On tyranny or terror?

On tyranny or terror?

The American historian of the holocaust in Eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder has delivered in On Tyranny: 20 lessons of the twentieth century a best-seller by combining seemingly wise apothogems – be ascourageous  as you can, be calm when the unthinkable arrives – with a wailing cry for help from the soul of liberal America in despair at the triumph of Trump.

His warnings that under Trump the USA may slide into totalitarianism have delivered him an audience on talk shows and business magazines. I bought his little book out of love for the great East European dissidents under communism like Havel and Kolakowski who Snyder quotes liberally in this little lament for a broken liberal consensus. I found the form and some of the early ideas intriguing, but ultimately I put this work, which can be read in barely an hour, disappointing.

The essay is an extended implied comparison between tyranny, ancient and modern, and most of all its Nazi manifestation, and the unfolding phenomenon of Donald Trump. If we believe Prof Snyder, we – or at least the citizens of the USA – are at the beginning of the end of democracy. All the signs show an accelerating slide into tyranny: the condemnation of the media, the contempt for the educated elite, the search for new partners, such as Russia (god forbid), in the fight against terror. Snyder even compares the burning of the Reichstag with our contemporary responses to repeated attacks of terror.

Now I am no ingĂ©nue about the quality of our democracy or political leadership in a disintegrating culture obsessed with shallow spectacles. Nor am I bedazzled by that impresario of shallow spectacle, Donald Trump. I have predicted here, months prior to the November ’16 election, that Trump would both win the election and fail as President. But to equate Trump’s administration with Hitler or the worst tyrannies of the 20th century reflects a loss of bearings. So too does the diminution of terrorism to little more than a scare campaign engineered by conniving political leaders to usher in dark tyranny.

It does seem that Prof Snyder has allowed Trump to get under his skin, and to distort his better judgement. This tweet in response to the Manchester bombing claimed Trump’s health care reforms would claim the same number of lives as the bombing in just four hours. Enough said really. Twitter makes idiots of even the most intelligent people. Prof Snyder would do well to do as I did several years ago, and abandon his twitter account.

He would do still better to reassess his level of concern with terror over tyranny. Islamic State, after all, operates both. Democratic states need to defend their citizens against both. It is true that democratic states need urgently to repair their quality and stop their decay. But that task must be done together with action against the dark terrors that reach into our lives every week. We must defeat the tyranny of terror.

That is at least one lesson so far of the 21st century. That is a lesson better learned from Michael Burleigh than from On Tyranny.

Democracy’s discontents

Election nights are rites of reunification. The divisions of a society spew out over weeks, with licensed vitriol and contemptuous sneers permitted for all, and then as the consequences of the strife are tallied, the champions of right and wrong bicker about predictions and polls and the latest certainties they have received by rumour. Then sometime around midnight, one standard is lowered, with humility, grace, and admission of weakness. Another banner is raised, and pledged to unity, to service to those greater things that bind us as a nation, whichever nation we should be, and to a winner’s humility before the enormity of the challenges that lie before us.

These rites have been troubled in recent years, as if, as in Kafka’s fable, some leopards have broken into the temple grounds to change the meaning of the rite forever. The clever hierophants, who appear on every panel show and believe their intense study of the manipulative arts has granted them a sacred authority to interpret the runes cast by the voters, appear dazd and confused. The ceremony was not meant to go this way. George Stephanopolous, to pick one of these arcane priests at random, spoke like a bullying catechist on the night of the election. “What do these people who voted for Trump want?” he said, with the unspoken addendum, and why do they not understand it cannot be done?

So too the gracious speech of harmony, the magical victor’s words of forgiveness and honour for the animal that has just been killed, now is read like a mumbled, unstressed prayer. It has lost its power to heal the wounds of bitter words. Trump was gracious. So too Obama, if more so than the crowd-shy Clinton, who chose to send out her chief fundraiser at 2 am to tell everyone to go home and pretend a little longer, rather than face the humiliating music of the rite on the night. But despite the performance of the ceremony, in its improvised and broken forms, the church members have drifted away in bitter and drifting factions. The prayers for unity no longer ring true.

