by Max Sirak
July 4th makes me think about freedom. I'm not alone in this. Most people in the US get together with their friends and families, get drunk, eat meat, and watch or set off fireworks. This is what we're supposed to do to honor the United States as a sovereign nation and ourselves as sovereign individuals.
However, recently I haven't had the will to buy in. Last year I expressed as much in my column. I wrote about a speech Fredrick Douglas gave in 1852 and ended my essay with, “You're a slave. Now wake the fuck up and do something about it.”
One of my colleagues, Katalin Balog, left a comment. “Lovely,” she said, “I'll start doing something right away.” Katalin's comment struck me and stuck. Usually after painting a dark and damning picture of our collective predicament, I like to offer actions we can take to counter.
But I couldn't think of any.
Now, 54 weeks later, with the help of a history professor, I'd like to correct my missteps. Better late than never, right?
Definition Of Terms
Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale. He has a permanent fellowship in Vienna at the Institute of Human Sciences and serves on the Committee on Conscience for the US Holocaust Museum. Earlier this year Snyder wrote On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century.
In his book, Professor Snyder defines tyranny as “the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.”
This is a broad definition. It doesn't play favorites with where the threats to democracy come from. It could be a sitting president, an oligarchy, global business interests, or any other entity. All that matters is the desire to increase and consolidate power through the subversion of the rules.
There's no need to point fingers or name names. I don't care about where you perceive the dangers. I'm here to offer you 20 ways to support democracy when you feel it's threatened.
But first we need to talk about inevitability, disenchantment, and eternity.
The Easiest Trudge To Tyranny
The stories we tell ourselves as individuals matter. I've gone as far as to call narrative bias our superpower. But the stories we buy into collectively are every bit as important.
One of the most dangerous stories we can, as a voting public, tell ourselves has to do with destiny. It's tempting to glance back over history, see how far we've come, and feel good about today. It almost seems that there's some sort of linear, forward march toward a better, brighter, freer future.
This is the politics of inevitability. And it generally makes people lazy. After all, if everything naturally progresses toward a more free, liberated society with easier, wealthier lives for all, why should I bother, care, or do? It happens regardless.
Except it doesn't. Inevitability of social direction is a lie. And, as is usually the case when we discover what we've been believing all these years is a lie, we get pissed.
“What the F?!,” we cry. “It wasn't supposed to be like this,” we say. This is our disenchantment.
Our anger about the way things are, compared to how we thought they'd be, leads to confusion. During the daze of our days we search for answers. Lo and behold, out of the disorienting darkness of our denied destiny sounds a susurrus…
“None of this is your fault. You're a victim. Someone else did this to you. Trust me. I know. And if you follow me I can return you to glory. Remember how it used to be? Remember how good it was back then?”
This is the politics of eternity. It's a seduction. It orients people in the midst of their mist to an idealized past. Sure, that past is an invented fiction which never existed, but we don't care. We like how it makes us feel.
It's almost as good as when someone says, “Hey, relax. These messy circumstances you find yourself in? They're not your fault. It's theirs. They are to blame.”
The only thing that feels better than being able to make sense of the world around you is having a direction to point your righteous indignation for your life of lies, and a knight in shining armor to rescue you.
Enter the tyrant.
And, now that you're facing a tyrant….
20 Things You Can Do To Strengthen Democracy
1) Be unruly
You are a person. You are not a dog. Therefore, don't adopt a pet mentality. Don't be eager to please. Don't attempt to anticipate your “owners'” requests in advance and acquiesce. In Snyder's words this preemptive obedience is “teaching power what it can do.”
Unfortunately this is a counterintuitive way for most of us to behave. Typically we like to adapt as quickly as we can to new rules in order to impress those in power. But this can lead to disaster. Cue the Stanley Milgrim experiments…
2) Protect institutions
It turns out the only thing standing between our institutions and their destruction is us. Just because something has always been there doesn't mean it always will. And this just happened. So…
3) Beware the salami
As much as I hate the us/them rhetoric and the in group/out group storylines of a two party system, it beats the hell out of a one party system. More parties means less consolidated power.
Salami tactics is the name Snyder gives to death by a thousand cuts. Once any form of tyranny is in power it will begin to slowly destroy its opposition by changing rules. Gerrymandering anyone?
4) Be active in the politics of the everyday
Every choice we make each day is like a tiny vote. Standing by is consent for what's happening. If you walk by graffiti of a racial slur and think, “Why, I can't believe anyone could be so vile…” and keep walking, you just voted against democracy.
“The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow,” writes Snyder. If you see a derogatory symbol, remove it. Act. Set an example for all to see.
5) Be professional
Chances are there're ethics and codes of conduct in your business life. Follow them. Especially if others around you are abandoning them. Atrocities are accomplished through compliance. Don't be an accomplice to new rules which go against professional ethics.
6) Pay attention to paramilitaries
When non-police and non-military people start wearing uniforms and marching in public with guns, look out. If they happen to be burning torches and carrying pictures of a leader, then it's probably already too late.
