Thursday, June 11, 2020

Is Tyranny Winning?

I recently read Timothy Snyder’s ‘On Tyranny’ (2016), a short but very rousing book. It made me realize, that I spent my entire life, which is quite long by now, under a system of government whose values I have always taken for granted. It is called Democracy.

But nothing about it should be taken for granted. Since Trump became our President, I realize how ‘unnatural’ this order really is. It is ‘unnatural’ in the sense that were it up to nature, things would be arranged quite differently.

Nature doesn’t give a fig about the ‘rule of law’, about ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’. You won’t see a gazelle stop dead in her tracks while fleeing from a cheetah and say: ‘Hey, stop right there! I have my rights too, you know!’ We made up those rules and those concepts because it made living together a lot safer, freer and ultimately more enjoyable.

I was born and fled a country that had a tyrannical regime. Hungary was part of the Communist block for almost 60 years and, even though I was a child when I left, there was enough talk in our family about the dangers of totalitarianism. I should have recognized what was happening in the US a lot sooner than I did. Besides, being a septuagenarian, I have had enough time to learn how to recognize rot when I see it. But I didn’t. Like many of us, I suffer from complacency and a sense of entitlement.

Snyder meant to write On Tyranny as a manifesto, a wakeup call for people like me, who are asleep while walking around. People who say things like ‘It will work out’, ‘It is just temporary’ and ‘This cannot happen here’. But there is nothing ‘exceptional’ about America. Even though the country was founded on democratic principles to fight tyranny, nothing prevents a tyrant from taking over that system. The only advantage America has, Snyder says in his Prologue, is that we can learn from Europe’s past mistakes.

Therefore, he lists 20 lessons from the 20th century, to help us recognize when tyranny threatens to take over a democracy. Since some of those lessons are more important than others, in my opinion, I will write about those.

Do Not Obey in Advance
The most important lesson of all is what Snyder calls ‘Anticipatory Obedience’. We are all, more or less, conditioned to obey. We obey our parents, obey the rules of traffic, obey when we have to pay taxes, etc., no questions asked.

But when it comes to politics, Snyder calls this type of obedience a tragedy. ‘Anticipatory Obedience means adapting to new circumstances without reflection or independent judgment, and later not merely adapting, but conforming to what is expected by the authorities before being commanded by them’.

He uses the example of the notorious Milgram Shock Experiment, in which ‘teachers’ applied electric shocks to ‘students’, every time they gave a wrong answer, an experiment that proved how easy it is to follow orders, even when it causes harm to others. Many European countries were anticipating the Nazi’s wish to get rid of the Jews by terrorizing them and rounding them up for deportation. They did this willingly. Closer to home, we have Republican Senators who are following the new rules, no questions asked, enabling a madman.

Defend institutions
Snyder reminds us that institutions are not like trees (my metaphor), that once you plant them, they will be there for eternity. They need to be protected from being taken over. That is why I admire the protestors who walk down the streets of every major city right now, trying to fix a broken law enforcement institution.

Beware the One Party State
Americans see themselves as the defenders of freedom. We fight lots of wars to make other countries ‘free’. But what about our own country? We do not have a one-party state (yet), but when one party controls all three branches of government, does the system of checks and balances still protect us from totalitarianism?

Be kind to our language
It is so easy to get used to slogans and labels. We all use the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, even if we don’t agree with it. The slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, the ultimate insult to freedom , was written over the entrance of concentration camps in Nazi Germany. And how many times have we heard politicians use the words ‘the American people’, to convince us of what they say is what we want?

Remember professional ethics
This one is so obvious that it is easy to overlook. As Snyder points out Authoritarians need obedient civil servants to carry out their plans . Professional ethics go a long way toward changing what is mandated from above. You cannot have a show trial without a judge, subvert a law without a lawyer, sign concentration camp admission papers without a willing bureaucrat.

Believe in Truth
Facts matter and facts are either true or not. There is no such thing as ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’. Without truth there is no way to fight power. During his campaign, Trump promised to cut taxes, reduce the deficit, increase spending to help the poor and increase the military budget. You don’t have to be an Einstein to realize that those promises are mutually contradictory, but his supporters had no problem accepting it because they denied the truth and only believed what they wanted to hear.

Learn from peers in other countries
Many Americans can spend their entire lives without leaving this vast country. Why would they? It’s big enough to travel, with a landscape that varies state by state. But this luxury has a drawback: it creates an insular mindset and prevents one from seeing how other people, sometimes wiser, deal with similar problems. I would rate this lesson as the second most important one.

Finally, I would suggest that every American citizen be required to spend some time in an authoritarian regime. That would certainly take the blinders off and teach us that democracy is precious. That we don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone. leave comment here