America appears to be descending into democratic dissension, and elites everywhere are checking their domestic security, while fudging the record on their predictions. Trump’s victory was a surprise, and the many instant interpretations that are springing up everywhere to explain a 50-50 vote in a two-horse race are as reliable as all the wrong predictions based on careful analysis of ground games, private polling, big data, demographic profiling, identity politics and all the other runic nonsense.

Perhaps noone should be surprised. After all one candidate had spent 30 years telling idealistic challengers to the professional political class that there was no alternative to pragmatic realities, and now was telling a public, who were brought by Trump to a frenzy with his talk of real change, big dreams, long walls and drained swamps – always with reassuring sotto voce affirmation, we’re going to do this, we’re going to win big – that she would merely administer more pallid meals with no flavour, no choice, no change in the ratios for those off Wall Street. So, enough decided, we will try the other guy.

But now the other guy faces his own kind of legitimation crisis – improvised street demonstrations do not usually mean much, but perhaps this time it is the protests that are the leopards breaking into the temple. What will become of democracy’s rites if voters and the elected can spurn the results of an election, within hours of its declaration, and refuse the pleas of the vanquished champions to offer the new President, an open mind, whatever that is? Has democracy’s spell been broken, and all its high priests been expelled by the people from their riotous city?

I am grateful that I do not live in America, and expect troubled times for America in coming years. A crisis in American democracy, however, is not a crisis in every other nation’s. But if democracy’s spell is broken here, can it last anywhere?

My thoughts over the last week have turned away from poetry and towards these ruminations of a forsaken Cassandra. But to break democracy’s spell is not wholly a bad thing. If this mesmeric concept weakens its grip, then can we not find other language, ideas and rites to work out together the ordinary virtues of governing well?

So my thoughts have turned to the deliberatively difficult English intellectual historian, John Dunn. He argues democracy has been much more effective as “paradigm for deauthorizing incumbent power than for authorizing it.” (Breaking democracy’s spell, 2014) Whether through street demonstrations, the ballot box or the tattle press, democracy is better at stripping authority away, much more so than its professed rite of bringing people together under a common purpose, in service of a single authority.

So, Dunn writes:

“What it cannot ever do with comparable conclusiveness is authorize particular holders of power, and what it can virtually never do is authorize particular state decisions unless the parameters of these are luminously clear in themselves and can be put in that form to a demos genuinely equipped to understand them. It is especially implausible to see iterative mass suffrage elections, even under conditions of uncoerced participation, and unconstrained and effectively equalized opportunity for the citizens to communicate and inform themselves as yet unmet in any modern state, as authorizing the particular decisions their victors proceed to make.” (Breaking democracy’s spell)

This condition makes democracies a constant insurrection of the ambitious against the established, and the contestants have sought through modern manipulative marketing-politics to mute this conflict by making democracies “sedative and uninformative.” Democracy has fallen into a perfunctory checkbox every few years. Trump’s celebrity TV candidature was an insurrection against this sedative regime of the politicos.
John Dunn demands not misty sentiment about democracy, nor hysterical nonsense about Trump being our century’s Hitler, but rather  a looking through its kaleidoscope to a reach of other political orders. So, he writes

I have argued that we need to learn to understand democracy very differently: to see it more clearly, hear it with less self-congratulatory ears, recognize more accurately where its real potency comes from, and face up to the limits of its capacity to direct our political purposes. To do so, we need now to take in the historical process that has inserted democracy so prominently into the way we see and feel politics and struggle to understand it. More hazardously and ambitiously, I argue that our cumulative failure to do any of these things gravely aggravates many of the worst dangers that now menace us as a species. We need to find a way out of the maze democracy has become for us and face the awesome decisions that lie ahead as directly and lucidly as we can. (Breaking democracy’s spell)

Some of those decisions, he intimates gloomily, may now be beyond human control. America’s decline, I feel sure, is now beyond any President’s control. But are democracies’ discontents also boiling beyond our control? I fear yes, but counsel not despair, but a return to cherishing ordinary virtues in distressing times.