I was tempted into reading Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny” after seeing him on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah sharing some simple insights from his academic area of expertise, European history of the first half of the 20th Century. His message is straightforward.
History cannot predict outcomes, but it can warn. Ignoring history can leave us at the risk of repeating it. He describes in the epilogue to his short and easily readable book (published in 2017, well before COVID and the current round of racially driven protests and violence in the USA this year) that we can easily persuade ourselves that history moves in one direction, to a better and improved existence for humanity. History actually shows us the opposite, after strides forward it can regress dramatically. After great strides in freedom and economics, dislocation and turmoil can ensue. This is not yet the history of the 21st century but as Snyder points out it is the history of the 19th and 20th centuries resulting in the disasters of fascism, Nazism and communism.
I read the book trying to subdue apocalyptic feelings about the current course of American democracy (along with other Western democracies, including our own in Israel). On the other hand reading the book it is easy to see how some see post-democratic trends occurring in parts of the world as more than a little worrying.
My world is more business and markets rather than politics, and I am sure that the comparison is not really a good one, but sometimes in markets, the warning of a crash can itself be a mechanism for taking air out of a financial bubble, and thus avoiding a crisis. Of course, if no market crash occurs, the warnings of a potential markets crash look hollow and even melodramatic in retrospect.
On that basis, we might say that raising the alarm bells (the intent of the book) is a mitigation of the risk that American and perhaps other countries find themselves in.
In the USA there is a blurring of the lines between executive power and the political exploitation of that power. The Republican convention seemed more like a royal event with multiple speakers from the President’s family, than a genuinely political event whilst the Democratic convention rolled out the predictions of doom and gloom in the event of a second term Trump presidency. There has been a withering undermining of the truth, with serial and almost lying-as-a-form-of-trolling by the President at the same time as a persistent attack on the press. Perhaps most worryingly, even lethal violence between American citizens (the latest example of which being the killing of two protesters by an armed 17 year old in Kenosha) is becoming a topic of partisan vitriol. Increasingly extreme or radical politics at the edges of the Democrat and Republican parties are “enjoying” the continued polarization of the political arena.
In Israel, we have had five weeks without a cabinet meeting (normally once a week in peace and war, not including special cabinets like the security or Corona cabinets). There is no permanent chief of police (a political appointment leaving a dangerous vacuum for the candidates to seek political favour instead of giving independent leadership to the police), there is no permanent head of the State Prosecution, over which the Prime Minister would like considerable influence at the same time as being on trial for three counts of bribery and corruption. At the same time the media, law enforcement and the courts enjoy low levels of trust within large swathes of the population. All this in the shadow of a prolonged political crisis and stalemate in the form of repeated general elections and the constant threat of another round.
Trump and Netanyahu have a seemingly growing affinity with the leaders of Russia, China, India and Hungary at the expense of intimacy with the older European democracies of the UK, France and Germany, driven by political philosophies pushed by Bannon, Salvini, Hazony and the other promoters of Conservative Nationalism. A Judeo-Christian narrative at the possible expense of hard won democratic freedoms. Each side (left and right, conservative and progressive) claiming that the other is the real danger to liberty.
Obviously if you want to know all the twenty lessons that Snyder offers, you will need to read the book, but I would like to highlight a couple of things that resonated with me.
Perhaps most worryingly (especially for the USA) is the mingling of private citizens, heavily armed and politically charged within the protests, having resulted in a number of deaths since the death of George Floyd. One lesson that Snyder points to is the rise of armed militias. Once these become politicised and inter-mingled with legal law enforcement, this can signal a darker trend to come. Second Amendment rights has become such a polarizing issue in American politics – where does the right to carry arms for self-defence slip into the use of arms to illegally to enforce political aims? We have witnessed armed citizens taking over the capitol building in Michigan protesting lockdown orders there and star speakers of the Republican National Convention following there infamy caught on camera brandishing weapons in the face of BLM protesters passing through their private neighborhood. To an outsider who has never lived in the US, this looks scary. However, and perhaps because I cannot be objective about Israeli society, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a private or citizens militias would take an active role in political protests in Israel (although we are not immune to political violence).
There are a number of lessons that Snyder reflects upon that in any event can be acted upon and would have positive societal effects, irrespective of the real or imagined threat of tyranny.
The first one is to be active in charities and organisations, political or social. We can all pick charities to support, and even better give time and be passionate about them. Civic society is a power base, separate from the centres of political power, and by building them up we are forming a counter balance to their power. George HW Bush referred to this as “a thousand points of light” as a metaphor for volunteerism and the building of the common good. In the context of the book Snyder uses this to reflect the ability of civil society to keep the lights on, even when other freedoms are under threat and the lights are being extinguished.
The other recommendation I would like to highlight, because it is in our control, is to investigate. Read articles, books, research ideas, find different angles to the same story. Indeed before writing this, I read an article criticizing Snyder’s approach. (Probably by now, you are skeptical of the value of what I am writing, or at least I hope you are!). If tyranny is based on the debasement of facts and truth, promoting critical thinking and the forming of independent thought and ideas is a key mitigation. We have become quick to read a tweet and headline and forgotten to read around and follow up. I fall foul of this myself repeatedly. Reading every piece of news or research in a way that simply reinforces previously held opinions is not enough. Opening one’s mind to the opposite view, understanding emotionally that your political opponent has the good of the country in mind, will assist in mitigating our inherent biases.
But remember the tyrant bases his strength on creating the myth that everyone lies and hence there is no truth on any side. “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.” Once we believe this, criticism is futile, and power is everything, and the game is over.
I am confident that we are not on the abyss of tyranny in the USA or indeed here in Israel. All the chances are that the institutions, civil servants, police, armed forces and indeed the informed citizenry of both countries are strong enough to resist whatever temptations may lay ahead for politicians seeking to usurp increasing amounts of power for their own interests. However, in times of great uncertainty and weakened public trust, it probably makes sense to consider what experiences of the past that can help in protecting the freedoms of the future. Snyder may or may not be accurate in applying his historical expertise to guide us to a better place, but we should all seek out the things we can do to counterbalance the trends we see around us, whether in the USA, Europe or here in Israel.