On Tyranny

ON TYRANNY: TWENTY LESSONS FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By Timothy Snyder

“History can familiarize, and it can warn.” So begins Timothy Snyder’s little book full of timely lessons, cautionary tales, and general guidelines drawn from the darkest days of the twentieth century (think, primarily, Hitler and Stalin) “adapted to the circumstances of today.”

It’s much the same warning that has been sounding since antiquity. Polybius may have been the first to come up with a formal theory of the descent from democracy into tyranny, but it’s a subject that has since gone on to become a staple for statesmen and historians to return to. How do we prevent a state collapsing into barbarity?

Snyder’s primer is obviously targeted at the threat to democracy he sees being advanced in the Trump administration and recent political developments in Europe like the Brexit vote. Such red flags should put us on our guard. But given the nature of such a book, with only a few pages given to each historical lesson and the moral to be drawn from it, one wants to immediately jump in and register some caveats.

The first lesson, for example, is “Do not obey in advance.” What this refers to is “anticipatory obedience,” which means that when people give in to government encroachments on their liberty the government is emboldened to go even further. Meanwhile, whatever freedoms have been given up cannot easily be regained. In other words, there’s a ratchet effect: when tyranny meets with little initial resistance “the first heedless acts of conformity [can] not then be reversed.”

True enough, though I think Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority don’t fit with this particular historical lesson all that well. They weren’t about anticipatory obedience. A more troubling question, however, has to do with the nature of the authority being exercised and where the biggest threats to our freedom may be coming from. For example, we freely give up far more of our personal information and privacy to companies like Google and Facebook than we do to the government – companies that, according to recent reports, are far from innocent when it comes to playing the game of political influence and power. Personally, I’m more concerned about where our first heedless acts of conformity have led us in this regard than I am by any power we have granted to public bodies. The police can only get a sample of your DNA in most countries with a court order (it’s a form of search warrant), but people apparently will now pay corporations to take it from them. This strikes me as a carelessly and dangerously misplaced trust, and an act of anticipatory obedience that will be hard if not impossible to reverse in the future.

I don’t want to suggest here that Snyder is blind to the threat of the Internet. Indeed, this is a major theme that runs throughout the book. In later chapters he emphasizes the importance of print over digital news, of maintaining a private sphere of life and drawing a line between when we are seen and when we are not seen, and of “practicing corporeal politics” (that is, organizing and interacting with real people). What I’m getting at instead is the way tyranny isn’t limited to our political institutions.

Speaking of those, the second lesson is to “Defend institutions.” Again, this is fine as a general principle but it still raises questions. Defend all institutions? Even those that are corrupt, dysfunctional, or antiquated? I’ve been all for abolishing Canada’s senate for years. What if institutions have become so sclerotic they are no longer capable of addressing current crises, and our constitutions are only guarantors of an unresponsive status quo? Are we stuck with a first-past-the-post election system forever? Is there nothing the U.S. can do about its gun laws because of the Second Amendment? Not all political institutions are worth keeping, at least in their present form.

Third up: “Beware the one-party state.” This strikes me as wanting to shut the barn door after the horses are out. If you live in a one-party state the game is already over, and (as Snyder notes) few people know in advance if they are voting for the dismantling of democracy in a last free election. As anti-democratic in spirit as Trump clearly is, I don’t think anyone thought that 2016 was the end of the line. Of course, those more cynical (or realistic) might say that most Western democracies are already one-party states, as only a certain social and economic elite is represented by the political system. This is especially the case in first-past-the-post systems where the ineluctable tendency is toward a two-party system where both sides are in broad agreement on policy with only some minor differences in tone. I don’t think Snyder is advocating for proportional representation though.

I won’t go through the whole list in order. Instead, I’ll register a broader reservation.

Snyder is swimming against the tide of the times. I think he realizes this, but I’m not sure he understands just how strong the countervailing forces are. I’ve mentioned his distrust of the Internet and his call to return to print: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.” I heartily agree with him, but at this stage of the game I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t going to happen. I don’t mean to subscribe to what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability” here (meaning there is no alternative to the way things are) but I think we have to limit our plans for change to the possible and the not-so-heroic.

