It had been my intention to resume my series of Freedom Fridays discussions based on Dr. Timothy Snyder’s essential “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” following my carcinoid tumor surgery in late 2018.
Sadly, that intention was premature, as recovery was much harder than I had expected. While I have been fully restored for quite a while now (thanks in great measure to your well-wishes!), I kept avoiding this topic because, frankly, it is a dark and painful place to spend hours of immersion in, in order to write it.
But now, so much has changed in our landscape since I set this project aside.
My concern has deepened and grim shadows of despair threaten my spirit. Since I am physically unable to march in the streets as I used to, I feel compelled to do all I can from behind the front-lines. That includes reviving this work, because this story is not finished yet, and there is still hope.
But I feel it is desperately important to understand that we are on a precipice that is nearly identical to where our ancestors were in 20th century Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union — the edge of tyrannical lock-down. We are 94 days from the election in the U.S. that will decide whether the “American Experiment” lives or dies.
If you believe that this is hyperbole, you haven’t read the previous Lessons. Here are the links from my previous posts, to help you orient to where we are:
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
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 10: Believe in Truth
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 11: Investigate
As magical and spiritual people, a solid grounding in the truth of our current time is, in my view, vital. Thank you for soldiering on with me. Nothing in our lifetimes has been more important.
They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.
Carl Buchner (sorry, it was not Maya Angelou)
Had I been writing this according to my original timetable, back in November of 2018, this commentary would been very different.
But we are in a strange new world, and Dr. Snyder’s advice is now more challenging than we could ever have dreamed at that time. And more urgent.
In Lesson 12, he exhorts us to “stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust” by making eye contact and small talk with the people around you. This was not always an easy thing two years ago, but is obviously far more difficult now with our masks and social distancing.
Still, though, the necessity of reaching out to one another has not diminished. If anything, our need to connect has ramped up to unprecedented levels.
However, it is also fertile territory for those who wish to feed our fears and narrow down the scope of our relationships to the echo chamber of only those who agree with and look like us. This distances us even further from the supposed “Others.” Social media has tremendously amplified and further distorted this scenario.
And it is a classic mistake, Snyder warns; yet one that we can easily avoid.
He argues that making small, friendly connections with the people around us, especially those we do not know, who do NOT look or even think like us “is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society.”
And yes, I would argue, we can still do so, even in this time of pandemic distancing.
He reminds us —
Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment.
Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy in the 1920s, of Nazi Germany of the 1930s, of the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of 1937-38, or of the purges in communist eastern Europe in the 1940s and ’50s, people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them.
A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting — banal gestures in a normal situation — took on great significance.
When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew.
The most powerful weapon against a democracy, the one that results in the seemingly impossible result of people willingly giving their sovereignty away, is when the powers-that-want-to-be convince us that we are divided and only they can rescue us.
So their story goes that The Others are dangerous, malevolent thieves, rapists, and animals who wish to destroy the ideal of OUR way of life.
Us vs. Them.
Works like a charm. Every time.
The real truth is that the manipulators want the power for themselves. A scapegoat is a convenient way to dismantle everyone’s agency all at once, with the enthusiastic compliance of those who have fallen victim to their bombastic, isolationist rhetoric.
One of the simplest, yet most effective ways to preempt this is to cultivate a friendly, helpful, and kindly attitude towards all. Get to know your neighbors. Let them know you.
It can run the gamut from a cheerful “Hi,” at the grocery store, gas station, or restaurant take-out line, all the way to starting a neighborhood webpage forum where everyone can check in, share goofy photos, ask for help, and plan food truck visits. (There are some dead simple, free neighborhood apps and web-building tools around to help if you want to do this).
Dial down fear and mistrust by developing strong neighborhoods and relationships, especially with people who are NOT your color, your creed, your political party, your lifestyle.
If we had been actively working on his advice in 2018, maybe there would have been a little less misery in 2020. As Snyder notes, “You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States.” In my insulated white privilege, I own that I was ignorant of the depth to which my Black neighbors and friends felt constantly under threat, day in and day out.
For this, I have no words adequate enough to express my remorse.
So I take it very personally, and I hope you will too. “If you affirm everyone,” Snyder encourages us, “you can be sure that certain people will feel better.”
Eliminating the lie of “other/outcast/villain” is needful, for a just democracy to thrive. People desperately need to be seen, affirmed, and supported — exactly where they are, in their own authentic humanity. And exponentially more so, in this lonely, uncertain time of pandemic crisis.
But on a more ominous note, Snyder concludes, “In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust.
“Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step towards change.”
It isn’t that hard, even with masks and distancing. Make the effort. Be that friend.