To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
As I discussed last week, in Lesson Nine from Dr. Snyder’s book, On Tyranny, he introduced some of the linguistic mischief that people like scholar and diarist Victor Klemperer observed, as the Third Reich was making its ascent.
In this week’s chapter, Snyder examines Klemperer’s identification of four specific modes in which the truth dies, all of which contribute to the fall of freedom and the rise of authoritarianism. And all of which we are now seeing — daily and relentlessly.
This week, we’ll take a look at these, because, my friends, we are more than there.
The first mode is the “open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.”
Snyder, alas, published his book in 2017, so he does not have the benefit of how normalized P45’s constant barrage of lies has become. He notes that, “One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction.”
It has, of course, become much worse since then.
On September 4, 2018, Glenn Kessler and his team, the fact-checkers for the Washington Post, reported:
In the 592 days since he took the oath of office, [P45] has made 4,713 false or misleading claims, according to The Fact Checker’s database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president.
That’s an average of about eight claims a day.
When we first started this project for [his] first 100 days, he averaged 4.9 claims a day. But the average number of claims per day keeps climbing as [he] nears the 600-day mark of his [office].
In fact, in the past three months, [he] averaged 15.4 claims a day, so almost one-third of the total claims made … have come in this period. At that pace, he will top 5,000 claims in September.
The hostility, too, is palpable, every time a reporter questions the statements that P45 and his employees toss around. From the turnout numbers at his inauguration, to the death toll in Puerto Rico, anything resembling the truth is very hard to come by.
And woe to any journalist that challenges their claims, or asks the “wrong” questions. The backlash is immediate, punishing, and unseemly.
This behavior is a pattern. It is not random, or accidental and we must not ignore it.
As someone who has deep respect for shamanism, this characterization of the second mode made me bristle. But here is how Snyder explains it:
As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.
The systematic use of nicknames such as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” displaced certain character traits that might more appropriately have been affixed to [P45] himself.
Since Snyder’s book was published, there have been plenty of other instances. But in particular, a much more ominous phrase has become a favorite of P45’s: “Enemy of the people.”
Is he using it to describe despots, or terrorism, or even dangerous militarism like Daesh?
No. He has used it multiple times when referring to the mainstream media. Specifically, whatever media outlet is not flattering him at any given point. No wonder his response to the deadly attack at the Capital Gazette in Maryland back in June was tepid at best.
He means it. He believes it. And his steady repetition is intended to make us believe it, too.
The Open Embrace of Contradiction
Snyder also calls this magical thinking, but not in a good way. 🙂
For instance, P45’s campaign was crafted to seduce the vulnerable and desperate by promising impossibly wonderful outcomes: free, total medical coverage for all; eliminating the national debt, and so on. All while cutting taxes AND increasing military spending and benefits.
The most rudimentary examination would have revealed that his promises were all mutually contradictory, long before he even attempted to act upon them.
Snyder writes, “It is as if a farmer said he were taking an egg from the henhouse, boiling it whole and serving it to his wife, and also poaching it and serving it to his children, and then returning it to the hen unbroken, and then watching as the chick hatches.”
This, Snyder warns, is where the untruths become so radical, and they come at us so quickly and brazenly, we may lose friends and family over them, should we insist on pointing out the absurdities. It is here that the danger becomes undeniable.
If people are willing to swallow such naked, obvious lies that are being presented to them, we are well on our way down the slippery slope in which, as one of Klemperer’s students declared, one must “abandon yourself to your feelings, and you must always focus on the Führer’s greatness, rather than the discomfort you are feeling at present.”
The final step after the wholesale swallowing of bigger and bigger lies becomes an easy one. It involves, Snyder writes, “the sort of self-deifying claims” P45 has repeatedly made when he declares that he, alone, understands and can solve the problems facing America (and the world), as well as his constant refrain in his unending campaigning: “I am your voice.”
Snyder writes –
When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience.
What terrified Klemperer was the way that this transition seemed permanent. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant. At the end of the war, a worker told Klemperer that “understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Führer.”
Even then — millions and millions of atrocities and deaths later. (Not to worry, though. P45 has reassured us that the current generation of Nazi true believers includes some perfectly nice people).
Does the Truth Matter?
Here’s an up-to-the-minute example of where we are.
Last week, in front of select members of our national Congress, and under the watchful gaze of the entire world, a hearing was held, to ascertain if the candidate being considered for an appointment to the highest court in our land, the final arbiter on all matters to do with our freedoms and Constitutional rights, was fit for this life-long job.
It quickly became clear to anyone with any perspective that the people who had chosen Brett Kavanaugh had little to no interest in discovering whether there was any truth to the terrible accusations being made against him.
In short, the entire drama of the past two weeks has been little more than a sham.
The testimony of Dr. Christine Ford mattered not at all, as his appointment has been a foregone conclusion since the beginning. The subsequent FBI “inquiry” of the past several days has been restricted by rules and an agenda set by the White House, and kept in secrecy from even the rest of our Congressional leadership, much less the American public.
Meantime, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies are being tossed around like confetti. How shall we sort out what is actually true about what has been unfolding before our eyes?
It should be simple enough to examine whether the candidate has perjured himself under oath. Even if you wish he hadn’t, the evidence is there that, in fact, he has. Multiple times. But, as the Huffington Post notes, the Congressional majority does not seem to care.
We are deeply enmeshed in a world of “post-truth.”
And that matters a lot, because, as Dr. Snyder concludes:
Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism.
They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts.
And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share.
Post-truth is pre-fascism.
Just finding your way here? Thanks for joining us, and also for sharing with your friends.
If you’d like to go back and re-read from the beginning, no problem:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays: Lesson One – Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Two – Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Three – Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Four – Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Five – Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Six – Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language