As I say, I think Snyder realizes how hard resistance is going to be. We can see another example of this in his emphasis on the need for personal effort. Lesson 8 calls for the individual to “Stand out,” while the final lesson is to “Be as courageous as you can” (the only explanation of which is that “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”). Standing out and being courageous, however, are not easy. Few of us, by definition, are heroes, and in any event heroes don’t always have much of a political impact. Those who stand out don’t always draw others to their cause and have rarely been much of a threat to tyrannous governments. The Nazis were not overthrown by conscientious objectors and protests against their regime but by losing a war. Communism collapsed on its own, and those who opposed finally won by pushing at an open door.

Another example of swimming against the tide of the times comes in the call for more political activism among groups. I think this is a little more likely, or at least possible, than people separating themselves from the Internet and reading books again, but it’s still mostly wishful thinking. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone pretty much wrote the epitaph for civic involvement, and it only summarized trends in place before the Internet came along. Unlike some, perhaps many, I do not see the Internet as truly connecting people, as it seems to me to mainly promote more social isolation and apathy.

Does this mean we are doomed to fall into tyranny again? Nothing is inevitable, but I think we’re in trouble. I say this not because of any of the bad habits Snyder adumbrates but because of looming crises that will undercut, and indeed are already undercutting, our democratic systems. When tyranny comes it will be in the guise of an answer to these threats: economic and environmental train wrecks that will put severe pressures on governments around the world. In coping with these crises the lessons of the twentieth century will, I think, be of limited utility except to make the road to ruin better lit and more familiar.

Notes:
Review first published online April 22, 2018.

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Listen, Liberal

Listen, Liberal
Thomas Frank

I think I’ve read most of the books explaining the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and while there have been several excellent ones (Matt Taibi’s Insane Clown President for dispatches from the campaign trail, Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes on Hillary Clinton’s story, and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism for a global view are the titles that stand out), Thomas Frank’s critical examination of the twenty-first century Democratic Party, Listen, Liberal, may be the best, and makes an essential companion piece to The Wrecking Crew, his searing anatomy of current Republican ideology. That Listen, Liberal was first published before Trump’s election (with an afterword added to the paperback edition) only underlines the authority of its analysis.

The subtitle asks “What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” Frank’s answer is that the Democrats saw their future in waging class war against their working-class base (who would be left with nowhere else to turn) in order to curry favour with a social-economic elite of well-educated professionals (the top 10%). Theirs was to be a “liberalism of the rich” that would increase inequality in the name of heaping more rewards on society’s biggest winners. This was a dangerous game, since the way the playing field is tilted today there are always going to be a lot more losers than winners. Trump, perversely, could appeal to the losers — albeit not to their sense of injustice but their impotence and rage. Clinton was left wondering what happened, and in the end could only go on insisting that she had somehow really won.

Trumpocracy and Fire and Fury

TRUMPOCRACY: THE CORRUPTION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC
By David Frum

FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE
By Michael Wolff

During the 2016 presidential elections CBS CEO Les Moonves made waves when he boasted of the boost Donald Trump’s candidacy had given to his network’s ratings. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Despite not being a reader himself, Trump has been damn good for publishers too. After a slew of post mortems published last year trying to explain the election and how we got here, readers can now look forward to what is sure to be a flood of books offering insider and expert analysis of the Trump presidency. For journalists, historians, psychologists, political scientists, and even novelists and literary critics, Donald J. Trump is going to be the gift that keeps on giving.

The only problem will be keeping pace. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear complaints about how cable news had accelerated political reporting to the rhythms of a 24-hour news cycle. With the advent of social media this has been reduced even further, leaving a technology as resolutely old-fashioned as the book at a clear disadvantage when faced with daily Twitterstorms.

The prominent Canadian-American political pundit David Frum recognizes the problem of writing from within the whirlwind of current events. But, seeing as this is a moment of crisis, he also feels that “if it’s embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long.” And so we have Trumpocracy: an angry assessment by a die-hard “Never Trumper” of what Trump’s use and abuse of power is doing to America’s political culture.

There is much to pick over in the analysis, with many valuable insights and observations. Foremost among these is the role played by “those who enable, support, and collaborate with Donald Trump.” Why have so many people in positions of responsibility and authority caved in so quickly and completely to Trumpism? Frum’s answer is institutional: they didn’t want to alienate the angry and resentful Republican base and they needed Trump to rubber-stamp their agenda. Since Trump has almost no interest in policy, all that was required was that he “have enough working digits to sign their bills into law.” In exchange, a cynical and opportunist Congress would protect him. We’ve yet to see how far they will go in this.

