Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Thank you for continuing to visit with me on Fridays, as we attempt to take a clear look at what is happening in our world through the lens of recent history.
For, indeed, this hard turn to the right, in which liberties are being curtailed, while massive groups of people become stateless and, therefore, powerless, appears to be a global phenomenon.
By the way, if you are just joining us, you’ll see an index at the bottom of this post, linking back to my original introduction, as well as the past three lessons. This indexing may become unwieldy soon, obliging me to discontinue it.
But you can always find all of the articles by clicking on the “Freedom Fridays” category link, at the top of each article.
Pigs to the Slaughter
In this week’s lesson, Snyder examines the ways that everyday words, gestures, and symbols add up over time. History demonstrates they are incredibly powerful at triggering profound change, and in less time than you might think.
He begins this grim, cautionary chapter discussing the power of symbolism as it was employed by Stalin in the early 1930s.
The new Soviet state was desperate to extract additional capital, if it was to continue its crash industrialization policy. Stalin had put a series of 5-year plans into place in the aftermath of WWI, the Bolshevik revolution, and the catastrophic civil wars that had left the country in ruins.
In his attempt to gain more control and badly needed resources from the more prosperous (and independent) rural areas, he began a propaganda campaign that portrayed prosperous farmers as pigs. As Snyder notes, this was “a dehumanization that, in a rural setting, clearly suggests slaughter.”
The demonizing of groups or nations is an old trick, and is a necessary step in almost any run-up to war. But in this case, the war was manufactured by the state, in order to divide and conquer. Stalin cleverly employed a propaganda machine that stirred up simmering trouble between the classes, as well as unpopular minorities.
In a gruesome twist, the symbolism of slaughter became literal reality. Snyder explains:
The peasants who had more land or livestock than others were the first to lose what they had. A neighbor portrayed as a pig is someone whose land you can take.
But those who followed the symbolic logic became victims in their turn. Having turned the poorer peasants against the richer, Soviet power then seized everyone’s land for the collective farms.
Collectivization, when completed, brought starvation to much of the Soviet peasantry. Millions of people in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia died horrible and humiliating deaths between 1930 and 1933.
Before it was over, Soviet citizens were butchering corpses for human meat.
Marking, Marginalizing, Exterminating
Of course, another horrifying example within living memory is how, after the Nazi Party was (legally!) elected, they immediately attempted to organize a widespread boycott of Jewish businesses.
At first, this ploy was not very successful. But the power of symbolism helped turn the tide. New regulations were passed requiring shops to paint “Jewish” or “Aryan” on their windows or walls. In no time, those businesses marked “Jewish” began to fail. They became targets for takeover or destruction.
“As property was marked as ethnic,” Snyder writes, “envy transformed ethics…The wish that Jews might disappear, perhaps suppressed at first, rose as it was leavened by greed. Thus the Germans who marked shops as ‘Jewish’ participated in the process by which Jews really did disappear — as did people who simply looked on.”
Even the seemingly innocent patriotic lapel pin has a dark history. Snyder tells us that in Nazi Germany, during the 1933 elections that would establish the one-party state, people wore lapel pins indicating their “Yes” support. Those who had not established their Nazi sympathies during the elections would be remembered as suspect.
And in 1938 Austria, people who had not been previously known as Nazis started wearing the swastika lapel pin, in order to avoid suspicion or exclusion.
In both cases, labeling quickly turned to the difference between safety and peril. It led to separation and targeting, as the grim yellow stars that all Jews were forced to prominently wear can attest.
As recently as 2007, there was a big (mostly manufactured) flap over then-candidate Barack Obama neglecting to wear the de rigueur American flag pin on his lapel.
When questioned, he responded, “Well you know what? I haven’t probably worn that pin in a very long time. I wore it right after 9/11. But after a while, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with resources that they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time.
“My attitude is that I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart…”
Sadly, that was not enough, and although he is not the only national politician to skip the pin from time to time, things did not work out the way he’d hoped.
The conservative media went crazy, accusing him of disrespect, and adding fuel to the lie (which made the current resident of the White House famous) that Obama was not American.
The controversy continued to dog him until May, 2008, when he finally gave in to his critics and wore a flag pin thenceforth.
Heritage? Or Hate?
Snyder urges us to be aware of how what may seem to one person a gesture of “pride” or “heritage” may be a symbol of prejudice or even hate to other groups. We need to be especially sensitive to minority groups that are systematically mistreated.
How to know for sure? Get outside of our comfort zones and pay attention.
The stars and bars flag flapping in the breeze on a genteel verandah may seem innocent enough to you, especially if you have swallowed the myth of the South’s glorious “Lost Cause.” But for tens of thousands, that flag represents white supremacy, slavery, and a craven history whose brutal impact continues today.
The murder of Heather Heyer last year in Charlottesville, VA occurred during a Nazi and KKK rally protesting the town’s decision to take down its prominent Civil War monument.
Such Confederate monuments usually portray a standing Civil War soldier, facing his enemy to the north. There are thousands of them, sprinkled throughout the American South, in towns large and small.
Put there, not in the days following the war, but nearly a generation later, during the repressive Jim Crow era by the Daughters of the Confederacy and other white-supremacist groups, they were ostensibly to honor the local soldiers who fought for the Confederacy.
But historians by and large agree that the “majority of the memorials were built with the intention, not to honor fallen soldiers, but specifically to further ideals of white supremacy.” In fact, a recent NPR report quotes Jane Dailey, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago:
Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather, erecting them toward a white supremacist future.
Words and Sigils of Power
Symbols matter. They carry great power, and even magic — the swastika is a very ancient, nearly universal symbol representing the Sun, the Divine, fertility, and good fortune. Some speculate that it was knowingly appropriated by the Nazis for its occult power.
What we do know is that gestures, symbols, and words matter. And the extent to which we tolerate, ignore, or even embrace them matters a great deal.
Words, symbols, and gestures that marginalize, separate, or ostracize our fellow humans can be very, very dangerous. Calling women by ugly, insulting slang, referring to Mexican immigrants as “animals,” “rapists,” and “criminals,” calling African countries “shitholes,” and a hundred other slanders and insults that pour, unfettered, from the halls of power on a daily basis are slowly becoming the new normal.
While we may not agree, it is all too easy to acclimate to this stupefying onslaught. And that, precisely that, is the point.
When we adapt to the given rules of this game, we become complicit. So we must not. We must vow to never relax into this steady gush of hate. The steady repetition is meant to be exhausting. So we must constantly push back.
Every. Single. Time.
As Snyder cautions us:
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself, and set an example for others to do so.
Let us, you and I, speak truth to power. We must summon up our resolve, to fight against the symbols of domination and hatred. Let no oppression — by speech or by gesture — go unnoticed.
There are countless thousands whose safety may depend on what we do now, at this crossroads time.
Just finding your way here? Want to go back and read from the beginning? No problem: