The most important book of 2017

It may be too early to state that tyranny has returned in the West, but we can now safely say that it could. A mere three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have sufficiently neglected history to reestablish the conditions under which the right demagogue could seize power in a Western country such as the United States and turn it into a dictatorship.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder disagrees with you. Snyder’s recently published book, “On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century,” is both harrowing and terrifying. It is also the most important book I’ve read, and expect to read, in 2017. No high school student should be allowed to graduate without having read it and demonstrated a sufficient understanding of it.

On Tyranny

You have no excuse. I read it from cover to cover in about 90 minutes. It is a clear, concise little book that compellingly argues the West (and more specifically the U.S.) is more ripe today for a tyrannical takeover than it has been at any moment since – at least – the Second World War. The book is constructed in a way that forces the reader to diagnose the problem and it suggests steps (hence the 20 lessons) to stop wannabe dictators in their tracks. In a nutshell, here is Snyder enunciating the thesis of the book:

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. […] We might think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. […] 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.

Snyder never says it outright, but one only has to read a few pages of the book to realize the author fears the U.S. has moved closer to a dictatorship by electing Donald Trump as President. Snyder never mentions him by name, but references him several times. It’s not that he says outright that Trump is the new Hitler, but shows us that Trump is resorting to the 20th century dictator playbook constantly.

Given Trump’s tendency to throw “fake news” accusations around as if they were going out of style, and Kellyanne Conway’s goofy concept of alternative facts, lesson number 10, entitled “Believe in truth,” seems like a deliberate jab at Trump and his administration. Whether or not it is, however, the reason for Snyder’s emphasis on believing in truth is both crucial and beautifully put:

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 everything is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Does any of this ring a bell?

As a part of his tips for keeping tyranny away, Snyder makes several suggestions that rang close to home for me and warmed my heart. I was especially grateful for his call to defend journalism, the always much-maligned profession for which I was trained. Journalists are not perfect, but theirs is a difficult job, made harder if not impossible by any dictator, and as Snyder pointed out in his conversation with the great Sam Harris, journalists, especially in the print medium, have done a quality job holding Trump’s feet to the fire. The least we can do in return to show our appreciation for their work is to support them, not just by reading them, but by subscribing to the publications they work for. Amen.

Moreover, the Yale historian’s first lesson, and perhaps his most stressful (because, he says, if you don’t heed it, none of the other 19 will make sense to you) is to resist an urge society urges us to develop: to obey in advance. Most of authoritarianism’s power is not taken, Snyder observes. It is given. (The terrifying example of Turkey recently turning itself into a dictatorship via referendum comes to mind as I write this.) Dictatorships thrive on people’s instinctive docility, which is worrisome considering Generation Y2K’s propensity for apathy provided you promise them a nice living and sedate with some kind of computer screen. (We live in a time when a Quebec English teacher was chastised by his students for requiring them to read George Orwell’s 1984. The students said they didn’t care about social control so long as they could live comfortably. This represents a catastrophic failure in parenting. But I digress.)

A lesson from the 21st Century

Stephen Colbert had some wise words on the night of Donald Trump’s election:

So how did our politics get so poisonous? I think it’s because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side. And it tastes kind of good. And you like how it feels. And there’s a gentle high to the condemnation, right? And you know you’re right, right?! You know you’re right!

Observing my own surroundings, I would like to propose, as an addendum, an initial lesson from the 21st Century: “Do not make the mistake of thinking ‘the other side’ has a monopoly on political fanaticism or on liberticidal impulses.” I would argue the internet, which was supposed to democratize all sorts of information, has been a cancer to the quality of political discussion throughout the West. Say what you will about the mainstream media, but its obsession over giving people “both sides of the story,” even when the two sides don’t have equal merit, has the benefit of forcing people to at least hear out the point of view of those with whom they disagree.

In our current age, when everyone with a laptop and an internet connection can set up a blog, the online world has become the home of echo chambers in which like-minded people wind each other up about the indecency and the stupidity of those who think differently. This is no way to foster an intelligent collective discussion about the future of liberty and prosperity. Instead, people build a universe in which they are entitled not just to their own opinions, but to their own facts. And because of our tendency to prefer the company of those with whom we agree, people have become decreasingly accustomed to having their ideas challenged and thus increasingly immature in their reactions when their views are indeed questioned.

This is in and of itself a problem, but it’s made worse by the fact that both the extreme left and extreme right do it, yet treat it as something only the other side does. The extreme left, out of a kind-hearted desire to protect vulnerable sections of the population, tends to see -ists and -phobes everywhere and, when they are called out on this nasty habit, accuse their critics of demanding the right to be intolerant. While some of the extreme left’s critics are guilty of this, many others come from the moderate left and do not deserve to be lumped into the same boat as the true racists and homophobes of the extreme right.

Speaking of the extreme right, it often, out of some naive belief that it has a monopoly on the ability to grasp reality, will sarcastically tag members of the left as the “PC police” or as “social justice warriors.” Again, while the extreme left does have members who take political correctness to, well, the extreme, there are indeed vulnerable individuals who are in fact victims of injustice and intolerance, and there is no way around the fact that defending these people is a legitimate enterprise.

Nothing productive comes of these trials of intent. Whether our beliefs place us more on the right or on the left of the political spectrum, we should remember that it is intellectually deficient to dismiss our political opponents with sarcastic nicknames or scary epithets in order to avoid grappling with their views as opposed to actually hearing them out and refuting them.

In time, these people come to see each other as enemies rather than opponents, and as dangerous rather than simply wrong. The distinction matters because the ensuing hostility is a conversation stopper as opposed to a conversation starter. In the end, when the proper enemy actually comes, one side will be so glad to have him/her because he/she seems to agree with them that they’ll be unable to see through this new charismatic leader before it’s too late. Meanwhile, the other side will have exhausted its credibility and its warnings will fall on deaf ears. We should instead reiterate that our commitment to core values like liberty transcends our disagreements over what we deem to be the ideal size of the welfare state or the proper way to treat minorities. We cannot afford to have two factions screaming “Wolf!” about each other. Because, at the end of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the wolf actually does come.

A sobering reminder

We are, Snyder said in his conversation with Harris on the latter’s podcast, paying the price of raising a generation under the belief that History has ended. This is in reference to Francis Fukuyama’s famously optimistic proclamation about the fall of the Berlin Wall being “the end of History,” i.e. the end of conflicting ideologies competing for some kind of supremacy. It basically meant that, according to Fukuyama, democracy and capitalism were now to govern the world mostly uncontested. Soon after, we found out he was wrong; Fukuyama himself retracted his statement but, according to Snyder, the generation approaching adulthood has been raised as if Fukuyama was right. The result, he says, is that Y2K kids haven’t really learned history, much less its lessons. Combined with their uncommon docility, which often stems from hedonism, their lack of historical culture makes them more vulnerable not so much to succumb to authoritarianism, but to welcome it.

This should all lead us back to the wise words of the poet Michael Rosen…

I sometimes fear that

people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.

It will restore your honour,

make you feel proud,

protect your house,

give you a job,

clean up the neighbourhood,

remind you of how great you once were,

clear out the venal and the corrupt,

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

It doesn’t walk in saying…

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments,

transportation, war and persecution.”

All those of us who have, in any way, young people in our care should make sure we remind them as well as ourselves of these words, and of the contents of Snyder’s book while we still can. If we still can.

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