If Frum’s book is more concerned with the big picture, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury goes in the other direction. Here are all the juicy scoops and gossipy revelations that have been feeding the media mills for the past week, propelling Fire and Fury to the top of the bestseller lists. Trump wanted his presidency to be a reality TV program, judged not by its accomplishments but by its ratings. He has succeeded beyond all imagining.

Though hard to put down, Wolff’s breathless tell-all in fact tells us little we didn’t already know about the character of Trump himself. Nearly everyone around him considers him to be a moron. He is needy, paranoid, and narcissistic. He doesn’t “process information” well, has no attention span, and tends to ramble repetitively, boring listeners to tears. Universally described as child-like, he struts upon the stage like a spoiled, petulant bully. None of this is news.

Then there is the presidential court, headlined by the dark whisperer Steve Bannon (who even likens the White House to the court of the Tudors), prevaricating establishment Republicans and generals, and a glossy brood of spoiled but dim children, inheritors of the Trump brand.

In the mutual contempt of warring power bases, and with a near total leadership vacuum at the top, dysfunction has followed: what one outgoing high-ranking staffer characterizes as “bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission” and another more succinctly as “an idiot surrounded by clowns.” The resulting chaos is criticized by both authors. Frum calls the White House “a mess of careless slobs” while for Wolff it becomes the “scene of a daily Trump clusterfuck.”

In the face of all this late-night stand-up material, the frequently heard warnings of a slide toward fascism may be overdrawn. However, after reading Frum and Wolff my own mind kept turning back to the epilogue to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account of The Last Days of Hitler. In his summary of the Nazi regime as a “monkey house” of “flatterers and toadies” Trevor-Roper saw not totalitarianism, indeed not a government at all, “but a court – a court as negligible in its power of ruling, as incalculable in its capacity for intrigue, as any oriental sultanate.”

The tragedy is that the Trump Show, or Trumpocracy, is only one symptom of a deeper rot. In Trevor-Roper’s analysis, what led to Hitler’s court was “the despair of politics.” The same despair has brought forth the strange fruit surveyed in these two books, and it’s only going to deepen.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 12, 2018.

Only the Devil Is Here

Only the Devil Is Here
Stephen Michell

A blighted natural landscape being traversed by a man and boy has become a popular motif in contemporary fiction, informing such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Jantunen’s A Desolate Splendour. Stephen Michell enters this same terrain with his debut novel, and once again we have the stoic, mysterious father figure (here named Rook) protecting the boy (Evan) from the many dangers of the road. It’s all very archetypal as well as apocalyptic, but Michell shows that he’s a capable writer with this kind of material in several cinematic sequences. The theological message, however, left me a bit confused with its inversion of the traditional hierarchies of darkness of light. I’ve nothing against radical re-imaginings of Christian mythology, but think in this case it might have been better to leave the more familiar religious elements out of the mix. One gets the sense that this is a world the Father has ceased to take much of an interest in.

Censored 2018

Censored 2018
Ed. by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff with Project Censored

The subtitle for this yearbook of the top censored stories and media analysis of 2016-2017 refers to a “post-truth” world, making apt use of Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year. Post-truth was a popular coinage in the dawning Age of Trump, along with “alternative facts” and “fake news,” giving some idea of the evolving nature of the media landscape surveyed in this, the first Censored volume since Trump’s election. And if, as is suggested, “the real threat to a civilized society is stupidity,” then another word to keep in mind may be “agnotology” (the study of the deliberate creation of ignorance by the merchants of doubt).

Of course, the news media have always had difficulties with truth and reporting facts, but with Trump there has been a more open embrace of the disinformation-and-propaganda model by power elites. Nevertheless, important if inconvenient truths are still out there, beginning with this year’s top underreported story on widespread lead contamination of the water supply in the U.S. Apparently the disaster in Flint was just the tip of an infrastructure iceberg.

Censored 2018 is one of the slimmer entries in this series, but punches above its weight with a solid line-up of top censored stories, many of which alert us to significant threats to health, democracy, and the environment. Also included is a selection of interesting commmentary, including an essay by Edward Herman on the media model put forward in Manufacturing Consent at thirty (spoiler alert: things are actually getting worse). If you’re a regular reader of these volumes then you’re likely not going to be surprised by any of this. You can, however, always be better informed.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew
Thomas Frank

There’s an understandable tendency to view books on current political affairs as having a short shelf date. Once this expires, these matters leave the field of reportage and enter the domain of the historian. You can be sure all the current bestsellers on Donald Trump will soon disappear and leave not a wrack behind.

