Freedom is Never more than a Generation from Extinction: The Fragility of Democracy in Authoritarian Times

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have had a wonderful Christmas holiday with my wife Judy, our dogs, and friends. I have spent little time on social media and I am being very judicious in what I post, share, or tweet. Social media is a good thing, but over the past year I have found that it can also be a very dangerous and hateful place, full of the fallacies of ignorant ideologues. I have gotten to the point where I do not even look at any news sites after nine or ten at night. Instead I have been doing a lot of reading because I believe that true knowledge has nothing to do with dealing with an informational overload of hundreds of stories of often dubious veracity every day, as well as the propaganda that is knowingly published as if it were either real news or truth.

Sadly the purveyors of such material, including confidants of the President-Elect, and the hacks of the Right Wing like Rush Limbaugh, and rabid conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones are now ceaselessly working to destroy any confidence in reputable and conscientious journalists. They are using a tactic that was at the forefront of Nazi propaganda efforts: destroying the confidence of people in their nation’s institutions, which they wish to either destroy or use for their own purposes, and demonize the free press, which the Nazis called the Lugenpresse or the Lying Press, a term which has been frequently invoked by Trump supporters at his rallies before and after the election. During the campaign the President-Elect himself has all too often invoked the same specter to demonize the press as a whole or individual journalists without using the actual term.

Over the past month and a half I have read Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Richard Evans’ Third Reich at War, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and I am currently reading Shirer’s Berlin Diary, and George Orwell’s 1984. Shirer’s Rise and Fall is a book that I read decades ago. All are helpful in understanding how despots and authoritarians come to power and how they destroy the institutions of democracy, including the press and free speech.

As such I am limiting my media intake to media that I trust, and that excludes every American cable news network. Before I post, tweet, or share any article I read it and check it out, and even then I don’t share everything. I am using what I am going to term media triage and just because I happen to agree with something doesn’t mean that I have to share it.

Today I read an interview with Gary Kasparov, the Russian Chess champion and champion of liberal democracy who now lives in the United States, in exile after having fled Vladimir Putin’s Russia where he was jailed for his beliefs several times.  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/garry_kasparov_on_why_vladimir_putin_hates_chess.html

Kasparov was asked by the interviewer:

As a Russian pro-democracy leader: You live in exile now in the United States, you were thrown in jail more than once. What’s your advice to us, as pro-democracy Americans faced with real threats to civil liberties and democratic rights in this country?

The great chess master replied:

“First of all, people here should understand that nothing is for granted. There were many warnings in the past, you know, but every time, Americans and Europeans—they believe that it’s like bad weather. It comes and goes. But the danger is real. I always want to quote Ronald Reagan, who said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Now, probably, it’s not even one generation. Things can happen very quickly, because there’s so much power that comes in the hands of people who have very little affection for the values that make up the core of liberal democracy and the free world.” 

We live in a day where the virtues of the Enlightenment are not only taken for granted but despised by authoritarians and ordinary people alike. There are many reasons for this, some quite valid and others spurious, but they have taken their toll around the world, and we fail to understand just how fragile democracy, classic liberal values, and freedom itself for granted. British historian Niall Ferguson wrote:“So much of liberalism in its classical sense is taken for granted in the west today and even disrespected. We take freedom for granted, and because of this we don’t understand how incredibly vulnerable it is.”  

I am still hoping, maybe in vain, that our democratic institutions will survive. Kasparov remains hopeful and noted in the interview: “But I still think that America has a huge potential to recover from this crisis, and let’s not forget that a majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump.” I think we do as well, but do fear that events may prove Kasparov and my hope wrong. Majorities often don’t matter to authoritarians, a trait which the President-Elect has reveled in throughout his campaign and in his post-campaign events, but I take what he says and does seriously, as we all should.

That’s all for tonight, as I have plenty more to write on this and related topics, so have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

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