Tag Archives: authorarianism

How Republics Die: Vichy and Trump

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Friends  of Padre Steve’s World,

President Trump has long established his love and admiration for despots. First it was Vladimir Putin of Russia, then Recip Erdogan the soon to be dictator of Turkey, then Rodrigo Duterte, the murderous President of the Philippines, and even praise for Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Let us not go into the list of draconian despots, dictators from history that the President has expressed his fondness. His favorite President is Andrew Jackson who defied a Supreme Court ruling and executed the Trail of Tears.

Honestly, if the President’s admiration, praise, and fondness for authoritarian and anti-democratic rulers remained just his opinion with no consequences it wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, it is much bigger than his personal opinions, but the nature his office of President, his words, his tweets, his opinions, become the policy of the United States, and end up staining the honor of the nation.

These actions have consequences. The first is the loss of moral authority of the nations who encourage and help dictators. Second, the loss of that moral authority makes it difficult when the chips are down to gain domestic or international support once a nation’s leaders determine that aggressive dictatorships must be stopped, finally it is the death of the Republic, its Constitution, and its founding principles. Just in the past few days the President has bowed to the wishes of the Chinese Communists on trade and the North Koreans on our alliance with South Korea. As he did these things he made more and ever more threatening attacks on the Department of Justice and the FBI in order to discredit them and end the investigation of his family and presidential campaign ties to Russia and other foreign enemies.

What the President and his administration since they took power is amoral and it is dragging the reputation of the United States into the sewer. Sadly, it will have real world consequences, as well as dangerous ramifications for our own system of Constitutional government and representative democracy.

This is not new, during the 1930s many leaders of struggling democracies caught up in the Great Depression, including the United States offered up praise for the accomplishments of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. By their encouragement, accommodation, and appeasement these leaders were complicit in some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever seen in the world. Some of these leaders, especially in France actively worked against their own democratic form of government in the hopes of overthrowing it and setting up a Fascist state. Once France was defeated by Germany the anti-democratic leaders of that country voted out the Republic and established a dictatorship at Vichy headed by Marshal Petain, the hero of the First World War.

Petain with Hitler

The Premier of France under Vichy, Pierre Laval, led the successful move to abolish the constitution of the Third Republic. He said: “Parliament must be dissolved. The Constitution must be reformed. It must align itself with the totalitarian states…” He told the Assembly: “We are going to destroy the totality of what was. We’re going to create something entirely different…. Henceforth there will be only one party, that of all the French.” He concluded “We are paying today for the fetish which chained us to democracy and led us to the worst excesses of capitalism, which all around us Europe was forging, without us, a new world.”

Another, Charles Spinasse, a Socialist who had come to believe in Fascism told the Assembly: “We must break from the past. It was full of illusions…. We believed in individual freedom, in the independence of man. It was but anticipation of the future which was beyond our grasp. We must have a new faith based on new values…. France abandoned itself. It must begin anew.”

One opponent rushed to Vichy to oppose the measures, Pierre-Etienne Flandin, told his colleagues: “Change the Constitution? But why? What need is there to change our institutions? The reproach is that we did not respect them.” However, Flandin too had no problem with giving the reigns of power to an authoritarian, Fascist regime that would cooperate with the Nazis, turn on its allies, and murder its own citizens. His words were absolutely correct, but he betrayed himself at the end.

Pierre Laval

In the end Laval won the day. He told the assembly: “Parliamentary democracy lost the war. It must give way to a new regime: audacious, authoritarian, social, and national.” In the end the vast majority of the delegates from across the political spectrum voted to end the Republic. Opponents who wished to continue to fight against Germany were condemned, jailed, and even killed. Leon Blum, a former Socialist leader who Laval despised wrote of Laval’s manner as the Republic was dissolved: “An unbelievable arrogance puffed up his small person. In a dry voice and with an irritated glance he flung out verdicts and orders… “I do… I say… I refuse… that’s the way it is…” President Trump has much the same attitude as he issues executive orders with abandon, even as others are struck down by the Courts.

