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Freedom Fridays, Lesson 16: Learn from Peers in Other Countries

No powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself — until, that is, Trump won the Republican nomination.

He was probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat.
Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy

The day dawned sparkling clear, and it seemed the long, sweltering Summer had blessedly receded overnight. The first taste of Fall was in the air, so I turned on the 9am local weather forecast to see if, indeed, the interminable North Carolina heat wave was broken.

The local news, following the conclusion of Good Morning America, came on, briefly, with some hemming and hawing, and then they announced they were going back to GMA in New York, as there seemed to be some breaking news.

And that was that.

I called out to John, and we watched as the network newscaster discussed a report, from a waiter on the phone in a nearby restaurant, that an aircraft had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. While they mulled this over on-air, and said they were attempting to find corroboration, John and I watched in real time as the second jet hit.

We watched as the fires raged, and buildings crumbled. As the cumulus clouds of toxic dust, human remains, and war roiled through the streets of New York. Changing America forever.

Two thousand, nine hundred and seventy seven victims died on Sept. 11, 2001.

And Here We Are

This morning, as of 1:26pm Eastern, 19 years later, 196,703 (let’s say that again, slowly: one hundred ninety six thousand, seven hundred and three) souls in America have perished in the seven or so months of the pandemic (that have, in fact, been counted).

Tens of thousands of these deaths did not have to happen. We know this now.

The shock and sorrow of that hits.. and wears off. The Occupant marches on.

Tens of thousands more, some estimates say one in three, face permanent disability and chronic illness, possibly for life — however long or shortened it may now be.

The Occupant knew all along, reveals Bob Woodward in Rage. He deliberately lied, and, on the record, excused his lie. And so thousands suffered and died. And continue to do so.

This! This will be the final death knell for him, insist the pundits. Just like they did over and over in 2016.

But it’s just another blip in year after year of lies, and the Occupant prances on. He bowed his head to hide his permanent smirk at a memorial service in Shanksville, PA this morning. 9/11 is one of his favorite topics to use in his web of lies and self-aggrandizement.

Just another day of Tweet-storms, shocking distractions, convoluted incoherence. And then on to the next news cycle.

Too Little, Too Late

As Dr. Timothy Snyder notes in Lesson 16 of Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, this is unknown territory for Americans. But it is a familiar pattern to our Eastern European neighbors.

He explains:

In the year before the president was elected, American journalists were often mistaken about his campaign. As he surmounted barrier after barrier and accumulated victory after victory, our commentariat assured us that at the next stage he would be stopped by one fine American institution or another.

There was, meanwhile, one group of observers who took a different position: east Europeans and those who study eastern Europe.

To them, much about the president’s campaign was familiar, and the final outcome was no surprise…

To Ukrainians, Americans seemed comically slow to react to the obvious threats of cyberwar and fake news.

We still have a lot of growing up to do, but time is running out.

In Ukraine, a prize that Russia has coveted for most of its history, the struggle for independence after the end of the U.S.S.R. has been ongoing.

Russia needs Ukraine’s warm water ports, its natural resources, and has long considered Ukraine its personal toy. So when the Soviet Union collapsed, the fight for continued possession heated up. At first, much of it was a propaganda war, overflowing with false stories designed to whip up emotion and reactivity.

Like the 2014 fake story, seeded by Russia, that Ukrainian troops had crucified a young boy.

What do you suppose our media would have done with a story like that?

It is instructive how swiftly their journalists acted to expose and dismantle such volatile disinformation. Over and over, they have fought back against Russia’s campaign of fake news, often with humor but always with focused, unrelenting priority.

Russia deployed many of the same techniques against Ukraine that it later used against the United States–while invading Ukraine… [but] the Ukrainians won, and the Americans lost, in the sense that Russia failed to get the regime it wanted in its neighbor, but did see its preferred candidate triumph in the United States.

This should give us pause.

Indeed it should. Especially since we have been warned once again this week that the hacking and meddling into our elections is continuing full steam ahead, and with no reaction from the Occupant to object, much less put a stop to it.

In fact, quite the contrary.

Get Out Once in a While

After 9/11, the news in America was so reactive and uber-patriotic, I found it hard to find any dispassionate reporting. Even the most measured news sources were dripping in shock, flag-waving, and, to a greater or lesser degree, the push for retaliation.

That’s when I fell in love with reading the news via the web: The BBC, and The Guardian in particular. (And I am happy to support the latter with a regular payment).

For example, seeing America’s big 9/11 drama through the eyes of a country that had long been enduring deadly bombings and terrorism on a steady basis was most illuminating.

I continue to cultivate a more international perspective, as it gives a better dimension to what goes on here. Just as studying history offers far clearer context for the current moment.

Similarly, Snyder urges us to get out more. Travel to other places and listen to others, who may be far wiser than us.

Of course, in these times of travel shut-down, that advice is harder than it was when his book was written. But the attitude can still work.

