Reading: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (2017)
Sat. Oct. 28, 2017
Sat. Nov. 4, 2017
Chapter 2: Defend Institutions
Timothy Snyder urges citizens under the threat of a fascist regime to support their institutions: newspapers, courts, labor unions [one member added, “book stores], from an authoritarian power that will seek to make everyone parrot its message.” We agreed with Snyder that the threat to our democratic society in light of Donald Trump’s authoritarian posturing is silence, complacency, distraction, fear.
We noted that White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently cautioned a news reporter that questioning a four-star general (White House Chief of Staff John Kelly) was not “appropriate."
We observed that our gathering as the Social Justice CALL study group to read together and self-educate is a vital activity of resistance in this critical moment of assault on our political and social culture and we affirm that it is our right to protest and question government authorities.
“Revolutionaries do sometimes intend to destroy institutions all at once (24),” Snyder wrote in chapter two of On Tyranny.
One member called attention to the phrase, “all at once,” to emphasize how the relentless messaging of authoritarianism and fascism can quickly overtake our rights as citizens.
The observation was made that the “real” Donald Trump (his low-brow, vulgar personality and authoritarianism expressed in posturing like, “I alone…”) had been obscured during the 2016 presidential campaign. The observation was that absent of Trump having a clearly stated platform, any clear affiliation with a religious denomination, undermined any sense that Trump had a viable chance of persuading enough voters to elect him as president.
Members raised objections to the suggestion that Donald Trump did not signal “who he really was” during the campaign. It was noted that Trump intentionally targeted specific audiences for his dog-whistles of racism, sexism, xenophobia.
Another point raised was that Hillary Clinton did not know “who the real Donald Trump was.”
Some objections to that observation were that Hillary knew Trump’s personality, racist attitudes and unstable temperament well before the 2016 presidential campaign.
For example, during the campaign Hillary Clinton said, “Donald Trump is not temperamentally fit to be president.” She was right about that.
The point was also made that, like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton sent racist dog-whistles during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign in which former president Barack Obama was also a candidate: campaigning South Carolina. Hillary appealed to racist sentiments when she made a statement about improving economic rewards for “hard-working white Americans.” The statement was a slap in the face to hard-working black Americans. Hillary in that regard was a precursor to Donald Trump’s practice of racist appeals in the 2016 campaign and during his abominable ten-month presidency in 2017.
One member noted that white Americans were poised to receive the racial hostility Donald Trump pedals: he noted that anger and resentment toward black people had festered for years within the white community following nationally publicized incidents such as the not-guilty verdict in the OJ Simpson murder trial, as well as the indictments levied against white L.A. police officers who brutally beat Rodney King.
Other factors that stoked white resentment against black people were notions that white workers were being undermined by black workers, by Mexicans and by other brown-skinned immigrants who were securing manufacturing jobs traditionally reserved for white people. Donald Trump exploited these notions, taking aim at Mexicans on day one of his campaign.
It was noted, however, that white Americans did not make the same charges of job stealing about the influx of Russian immigrants.
Also raised in our discussion was a point that the media played a role in the racial tone of the campaigns: one member observed that it was obviously going to be trouble when the media began to highlight the racial factors in the 2016 presidential campaign, noting that black voters overwhelmingly supported Hilary Clinton, and that white voters were courted by Trump. It was inevitable that the campaigns would devolve into racial hostilities from that point.
In chapter two of On Tyranny, Tim Snyder quotes an editorial published in 1933 in a German Jewish newspaper. The editorial expresses doubt that Hitler’s newly elected authoritarian / fascist / Nazi government would suppress Jewish progress or physically threaten the lives of Jewish people in Germany. The editorial read in part:
“we do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends will…deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob.”
The view of this German Jewish writer was, essentially, that a number of factors “hold powers in check” in German law and custom which would protect Jews from Nazi exploitation and oppression, to say nothing of extermination. This optimistic view sounded similar to what some black Americans say about the “checks and balances” of U.S. law and powers that are supposed to protect all American citizens. Most black Americans knew better. Snyder said of the German Jews, “[theirs] was a vain hope” (24-25).
We observed that the editorial was published in 1933, the same year that Carter G. Woodson published his reflections on black people’s educational experience in the United States in his book entitled, Mis-education of the Negro. Our group read Miseducation during summer 2017. Writing at the time of the emergence of Nazism in Germany in the late 1930's, Woodson’s comments ring a note of similarity with the overarching message of On Tyranny.
Woodson called for black people to attain an education, yes; he also urged black people to study the economy and to obtain job skills / business skills that could fill a niche. This practice would lead to individual and community prosperity, he said. Woodson urged blacks to support black institutions, in a similar way that Snyder urges readers today to "defend institutions." Woodson's concern was that black American support black institutions such as businesses, colleges, religious and social institutions--those that were effective and efficient in servicing black people.
In a sense, Woodson’s message dovetails with Timothy Snyder’s directions to defend institutions in a free society, because institutions do not sustain themselves without individuals who engage with them.
Individuals must take the responsibility, speak up, encourage independence, and do the work necessary to sustain a democratic and society free of a domineering leader.
Woodson’s message in Miseducation similarly warns against giving over their power to single leaders who might exploit a community, take it for granted or abandon it for selfish reasons. Instead Woodson encourages black people to take individual responsibility to serve and provide for community uplift and progress. Woodson wrote in chapter 11 of Miseducation of “The Need for Service Rather than Leadership”:
“If the Negro could abandon the idea of leadership and instead stimulate a larger number of the race to take up definite tasks and sacrifice their time and energy in doing these things efficiently the race might accomplish something. The race needs workers, not leaders….When you hear a man talking, then, always inquire as to what he is doing or what he has done for humanity. Oratory and resolutions do not avail much. If they did, the Negro race would be in a paradise on earth."
Similarly to Woodson, Timothy Snyder emphasizes that the importance of watching what a leader does instead of being distracted by what he or she says, in chapter two of On Tyranny. Most important, Snyder advises readers to resist the authoritarian's efforts to get you to repeat his or her message by speaking your own truth—talk with family, neighbors and seek consensus about what is best for your community. Promote your message and act in your own best interest and with others to achieve and defend the best quality of life for your community!