Likewise when questioned about allowing opposition newspapers to publish, Laval told Blum in words that one can almost hear President Trump say if he were granted the right to restrict the freedom of the press:

“When I decide, no newspaper will appear if it shows the slightest reticence about my policies. The press must follow me absolutely, without reserve—and I will not let myself be duped.”

But just as troubling on the domestic front is the President’s stated desire to crush the parts of our Constitutional system that inconvenience him, and with his malleable GOP majorities in the House and Senate he may eventually succeed in doing if not opposed by courageous Senators and Representatives, and the Courts. He has on a number of occasions threatened the independence of the judiciary, he has expressed a desire to amend the Constitution to limit freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. He has also urged Congress to end the Filibuster which is the last resort by which a minority party can prevent bare majority of Senators or Representatives of one party to impose its will on the entire nation, even if the majority of people in the nation voted against their party. As of now GOP Senate leaders have announced their opposition to such legislation realizing that they could once again be in the minority. However, for Trump that does not matter as he has no loyalty to the Republican Party; sadly, most Republicans do not seem to understand that fact, and I wonder how firm they will stand when push comes to shove. History shows us that all too often, even the opponents of authoritarianism can easily turn from defending their Constitutional liberties to supporting nationalist, racist, and authoritarian leaders.

That my friends should frighten any American who has not lost their belief in our system of government which for all of its inefficiencies guarantees more liberty than any other system in the world.  History shows that once those liberties are gone you do not get them back without the despot who has taken them away being defeated, often by military conquest.

The fact is that as Timothy Snyder wrote: “The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Will our epitaph be like the words of French Senator Bovin-Champeaux who said: “Is it not without sadness that we shall bid adieu to the Constitution of 1875. It made France a free country…. It died less from its imperfections than from the fault of men charged with guarding it and making it work.”

Unlike Laval’s Vichy Government the United States has not been overrun and invaded by an enemy Army. We don’t have Russian Tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, or Vladimir Putin doing a jig at the Washington Monument, but the President’s surrender to Putin, and other despots and his attacks on our Constitution and legal systems will destroy us and all of our rights; and that means even the rights of those people who for whatever reason support him. If this continues, they too will become victims of an American version of the Night of the Long Knives. 

Take my warning for what it is. Trump’s opponents are already damned and doomed if he succeeds, but his supporters will have signed their own death sentences and they are too stupid to know it. But then, such is bliss of ignorance.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

Watershed Moments: Trump, Hope Hicks and the Problem of Truth

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A watershed moment in the Trump administration occurred a few days ago. Longtime advisor and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks admitted telling “white lies” to protect the President to a Congressional committee. Shortly after she either voluntarily resigned or was forced to resign by an infuriated President. I have read accounts that indicate both. I lean to the latter, but I cannot say that without absolute certainty.

Over 1800 years ago the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

When it came out last year I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book  On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work.

Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the 2016 election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false. Sadly, that has not changed, in his first year in office, as of the anniversary of Mr. Trump’s inauguration he had told over 2000 verifiable lies and distortions, that’s a rate of about six a day.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods during the election campaign came so fast that they were overwhelming, and they still are today. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing.

Such propaganda campaigns are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.”

To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state.

The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

Marcus Aurelius was right. The truth is not harmful but those who persist in self deception and ignorance can not escape harm. Hope Hicks placed her faith in Donald Trump, even being willing and able to lie for him, now she is firmly in the eye of the Muller investigation and will forever have her reputation tarnished by her work and support for President Trump. Sadly, there will be more.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dancing with Despots: The Moral and Political Dangers of Trump’s Love of Authoritarianism

Friends  of Padre Steve’s World,

First it was Vladimir Putin of Russia, then Recip Erdogan the soon to be dictator of Turkey, last week Rodrigo Duterte, the murderous President of the Philippines, and just yesterday praise for Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Let us not go into the list of draconian despots, dictators from history that the President has expressed his fondness. His favorite President is Andrew Jackson who defied a Supreme Court ruling and executed the Trail of Tears.

