Sunday, March 5, 2017

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

This is a short, quick book to read, perhaps 30-45 minutes of your time. And at only $2.99 (on Kindle) you can't afford not to buy it. For those who found his list of 20 points elsewhere on the web for free, don't let that suffice. The book adds commentary to his list, and it's worth the small cost.

For those of you not acquainted with Snyder, he's a historian of Eastern Europe and has written extensively on the turmoil--the killing fields--of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. He knows whereof he speaks.

I will offer you a couple of his thoughts from his concluding remarks. In addressing what he terms "the politics of inevitability," he notes

Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. After communism in eastern Europe came to an end in 1989–91, we imbibed the myth of an “end of history.” In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Kindle Locations 765-769). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. 
But he then addresses the converse attitude, what he calls "the politics of eternity." About this attitude, he states
In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate? 
Id. at 810-815.
In contrast to both of these attitudes, he places history (an encomium with which I could not agree more):
Both of these positions, inevitability and eternity, are antihistorical. The only thing that stands between them is history itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz thought that such a notion of responsibility worked against loneliness and indifference. History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.
Id. at 822-827 
In his peroration, he exhorts young people especially (although it applies to all of us)
One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. 
This is not the end, but a beginning. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” Thus Hamlet. Yet he concludes: “Nay, come, let’s go together.” 
Id. at 830-834
Buy this book and read it! 

The Siberian Candidate?

A recent tweet by Gary Lachman, who writes about the history and philosophy of consciousness, has prompted some further reflection by me about the strange case of Trump's connection with Russia.

Let me start with where I'm coming from. Conspiracy theories abound in modern society (and their roots go deep into human history). I find that as soon as someone promotes a conspiracy theory, I immediately throw them into my mental looney bin (although once in a great while I have to dig one out). The list has always been long: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a supposed secret Jewish blueprint for world hegemony in the early 20th century; black helicopters landing blue-helmeted U.N. troops to take over the U.S.; the Trilateral Commission as a world-controlling cabal; the JFK assassination plots concocted by . . . take your pick. In short (and my list could go on and on), we humans would rather latch on to a dark fairy tale that reveals that someone is in control than admit that a lone actor or a complex confluence of conditions beyond our ken lead to outcomes that frighten and disturb us.

But even paranoids have enemies, right? There are conspiracies throughout history. The assassinations of Caesar and of Lincoln, to name just two of the better known proven conspiracies.  So when contemplating conspiracies, one finds that diamonds sometimes lie in the mud, revealed only after sifting through the mental muck that clouds our vision.

So what is the Trump-Putin connection? Is it merely a matter of autocrat envy? There are many displays this trait, such as Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey. This explanation is plausible. Or it could be a matter of shared ideology: the West (and Orthodox East) vs. Islam in a battle of the civilizations. Perhaps this belief set plays a role as well. Or it could be that Putin has some dirt on Trump that gives him sway over Trump. But how could Trump's reputation be further despoiled? Perhaps by showing he owes more than he's worth or some revelation that is the business equivalent of small hands.

At present, we just don't know. I agree that simply bashing Trump and his administration by way of association with Russia is a weak line of thought and attack. Being of a realist bent in the field of international relations, I don't go much for this. If Trump was trustworthy, working on specific deals and shared interests with the Putin regime could prove useful, so demonization of Russia as a whole is not a good avenue. On the other hand, Trump and his administration--except probably his Defense Secretary--seem naive and ill-informed about the Putin regime's intentions and the nefarious activities in which they certainly do engage (like disrupting U.S. and European elections). To put it bluntly, in the world of geopolitics, Putin comes across as a whole lot sharper than Trump.

So despite the great Hollywood potential that would make The Parallax View, JFK, or The Manchurian Candidate seem all too timid, I'm going to say that we have only what appears to be smoke. Maybe it's fog or maybe it's smoke. I don't see a fire, and we must prove that we have a fire in the house before we act. However, when we're not sure about what's happening, we'd damn well better call out the fire department just in case. And in this instance, the fire department needs to be a strong, truly independent investigatory commission. Congress has to take up its constitutional mantle and act.

In any event, the events of the Trump candidacy and administration will provide plenty of weird takes that will provide fodder for many a writer for decades to come (unless he messes us up even worse than I want to imagine).