Tim Snyder Reviewed – “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”

“What is patriotism?” asks Timothy Snyder in the penultimate chapter of his slim book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. To begin his definition Mr. Snyder lists what he considers is not, and in doing so defines his politics more lucidly than an affirmative definition could.

His list of un-patriotisms begins with calling it not patriotic “to dodge the draft and mock war heroes and their families.”

Is this really true though? On mocking war heroes he is undoubtedly referring to the affair of Humayun Khan, the U.S. Army Captain who died in Iraq in 2004, and his father Khzir and mother Ghazala’s appearance at last year’s Democratic National Convention, as well as Donald Trump’s comments on John McCain rejecting that the Senator is a war hero. The Khans and McCain are more linked than just being on the receiving end of the president’s abuse. Khzir Khan told CNN last year that McCain was Humayun’s hero, and that he had sent his son McCain’s 2004 book Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life while Humayun was deployed.

I don’t know much about the Khan’s politics aside from their admiration for McCain, though it does at least feel wrong to mock the parents of a dead soldier, whatever one’s opinion of that soldier or their actions. I can feel human sympathy for Carryn Owens, the widow of the Navy SEAL who died in the Yemen raid that killed 10 children younger than 13, and six women, despite my rejection of the fetishization and celebration of the murderous soldiers that that grotesquely revered branch of the armed forces is often composed of.

So I can understand the visceral emotion Snyder expresses in his rejection of Trump’s treatment of those parents. But even ceding Snyder’s point in the case of the Khans leaves a few questions. Why is it not patriotic to dodge the draft? I s McCain really a war hero? And if he is, why does it matter?

The first question is easily resolved for me. If Trump’s “reasonable” generals plunge us into war with Iran and institute a draft, will it be unpatriotic to dodge that draft? Snyder’s standard would seem to hold that it would be.

McCain’s heroism is certainly not without dispute. He made propaganda films for the Vietcong while imprisoned, something utterly inconsequential for me but apparently deadly important to those who are in the business of bestowing the sobriquet “war hero” on those they consider worthy (and who often near unfailingly share their political leanings).

When I ask myself whether or not being a war hero “matters,” I’m asking myself a question about what I value. Those who place great importance on war heroes often view the United States as a unique nation which has carried out a liberatory mission throughout the course of its history. This flies in the face of the truth that I know, that the United States is the latest and most powerful iteration of Empire, an empire that has always had as its goal the preservation and protection of capital. Smedly Butler came to this realization after a highly decorated career in the military, and his testimony is one of the most cutting and lucid we have of a soldier who realizes how he has been used.

However they have been used there are undoubtedly brave soldiers, and even though they often fight for a cause I reject they also often display valor and courage under fire. When the guns start firing ideology can quickly take a back seat to self preservation and care for one’s comrades in arms. The problem then, of the appellation “war hero” is that it’s a political designation, granted mostly to conservative figures who have furthered the interests of capital. When Snyder asks us to respect war heroes, he isn’t really talking about honoring the individual accomplishments of brave men; he is demanding our subservience to the values of the state they committed them for. Like many defenders of the creed of centrism, he tries to wrap us into a political act by painting it as a neutral admiration demanded of all good citizens.

In another section of the book Snyder correctly advises to “make sure you and your family have passports.”

He calls having a passport “liberating.” So why does he demand of my patriotism to include submitting to a draft I will undoubtedly not agree with? The implication too is that those who fled to Canada to avoid the draft which Trump elided were not patriotic. The critique of Trump as draft-dodger is valid insofar as it highlights his hypocrisy in demanding a sacrifice he himself would not make. Snyder’s point feels different in his book, that we should be outraged not because of his hypocrisy but because resisting conscription is immoral. Should those objectors have carried guns into battle in a war they, and I, find wrong? Snyder addresses this point more to my satisfaction in his rebuttal to those who would avoid a passport in service of dying to defend “freedom” in America.

“These are fine words,” he writes, “but they miss an important point. The fight will be a long one.”

Indeed it will, and Snyder’s “patriotic” imprecations do not help us to do the hard work and maintain the maintain the stamina necessary to wage that fight. When a movement opens itself to charges of insufficient patriotism, it can descend into bathos in an attempt to prove its authenticity on that front to its enemies.

Treating of McCain is important too. There has been a liberal trend to canonize reactionary Republicans like McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham over the past year, and it reached its nadir not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It was then that it exhibited perhaps its most perverse expression, in the effusive praise for war criminal George W. Bush’s aw-shucks routine. Not only were Bush’s rounds mendacious (no, the 43rd president does not give a damn about a free and independent press, nor does he consider it indispensable ), but they were also cowardly. The 70 year old charmer toured behind the shield of veterans with PTSD and blown off limbs, the victims and perpetrators of his bloodthirsty foreign policy.

