Do not obey in advance

In the days just after the election, Timothy Snyder, the Yale history professor who writes so well about Eastern European history, observed that  “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism.”

He was worried about what a Trump presidency would do to our democratic institutions, and hoped that the lessons that should have been learned from the rise of Hitler and Stalin would keep us from repeating the same mistakes again. He offered this list of things that any citizen could do to try to resist the terrible possibilities.

All of the 20 suggestions on the list are good, but a couple stand out for me:

1. Do not obey in advance. Much 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 start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

The problem I see with the list, and why the cause is already lost,  is that it speaks only to those who both understand what is happening and think it’s a bad thing. In other words, it’s a list for people who already knew that Trump would be bad for the country. It’s the other 60 million that need to be convinced, and it just ain’t gonna happen.

Some examples:

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

Really? There is absolutely no way the people who love to hear the man-baby finally say the words “radical Islamic terrorist” and repeat the “Make America Great Again” slogan are ever going to act on this advice. FoxNews built a commercial empire (and now a political one) by betting that their viewers couldn’t do this. That’s exactly why we’re here.

8. Believe in truth. 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.

Okay, Professor Snyder, I’m going to give you a bye on this because you wrote it before we learned about “Fake News” and “alternative facts.” The problem is that the Trump supporters apparently do not have the tools or the will to distinguish facts from nonsense. In the internet world, everything is just as true as everything else, and they’ve already made their choices.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

Yeah, no. Even this blog entry is too long already for most people to get through. The digital assault on our senses is so heavy that you really can’t ask people to read/study/investigate anything more -they’re already being sprayed by a fire-hose of information that they can’t sort out or interpret. (Except for a very few voracious readers and lifelong students. I’m looking at you, faithful subscribers to GOML.)

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

Too late again. The people you’re talking to here are already beyond this suggestion and have chosen to violate suggestion #1 as well: they’re obeying in advance. If you doubt it, glance at this article from yesterday’s Failing New York Times about how Immigration Agents have been set free by Trump’s tweeting, and aren’t really waiting for the courts to sort it out.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

We’ve talked before here about how Trump seems to be goading the bad guys into attacking us in the hopes that he can consolidate his power, marginalize the courts, and, above all, become the most up-voted, liked, favorited, highest-ratings president ever.

I almost didn’t bother including #5 here, but I wanted an excuse to  link to this other Snyder article on the Reichstag fire of 1933. If you don’t know about the fire, brush up with this article. Snyder says, “The Reichstag fire shows how quickly a modern republic can be transformed into an authoritarian regime.”



6 thoughts on “Do not obey in advance”

  1. “There is a line in The Republic which I think is the sum of all the above: that the quality of “readability” is not only not to be despised, but it is to be pursued. Socrates says, “Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes”. Storytelling as leisure, as education and as a galvanizing force? These are features of the “readable”, and I will never despise them.”
    Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent. Times Literary Supplement.

    Stewie tells great stories and is highly readable.


  2. I worry more about Fox News and its ilk and their ability to misinform the public than about what the reasonably well-informed voter should do to resist even if it’s important that they do it. The key is to stop the propaganda. Couldn’t Bill Gates buy out Murdoch or something?


    1. I’ve often thought about that as well. But all those FoxNews viewers represent a huge market for some other outlet to exploit. That might even be why Fox doesn’t moderate its message – too many people would become disenchanted with the lack of red meat (and nuts).


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