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20 Lessons from the 20th Century About How to Defend Democracy from Authoritarianism, According to Yale Historian Timothy Snyder

in History | January 20th, 2017

Image by Rob Kall, via Flickr Commons

Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale University, is one of the foremost scholars in the U.S. and Europe on the rise and fall of totalitarianism during the 1930s and 40s. Among his long list of appointments and publications, he has won multiple awards for his recent international bestsellers Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin and last year’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningThat book in part makes the argument that Nazism wasn’t only a German nationalist movement but had global colonialist origins—in Russia, Africa, and in the U.S., the nation that pioneered so many methods of human extermination, racist dehumanization, and ideologically-justified land grabs.

The hyper-capitalism portrayed in the U.S.—even during the Depression—Snyder writes, fueled Hitler’s imagination, such that he promised Germans “a life comparable to that of the American people,” whose “racially pure and uncorrupted” German population he described as “world class.” Snyder describes Hitler’s ideology as a myth of racialist struggle in which “there are really no values in the world except for the stark reality that we are born in order to take things from other people.” Or as we often hear these days, that acting in accordance with this principle is the “smart” thing to do. Like many far right figures before and after, Hitler aimed to restore a state of nature that for him was a perpetual state of race war for imperial dominance.



After the November election, Snyder wrote a profile of Hitler, a short piece that made no direct comparisons to any contemporary figure. But reading the facts of the historical case alarmed most readers. A few days later, the historian appeared on a Slate podcast to discuss the article, saying that after he submitted it, “I realized there was more…. there are an awful lot of echoes.” Snyder admits that history doesn’t actually repeat itself. But we’re far too quick, he says, to dismiss that idea as a cliché “and not think about history at all. History shows a range of possibilities.” Similar events occur across time under similar kinds of conditions. And it is, of course, possible to learn from the past.

If you’ve heard other informed analysis but haven’t read Snyder’s New York Review of Books columns on fascism in Putin’s Russia or the former Yanukovich’s Ukraine, or his long article “Hitler’s World May Not Be So Far Away,” you may have seen his widely-shared Facebook post making the rounds. As he argued in The Guardian last September, today we may be “too certain we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1940s.” On November, 15, Snyder wrote on Facebook that “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.” Snyder has been criticized for conflating these regimes, and rising “into the top rungs of punditdom,” but when it comes to body counts and levels of suppressive malignancy, it’s hard to argue that Stalinist Russia, any more than Tsarist Russia, was anyone’s idea of a democracy.

Rather than making a historical case for viewing the U.S. as exactly like one of the totalitarian regimes of WWII Europe, Snyder presents 20 lessons we might learn from those times and use creatively in our own where they apply. In my view, following his suggestions would make us wiser, more self-aware, proactive, responsible citizens, whatever lies ahead. Read Snyder’s lessons from his Facebook post below and consider pre-ordering his latest book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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12 Million Declassified CIA Documents Now Free Online: Secret Tunnels, UFOs, Psychic Experiments & More

in History | January 20th, 2017

Image by Duffman, via Wikimedia Commons

“The United States Government has not yet made any official reply to the Soviet and East German allegations and protests concerning the 300-yard tunnel that American intelligence operatives are said to have built underneath the border between West and East Berlin for espionage purposes,” says a Washington Post article from 1956 headlined “The Tunnel of Love.” The Communists’ excitement about their discovery even had them conducting “special propaganda tours through the tunnel and to have exhibited the wiretapping and other recording apparatus that the Americans are supposed to have installed inside it.”

This amusing chapter of Cold War history might have seemed, to America at the time, like the kind of foiled effort — though one of an ingenuity admired on both sides of the Iron Curtain — best buried at the back of the espionage archives. But now, thanks to an executive order requiring the Central Intelligence Agency to release “nonexempt historically valuable records 25 years or older” as well as the dogged efforts of journalist Michael Best, you can read over 12 million pages of previously classified documents at CREST, the CIA Records Search Tool. In addition to the files on the “Berlin Tunnel” operation, it offers copious material on much else, such as vintage espionage techniques like writing with invisible ink and undetectably opening sealed letters and CIA research into spiritualist healingtelepathy, and other psychic powers.



For quite some time before now, you technically could have looked up all of this information yourself, provided you felt like going to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and pulling it up on one of the four computers made available to do so — but only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. The fact that you can now do it from the comfort of your browser owes in large part to the efforts of Best, who raised $15,000 on Kickstarter to go manually print out all (or at least some) of those twelve million pages and upload them to the internet, thereby prodding the CIA to save the ink-and-paper money and just do it themselves.

