What do you do with a tangled, embroiling week like this? Endless war in Afghanistan announced with platitudes, fanfare and no information; an assault on National Monuments and National Parks; in Phoenix a double down double talk by the President on white supremacy, “dishonest media,” “the wall” and shutting down the government if it isn’t funded; flame thrower anti-immigration rhetoric; Trump pardoning former Maricopa Country Sherriff Joe Arpaio who was convicted in July of criminal contempt of a federal court order forbidding him to racially profile Hispanics; and, locally, the still atomized, stealth mayoral election, with its sorry bottom feeding of gossip and backbiting.
How does one make sense of the Gatling Gun reality of news and politics in the 21st century? How does one keep track of local needs and issues when national politics is a daily mudslide of distraction?
One way is to try to clean the guck from perception by using a modified version of the scientific method. By that, I mean submitting the ephemera of daily ups and downs, horrors and absurdities, to a structure of focused questions, hoping that curiosity can impose some order.
Questioning events this week I’ve decided to ride the coat tails of a Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder and his new and brilliant little book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” In the light of those lessons, my ordering question is summed up like this: Can a theatrical demagogue with a genius for chaos, one with a shrinking constituency, abysmal approval ratings, and zero interest in reality, overcome a 240-year old political culture like ours and turn it into a one man, one party, goon squad autocracy? Part of the answer is “maybe not,” if we pay attention to the lessons of the 20th century. But what happens if we don’t? That’s a far more likely scenario. Do we really want to find out?
Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny” is a trenchant field guide to the perplexities of the day. He begins by reassuring us that “history does not repeat, but it does instruct.” He cites the ancients with crisp precision. Aristotle “warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.” America won’t repeat the mistakes of Athens in the fifth century BC, but Athenian thinkers can, in Snyder’s words, “familiarize” and “warn” us that general principles can lead to universal consequences such as hierarchically corrupt European democracies collapsing “into right-wing authoritarianism and fascism” as many did in Europe in the 1920 and 1930s. Inequality and demagoguery are the hallmarks of our moment. And Snyder reminds us that “Americans today are no wiser” than the Europeans of the early 20th Century.
Of Snyder’s twenty lessons I’ll see if a few of them can help cleanse the doors of perception enough to make some sense of this week’s scrambled smear across our psyches.
Lesson 1 is “Do not obey in advance.” He writes “anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.” “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a 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.” This is why the overwhelming oppositional responses to white supremacist rallies in Virginia and Boston recently, and in Phoenix last week, are so crucial in preventing “anticipatory obedience.” In Lesson 13, “Practice corporeal politics,” Snyder reminds us that, “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen.” He advises to “get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.” There’s real danger in doing so, of course. While the more than Million Woman’s March on Washington was thoroughly and inspiringly peaceful, the legal protest of Trump’s speech in Phoenix was met with brutally aggressive police tactics — tear gas, fire hoses, dogs, truncheons. No anticipatory obedience there, and I say that with admiration and gratitude for those with the fortitude to endure such physical misery for their principles.
Snyder’s Lesson 4 is “to take responsibility for the face of the world.” By that he means “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.” Opposition in Phoenix to Trump’s defense of his remarks after the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is following the advice of Lesson 4 and, in doing so, transcends the pitiful waste of futile gestures.
Snyder’s Lesson 2 is to “Defend institutions.” He says that 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.” The institution of our national parks and monuments needs devotion now more than ever. So does the rule of law.
For President Trump to pardon Sheriff Arpaio of a federal criminal contempt conviction is a heinous undermining of the institution upon which all our lives, and our whole way of life — our national culture for better or worse — depend. The rule of law, the struggle for “equal justice under law,” is the first and last defense against outright authoritarianism. What happens to some of our people really does happen to all of us. If a sheriff’s contempt of the law in Arizona can ravage one group of people, everyone else can be turned on too. It’s the same with Jim Crow in the South. It infects our whole culture and gives an example to police all over the country to abuse the civil rights of African Americans, Hispanics, LGBT people, women, and anyone else they don’t like, or murder them and get away with it.
The institution of our national parks and monuments is the foundation of America’s environmental movement, our more than 50-year effort to clean our air and water, and keep them clean, for reasons of public sanitation. Our national parks and monuments are the symbolic bedrock of our understanding of the relationship between a clean environment and public health. Indirectly, public lands stand for a scientific revelation that has saved millions of lives for more than 150 years, linking a clean and beautiful environment, free of human contamination, to not only spiritual and creative health, but to optimum physical health as well. It’s a mistake and a trivialization to think that defending our national lands is only about recreation and “resources.”
Lesson 11, “Investigate,” gets to the heart of local politics in Albuquerque, and the sorry state it’s in. This lesson tells us to “figure things out” for ourselves, go to primary sources, for instance, talk to mayoral candidates, see if they will talk to you. See if they bad mouth their opponents with malign innuendo, make tacky accusations against them, or tell you to “go to our website” if you ask them substantive questions about issues, dismissing your genuine right to see them think on their feet. If you do that before the election on October 3 you’ll find that some Democrats are getting down right nasty with their Democratic competition. There’s actually a group of people, mostly Republicans but some Democrats too, who are explicitly or tacitly out to smear Tim Keller with outrageous allegations because of a piece of defeated legislation he supported in the past as a state senator. Do some investigation for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
In his epilogue, Snyder coins the term “the politics of inevitability” — inevitable decline, inevitable victory, inevitable progress, inevitable descent into fascism and the horrors of autocracy. But the politics of inevitability is “a self-induced intellectual comma.” It leads to the danger we face today “a passage from … a naïve and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.” Nothing is inevitable.
As Snyder asserts, “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” if we pay attention. The future of our politics is, without a doubt, up to us. To link our political action to our depression and anxiety is paralyzing and tragic. The odds may seem sinister and overwhelmingly negative but the future only arises out of the present, and in politics that means the present state of mind. If you don’t want the worst, get in its way. You don’t have to be optimistic, just resolute and savvy. You don’t have to be fearless either. Just feeling responsible can jolt us out of the coma of inevitability. Even having one eye open is better than that.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image from takomabibelot and adapted from Shepard Fairey’s “The Tyrant Boot”)