Tag Archives: on tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century

The Window to My Soul and How I understand Others


The Late Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone Episode “Time at Last” 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

George R.R. Martin wrote in his book A Dance With Dragons:  “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

I constantly read and because I try to imagine what I am reading so that in a way I live it. I have been to places that have never traveled to before and on entering them I know exactly where everything is and what happened there. I remember leading a group from my Army chapel in Wurzburg Germany to Wittenberg, where Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation. As I led the group through the town a couple of people asked me how many times I had been there. I told them, “physically, never until today, but I have been here a thousand times before because of books. I saw Wittenberg in my minds eye before I ever saw the city.” They were surprised and both said that it seemed like I had been there many times.

I have had the same thing happen other places that I have visited, and again, it is because I read, and as I read, I imagine and occasionally dream. I do not need virtual reality to take me places I have never been. For me it is enough to read, look at pictures or paintings, and study maps. Those actions allow me to see and imagine people, places, and things more than any virtual reality program can do, because the mind is so much more powerful in imagining what was simply by reading, studying, and closing our eyes. Then when we actually get to the place we know it, we know the people who were there, we know where they lived, and what they thought. It really is quite amazing which is why I love readying history and biography so much. The late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote: “One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.”

I have a huge number of my books in my office most dealing with the history, especially the American Civil War and Reconstruction, the World Wars, and the insurgencies and counter-insurgency wars of the past seventy or so years. I have a lot of biographies, books on American history, military theory, sociology, philosophy, psychology related to war and PTSD, and a few theological works, of which most are in my home library which doubles as a guest room.

When I had an office outside the house long with mementos of my military career, other militaria, artwork, and baseball memorabilia the sight and smell can be both overwhelming and comforting at the same time. I hear that a lot from my visitors, including those who come in for counseling, consolation, or just to know someone cares. They tell my visitors volumes about me without them ever asking a question or me telling them, and occasionally someone will ask to borrow a book, and most of the time I will lend them the book, or if I have multiple copies even one to them.

In a sense my books are kind of a window to my soul, the topics, and even how I have them organized, and they are not for decoration. Many times while I am reflecting on a topic, a conversation, or something that I read in the news I peruse my books and pull one or more out to help me better understand it, or relate it to history. sometimes when in conversation something will come up and I can pull out a book. A Chaplain who once served with me said that he should “apply for graduate credit” for what he learns in our often off the cuff talks. But, for me that is because I read so much and absorb it. Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” That is something I have come to understand over the decades.

Likewise my memorabilia is there to remind me of all the people in my past who I have served with. I don’t have all my medals, honors, and diplomas up for everyone to see, instead I have pictures and collages, many signed by people who made a difference in my life. When I see the signatures and often all too kind words on them I am humbled, and in some cases a tear will come to my eye, but I digress…

I always try to read a decent amount everyday. I in the past couple of weeks I have finished reading a number of very good books dealing with different historical dramas. I have mentioned a number of my recent reads. Last year I read a very good book called Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II, by Yuki Tanaka. The book is primarily focused on Japanese War Crimes In the Southwest Pacific against Allied POWs, civilians, including German missionaries, and indigenous peoples. I will be referring to it in future articles as I deal with Japanese War Crimes In the Second World War. I am well versed in the Nazi War crimes and only somewhat familiar with Japanese war crimes, but the the takeaway from the book was that both the German War Crimes and Japanese War Crimes committed during the Second World War were committed by men who placed unconditional loyalty to a supreme leader, in the case of the Germans, Hitler’s Fuhrer cult, and in the case of the Japanese, Emperor worship, much like the present day Trump Cult. But I digress, I will go into that in a future article. This week I completed Dr Timothy Snyder’s latest book “Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary, and I am working on the second volume of Volker Ullrich’s biography of Hitler. Due to spending so much time on my book before having my own medical-dental crisis I am behind in much of the ready I plan to do.

I love reading and writing about complex characters, people who may be heroes and at the same time scoundrels. I like the contradictions and the feet of clay of people, because I am filled with my own, and truthfully saints are pretty boring. Unfortunately, until Ullrich’s haven’t read any biographies of late although I have several waiting in my stack of books.  Much of my reading deals a lot with biography as the characters weave their way through history. By reading about them I often feel that I get to know them better than some of the people they actually associated because most people only reveal select aspects of themselves and their thoughts, even to close friends.

Two years ago  we observed the Centenary of the end of World War One. As a result I re-read Edmond Taylor’s The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922 and Richard Watt’s The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany: Versailles and the German Revolution. Both of these are very important reads which should help us to reflect reflect on what is happening in our world today. There are many similarities and reading them causes me to wonder if world leaders will allow hubris, arrogance, greed, and pride to drag the world into another catastrophic war. Sadly President Trump, doesn’t read, and doesn’t learn from history. Unfortunately, his ignorance is very much a reflection of our twenty-first century media culture.

But to me, books are important, far more important than anything that is shouted at me on television. Unfortunately, the latter is how most people get information today. I often sit at the bar and on quiet days simply listen to those near me repeat ad-nauseam the bullshit echoed by badly educated and historically ignorant conservative pundits, usually from Fox News. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote in his little but profound book, On Tyranny:

“Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can.”

Likewise, Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

But anyway, I retire from the Navy soon and writing, reading, and teaching will become more and more part of my life. I am happy about that. Carl Sagan wrote:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

I hope that the books I write do what Sagan wrote about, and that by teaching I can encourage others to break away from the two dimensional screens that hold them captive and return to books where imagination can flourish and take us places we only hope to go. 

Have a great day and better tomorrow tomorrow, stay safe and pick up a book and read.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under books, books and literature, History, philosophy

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