Considering Tyranny on Independence Day

The founding fathers did something special when they designed the United States of America, with its branches of government designed to keep one another in check and protect the personal freedoms of individual citizens. For many Americans, though, the Constitution is something of a magical document, and the ideals of freedom and justice amount to some mighty magical thinking. For many Americans, oppression, corruption, human rights atrocities and war are things faced by other people in other countries — here in the USA, we’re protected by that magical document. We’re exceptional. We’re safe.

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, would like you to consider that this magical notion of safety is nonsense, which you may entertain at your extreme peril. On November 15, 2016, Snyder wrote on Facebook, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.”

He’s right.

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

In his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Snyder presents the expanded and fleshed-out versions of the 20-point list (from that much-circulated Facebook post) of ways free citizens can protect their liberty and each other in politically unstable and frightening times. This slim volume is packed with ample reasons why we should care about doing so, and chilling, cautionary illustrations from 20th century history.

This 4th of July, as we take a day off to meditate on what makes our country special, let’s also consider how we can keep it. On Tyranny offers grim warning alongside essential hope.

One of Jasper Johns “Flag” paintings, 1960-66.

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Review: Political Fictions

I experienced a large range of low emotions in the wake of the 2016 presidential election: disbelief, shock, anger, indignation, confusion, revulsion, despair, depression, anxiety. This book was a necessary choice for this moment at the end of this particular year, in part, because I wanted to settle back in to Didion’s exacting language after enjoying two of her books so much, and because I was seeking some political and historical perspective.

The connecting theme of this collection is the creation of narrative – the media appearances, showmanship and public relations efforts that create the image and stories we the people then digest about the politicians for whom we vote and in whom we place our trust, such as it is. There are two essays that qualify as brilliant and one real dud (about Newt Gingrich). The best essays in this collection come first, and my favorite, “Insider Baseball” (about the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign; linked below), provided some of the historical perspective I’d been seeking. (The comparisons between Dukakis and Jackson are especially interesting when viewed through the 2016 lens of Clinton and Sanders.)

The key idea I took from this book is simple, but I hadn’t fully articulated it for myself before. It is this: Not only is the increasing disenfranchisement of the American citizen – the shrinking electorate (only an estimated 57.9% of eligible voters voted in 2016) – is not actually a “problem” for those in power, that small insider political class. It is, in fact, the desired outcome. It is to the advantage of this political class, and this disenfranchisement has been going on for many years worth of news cycles, the political system operating almost completely outside of the experience and concerns of so-called regular people.

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