Honestly, if the President’s admiration, praise, and fondness for authoritarian and anti-democratic rulers remained just his opinion with no consequences it wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, it is much bigger than his personal opinions, but the nature his office of President, his words, his tweets, his opinions, become the policy of the United States, and end up staining the honor of the nation.

These actions have consequences. The first is the loss of moral authority of the nations who encourage and help dictators. Second, the loss of that moral authority makes it difficult when the chips are down to gain domestic or international support once a nation’s leaders determine that aggressive dictatorships must be stopped.

What the President and his administration are doing is amoral and it is dragging the reputation of the United States into the sewer and it will have real world consequences, as well as dangerous ramifications for our own system of Constitutional government and representative democracy.

This is not new, during the 1930s many leaders of struggling democracies caught up in the Great Depression, including the United States offered up praise for the accomplishments of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. By their encouragement, accommodation, and appeasement these leaders were complicit in some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever seen in the world. Some of these leaders, especially in France actively worked against their own democratic form of government in the hopes of overthrowing it and setting up a Fascist state. Once France was defeated by Germany the anti-democratic leaders of that country voted out the Republic and established a dictatorship at Vichy headed by Marshal Petain, the hero of the First World War.

Petain with Hitler

The Premier of France under Vichy, Pierre Laval, led the successful move to abolish the constitution of the Third Republic. He said: “Parliament must be dissolved. The Constitution must be reformed. It must align itself with the totalitarian states…” He told the Assembly: “We are going to destroy the totality of what was. We’re going to create something entirely different…. Henceforth there will be only one party, that of all the French.” He concluded “We are paying today for the fetish which chained us to democracy and led us to the worst excesses of capitalism, which all around us Europe was forging, without us, a new world.”

Another, Charles Spinasse, a Socialist who had come to believe in Fascism told the Assembly: “We must break from the past. It was full of illusions…. We believed in individual freedom, in the independence of man. It was but anticipation of the future which was beyond our grasp. We must have a new faith based on new values…. France abandoned itself. It must begin anew.”

One opponent rushed to Vichy to oppose the measures, Pierre-Etienne Flandin, told his colleagues: “Change the Constitution? But why? What need is there to change our institutions? The reproach is that we did not respect them.” However, Flandin too had no problem with giving the reigns of power to an authoritarian, Fascist regime that would cooperate with the Nazis, turn on its allies, and murder its own citizens. His words were absolutely correct, but he betrayed himself at the end.

Pierre Laval

In the end Laval won the day. He told the assembly: “Parliamentary democracy lost the war. It must give way to a new regime: audacious, authoritarian, social, and national.” In the end the vast majority of the delegates from across the political spectrum voted to end the Republic. Opponents who wished to continue to fight against Germany were condemned, jailed, and even killed. Leon Blum, a former Socialist leader who Laval despised wrote of Laval’s manner as the Republic was dissolved: “An unbelievable arrogance puffed up his small person. In a dry voice and with an irritated glance he flung out verdicts and orders… “I do… I say… I refuse… that’s the way it is…” President Trump has much the same attitude as he issues executive orders with abandon, even as others are struck down by the Courts.

Likewise when questioned about allowing opposition newspapers to publish, Laval told Blum in words that one can almost hear President Trump say if he were granted the right to restrict the freedom of the press: 

“When I decide, no newspaper will appear if it shows the slightest reticence about my policies. The press must follow me absolutely, without reserve—and I will not let myself be duped.”

