Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Timothy Snyder: Emergency

Timothy Snyder is an historian best known for his "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin" (2010), and for conversations with the late Tony Judt, collected in "Thinking the Twentieth Century" (2012).

The following are quotes from an interview with Snyder** in which he brings his vast knowledge of twentieth century authoritarian transformations to bear on conditions in the United States today. 

We have to recognize that things move fast. Nazi Germany took about a year. Hungary took about two and a half years. Poland got rid of the top-level judiciary within a year. It’s a rough historical guess, but the point is because there is an outside limit, you therefore have to act now. You have to get started early. It’s just very practical advice. It’s the meta-advice of the past: That things slip out of reach for you, psychologically very quickly, and then legally almost as quickly.
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We think about democracy, and that’s the word that Americans love to use, democracy, and that’s how we characterize our system. But if democracy just means going to vote, it’s pretty meaningless. Russia has democracy in that sense. Most authoritarian regimes have democracy in that sense. Nazi Germany had democracy in that sense, even after the system had fundamentally changed.

Democracy only has substance if there’s the rule of law.
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The other pulse of politics is emergency. There’s some kind of terrorist attack and then the leader tries to suspend basic constitutional rights. And then we get on a different rhythm, where the rhythm is not one electoral cycle to the next but one emergency to the next. That’s how regime changes take place. It’s a classic way since the Reichstag fire [when the Nazis burned their nation’s capitol building and blamed communist arsonists].

So in terms of what might happen next, or what people could look out for, some kind of event that the government claims is a terrorist incident, would be something to be prepared for.
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The German Jews then, and people now, don’t understand how quick their neighbors will change; don’t understand how quickly society can change. They don’t understand the fact that a life that’s been predictable for a long time, doesn’t mean that it will be predictable tomorrow.
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But here’s the other view. The one that we have that German Jews didn’t have in 1933 is we have their experience. That’s the premise of the whole book; the premise is that the 20th century showed us what can happen.
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Catching Rhinoceros moments is one thing. I think it’s really important to think about. The example that Ionesco gives [in Rhinoceros, his existential play about fascism] is people saying, 'Yeah, on one hand, with the Jews, maybe they are right.' With Trump, people will say something like, 'Yeah, but on taxes, maybe he’s right.' And the thing to catch is, 'Yeah, but are you in favor of regime change? Are you in favor of the end of the American way of democracy and fair play?' Because that’s what’s really at stake.
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I think, five or 10 years from now, no matter how things turn out, we’ll ask ourselves—or our children will ask us—how we behaved in 2017.

**http://www.alternet.org/activism/post-truth-pre-fascism-possibilities-are-much-darker-americans-are-used-considering-what-we


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