Bush’s tepid criticisms, delivered with the necessary false agony of the Serious Guy about “speaking out” had the centrist “resistance” pining for the reappearance on the scene of this war-mongering expropriator. But this isn’t a surprise. Centrism as a political philosophy seeks to maintain nothing but the status quo, which today is the neoliberal imperialist order, a variation on the old theme that is capitalism. It sounds a little sweeter, sure, but it’s the same melody.

“The danger we now face is of a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naive and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of oligarchy,” writes Snyder. Has he, this historian, lost his sense of history? Snyder says repeatedly how important an awareness of history is, but seems to view the developments of the past year as something new.

The difference is only qualitative.

The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision is half a decade old; there is your cynicism. The concentration of wealth among the top 1/10th of the richest 1 percent of America is unparalleled in the nation’s history; there is your oligarchy. Of course none of this is new and these things were not even the first symptoms of the Situation Now™, they are only the most recent developments and those which are keenly visible today.

I have read some of Snyder’s essays, and he is a talented historian, but he seems blind to what has been wrought in the recent past. He rightly tells us that we teeter at the brink of a ledge over something which is sinisterly different. What he misses though is that to recover we not only have to take a firm step back, but we also must climb back the ledges we have already fallen from. Otherwise we only defer the final push to a more effective manipulator.

Snyder is a proponent of “resistance.” But resistance means only to stay in place against an advancing tide. It’s impossible to stand unarmed while a wave of concrete rushes towards you and expect not to be shattered. The only way to combat the coming threat is to acknowledge the present one, and to meet both head on and push back. There can be no half measures. Socialism or barbarism has completed its transformation from the comforting bedtime lullaby of the left to a reflection of the facts on the ground.

The task of the Left is to build far from the shore. The tempting analogy for a writer to make is to build this new project on the margins, but that should not be its promise. To avoid the necessity of these twenty actions, which range from the profound to the pathetic, it is required to build on solid ground: we must move inland, charting a course to the mainstream.

“For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed,” begins the most unlucky 13th lesson. “First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends. Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end in the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”

This is certainly practical and useful, and for a certain audience no doubt a message that needs to be imparted. But what is the change Snyder wants? The deepest flaw of the book is its failure to articulate the world that we should be fighting for. There are brief sketches of a sort of liberal democracy, a reversion to the status quo. But that will leave the situation once again unconfronted; not only is that status quo inhuman and cruel, but the tyranny Snyder warns against will only reappear like the tides.

So how?

Protests are tremendously important, and Snyder is right to advocate that they must be where the government is. I was at the Navy Memorial on January 20th waiting for delayed hours while in the distance black smoke curled up from a burning limousine, and I joined in on the prolonged boo that greeted the newly-minted president as his own motorcade drove by. I saw his scowl looking out on the jeers, and know that anyone who has heard that unrelenting “boo,” more powerful than any chant or insult, a primal sound of dissatisfaction and rejection, can understand the utility of a protest. That sound is the answer to anyone who questions protest’s motivational utility.

But protest is not enough. Snyder is blinded by his allegiance to existing institutions, thinking that if we can just defend them fervently enough they can deliver us salvation. But this is clearly illogical; if our institutions were sufficient we would not be in the situation we find ourselves in now. They are not good enough, and now that we’ve identified the approaching tsunami we can no longer content ourselves with sandbags.

Only by building stronger, democratic, anti-capitalist institutions that we are genuinely a part of can we have a civil society that can defend us. Snyder talks about the importance of civil society, and civil society is important. But for civil society to do its job it has to flow from the people. So much of what is called civil society now is corporate funded, it’s astroturfed, it’s nothing but capital running cover. Civil society will only defend us when we are civil society, and if we demand that our interests are the ones it protects. When we have a civil society whose motive is not profit, that isn’t funded by the oligarchs and the banks, then Snyder’s defense of civil society will become valid.

Some of what Snyder writes is merely aggravating, general middle class liberal sentiment that just-doesn’t-get-it. Some is more shocking from a champion of liberal democracy. Snyder signals a lot of reverence for the fourth estate, with all the grandiosity that appellation implies. But in chapter 14, where he describes the importance of establishing a private life, he misses the chance to make a powerful point about the degradation of the border between what is public and what is private to take an odd swipe at reporting he deems unacceptable.

The whole setup he lays out is bizarre.

“During the campaign of 2016,” he writes, “we took a step toward totalitarianism without even noticing it by accepting as normal the violation of electronic privacy.”

He is speaking of the leaked Democratic National Committee emails, published by Wikileaks in July of 2016.

These “timed email bombs,” according to Snyder, were a “powerful form of disinformation.” He goes on to chastise journalists for not contextualizing the words and explaining why people would speak like they do in the emails, calling this “an act of falsification.”

“Meanwhile,” Snyder goes on, “in transmitting the privacy violations as news the media allowed themselves to be distracted from the actual events of the day” (italics mine).