But just as troubling on the domestic front is the President’s stated desire to crush the parts of our Constitutional system that inconvenience him, and with his malleable GOP majorities in the House and Senate he may eventually succeed in doing if not opposed by courageous Senators and Representatives, and the Courts. He has on a number of occasions threatened the independence of the judiciary, he has expressed a desire to amend the Constitution to limit freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. He has also urged Congress to end the Filibuster which is the last resort by which a minority party can prevent bare majority of Senators or Representatives of one party to impose its will on the entire nation, even if the majority of people in the nation voted against their party. As of now GOP Senate leaders have announced their opposition to such legislation realizing that they could once again be in the minority. However, for Trump that does not matter as he has no loyalty to the Republican Party; sadly, most Republicans do not seem to understand that fact, and I wonder how firm they will stand when push comes to shove. History shows us that all too often, even the opponents of authoritarianism can easily turn from defending their Constitutional liberties to supporting nationalist, racist, and authoritarian leaders.

That my friends should frighten any American who has not lost their belief in our system of government which for all of its inefficiencies guarantees more liberty than any other system in the world.  History shows that once those liberties are gone you do not get them back without the despot who has taken them away being defeated, often by military conquest.

The fact is that as Timothy Snyder wrote: “The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Will our epitaph be like the words of French Senator Bovin-Champeaux who said: “Is it not without sadness that we shall bid adieu to the Constitution of 1875. It made France a free country…. It died less from its imperfections than from the fault of men charged with guarding it and making it work.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Abandon Facts and Abandon Freedom: Contending Against Alternative Truth, Facts, and History

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century on Tuesday and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work. Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods came so fast that they were overwhelming. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing. They are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.” To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state. The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

“If nothing is true…” A Review of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 128 pages, Tim Duggan Books, March 2017

Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Among his publications are several award-winning books, all of which have been translated: The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke (2008); Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Snyder is also the co-editor of Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in Europe and North America (2001) and Stalin and Europe: Terror, War, Domination (2013). He helped Tony Judt to compose a thematic history of political ideas and intellectuals in politics, Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012). He is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and sits on the advisory councils of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research and other organizations.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today a short review of a very timely new book. Dr. Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

The book is a must read for anyone concerned with the direction that the United States and Western Europe are heading at this time. If we have an expert in understanding tyranny today it is Dr. Snyder. His research and writing in that field, highlighted by his books and publications on the history of Germany and Eastern Europe should be read in order to grasp the full implications of totalitarianism.

This book is timely and concise. It easily can be read in one sitting, but you will want to go back and read it again and again as his salient points need to be thought about, digested, and taken for action, not only in public but in our private lives.

Snyder’s premise is that Americans are no wiser than the peoples of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s in their response and acceptance of totalitarian movements. He asserts that we must grapple with history to understand what is going on and to warn us that temptation “to think our democratic heritage automatically protects us from threats,” is a “misguided reflex.”

In the twenty short chapters of the book Snyder presents twenty historical lessons from the twentieth century which he has adapted to the situation that we find ourselves today. Our founders were aware of the dangers to the republic that they founded, and from their study of Greece and Rome, particularly the threats of oligarchy and empire which overcame those ancient democracies. He explains that the founders attempted to mitigate those dangers in the institutions that they created but did not think that what they created was immune to those threats. James Madison wrote that tyranny rises “on some favorable emergency.”  The understood as Aristotle did that inequity brought instability and Plato’s belief that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants. They “fought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny.”  That is an ongoing struggle today, both in the United States and Western Europe.

His talks about the means that authoritarians use to gain and keep power, particularly in their cynical derision of truth, claims to different truths, and alternative facts. One particular point that he makes is that we have to believe in truth, and fight for it. He writes: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

In each chapter he makes very practical observations and recommendations which can be implemented in our public and private lives. One of the most important of these is real human contact, meeting and getting to know people who came from different backgrounds and experiences than us; simple things like making eye contact, and having private lives, building friendships, and hobbies, even as he notes former Czech dissident and later President Vaclav Havel even suggested brewing beer.

But he also mentions the importance of remembering professional ethics, investigating truth claims, standing out in the crowd, not obeying authority in advance, defend democratic institutions including the press and the courts, to listen for dangerous words such as extremism and terrorism, as well as what he calls the “fatal notions of emergency and exception” and the “treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.”

