People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
As the Summer wanes, and the election in America looms, the warning signs of the current tilt towards tyranny become more urgent. And for me, the 17th lesson from Dr. Snyder’s book hit hard this week.
“Be alive to the fatal notions,” he writes, “of emergency and exception.”
He points to the strategy of legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who helped the Nazis in their march to power by distilling the “essence of fascist governance.”
The way to destroy all rules, [Schmitt] explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.
How convenient it would be, then, to ignore and downplay the facts regarding a deadly global pandemic, in order to leverage it for political advantage, by, say, creating a perpetual state of emergency. Or like the perpetual state of national emergency that has never yet been lifted from our border with Mexico.
Less speculatively, until it became surrounded by actual conflagration due to the wildfires destroying much of the American Northwest, fringe news outlets* and their Biggest Fan continually screamed that Portland, Oregon (and other places with Democratic Party leaders) was in total chaos and being burned to the ground by looters, violent criminals, and the dreaded terrorist organization that calls itself “antifa.” (It was not. Far from it).
Although The Occupant is fixated on “antifa” and wants to designate it a terrorist group, on Thursday FBI Director Christopher Wray explained that it is an ideology, not an organization. In fact, “antifa” is simply shorthand for a broad spectrum of groups and individuals who are anti-fascist. As one article notes, “The narrative of antifa as an existential threat and a major source of terrorism and protest violence is utterly fictitious.”
Unsurprisingly, Wray’s testimony drew his ire, insisting that protestors are criminals, agitators, and anarchists bent on violence and the destruction of America.
That might be true if America can be “great again” only by surrendering our right to challenge the authoritarian wannabe living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This constant narrative of “them” — the horrible, terrible anarchists, haters, and thugs (a well-known, racist dog-whistle term) — versus “us” — (the nice, average, white suburban consumer) is being pounded into the voting public’s consciousness, as if it was true.
From a War of Words to War in the Streets
And there is plenty of pressure to help escalate this war of rhetoric into actual bloodshed, as whistleblower D.C. National Guard Maj. Adam D. DeMarco revealed this week.
The Washington Post reports that in sworn testimony before lawmakers, back in June, before the Big Bible Photo-op, DeMarco was approached by Department of Defense officials who were planning to use crowd-control technology deemed “too unpredictable to use in war zones.”
They had authorized the transfer of about 7,000 rounds of ammunition to the D.C. Armory and were looking for devices that could emit deafening sounds and sought to use a “heat ray device” that would make anyone within range feel as if their skin was on fire. Not only was this a shocking misuse of munitions and personnel, it was in direct violation of the Constitutional right to protest.
But the corrosive effect of demonizing protests and demonstrators is having a long-term impact, and is just what tyrants of the 20th century used to grab power.
They (or their volunteer militia) would incite civil unrest, then follow up with a repressive, “law and order” crack-down, which in turn would inflame those who were being harmed, which the authoritarian party could then point to and proclaim, “See? We told you! They are extremists, and no one will be safe until we …” (take your pick) “shut them down,” “lock them up,” “send them back to where they belong,” or “forever wipe them and their people from the face of the Earth.”
Swapping Freedom for Security
The old, old lie is that we should happily surrender our freedoms in order to be protected from these dangerous and treacherous unAmericans. We’ve heard that one a lot of times in the 20th Century — Joseph McCarthy comes to mind — and time has shown over and over what a dumb and deadly notion it is.
Snyder notes, “The feeling of submission to authority might be comforting, but it is not the same thing as actual safety.” After all, being locked behind bars is certainly “safe” in its way. But is that where we want to be?
The citizens of Russia, Germany, and Italy were systematically convinced that they were in “exceptional” circumstances that precluded the normal rule of law, democratic choices, and human rights. At first, they must have believed that after the (mostly manufactured) dangers were gone, life would happily return to normal. So with very little ado, they traded their freedoms for protection. They never realized that they were being locked into a system that viewed every criticism as extremism, every questioner a traitor.
Snyder reminds us that in a democracy, freedom is not the trade-off for safety and security. The government’s job is not to stifle argument, protest, or disagreement. Quite the contrary. “It is the government’s job,” he declares, “to increase both freedom and security.”
The 17th Lesson warns us to sit up and take notice of the language being used by those in authority. Pay close attention to would-be leaders’ attempts to consolidate power by exaggerating the threat posed by those who would challenge their path. They will sling around trigger words like “extremist,” terrorism,” “treason,” and so forth.
This is well under way, as this brilliant analysis explains:
In addition to desensitizing the public to the narrow meaning of “treason,” [The Occupant] also regularly signals to his supporters that violence is a valid way to silence and intimidate their opponents, especially the media. If he convinces them that doing so is patriotic because those who disagree are, in fact, traitors to the country, the results could be quite violent.
But it still wouldn’t be treason.
Dr. Snyder’s discussion would agree, as he notes that, “When tyrants speak of extremism, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream — as the tyrants themselves are defining that mainstream at that particular moment.”
In other words, dissent against tyranny ultimately ends up branded as extremism.
So as Dr. Snyder suggests, “Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” It is all around us this Autumn, and closing in. Next week, we’ll examine the 18th Lesson with its thoughts about how to respond.
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
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 14: Establish a Private Life
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 15: Contribute to Good Causes
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 16: Learn from Peers in Other Countries
* I considered including a link to one such report, but the news outlet was so vile, I decided not to. You can find plenty of right-wing “news” sites that are making up stories of danger, chaos, extremism, and the need to make exceptions to due process and Constitutional rights if that’s what you want to do. But I don’t want to concede them a single click.