In politics, being deceived is no excuse.
First, I want to thank everyone for your emails, your posts, and your massive support for me to undertake this project. I know that all of us, despite our various points of view, are weary of the drama and horrors, large and small.
But one of my intentions, as we commence this journey together, is to encourage us to step up to a new, more focused level of engagement. To do so, we will also need to practice extreme self-care, which I will also address elsewhere. Both are profoundly necessary.
Let there be no mistake, my loves.
We are fully in, what my colleague and friend Byron Ballard calls, Tower Time. Although commerce and the political status quo are desperately trying to hide it, and a vast number of people are more than willing to be in denial, we are experiencing the end of “Business as Usual,” as another brilliant visionary, Joanna Macy dubs it.
Bottom line: I know (and so do you) that we are undergoing the ending of an age; the centuries-old paradigm is collapsing right out from under us.
What it becomes during and after this process is up to us.
Have courage, dear friends. I believe with my whole heart that this is what we have come here for, at this precise time, with our very special skills, and arts, and knowledge.
So let us begin.
As I explained last week, I will be sharing 20 lessons of history as described in On Tyranny, by historian Timothy Snyder. Many of the comments and interpretations here on my blog are my own. I will try to make clear which are my opinions, and which are from Snyder’s book.
Before I get to his first lesson, I think his Prologue, History and Tyranny, has some important preliminary points.
As he notes, “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”
When the Founding Fathers of our country haggled out our Constitution, they were basing it on their own historic perspective.
Well-schooled in classical history, they were fluent with the works of Aristotle, who warned that inequality brings instability, as well as Plato’s admonishments that demagogues will exploit the existence of free speech, in order to grab power.
And certainly, the history of Roman civilization, which started as a representative republic but ended in dissolution and chaos, thanks to the corruption of its tyrannical emperors, is a stark warning that echoes to this day.
This is why our young country’s leaders were adamant that our government be built on so-called checks and balances. The founders well knew that much of human history has featured groups and individuals who have taken advantage of the lack of safeguards, installing themselves as absolute rulers, often by using or circumventing the law for their own benefit, and by means of the agreement, ignorance, and/or apathy of the masses.
As Snyder writes, “Much of the succeeding political debate in the United States has concerned the problem of tyranny within American society: over slaves and women, for example.”
But beyond the historic milieu of colonial America, he notes:
The good news is that we can draw upon more recent and relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome. The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall…
… European history has seen three major democratic moments: after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989.
Many of the democracies founded at these junctures failed, in circumstances that in some important respects resemble our own…
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.
American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerous Falsehood
In my view, which corresponds with Snyder’s observations, we have all been taught a subtle but persuasive distortion — that we, as Americans, are somehow different.
The story goes that we folks of the good old U.S. of A. are exceptionally Good, Decent, Smart, Powerful, and Loved by God. Our 242 year old democracy is so strong, our armies so vast, our guns so much bigger, that we need never fear being overthrown (except maybe the threat of pinko commie peacenik traitors who would undermine our apple pie values from within).
Oligarchies and empires are just some old words from ancient history. Our Leave It to Beaver way of life will just go on and on and on because, well.. hell! We’re AMERICANS!
But that is a dangerous fallacy that has flung open the doors for instability and rot from within.
So how do we begin the task of ensuring that empires, oligarchs, and worse do not steal our freedoms from us?
Lesson One: Do Not Obey In Advance
I am very heartened by the #Resist movement. Resistance is not only not futile, it is absolutely necessary. Snyder begins his Lesson One chapter with this:
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more 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.
Over and over, we see that when radical new bullies emerge, the first, and perhaps most tragic stumble is how people not directly impacted will stand on the sidelines and watch, or even join in.
Snyder notes that after the German elections of 1932, in which Hitler was lawfully elected, despite his loud (very loud!) and clear demonstration of who he was and what he stood for, many decided to hitch themselves to him, simply because he was in power. They opportunistically offered themselves to his government.
