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us 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. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.”

• “We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks. . . . The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy the very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced they will do. . . . Sometimes institutions are deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were, so that they gird the new order rather than resisting it.”

Lesson 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. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.”

• “Does the history of tyranny apply to the United States? Certainly the early Americans who spoke of ‘eternal vigilance’ would have thought so. The logic of the system they devised was to mitigate the consequences of our real imperfections, not to celebrate our imaginary perfection. We certainly face, as did the ancient Greeks, the problem of oligarchy—even more threatening as globalization increases differences in wealth. The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens. We believe we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like the present: when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level . . . . The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with the society at large, and several that are generally unpopular—and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.”

• “Much needs to be done to fix the gerrymandered system so that each citizen has one equal vote, and so that each vote can be counted by a fellow citizen. We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.”

Lesson 4: “Take responsibility for the face of the world. The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. 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.”

• “Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future. In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”

• “You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them.”

Lesson 5: “Remember professional ethics. When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and the concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.”

• “Before the Second World War, a man named Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer. . . . Frank claimed the law was meant to serve the race, and so what seemed good for the race was therefore the law. With arguments like this, German lawyers could convince themselves that laws and rules were there to serve their projects of conquest and destruction, rather than hinder them.”

• “If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.”

• “Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as ‘just following orders.’ If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously thought unimaginable.”

Lesson 6: “Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official policy and military intermingle, the end has come.”

• “If only the government can legitimately use force, and this use is constrained by law, then the forms of politics that we take for granted become possible. It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government when agencies beyond the state also have access to violence.”

• “Because the American federal government uses mercenaries in warfare and American state governments pay corporations to run prisons, the use of violence in the United States is already highly privatized. . . . As a candidate, the president ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies, but also encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions. . . . This kind of mob violence was meant to transform the political atmosphere, and it did.”

Lesson 7: “Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.”

• “Authoritarian regimes usually include a special riot police force whose task is to disperse citizens who seek to protest, and a secret state police force whose assignments include the murder of dissenters or others designated as enemies. . . . Without the assistance of regular police forces, they could not have killed on such a large scale.”

Lesson 8: “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.”

• “Without telling her family, and at great risk to herself, Teresa [Prekerowa] chose to enter the Warsaw ghetto a dozen times in late 1940, bringing food and medicine to Jews she knew and Jews she did not. By the end of the year she had persuaded her brother’s friend to escape the ghetto. In 1942 Teresa helped the girl’s parents and brother escape. That summer in the Warsaw ghetto, the Germans carried out what they called the ‘Great Action,' deporting some 265,040 Jews to the death factory at Treblinka to be murdered and killing another 10,380 Jews in the ghetto itself. Teresa saved a family from certain death.”

• “When, much later, she was asked to speak about her own life, she called her actions normal. From our perspective, her actions seemed exceptional. She stood out.”

Lesson 9: “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

• “More than half a century ago, the classic novels of totalitarianism warned of the domination of screens, the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought.”

• “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can.”

Lesson 10: “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. This renunciation of reality can feel normal and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual—and thus the collapse of any political system that depends on individualism. . . . [T]ruth dies in four modes, all of which we have just witnessed.”

• “The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting interventions and lies as if they were fact. . . .”

• “The second mode is the shamanistic incantation. . . . [T]he fascist style depends on ‘endless repetition,’ designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable. . . . The systematic use of nicknames . . . displaced certain character traits that might more appropriately have been affixed to the president himself. Yet through blunt repetition over Twitter, our president managed the transformation of individuals into stereotypes that people then spoke aloud. . . .”

• The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. The president’s campaign involved the promises of cutting taxes for everyone, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on both social policy and national defense. These promises mutually contradict. . . . Accepting untruth of this radical kind requires a blatant abandonment of reason. . . .”

• “The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said that ‘I alone can solve it,’ ‘I am your voice.’ When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience. . . . Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant. . . . Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confuse faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

Lesson 11: “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.”

• “It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.”

• “We need print journalists so that stories can develop on the page and in our minds. . . . The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information.”

• If we are serious about seeking the facts, we can each make a small revolution in the way the internet works. If you are verifying information for yourself, you will not send on fake news to others. If you choose to follow reporters whom you have reason to trust, you can also transmit what they have learned to others. If you retweet only the work of humans who have followed journalistic protocols, you are less likely to debase your brain interacting with bots and trolls.”

Lesson 12: “Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.”

• “Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment. . . . When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.”

• “In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change.”

Lesson 13: “Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.”

• “For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends. Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”

Lesson 14: “Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.”

• “What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life. We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it.”

• “Totalitarianism removes the difference between private and public not just to make individuals unfree, but also to draw the whole society away from normal politics and toward conspiracy theories. Rather than defining facts or generating interpretations, we are seduced by the notion of hidden realities and dark conspiracies that explain everything.

• “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.”

Lesson 15: “Contribute to good causes. Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good.”

• “When Americans think of freedom, we usually imagine a contest between a lone individual and a powerful government. . . . But one element of freedom is the choice of associates, and one defense of freedom is the activity of groups to sustain their members. This is why we should engage in activities that are of interest to us, our friends, our families. These need not be expressly political.”

• “In the twentieth century, all the major enemies of freedom were hostile to non-governmental organizations, charities, and the like. . . . Today’s authoritarians (in India, Turkey, Russia) are also highly allergic to the idea of free associations and non-governmental organizations.”

Lesson 16: “Learn from peers in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. 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.”

• “In the year before the president was elected, American journalists were often mistaken about his campaign. As he surmounted barrier after barrier and accumulated victory after victory, our commentariat assured us that at the next stage he would be stopped by one fine American institution or another. . . . To Ukrainians, Americans seemed comically slow to react to the obvious threats of cyberwar and fake news. When Russian propaganda made Ukraine a target in 2013, young Ukrainian journalists and others reacted immediately, decisively, and sometimes humorously with campaigns to expose disinformation.”

• “[H]aving a passport is not a sign of surrender. On the contrary, it is liberating, since it creates the possibility of new experiences. It allows us to see how other people, sometimes wiser than we, react to similar problems. Since so much of what has happened in the last year is familiar to the rest of the world or from recent history, we must observe and listen.”

Lesson 17: “Listen for dangerous words. Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notion of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.”

• “A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents 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. . . . When politicians . . . try to train us to surrender freedom in the name of safety, we should be on our guard. There is no necessary tradeoff between the two. Sometimes we do indeed gain one by losing the other and sometimes not. People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.”

• “There is no doctrine called extremism. When tyrants speak of extremists, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream—as the tyrants themselves are defining that mainstream at that particular moment. . . . Modern authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, use laws on extremism to punish those who criticize their policies. In this way the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.”

Lesson 18: “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. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.”

• “For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. 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 so.”

Lesson 19: “Be a patriot. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.”

• After going into some detail over several pages to define what patriotism is not, using Trump as the example, Snyder explains: “A patriot . . . wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where this country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it could do better.”

Lesson 20: “Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com

**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers

ravchief

Natural US Citizen. Caucasian. Shamed into blogging by DSM-V Cluster B 9/9-led regime, Utah's most embarrassing congressperson, and Newton's Third Law of Motion. The views expressed are mine.

USA, Utah, Salt Lake City

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