Global Ethics Forum: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, with Timothy Snyder

Global Ethics Forum: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, with Timothy Snyder


(upbeat music) – We’re very happy to have with
us tonight Professor Timothy Snyder, who is the Levin
Professor of History at Yale and a permanent fellow
at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. And he will be in conversation
with Smita Narula, who is a distinguished
lecturer at Hunter College and the director of the Human Rights
Program at Roosevelt House. – I would like to
start by just saying something about the book. The book, for those of you who
are still unfamiliar with it, is a New York Times best-seller,
and it explores the new threats faced by our political
order and how we can look back to the 20th
century for lessons on how to overcome
these threats. 20 lessons in particular
on how we can resist the decline into tyranny drawn
from our author’s vast body of work on how the Europeans
of the 20th century yielded democracy to fascism,
Nazism, or communism. Tim, I think it’s fair to say
that this book is a departure from your previous
publications, all compelling, thought-provoking books that
take a deep dive into war, genocide, and the
descent into dictatorship in the mid-20th century. But here we have an
almost pocket-sized book, a manifesto if you will, but
not a manifesto for a political party or an institution
or an organization, but for everyday citizens
interested in defending our democracy from
what you describe as profound threats to
our political order. Tell us what led you
to write this book in this style and why now? – The book is a departure,
but it’s also an arrival. It’s the first
thing that I’ve ever really done as an American. I’m an American, of course,
but my work has been on, as you kindly remember,
the 20th century in Eastern and Central Europe. What happened is that some
of the things I think I knew or some of the things which
were familiar to me from my historical work suddenly
seemed to appear in my home. One way to think
about it is the it. The question, can
it happen here? The answer is always
yes, by the way. The answer to that is never no. For me, I took for granted,
having written about Nazi and Soviet terror in places
and times not so different from our own, where the
perpetrators and the victims and the bystanders were
people not so very different from us, in some cases,
they were our relatives, I took it for granted
that the it could happen. And I took for granted
that the it could happen to people like us because
my teachers, when I became a historian of Eastern Europe,
were people who had survived the Holocaust or had
lived through communism, or in the case of my
doctoral supervisor, both. That’s people like us, our
teachers are people like us. If he can teach me, and
I can have a conversation with all of you,
that’s people like us. I think the third thing
which was happening was that as a teacher of people who
work on East European history, I was confronted with the
younger generation from Eastern Europe, Russians, Ukrainians,
Poles, Hungarians, who had been dealing with the
things that we are dealing with now basically for
their whole lives as adults. Many of the lessons that
are in this book are from the experiences of people in
their 20s who had seen after 1989, after that moment when
history was supposed to be over and freedom was supposed to
be easy and democracy was supposed to come
automatically with capitalism and all that nonsense,
who have seen rather, democracy move away
from them their entire politically aware lives. So that’s the third thing. So it can happen, it
happens to people like us, and it’s happening now. I came to all of this looking
at it from Eastern Europe historically, politically,
contemporarily, and I recognized certain
patterns in the Trump campaign, and so when he won, my
first reaction was to try to translate what I thought
I knew into recommendations about what we all can do. – You don’t call the
president by name in any part of the book. What was behind that decision? – There are a couple of things. The first is he had been
elected when I wrote the book. I wrote the book
in December 2016. I wrote the lessons
in the hours and days after he won in
November of 2016. In that sense, it
wasn’t about him. There’s a way in which,
many ways in which focusing on him allows us to
dodge the problem. If we say he is an aberration
of the system or if we say he is mentally ill or if we
say he’s a historical blip, if we say any of these
things, what we’re doing is abrogating our
own responsibility,
both for the fact that he got elected
in the first place but also for how
we have to react. The point of the book,
the reason it was so fast and so short and also
in a way so direct, was that I was trying
to get us to act quickly while there was still time. If we spent all of our
time trying to decide which way Mr. Trump is mentally
