It is institutions that help us to 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 defend themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.
So choose an institution you care about — a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union — and take its side.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Welcome to our weekly reality check I am calling Freedom Fridays, where I am posting and commenting on the lessons from Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny.
Last week, in Lesson One, he warned us not to obey in advance, and what that looked like.
Also last week, I mentioned Tower Time — a term that my colleague Byron Ballard coined. Many of us who observe current events from both an historic and metaphysical perspective would agree that we do indeed seem to be living through a moment in history that feels very much like the Tower card, as it is depicted in the Tarot Major Arcana.
The Tower indicates explosive, sudden, radical change, in which the status quo is shaken to its core. It is a card of unequivocal cleansing, destruction to make way for renewal, and necessary (but often unpleasant) upheaval.
The notion that we are in “Tower Time” is reinforced by the current, tumultuous astrology of Pluto (destruction; transformation; underground forces) in the sign of Capricorn (discipline; financial, political, and societal foundations), as well as the upcoming Pluto return for the United States; not to mention Pluto in our country’s 2nd house of money, and financial stability.
So is the downfall of our institutions inevitable? Is this destruction, ultimately (like the Tower card’s lessons), for a greater, more beneficial outcome? Do we need to tear everything down and start over from scratch?
I would suggest that we find a balancing point by considering Snyder’s argument to defend that which is life-affirming and fair, and then letting fall what Byron so eloquently describes as, “these massive, ancient and toxic systems, that have both created civilization as we know it and doomed it.”
As she points out, they are “crashing under their own weight of history and grief. It is the death throes of patriarchy that we are experiencing and it will die as it has lived—in violence and oppression and injustice and death.”
Well.. yes, but…
Institutions for the Greater Good
Snyder reminds us in his forward to Chapter Two that there are institutions worth preserving and caring about. The courts, newspapers, laws, unions — these are societal protections that were designed to answer to the people.
They have been built by centuries of dreams, bloodshed, and the struggles of an imperfect but functioning democratic government.
If there is corruption, it must be addressed. Transparency and accountability must be a priority, before we reach that point where some power-mad demagogue can persuade us to throw it all away.
Because that is exactly what has happened in the past.
Snyder quotes an editorial published in a leading newspaper for German Jews, from February, 1933. In it, although decrying the “views of Mr. Hitler and his friends,” it becomes clear that many of the readers assumed that the reasonable, intelligent modernity of their culture would protect them.
They could not imagine that the new regime would “suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob.”
They, like most reasonable, intelligent Americans today, were sure that, despite the ugly mood driving the election of the Fuhrer and his thugs, “a number of crucial factors hold powers in check…”
Snyder concludes that “the mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions–even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”
The Quick Demise or Quicker Crash
Although I welcome the end of the patriarchal paradigm that has been based on environmental destruction, domination, and war, it is very dangerous indeed to root for a sudden, complete breakdown of the current system without having an infrastructure in place that will ensure a peaceful, wholesome transition.
For instance, as Snyder points out, we can learn from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which was intentionally aimed at destroying the institutions in place as quickly as possible. The ensuing chaos and loss of life was staggering — with an estimated 7 to 12 million dead by the time the Russian civil war ended in 1923. Most of them were civilians. Historians describe the Russian Civil War as the greatest national catastrophe that Europe had ever seen, up to that time.
On the other hand, a nation’s institutions may be less quickly, but just as surely poisoned, warped, and turned from their original purpose, in order to serve the totalitarian state.
They are, as Snyder describes, “deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were, so that they gird the new order, rather than resisting it. This is what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung.”
By the careful, methodical process of infiltrating and taking over every aspect of social, political, and economic life, the Nazis consolidated their influence into total power, and in very short order. By replacing life-long public servants, for example, with hand-picked loyalists (regardless of qualifications), they stacked the courts, the governmental agencies, and the legislative bodies with thoroughly indoctrinated members of the Reich.
Richard J. Evans, in his book, The Coming of the Third Reich, tells us that during the period primarily from March to July 1933, life in Germany was characterized by the systematic elimination of non-Nazi organizations that could potentially influence people. Those critical of Hitler and the Nazis were suppressed, intimidated, or murdered. He writes:
Every national voluntary association, and every local club, was brought under Nazi control, from industrial and agricultural pressure groups to sports associations, football clubs, male voice choirs, women’s organizations – in short, the whole fabric of associational life was Nazified.
Rival, politically oriented clubs or societies were merged into a single Nazi body. Existing leaders of voluntary associations were either unceremoniously ousted, or knuckled under of their own accord. Many organizations expelled leftish or liberal members and declared their allegiance to the new state and its institutions.
The whole process … went on all over Germany. … By the end, virtually the only non-Nazi associations left were the army and the Churches with their lay organizations.
Today is July 20. Do you remember March of this year? (Hint: College basketball finals, Academy Awards, Stephen Hawking died). Yeah. It only took that long, and it was all but over. No time at all.
In less than one year, Germany had become a one-party state, all done (mostly) legally, within the system. Which they then dispensed with forever.
Snyder concludes, “That November, German authorities held parliamentary elections (without opposition) and a referendum (on an issue where the ‘correct’ answer was known) to confirm the new order.
“Some German Jews voted as the Nazi leaders wanted them to, in the hope that gesture of loyalty would bind the new system to them. That was a vain hope.”
Beware the Savior
As we watch the current administration eroding faith in what our institutions and our very government were designed to uphold, it is tempting to want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
But in considering this grim second lesson, I would suggest we take a more thoughtful approach. The ploy of painting ALL government, ALL institutions, ALL tradition as toxic is an old, and unfortunately effective strategy.
If you can persuade people that it is too difficult, too complicated, too time-consuming, or even pointless to reform and fix what you have, the next step is to get them to hand that task over to a Big Strong Savior who will do it all for them.
And if that happens, you can get ready to kiss your democracy goodbye.
Just finding your way here? Want to go back and read from the beginning?