Premonitory Signals of Tyranny

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Alarming symptoms for the world and for Ukraine. Inspired by Tim Snyder’s “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” read while travelling to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Ukrainians remember very well what tyranny is. The Bolshevik regime had all classical features of this kind of political order at given times; every family feels phantom pains. Like after clashing with Nazism.
But very few people would have thought that the European experience could be so important for the USA that was soundly designed by the “Founding Fathers” and fitted with the system of internal relief valves. Nothing of the kind. The famous intelligent thinker Tim Snyder rings the alarm bell. In modern American Democracy and in Donald Trump’s presidency, he sees the symptoms making him turn to the history of bolshevism and fascism. Likewise, I can see them in our Ukrainian reality (being no fan of Snyder’s works at all). That is why let us look at the twenty lessons of the twentieth century that the author of the book with the same title tries to explain to America and to the world. I will give the author’s names to some lessons; other lessons will be named by me because these names are more precise, in my subjective opinion. The “Snyder” wording is placed in quotation marks.

1. “Do not obey in advance. 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”.
It is not about cowardice, it is about values. In the world without taboos, it is difficult not to yield to the temptation to secure a quiet life for oneself putting up with some mean acts of the rulers. As people used to say in the Soviet Union times, one fluctuated together with the party line. Only these little mean acts are always followed by big Machiavellian crimes committed under the governments aiming at power grab. “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy”.
2. “Defend institutions. Choose the one you care about and take its side”.
Ukrainian institutions are weak and are crossing into a turbulence zone now. What we can get at the outlet depends on the real civil society. Not on professional anti-corruptionists paid from abroad but on doers who are going to live in this country. “Sometimes institutions are deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were, so that they gird the new order rather than resisting it”.
3. “Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”
While high-sounding nonsense about a transfer to a full e-administration is being spouted, Snyder writes, “We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.” It’s too funny for words – he must be unaware of the post-soviet reality. Yet the very vector of his reasoning is absolutely correct. The virtual is fine for a society where a reputation control is in effect. And during the times of casting away stones and shaking foundations, it is still safer to have a feel.
4. “Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them.”
Do you consider them to be Vedic symbols and runes? All power to your elbow! Only Snyder reminds us about Václav Havel’s greengrocer who placed a sign reading “Workers of the world, unite!” in his shop window in order to have no trouble with the authorities. A kind of declaration of loyalty. Like marking shops “Jewish” in early Nazi Germany. “Accepting the markings as a natural part of the urban landscape was already a compromise with a murderous future. When everyone else follows the same logic, resistance becomes unthinkable. And what happens if no one plays the game?”
5. Remember professional ethics and universal human values.
In stable societies, professional commitments to just practice are important and non-governmental associations exercise a significant influence over the authorities. But when the Hippocratic oath is violated, there comes Dr. Mengele. Following the same scheme, lawyers were vastly overrepresented among the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen during WW II and German burghers happily exploited Ukrainian women laborers. “If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable”.
6. “Be wary of paramilitaries”.
“When the men with guns start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come”. Perfect to a tee… And liberal futurologists themselves forecast that states will lose their monopoly of violence. Taking it into consideration I would call lesson No. 6 to be lesson No. 1 for Ukraine.
7. “Be reflective if you must be armed. Be ready to say no”.
It is quite a weak wording, in terms of our reality. “Evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things”. We also have problems with regular things and with telling the regular from the irregular. But we can make a mental note of it.
8. “Stand out. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom.”
It is not about writing across if you are given ruled paper. It is about having the courage to express your opinion. A brainy colleague whose outlook on life and politics is different from mine once called me an eccentric woman. If I think that Kyiv’s local authorities are to have a quota for people who were born in the city and there ought to be a resident requirement, no force will ever make me change my opinion and will not prevent me from expressing it publicly. If I am convinced that at least four nations have substantially contributed to creating the national wealth of Ukraine, that the system of educations is to respect the languages of these nations and, in addition, of regional minorities, the same thing will happen. Even if somebody does not like it.
9. Think critically. Don’t let any communication channel impose any propaganda platitudes on you.
Read books including those written by dissenter authors who saw totalitarian regimes with their own eyes. Don’t repeat TV clichés, leave social networks that are kind of opiating you. This is what I say at each training on information security.
10. Don’t feed post-truth with your attention.
“Post-truth” is known to be the word of 2016 according to the Oxford Dictionary. Actually, it refers to the state of public conscience, subconscious mind which is overloaded with information and tired of fakes to such a degree that reliability of facts communicated via different channels does not matter for it any more.
