Tyranny – the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of the law by rulers for their own benefit.
European history in the twentieth century showed us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves complicit in tyranny. It would serve us well today to understand how our rights and freedoms can be so easily violated and society plunged into chaos. The fact is Canadians today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century.
Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny, offers us twenty lessons for our consideration if we are committed to protecting and preserving our rights and freedoms, our autonomy, and our sovereignty. I offer you a brief overview of eight of Snyder’s lessons for your consideration.
Lesson #1 – Do not obey in advance.
The reality is that most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. Many citizens, in response to growing tyranny, engage in what Snyder calls “anticipatory obedience”. It appears humans have a tendency to instinctively adapt to a new situation by going along with the violations under the assumption that going along will keep them safe and secure. Snyder declares that anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy. In Nazi Germany the first heedless acts of conformity could not be reversed. The lesson here is to not mindlessly obey. Rather, insist that any measures that infringe on our rights and freedoms be minimal, necessary, justified and finite.
Lesson #2 – Take responsibility for the face of the world.
The world reacts to what we do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote. In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much. Ensure that your actions are in alignment with your values. Don’t assume that your actions are insignificant. Act as if you are an example of the kind of world you want to live in. Make sure that your actions include your fellow citizens. Any actions that exclude your neighbours is to participate in tyranny. Recognize that your acts of conformity or resistance determine the kind of world we live in.
Lesson #3 – Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. What we are witnessing today is the abandonment of facts. Measures being imposed in response to CV-19 are not based in science. They are not based on evidence. And they are not based on consent.
Governments, and their agents in the media create a drumbeat of propaganda that arouses feelings before people have time to ascertain facts. Their first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they are facts. The second mode is “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable. The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. This is no more evident than in their pronouncements on masking. Not so long ago masking was ineffective and not advised. Today, the covering of one’s face with a piece of cloth is what will save us from impending doom, that is until a miraculous vaccine can be produced. Snyder warns: post-truth is pre-fascism.
Lesson # 4: Investigate.
Figure things out for yourself. Take responsibility for what you think and 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. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.
Leaders of authoritarian regimes suppress freedom of speech by laws that prevent criticism. Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality. However, when reality is denied, discussion silenced, and criticism censored, we are easily captured by the lie. “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth.” – Vaclav Havel
Lesson # 5: Practice corporeal politics.
For resistance to succeed, ideas must be exchanges between people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. We need to meet, greet, exchange information and then claim our wisdom and authority as a community. Snyder advises that social media can help to organize protests, but “nothing is real that does not end on the streets. “He advise us to – “Make new friends and march with them.” If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change. We need to be visible and vocal.
Lesson #6: Listen for dangerous words.
Be alive to the fatal notions of ‘emergency’ and ‘exception’. Carl Schmitt, a Nazi legal theorist, explained the essence of fascist governance. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. The “novel” coronavirus is being presented as exceptional; a never before seen infectious agent that requires never before utilized measures. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.
We should be on our guard when our governments and media try to train us to surrender freedom in the name of safety. There is no necessary trade-off between the two. Politicians and media pundits who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both. The feeling of submission to authority might be comforting, but it is not the same thing as actual safety. It is the government’s job to increase both freedom and security.
Dissidents of the twentieth century, whether they were resisting fascism or communism, were called extremists. Modern authoritarian regimes use laws on extremism to punish those who criticize their policies. In this way the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.
Lesson #7: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the violation of our right to informed consent, the end of privacy, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
Remember the Reichstag fire. This spectacular act of terror initiated the politics of emergency and the allowing of citizens to be “preventively detained” by the police. Within days the new parliament passed an “enabling act,” which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. Germany then remained in a state of emergency for the next twelve years, until the end of the Second World War.
The authoritarians of today are also terror managers, and if anything, they are rather more creative. For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of everything we hold sacred.
Lesson #8: Be as courageous as you can.
The bottom line is we need to stand up for our rights and freedoms. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny. We would be wise to heed the words of George W Brown – “Civil liberties . . . we shall enjoy them only so long as we value them enough to preserve them.” Now is the time to rise up and defend our rights and freedoms.
For more information on tyranny, I encourage you to read – On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, 2017.