7) No means no
If you are an armed government employee remember it's ok to say no. According to Snyder, “Every large-scale shooting action of the Holocaust (more than thirty-three thousand Jews murdered outside of Kyiv, more than twenty-eight thousand outside of Riga, and on and on) involved the regular German police.” Regular German police. Not Nazi party members.
8) Be different
Standing up and out isn't comfortable. Some say this is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days. We don't like the feeling of everyone's eyes on us because in the past this usually meant we were literally about to be eaten.
But no longer are we stalking and being stalked on the savannah. Now we slog through the streets. Don't be afraid of the non-existent predators. Stand up. Dispel the illusion of the status quo.
9) Use your own words
Language shapes our experiences. Stories give us context. What we say and how we say it matters. Repeating the sound bytes we hear and operating in the narratives we're given diminish our ability to think for ourselves.
Even if you agree with the ideas being presented, find your own way of phrasing it. Don't copy and paste.
10) Respect 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,” says Snyder. He goes on to reference Vicktor Klemperer's work on the four ways truth dies.
(Ps – we've seen them all in the US in the last year.)
11) Value those whose job it is to find out the truth
We get what we pay for. Money is a way we measure value. We pay for our food. We pay for our houses. We don't expect to eat or live for free. And, if we did, then we would expect the quality of our food and homes to suffer.
Wanting all our news for free means it's going to be garbage. So be willing to pay for news and journalism.
12) Be social
Make small talk with the people you encounter and affirm them. Societies are made of communities. Communities are made of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are made of people. Being nice and paying attention to each other is the glue that binds us.
13) Get outside and be in the world
Inside, alone with your family, comfortable, and staring at screens is exactly how tyranny wants you to be. Because that's how nothing changes. And no. Posting on social media doesn't count. Snyder's rule to remember is, “Nothing is real that does not end on the streets.”
14) Don't tie your own noose
Keep your affairs in order both legally and publicly. The more details about your private life floating out there, the more ammo you give “them.” Using the law to silence you is like Tyranny 101. Do like Suga Free and DJ Quick. If you stay ready then you never have to get ready.
Keep your private life private and your legal affairs in order.
15) Be charitable
Support organizations that share your ideas about life.
In Snyder's words, “When Americans think of freedom, we usually imagine a contest between a lone individual and a powerful government. We tend to conclude that the individual should be empowered and the government kept at bay. This is all well and good. But one element of freedom is the activity of groups to sustain their members.”
Give time. Or money. Or both.
16) Be international
Have a valid passport and contacts abroad. The former for the worst case scenario. The latter to avoid a forest-for-the-trees situation.
Ukrainian and Russian journalists who covered the 2016 US presidential election saw the writing on the wall. They had lived through a nationalist movements before. They saw what happened and how. They heard all their experts assure them it would be stopped before gaining power. And they knew their experts got it wrong.
Don't be blinded by proximity and pride.
17) Don't fall for plastic words
I didn't even know what plastic language was until I read Jalees Rehman's piece for 3QD. And I haven't stopped thinking about it since.
Here's Snyder. “Extremism certainly sounds bad…But the word has little meaning. There is no doctrine called extremism. When tyrants speak of extremists, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream—as the tyrants themselves are defining that mainstream at that particular moment.”
18) Be calm in crisis
Remember how Jar Jar Binks ruined the galaxy in Star Wars by calling for a vote to grant emergency powers to Senator Palpatine? No? What about when the German parliament passed the “enabling act” after the Riechstag fire?
Granting governments more power in “exceptional emergency” situations sounds all fine and good until the “exceptional emergency” becomes the new normal. It happened in Germany in the 1930s with Hitler. It happened in the 1990s in Russia with Putin. It happened here in my lifetime with the Patriot Act.
As Snyder says, “The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.”
19) Embody the highest ideals of your nation
We all have higher and lower versions of ourselves. Are we greedy or altruistic? Are we compassionate or vengeful? Are we trusting or suspicious?
Countries are similar. Collectively are we xenophobic or welcoming? Are we isolationist or do we engage in the world? Are we peaceful or violent?
Act in accordance with your ideas of what it means to be a “true” where-ever-you-live.
20) Be as courageous as possible
Going against the grain, bucking the system, and sticking out are risky. We all have varying degrees of tolerance for such things in our lives. Find your personal boundaries, get to know them, and then take one step further.
If freedom and democracy are principles you hold dear, then take actions to strengthen and promote them. Societies don't automatically evolve in specific directions. Becoming complacent and thinking as much is an open invitation for tyranny to do it's thing.
We, the majority, are not powerless. We can act. We can do. And, when enough of us start acting and doing, we'll be able to exert the necessary force to realign our nations with our principles.
There you go – 20 things you can do to strengthen democracy right now.
Like I said, better late than never, right?
Timothy Snyder – By Aleksandr Andreiko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Stanley Milgrim – from https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/stanley-milgram
Reichstag Fire – By http://arcweb.archives.gov, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3799437
(Free audio version for your listening pleasure)