ill or exactly which form of racist oligarchy was
going to be established, if we spent all of our time on
that, waiting and analyzing, we were going to
miss the moment which was politically relevant. The book is not about him. It’s prompted by him. It’s prompted by
things that he did. It’s prompted by things like
his urging his supporters to murder his rival, it’s
prompted by things like the violent character of his
rallies, it’s prompted by the way he uses the
English language. It’s prompted by him, but it’s
not about him, it’s about us. It’s about what the
American republic could be if it were defended. – I wanted to segue from
that, just going right into the first lesson of the book and to really make this about us. “Lesson one, do not
obey in advance. “Most 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 offer “themselves without being asked. “A citizen who
adapts in this way “is teaching power
what it can do.” What I hear you
essentially saying is, do not consent to
your own oppression, which is I suppose easy
to say but profoundly difficult to do. – Yes. That’s good. A lot of the things in
this book sound very easy, and some of them
are in fact easy. But a lot of them are
harder than they sound. There’s a reason why
lesson number one, don’t obey in advance,
is lesson number one, and that is that it’s
actually difficult, and if you fail lesson
number one, lessons two through 20 are
irrelevant to you because you will never get there. Lesson number one requires
you as an individual to do something which is
unusual, which is to say, I, as an individual, define
this situation as exceptional. I am drawing a line around
myself and saying I am not going to act according
to what’s happening
around me but according to something which is within me. That is hard. People think they’re free. Freedom is hard. Freedom is doing the thing that
everyone else is not doing. It’s not saying,
I’m free, I live in a free country, yada yada. Freedom is that moment where
you lean out and you’re doing the things that other
people aren’t doing, and that’s lesson one. Where it comes from is
the study of Nazi Germany. One of the few things that
historians of Nazi Germany agree about, because they’re a
disagreeable bunch in general, but one of the few things they
agree about is that Hitler gained much of his power by
consent, that especially in ’33 and into early ’34 the regime
was possible because people allowed it to happen,
because people normalized what was going on around them. That is one of the
few things we think we understand historically. Psychologically the way
it works is that we have a very strong tendency
to follow rules. We’re all following
rules right now. Smita is asking questions,
I’m answering them, you’re sitting, you’re
not square dancing. Usually we do what’s
expected of us, and usually that’s appropriate. The reason why this is
psychologically hard is you have to say, I’m an individual. I’m actually going
to break these norms that I’m feeling around me. The other reason it’s
important is morally, to use an old-fashioned
word, it’s morally important because if you do obey in
advance, not only do you help authoritarians come to
power, but you become the person who helped
them come to power, which means that for the
rest of your life you explain why it was that
you had to do that. You become the person who makes
the excuse for that person who obeyed in advance,
and that’s a phenomenon which is already, by the way, massive in American
society one year on. – The second lesson
you go straight into is to defend institutions,
“Institutions do not protect “themselves,” you say, “so
choose an institution you care “about and take its side.” Which of our institutions
do you feel are either most vulnerable or most under
attack, and are there any institutions that we need to
transform instead of defend? – Let me say just a word
about why this is number two because there is a
kind of logic to it. Institutions have to
be defended because individually we are hopeless. One of the great American
myths is that freedom means that you are that last person
on a blasted heath somewhere holding the automatic
weapon and defeating the aliens, and that’s freedom. Or to be more
serious, I will give a more serious example
from our culture. Holocaust movies are
always about rescue, and it’s always about
the unusual person who carries out the rescue. I work on the Holocaust. This is what I do, and it’s
true that there were some unusual people who
as individuals saved
other individuals, but in fact what mattered
was institutions, in fact, what matters were
whether institutions were preserved or whether
they were destroyed. That’s what determined
whether Jews survived or not. Institutions are magnifiers,
institutions are what allow us to be decent,
they’re what allow us to feel like we’re not alone. If power actually gets you
alone, then you’re hopeless. We love that photo of Tiananmen
Square with the lone person holding back the