Snyder singles out 4 modes in which truth dies; I add my system of definitions to those:
- open hostility to verifiable reality, presenting inventions and lies;
- shamanistic incantation – endless repetition of reference phrases (I call it mantra rhetoric);
- magical thinking (I call it myth-making, conscious and evil simplification of the reality up to a set of stereotypes expedient for the ruler);
- misplaced faith (as a result of rejecting the independent thought).
“Post-truth is pre-fascism”. Exactly.
11. “Take responsibility for what you communicate with others”.
“It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.” I always tell my students and my audience – never “share” the information whose reliability you are not sure of. Look for real, not virtual opinion leaders. Don’t trust fact checkers implicitly; they can also be malicious and biased. It is difficult. It is time-consuming. Yet this is the only way to preserve your subjectivity in the information space. And if you feel you have leadership abilities, find a congenial mentor and do not be afraid of speaking. And writing.
12. “Stay in touch with the surroundings of your daily life”.
13. Get outside and go to see people.
It is easy to lie and to be rude on the phone or the Internet. It is more difficult to do it face to face. It is easier to speak for buncombe on TV than in an out-of-the-way village left without electricity where the folk is capable of cleansing you on an authentic cart full of manure. And not only that. Thus, real contacts with real people in a situation when you can touch each other are our antidote counteracting post-truth. “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen”. It is absolutely true – VR, basic income, robotics – and globalization stands a good chance to become a global tyranny. “If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”
14. “Establish a private life”. Take care of your reputation.
The world is getting absolutely transparent. E-declarations, public asset registers, photographic equipment, audio and sound recorders belonging to everyone. Like skeletons in the cupboards. “Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you”. That is why try to live reflecting on reputation effects of your words and actions. “Totalitarianism removes the difference between private and public not just to make individuals unfree, but also to draw the whole society away from normal politics and toward conspiracy theories.” Conspiracy-aware ladies sitting on benches near their houses and armchair experts are a clear example.
15. Do good.
In keeping with the best American traditions Snyder advises to support charities. In our conditions, not every professional do-gooder deserves trust. That is why my argument in favor of this advice is different. Snyder says that supporting a charity will help establish new contacts and find new authority figures. I think that it is simply a way of preserving your independence, subjectivity and values.
16. “Learn from peers in other countries”.
Right, but not from those who offer to teach you something repeatedly and not without a motive. It is even better to learn history – Snyder himself refers us to the events that took place 80 years ago or so. And it is not amusing: “Make sure you and your family have passports”. I do not know if everything is really so damaging that the US citizens who do not have international passports should rush to get papers for travelling abroad, but if it is publicly stated in this kind of tone, it is no joke. Though Ukrainians do not need this advice, they express their attitude to what is going on in the country by voting with their feet and emigrate for some time or forever.
17. “Be alive to the fatal notion of emergency. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary”.
Don’t let them scare you. Exploiting the words emergency, terrorism and extremism is an attempt at making citizens “surrender real freedom in the name of fake safety” by cashing in on the exceptional situation of emergency.
As for the patriotic vocabulary, Ukraine saw long ago the birth of such a phenomenon as patriotic rhetoric about the people’s eye for personal gain. It is high time we learnt to identify them and to blow the whistle.
18. “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives”.
The unthinkable means large-scale terrorist attacks for Snyder; they are the pretext for authoritarians to exploit and to speak about exceptional circumstances. “For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. Do not fall for it”.
19. “A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well – and wishing that it would do better”.
A patriot lives in the real world, a nationalist exists in the one that is made up. By their actions, their way of life a patriot shows love towards their country, a nationalist only declares this kind of love. A patriot has universal values, a nationalist does not have them. A patriot wants to see fellow citizens become better in terms of these values, a nationalist makes people do nasty things and then tries to prove that it was good. This is Snyder’s logic. “Patriotism involves serving your own country. It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes”.
20. “Be as courageous as you can”.
In the end of his work, which sometimes reminds of a political pamphlet, Snyder directly encourages us to be ready to die fighting with tyranny. Addressing young Americans, he calls them the first historic generation that will not be led by the nose by anti-historic political approaches – a policy of inevitability and a policy of eternity. The victory of liberal values is not inevitable (it is not the worst news for the world if not for the USA, I think). But the mythologized past offered by nationalists and populists means trouble. “We stare at the spinning vortex of cyclical myth until we fall into a trance – and then we do something shocking at someone else’s orders”.

… It is quite easy to transform Tim Snyder’s twenty lessons into ten at most, without losing any meanings. But it is also a kind of mantra rhetoric for a reader to better immerse himself/herself into the topic. Moreover, he expects his American reader to act. Well, as for us, Ukrainians, we can straighten a logical chain. To be courageous, not to be afraid of speaking, not to let lessen the value of patriotic rhetoric and to keep our common sense.