He also calls the reporting on the emails a “mind[less] indulge[nce in] the inherently salacious interest we have in other people’s affairs.”

This insistence that the DNC’s emails are fundamentally worthless and revealed nothing valuable to us is a mainstay of the resistance, heard tendentiously in that enduring witticism “but her emails!”

Snyder’s 400 or so words here are a vaguely academic iteration of this boring refrain. He quotes Hannah Arendt, he uses the word “striking,” he tells us we are “participat[ing] in the demolition of our own political order.”

And it is clear he thinks of it as our order because it is his order. Snyder is blind to the idea that the current political order is not worth protecting. But like every protector of an order, he berates those who would reveal the real malevolence of that order.

He even uses as a criticism of reporting on the emails the alleged propriety of fashion and sports reporters, well known paragons of moral virtue.

“It is striking,” he writes between parenthesis, “that news media are worse at this [in his eyes, the revelation of the confidential becoming the story (and, I have to ask, why doesn’t Snyder consider this revelation newsworthy?)] than, say, fashion or sports reporters?” Say, of course, as if we are sitting in a cafe and just happen to use the first examples that come to mind as reference. “Fashion reporters know that models are taking off their clothes in the changing rooms, and sports reporters know that athletes shower in the locker room, but neither allow private matters to supplant the public story they are supposed to be covering.”

Snyder here frames the revelations in the emails as a “private matter.” At another point in the book Snyder emphasizes how despots and dictators take efforts to circumscribe discussion and shield themselves from investigation. Naturally this isn’t a favorable illustration that he draws, yet it is exactly the sort of behavior he defends in making this bizarre comparison.

Details of models changing and athletes showering are not in the public interest; that is why fashion and sports reporters don’t highlight them. The inside baseball of politics though, does meet that criteria. Not only did the emails reflect poorly on the character of those involved (who, after all, under a Clinton Administration would have actual power as likely White House appointees), but in the uncovering of things like Clinton’s public position/private position statement gave voters a clue to how far her promises should be trusted. And if a runway model or a second baseman for the Oakland Athletics is in line for a cabinet level position, and they are holding meetings on the policy they’re going to make in locker or changing rooms, I would urge a sports, fashion, political, in fact any type of reporter, to report on what’s going on behind those doors if they can.

The exception Snyder provides here explicitly reminds one of Trump’s defense of his “pussy-grabbing” comments as “locker room talk.”

The real policy of candidates for the presidency is dubbed by Snyder the supplantation of the public story by private matters.

And this contradicts his 5th lesson, which instructs us to “remember our professional ethics” in the face of demands upon them. A reporter reporting on a story is doing that. Snyder and those deathly concerned about propriety and good form (the ne plus ultra of liberal priorities) would exempt reporting on private matters obtained from a source that possibly has ulterior motives from the duty of journalists. But if reporters only wrote stories based on leaks from those exposing wrongdoing out of a sense of virtue, they would hardly find any stories to write. As long as the information being reported on is factual (and in this case it most definitely is), there is no reason to not report it.

This whole line of thought that Snyder espouses is typical of the political current he aligns himself with. Though his 11th lesson urges us to support investigative journalism and above that to ourselves investigate, it seems that his real view on the subject is not pure as the driven snow (as I might write with a straight face if my name were Keith Olbermann). He picks and chooses just like anyone else. Congressman Mike Pompeo links to Wikileaks, while CIA Director Pompeo calls them a criminal organization. Historian Timothy Snyder similarly is contradictory on the subject of journalism, though for him it is because he does not consider Wikileaks to be a legitimate journalistic outlet. Thus he valorizes journalists throughout, but the only journalism in this book that he treats of at length (though he does not name it) he bashes, and in terms that cast its effects as those which lead to Fascism.

The left critique of the liberal instinct is important, I think, and those who consider themselves left-liberal often mistake in good faith the arguments that the left puts forward. They talk about “circular firing squads,” evoking the image of Stalinist terror, or “purity tests,” which raises the malevolent specter of Nazi racial science. But the objective of such a left critique is to show the precarious situation so many are truly in. Snyder’s 20 points don’t meet this criteria. It’s powerfully true that the greatest sin from a liberal perspective is that of poor form. A slide into tyranny and fascism then becomes undesirable not because of the great material destruction it visits upon its victims, but because it is a grotesque and vulgar management style. Capitalism must be maintained, the thinking goes, but in style!

In the combat against tyranny and fascism, those with a liberal worldview are useful to ally with, not to follow, and only because those with that worldview are sometimes more capable of listening to the arguments of the left.

Yes, tyranny is on the march. Yes, a grotesque spectre is haunting the world. That spectre is capitalism; tyranny and fascism are only its familiars. To defeat tyranny and the fascism it brings, without forever banishing capitalism, only leaves us vulnerable for another day, and more steps down the path to oblivion.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Fascism, Non-Fiction, Trump, U.S. Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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