It is time for us to shrug off the myth of America’s magical superiority. Instead, he recommends that we pay “sustained attention to the world around us, so that we know what we are resisting, and how best to do so.”

If you don’t have one, get a passport, or make sure your passport is up to date. Make friends with people in other countries. LISTEN to their point of view. America can be ridiculously insular, and it is a pattern that may well be our undoing.

He does, somewhat darkly, hint that with passports in hand, we and our families may eventually have to sacrifice our residency here. He also acknowledges those who would argue they would rather die defending freedom in America, but, he declares, these are fine words that miss the point.

He suggests that it is not surrender if we decide to  leave, but instead “liberating” since we have so much to gain from new experiences and exposure to other ways of life.

“Since so much of what has happened [since 2016] is familiar to the rest of the world or from recent history, we must observe and listen.”

Learn From Our Neighbors

The bottom line is that other countries have a LOT to teach us about discovering the hard way that it is vital to act immediately to unmask stories, Tweets, and agendas calculated to instigate anger, polarization, alienation, and, eventually, chaos.

Unfortunately, America still believes in its exceptionalism. Intrinsic in the American story is the idea that we are somehow favored by God, or smarter, or better than everyone else. Strains of Frank Zappa play in the background… “It can’t happen here…”

If you are still reading this (thank you!), I am willing to bet that you already surmise how important it is to pay attention to life beyond the borders of the good old U. S. of A.

As Snyder warns, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one great advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

I am incredibly blessed to have friends in Canada, UK, Western Europe, and Israel, and I love hearing their views on the world.

But although John’s and my passports are up to date — in large part because of these ominous warning signs  — I personally feel very mixed about this.

What do you think?

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

A final note: from the time I sat down to write this, until I hit the “Publish” button, over 300 new deaths in the U.S. were tallied.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • September 12, 2020, 3:26 pm nofixedstars

    snyder’s advice to “(pay) sustained attention to the world around us, so that we know what we are resisting, and how best to do so.” is spot-on.

    i have traveled a fair bit, and have friends both virtual and real-life all around the globe. we are idiots if we think we are some kind of magically protected exception to anything, or if we fail to see that other places have a higher quality of life in many areas that serve as quality of life indices…with no loss of freedom or representation. it’s a big, wonderful world, and there are many places we could learn so much from.

    like you, i prefer to get my news online from global news outlets. i often learn more about what is going on in the US from the BBC or RFE or even al jazeera world news than i do from domestic news outlets, not to mention being much better informed about what is going on globally. and knowing that so many of our televised news stations have been brought under the ownership and oversight of just two content-controlling media groups (nexstar and sinclair), which promote a slanted, heavily edited approach to ‘news’, is incredibly disturbing.

    and yes…my passport and those of all my immediate family are always up-to-date. always before, that was simply a detail we attended to so that we might have the privilege and delight of travelling for business or pleasure, and we looked forward to future trips eagerly. and many of us had speculated about how nice it would be to live abroad in some places we particularly loved, with or without citizenship. but only quite recently has it occurred to me, to any of us, that we might need to leave our natal country for personal safety or for ideological reasons. i doubt whether most americans ever thought they would have to consider whether they might not need to seek sanctuary in some other country, assuming they will have us…

    my feelings, though, are mixed too. as much as i enjoy staying—and likely would enjoy living—in other places, if i could be permitted to do so and afford to do it, i would not wish to leave friends and family behind more or less permanently. and less selfishly, it would feel like i was abandoning others, less privileged, to the continued demoralisation and erosion of rights and safety i might have fled. i feel, rightly or wrongly, a duty to this place and to my fellow americans. to my daughter and her generation. to the children yet to come. to the lands and waters and creatures who reside here with us. if those who are most privileged and possibly insulated from the worst consequences leave america, is that fair? should not our voices be loudest in her defence?

    i genuinely don’t know what is best at this point. but i suspect that if it all really goes up in flames, handmaid’s tale style, i would beg my grown daughter and her boyfriend to come with me, and i would want us to leave. if it looks like things have a chance of evolving back (being dragged back, more likely) to something like an america i could be proud of, i would want to stay.

    again, file under ‘thoughts one never expected to have’…

  • September 12, 2020, 6:26 pm Marcy Keim

    The article was spot on and very well written! I agree with everything you said 100%.

  • September 12, 2020, 7:08 pm Beth

    Thank you both so much for your thoughts.

    Yes, I really struggle with should we stay or should we go, which may be a moot point these days, since many borders are, in effect, closed to us.

    John and I have kicked it around ever since we heard, in the late 90s, that we could be grandfathered in as citizens of Ireland if we could prove an ancestor less than 3 generations back. (That policy ended in the early 2000s). Alas, my Irish forebears go back a bit further, but we still were looking into it, and have talked many times about where we would go. Iceland? Scotland? Mallorca (my physical therapist’s preference)?

    But like you, we owe a deep allegiance to our home, including the native plants and animals in our care, the genius loci, and the Otherbeings who share this place with us.