I could go on, but I would rather that you read his words. The book can be purchased for under seven dollars, and the Kindle edition for under three dollars.

I highly recommend this book, it is a must for our day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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A Thought on Election Eve: Trump’s Genie Won’t go Back into the Bottle without a Fight

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I came back from my trip to Gettysburg yesterday pondering the future of the country and I find little solace in history right now. It seems to me that no-matter what the outcome, whether Donald Trump loses, or by some chance wins, that the country will have been changed for the worse and that no-matter the outcome that the results of this election will continue to divide the country. The seething hatred which has been building for years through conservative talk radio, political preachers, and a Republican Party so devoid of ideas that it has to cow-tow to the raging racists of the Alt Right, Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and paranoid preachers of doom to support Donald Trump is a genie that won’t go back into poisonous bottle from which it came without a fight.

If Trump wins we will have elected an authoritarian with no respect for any virtue other than might and money make right. We will have elected a man who has promised during his campaign to crush the very liberties enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; a man who has promised to jail, prosecute, or sue political opponents and critics; a man who has promised to rule through race and religion not the principle that “all men are created equal.”

Trump has brought out the worst in many Americans and he cultivates hatred and fear. He exemplifies what the late Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Trump demonstrates a profound sense of ignorance, rabid paranoia, wrapped in narcissism, and bathed in privileged self-pity never seen in a major party nominee for President in this country. Bit his followers don’t seem to mind. 

But then he has tapped into and attracted people who have been immersed in the paranoia of the religious right and the devotees of conservative talk-radio, Fox News, and the histrionic bevy conservative media websites and organizations, especially the Drudge Report, Breitbart News, and World Net Daily. These media organs have long prepared and sowed both anger and hatred toward any and all political opponents which made Trump’s rise a given. This is a group of people who have no sense of the Constitution or the merits of Republican government and democracy. What they want they want now, and they prefer an authoritarian leader who will trample the institutions of government that Americans have preserved for 241 years and endured a bloody civil war in order to protect.

Hofstadter, a historian who died far to0 young wrote:

“All this is the more maddening, as Edward Shils has pointed out, in a populistic culture which has always set a premium on government by the common man and through the common judgement and which believes deeply in the sacred character of publicity. Here the politician expresses what a large part of the public feels. The citizen cannot cease to need or to be at the mercy of experts, but he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain truster, or the mad scientist, and by applauding the politicians as the pursue the subversive teacher, the suspect scientist, or the allegedly treacherous foreign-policy adviser. There has always been in our national experience a type of mind which elevates hatred to a kind of creed; for this mind, group hatreds take a place in politics similar to the class struggle in some other modern societies. Filled with obscure and ill-directed grievances and frustrations, with elaborate hallucinations about secrets and conspiracies, groups of malcontents have found scapegoats at various times in Masons or abolitionists, Catholics, Mormons, or Jews, Negroes, or immigrants, the liquor interests or the international bankers. In the succession of scapegoats chosen by the followers of this tradition of Know-Nothingism, the intelligentsia have at last in our time found a place.” 

As far as their leader, Trump himself, Hofstadter writing over fifty years ago wrote:

“As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated–if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

The style is that of despots worldwide, Trump’s rhetorical devices are much like those of Adolf Hitler. The message of Trump, in his own words is “I alone can fix it.”  

Tuesday, November 8th will be a watershed election, but as I said at the beginning of the article, no-matter what happens with Donald Trump, is that the paranoia and hatred that he has brought into mainstream will not go away quietly, and most likely will get worse, for in victory he and his supporters will take revenge on their opponents using the police power of the government that many so despise; while if he loses, the most frustrated and deluded of his supporters may turn to violence.

Neither is good for our nation, and I would very much like to be proven wrong in my assessment; but that being said and we must be vigilant if our Republic is to survive. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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