GELFAND’S WORLD--There is a tradition on the internet that the use of analogies to Hitler and the Nazis are disqualifying. This unofficial rule was originally stated by Mike Godwin back in 1990 and is known colloquially as Godwin's Law. That tradition may now be obsolete, having been surpassed by current events. In a talk this week, distinguished historian and author Timothy Snyder rejected our hesitancy to discuss the Nazis and the holocaust, particularly with respect to the way that Hitler's rise parallels much of what we are seeing in the American political landscape. He paints a grim picture of the methods that turn democracies into tyrannies, but offers lessons by which to resist the process and to survive if possible.
His book On Tyranny is subtitled Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. It's a mere 126 pages from cover to cover and physically small enough to fit in your jacket pocket. Snyder points out that what has just happened in America parallels what happened in Ukraine just a few years earlier. A giant campaign of disinformation originating in a foreign power was used to attempt to affect a national election. As Snyder explains, the foreign power is Russia, and the plan was effective in America. The Ukrainians were better able to resist the Russian propaganda campaign.
Snyder spoke to a packed crowd at Writers Bloc on Tuesday night. If the audience reaction suggests anything, it is that On Tyranny is going to be read by lots of people and will become, alongside the Indivisible guide, the manual for how to deal with the Trump years. Snyder's book is darker and more ominous, making the Indivisible guide seem optimistic by comparison. His analysis and the accompanying corollaries are chilling.
As Snyder explains both in person and through his book, the situation in the United States under the new presidency goes beyond mere electoral misfortune. It is regime change. What Snyder means by that term is developed more fully in the book, but comes down to the idea that our idea of American democracy is not inevitably destined to survive. The process is not automatic. Other western democracies failed, turning into dictatorships during the 1930s and '40s. We've taken a dangerous first step.
I'll mention just a few of the twenty lessons.
Lesson one says, "Do not obey in advance." It seems obvious, but it isn't. As Snyder points out, people tend to follow along and even anticipate what will be expected of them. I'll quote the lesson in its entirety:
"Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do."
Snyder expands and explains the lesson through the history of how Nazi rule arose out of a free election, bit by bit gobbling up the institutions that might have withstood Hitler but ultimately failed.
Lesson Ten says, "Believe in truth." Here is the expanded description: "To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights."
The idea isn't new; it's something that most ethical journalists treat as an implicit assumption. But putting Believe in Truth right up there as an explicit principle is something that we need. If nothing else, it is a statement to the opposition who have accepted Trump's big lie campaign as, if nothing else, amusing. It's time that we remind Trump followers that truth is something that matters.
Some of the lessons are more appropriate to people who live in already-fascist countries. "Make eye contact and small talk."
Snyder summarizes a point that has occurred to many of us. When Donald Trump attempted to blame any future terrorist attack on federal judges who uphold the Constitution and civil rights, it was a first step towards preparing the American people to turn against their fellow citizens and to accept significant loss of freedom. Snyder says, "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives . . . When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power." Snyder develops the argument by referring to the 1933 fire that burned the German Reichstag (the parliament building). Hitler used the fire to blame his enemies, tear down the authority of legitimate institutions, and consolidate power in himself.
Notice that there is a tendency for the reviewer (either the person who interviewed Snyder at Writers Bloc or yours truly) to take up one's favorite lessons from the book and quote them. I suspect that a lot of people will be doing this in the near future. I happen to like "Be kind to our language" and "Stand out." The former was explored by George Orwell. The latter is the warning that because there are some philosophies and movements that you should not follow, there are times when you should not be a follower.
One thread in these arguments is a little jarring, so there is an argument that has to be made explicitly. As mentioned above, Snyder brought it up and discussed it at Writers Bloc. The issue is using the history of the holocaust in present day discussions about present day politics.
The counterargument has some merit. The Nazi holocaust was such supreme evil that it stands out against most other human history. Snyder points out that treating the holocaust as unique and not to be spoken of lightly has a certain validity. But he then argues that if we treat the holocaust as a sort of sacred subject that is out of bounds for use in comparisons, then how can we use it to extract lessons for the present day? Timothy Snyder is ready and willing to compare the onset of the Trump presidency to the rise of Adolph Hitler.
It turns out that Snyder is not alone in rejecting the underlying tenets of Godwin's Law, at least for one tongue in cheek statement in the Urban Dictionary.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)