It would be a mistake to so neglect Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew. His analysis of the conservative campaign to ruin government is as vital today as it was ten years ago, writing at the moment of the subprime mortgage crisis. Looking around the shattered landscape of 2008 Frank saw that conservatism’s “economic theories had been badly discredited and its political fortunes lay in ruins.” That wasn’t the case, not by a long shot, but this makes an understanding of the ideology of the wreckers (or “wingers,” as they’re also labeled here) all the more relevant to the current situation. In 2018 the right is riding high, with even more extreme plans for dismantling the so-called “deep state” and dragging the United States back to the nineteenth century (or the neoliberal paradises of Saipan and post-war Iraq). So it’s a book that’s not only as timely as ever but, given all that’s happening, even more depressing.

Freud: The Making of an Illusion

FREUD: THE MAKING OF AN ILLUSION
By Frederick Crews

I think a lot of us have a complicated relationship with Freud. On the one hand he’s a wonderful writer who created an entire mythology of the mind that has endured for over a century, helping to shape and inform a great deal of modern culture.

It’s terrific stuff, but of course (and we’re moving to the other hand now) it’s all nonsense. That much was obvious to me after just the first few pages of The Interpretation of Dreams (and things tended to go downhill from there). Where, I had to ask myself, was Freud getting all this?

Well, according to Frederick Crews in this thorough examination of Freud’s discovery/invention of psychoanalysis (basically covering the years from 1880 to 1900), the short answer is that he just made it up.

Freud’s theories weren’t grounded in any clinical case work or statistical analysis. He had no success with the former and seems to have been totally uninterested in the latter. He wasn’t much of a doctor or a scientist, and indeed in later life Crews describes a man who had “become an outright antiscientist.” In modern parlance, he was a quack.

His basic assumption, which he maintained in the absence of any evidence, was that what was true for him – and by that I mean what he felt or even dreamed to be true – must also be true for everyone else. His only real test subject was himself. He liked using cocaine and so prescribed it to others, claiming tremendous results despite tragic outcomes. Various foundations of psychoanalysis (the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety) were outgrowths of his own mental morbidity, discovered through sheer introspection, which he then generalized “under the misapprehension that all men were similarly warped.” He then created a library of case fictions that projected his fears onto others, giving them a spurious validity.

That Freud made things up is the easy part. Why he made things up is where the story gets not complicated but ugly. Again there is a short answer: Freud wanted to be rich and famous. He couldn’t become rich and famous as a doctor because he wasn’t a good doctor. So instead he became a writer of popular entertainments. As he explained to a friend:

I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador – an adventurer if you want it translated – with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.

Crews calls this a damning and “definitive self-assessment,” but doesn’t draw attention to the cruelty of the historical conquistadors, or their overweening lust for gold. One wonders if this was an unconscious slip on Freud’s part.

But then, one is left to wonder quite a bit about the extent of Freud’s belief in the new faith he had created. Crews chooses an odd second epigraph for his book in a line from Seinfeld’s George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Is this meant to imply some basic level of bona fides on Freud’s part? Given the thoroughness of Crews’s indictment I don’t think I’d want to give him that large a benefit of doubt.

But we are left with an even larger question, one that Laura Miller flagged in her review of Freud:

These narratives have endured for so long because so many people prefer them to the truth. Why? That’s a question Crews touches on in Freud, but only lightly. If the book fails, it is not in pressing its cause so fiercely but in mistaking who deserves the lion’s share of his scorn. The best hatchet jobs don’t just assail an author or thinker for shoddy or disingenuous work. They also indict the rest of us for buying in.

Just keeping with Freud’s immediate posterity, why did so many others “buy in” or go along with the charade of psychoanalysis? The cult of personality must have played some role, and the institutional strength of the Freud circle, which was remarkably strict and disciplined and remained so even after his death (Freud was a bully, and like all bullies he passed it down). Also the very real benefits that accrue to any member of a court, the operations of which always appears disgusting to outsiders. And, finally, let’s grant that there was something in the Freudian mythology that has had a general resonance with much of modern life. That doesn’t excuse his enablers, but it does provide some defence for the rest of us.

Notes:
Review first published online January 20, 2018.