Some of the project’s backers, no doubt, wanted specifically to see what the CIA’s archives have to say about space aliens, a stock of information you may recall that we featured here just last year. “The publication of the files represents a potential motherlode of background material for researchers, journalists and curious hobbyists,” write the New York Times‘ Daniel Victor and Erin McCann, not long before admitting that “most of the files are pretty boring,” a result of “regular bureaucratic collation.” But then, that kind of methodical gathering and organizing of information has long constituted most of the work of national intelligence: even the short-lived “Tunnel of Love” gathered enough data to keep its processors busy for years after it became a Soviet tourist spot.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Watch Mr. Rogers Persuade Congress to Stop Cutting PBS Budget in 1969 : Would It Stop Trump from Defunding PBS & NEA Today?

in Education, Television | January 20th, 2017

Yesterday, the news broke that the Trump administration will apparently be slashing federal spending, to the tune of $10.5 trillion over 10 years. According to The Hill, the “departments of Commerce and Energy would see major reductions in funding.” And “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [aka PBS] would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.”

Attempts to cut funding for the arts is nothing new. Above, we take you back to 1969, when Richard Nixon planned to reduce PBS’ funding from $20 million to $10 million. That is, until Fred Rogers, the gentle creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, spent six short minutes before Senator John Pastore, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, and made his pitch for publicly-funded educational television. In those 360 seconds, Rogers gets the gruff senator to do a complete 180 – to end up saying “It looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”

It’s unlikely that Mr. Rogers could get the same traction today. Quite the contrary, his sweetness and sincerity would likely be mocked quite mercilessly, a sign of how coarse our society has become these days.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook, Twitter and Flipboard and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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Download & Print Free Shepard Fairey Protest Posters for the Trump Inauguration

in Art, Politics | January 19th, 2017

Shepard Fairey probably first crossed your radar when he drew the iconic “Hope” poster so associated with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Now, he returns with another set of posters to help protest the inauguration of one Donald J. Trump. If you head over to the Amplifier Foundation web site, you can download and print a series of posters (shown above) by Fairey. The same applies to a number of posters designed by other artists, including Jessica Sabogal and Ernesto Yerena.

The images capture the “shared humanity of our diverse America” and condemn the exclusionary policies of the incoming administration. And thanks to the $1.3 million raised through a successful Kickstarter campaign, these posters will figure into a larger Inauguration Day plan. Here’s how it will work:

Much of Washington will be locked down on Inauguration Day, and in some areas there will be severe restrictions on signs and banners.  But we’ve figured out a hack.  It’s called the newspaper!  On January 20th, if this campaign succeeds, we’re going to take out full-page ads in the Washington Post with these images, so that people across the capitol and across the country will be able to carry them into the streets, hang them in windows, or paste them on walls.

You’re welcome to print and post these posters around your town–wherever it’s legally permitted to do so. To download the posters, click here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook, Twitter and Flipboard and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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Learn What Old Norse Sounded Like, with UC Berkeley’s “Cowboy Professor, Dr. Jackson Crawford

in History, Language Lessons | January 19th, 2017

If you want to study another language, by all means feel free to study such widely spoken ones as English, Spanish, and Chinese. But obscurity, as we all learn at one point or another growing up, also has an appeal, though we often need someone cool to give us a hint as to which obscurities to pursue. One “cowboy professor” has, since the videos he posts to Youtube have begun to gain popularity, emerged as the cool guy who may well turn a generation of scholars-to-be on to the study of Old Norse. Though he holds an academic position at the University of California, Berkeley, “Wyoming’s Dr. Jackson Crawford,” as he refers to himself, seems to spend at least part of his time in what he describes as “the Wilderness of the American West.”

He also shoots his videos out there, an appropriately sublime backdrop for the discussion of the mechanics of the Old Norse language, originally spoken by the Scandinavians of the 9th through the 13h centuries, and the myth and poetry composed in it.



Here we have three of Crawford’s videos meant to address questions of general curiosity about Old Norse: what the language sounded like, and, in two parts, how best to pronounce the names of the various gods, places, and other elements of its mythology, from Óðinn (whom you might have seen referred to as Odin) to Valhǫll (Valhalla) to Ásgarðr (Asgard).

Jackson also gives readings from the 13th-century Poetic Edda, arguably the most influential piece of Scandinavian literature ever written, and one which he recently translated into modern English. Perhaps a sample:

Þagalt ok hugalt
skyli þjóðans barn,
ok vígdjarft vera.
Glaðr ok reifr
skyli gumna hverr,
unz sinn bíðr bana.

A noble man should
be silent, thoughtful,
and bold in battle.
But every man should also
be cheerful and happy,
till the inevitable day of death.

In addition to that and other impressive CV items, he also came up with the runes and Old Norse dialogue for the hit Disney movie Frozen — just in case you had any concerns as to the language’s professional practicality. Explore his Youtube channel here.

via Digg

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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