Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, Chapter 14, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Back in the Summer of 2016, when the U.S. Presidential campaign was red-hot, Wikileaks dumped over 19,000 stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee onto the public. And then they did it again in the Fall, with over 200,000 pages of emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta.
Why does it matter now?
Because the desired effect of this action was achieved with spectacular success. While everyone focused on the content of the email flood — and the ensuing chaos of resignations, apologies, and indignation that churned for weeks afterwards — the actual damage was done by the fact that the entire act was a calculated campaign to upend public trust.
In Lesson 14 of On Tyranny, Dr. Timothy Snyder explains that the real point was not about how Debbie Wasserman Schultz called Bernie Sanders’ campaign silly, or the details of Hillary Clinton’s far from shocking ties to Wall Street, or even a Clinton staffer’s suggestion they should attempt to out Sanders as an atheist, to make him look bad.
As Snyder reveals, the timing of these “email bombs” was strategically designed, not only to make the DNC look bad (which it did), but to normalize the invasion of our privacies.
Words written in one situation make sense only in that context. The very act of removing them from their historical moment and dropping them in another is an act of falsification. What is worse, when media followed the email bombs as if they were news, they betrayed their own mission.
Few journalists made an effort to explain why people said or wrote the things they did at the time. Meanwhile, in transmitting the privacy violations as news, the media allowed themselves to be distracted from the actual events of the day.
Rather than reporting the violation of basic rights, our media generally preferred to mindlessly indulge the inherently salacious interest we have in other peoples’ affairs.
Cybersecurity researchers as well as the United States government attributed responsibility for the breach to the Russian cyber spying group “Fancy Bear,” allegedly two units of a Russian military intelligence agency, according to an investigative report.
Even the notorious Roger Stone (who was in a unique position to know), warned at the time that Russia was the true source of the Wikileaks email dump. He later changed his tune, presumably under pressures too complicated to imagine (like clemency).
The upshot being, as Snyder explains, “During the campaign of 2016, we took a step toward totalitarianism without even noticing, by accepting as normal the violation of electronic privacy.”
And, I would add, all under the smiling approval of Donald Trump and his Russian friends.
What Is Totalitarianism?
A term that gets tossed around quite a lot, often with hyperbolic inaccuracy, the brilliant Hannah Arendt, author of the seminal work on the topic, suggests that totalitarianism is not an all-powerful state. Nor is it interchangeable with authoritarianism, fascism, and the other epithets thrown about primarily for their shock value.
Instead, Arendt has suggested that “in the world view of totalitarianism, the freedom of human beings is inconsequential to ‘the undeniable automatism’ of natural and historical processes, or at most an impediment to their freedom.”
In other words, as Arendt expert Professor Griselda Pollack summarizes, totalitarianism is when “There is a single explanation for everything, and before the single explanation, everything else falls away. [Arendt] gives a portrait of how you produce these isolated people, who then become susceptible to pan ideologies, which give them a place in something. But the place they have is ultimately sacrificial; they don’t count for anything; all that counts is the big idea.”
In short, coming back to Snyder’s assessment, totalitarianism is “the erasure of the difference between the private and public life…Whether it is done by American or Russian intelligence agencies, or for that matter by any institution, the theft, discussion, or publication of personal communications destroys a basic foundation of our rights.”
Our Appetite for Dark Secrets
Arendt was adamant that the push to remove boundaries between the private and the public is “dangerously political.” When anyone can bully you, attack your relationships, and stain your integrity at will, you are no longer free. Snyder writes, “No one (except perhaps a tyrant) has a private life that can survive public exposure by hostile directive.”
You may be noticing that this is precisely what Fox “News,” Facebook, and other forms of social media are breeding. Over time, this corrosive influence whets our addiction to dark drama and we get used to expecting there are dirty secrets behind every story, whether there actually are any or not.
We become cynical of “ordinary” political discourse, preferring the conspiracy theory du jour. We are, Snyder councils, “seduced by the notion of hidden realities and dark conspiracies that explain everything.”
And what is the harm of this?
When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order.
To be sure, we might feel that we are doing nothing more than going along with everyone else. This is true–and it is what Arendt described as the devolution of a society into a ‘mob.’
Going along with everyone else is exactly what killed six million Jews, and six to nine million Stalin-era Russians.
The hunger for conspiracy becomes a tolerance that needs feeding, and which welcomes increasingly dark and convoluted tales of treachery – like QAnon, the Birthers, and the secret origins of the novel coronavirus. Those stories sell!
And they are perfect for justifying extreme responses, like the so-called Pizzagate event.
Conspiracies, especially in a roiling atmosphere where fact and “alternative fact” are contested, are not innocent speculation, but a slippery slope whose bloody outcomes we have seen many times in history. They often include convenient scapegoats, and fit neatly into the tyrant’s agenda.
Your Personal Privacy Matters
If the day comes when you must stand up against going along with the crowd, the health of your personal privacy may make all the difference.
How many hooks are you offering?
By the way, I do not believe that by this, Snyder is suggesting we avoid making what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.” Everything in his book speaks to the contrary.
But the fact that personal privacy is a game-changer can be easily demonstrated by observing the lengths to which so many groups, enterprises, and individuals are willing to go, to take it away from you.
It’s not just the internet, but that is the one place where we are most encouraged to throw it away.
To stand up to tyranny, your personal boundaries need to be intact and strong. The crimes of identity theft and ransomware schemes are obviously a big deal. But the secret surveillance of your online habits, purchasing, and even medical, legal, and financial records are compromising, too. And this behavior is increasingly commonplace.
The most dangerous bit is how unremarkable it has become. Something to be expected, as if it is the price of being in the online world.
It need not be, but we must summon the political and individual will to push back.
What to Do?
For suggestions and developments regarding the protection of your digital privacy and free speech, I recommend subscribing to and supporting the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
I also strongly agree with Snyder that supporting other organizations that advocate for human rights is not a luxury, but a necessity.
In addition, it’s important to clean up your files and check for malware regularly. Tidy up your legal affairs. Use the privacy and blocking features of your browser. Turn off (or block) your devices’ cameras and voice command assistants like Siri, Alexa, etc. when you’re not using them. Beware of Google, Facebook, and other services that have no qualms about how they harvest and sell data from your digital behavior.
Try to reduce your reliance on the internet as your primary means of communicating. I realize this is much harder now in the age of COVID-19, but whenever possible, have your personal exchanges in person, or by landline phone.
“Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around,” warns Snyder. “Remember that email is skywriting.”
Email, Facebook posts, Tweets, group forum discussions — all that data lives forever. And Edward Snowden (whose pardon, in no small coincidence, is being floated today!) made clear that it is being collected and monitored without your permission.
To what ends?
It depends on the benevolence — or not — of our government, doesn’t it?
Here are the links from my previous posts:
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
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 13: Practice Corporeal Politics
I would like to offer my personal appreciation to Dr. Snyder, who generously responded, when I asked him to clarify one of the points in this lesson. Thank you. – Beth