I can’t help but notice that in the 2016 American election campaign, which was especially rancorous within the Republican Party, P45’s* rivals fought against him bitterly, and the incumbent Congress mostly shunned him, with a few actually criticizing his tactics and lack of coherent policies.
Since his inauguration, the challenges from his party have gone quiet, except for a very few who, for a little while, continued to question the direction he was steering us, as well as his conduct and honesty.
But now party loyalty and tenure are more important than serving the people, and there is almost no opposition from the Republican Party.
His challengers have resigned — either literally, by announcing they would step down after their term ends, or else by quietly knuckling under in resignation to the power he is wielding, as corrosive as it is proving to be for many Americans and even for the former ideals of the GOP.
This jumping-on-the-bandwagon compliance occurred in pre-WWII Germany, as well as in Czechoslovakia’s communist takeover in 1946. Snyder warns us, “Because enough people in both cases voluntarily extended their services to the new leaders, Nazis and communists alike realized that they could move quickly toward a full regime change.
“The first heedless acts of conformity could not then be reversed.”
Shooting People On Fifth Avenue
In January, 2016, the radical outsider American candidate boasted, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Despite his loud (very loud!) and clear warnings of who he is, and what he stands for, he has garnered the support of the current party (that also happens to be in complete control), in part because during his ascent to power, his antics were frequently dismissed as entertainment and spectacle.
In 1938 Austria, in the wake of their independent chancellor’s resignation to Hitler’s annexation, Snyder writes, “It was the Austrians’ anticipatory obedience that decided the fate of Austrian Jews.
“Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets, to remove symbols of independent Austria. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement.
“Nazis who had kept lists of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in the theft…The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March, 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible.”
This success led directly to the horrific pogrom in Germany only eight months later, known as Kristallnacht.
That Wouldn’t Happen Here.. Would It?
Snyder goes on to illustrate other examples of how this works, including one of the most infamous academic behavioral studies ever performed.
Anyone who’s ever studied sociology or psychology is well aware of the Milgram experiment, performed in 1961 at Yale University.
Using actors to play the part of the victims, the idea was to observe the extent to which ordinary people will comply with authority, even when they believe it is causing extreme pain or even death to the recipients of their actions.
The outcome astonished the researchers. Not because it worked, but because of how easily the subjects were persuaded to administer what they were seeing as, first painful, then agonizing, and, finally, deadly electric shocks during an exercise that they’d been told was simply an experiment in teaching word associations.
The experiments came under heavy criticism later, because the subjects who carried out these orders were, understandably, traumatized after the fact.
However, at the time, Milgram reported that “65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock, and all administered shocks of at least 300 volts. Subjects were uncomfortable doing so, and displayed varying degrees of tension and stress…Every participant paused the experiment at least once to question it. Most continued after being assured by the experimenter.”
I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.
The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.
Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
Multiple similar studies have been performed since then, including in the U.S., Australia, Scotland, France, and other locations.
The results have been nearly identical in every variation.
Learning from Lesson One – My Suggestions
Resist. If something looks wrong to you, say so.
Vote and speak your conscience, while you still can. If you don’t agree, refuse. Or confront. Ask. Beware of what appears to be the expedient, safe thing.
Do not conform just because you seem to be going against the current. Question authority (it’s more than just a bumper sticker).
Build up your “resources,” as Milgram calls them, by refusing to compromise when you are a witness to injustices, large and seemingly small, as well as the intrusive encroachment of authority.
The prevailing forces may seem very strong, but tyrants always — always — begin as the minority. They depend on recruiting the undecideds, the grudge-holders, the ignorant, the bystanders, and the in-advance compliance of the “silent majority.”
And remember — you are not alone!
* About using my abbreviation, “P45” — I am sorry, but I cannot and will not call him “President.” And I can hardly bear to see his name in print. Therefore, I will avoid using it. Thanks for understanding.
ps: I promise the coming weeks’ posts will not be as lengthy. Today I wanted to include Synder’s prologue observations, in addition to Lesson One.
Just finding your way here? Want to go back and read from the beginning?