tank, but he didn’t actually hold back the tank. It’s a beautiful
image, but that’s not how freedom actually works. In terms of what’s most
threatened, I would say the fundamental institution
which is most threatened, this comes later in the
book, it’s factuality, which is like a pre-institution. Factuality, which is the realm
of journalists and the realm of scholars like us, the realm
of a lot of different people, that’s the institution which
allows all other institutions. Because if we don’t believe
there is truth in the world, we don’t believe there are
facts, we can’t cooperate, and then institutions
become impossible. To be specific, journalists
are under threat. There are institutions also
which aren’t under threat but which just don’t work,
like checks and balances. It hasn’t actually
worked out that well. I’m all in favor of it, but
unfortunately in this country on our good days we have
a two-party system rather than a checks-and-balances
system. So if the same party is in
Congress as has the White House, you can’t really expect very
many checks and balances, and we’re not getting them. Congress hasn’t failed, but
it’s also not restraining the president very effectively. I absolutely agree, though,
with the premise of your question, there are institutions
that have to be renewed. This is a book about treading
water, this is a book about how not to drown, this is a
book about keeping the American republic going, which
I think is actually the correct way to
frame the issue. The idea of the book is
that if we practice some of the things that
it recommends, then
we would be better citizens and better
able to form new institutions at the end. I think the institutions
that need to be formed are largely the small ones. It’s heartening to see people
doing that, whether it’s the lawyers, a lot of
them here in New York, getting together in NGOs,
whether it’s indivisible across the country, whether it’s
small groups helping other people run for state office. It’s the small things which
have to be revived, I think. – The book to me was both
very chilling and also very empowering, chilling
because you bring the weight and this depth of knowledge
of history to bear and ask us to have an active relationship
with history as we see our own history develop
before us today. That can feel very weighty,
it can feel very chilling. Yet you also call on us to
engage in small, everyday acts, making eye contact and small
talk, putting away our screens and enjoying a long read. “Lesson 13, 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.” Could you say something
about the transformative potential of small acts? – That’s in a way what
the book is all about. It’s about the small acts
which seem easy but which in fact require a
tiny bit of courage, and then the magnification
effects that a tiny bit of courage on your part
has for other people. Many of the lessons, some that
you have already mentioned, are about very simple things. Like for example, do
you go outside or not? Do you just get
angry over Facebook or do you actually march? That for me is a really
fundamental difference. And it’s a choice because
Facebook actually takes up the energy that you
need for marching, or even worse it makes you
feel like you’ve done something when at the end of the
day you actually haven’t. You feel tired and dissipated. You’re just dissipated. That decision to go out and
put your body in a new place changes the way you think,
and it means that you end up meeting people you wouldn’t
have met otherwise, which is generally not
true of the Internet. It also has this interesting
quality that you might actually persuade someone,
not that that’s easy. I feel like we have gotten to
this point in America where everyone thinks we can’t
persuade anyone of anything else because we’re all
completely in our own silos. It’s hard, but it’s actually
possible in real life. It’s not possible
on the Internet. The Facebook exchange which
ends with someone writing, “You have persuaded me with
your rational arguments,” that Facebook exchange has yet
to happen, even though I have been making this joke
for two years now. It still hasn’t
happened, and it won’t. But when you actually talk
to people in real life, you talk to people who are a
bit different and they talk to people who are a
bit different, and
there’s some chance that that will
make a difference. So little things like
getting your body out, and making eye contact. It’s interesting, that’s
the lesson that has inspired the most questions in
the year since I have written this book,
precisely that one. In a way, it gets to the essence
of one of the things about this book, which is that
it’s about not sleepwalking. It’s what you said
about history, if we take history seriously,
we can’t sleepwalk. – You said in the book
and you’ve just said now, “It can be organized on social
media, but nothing gets real “until it hits the streets.” But not all protestors
are treated equally, and in fact the state’s response to protest can be
very racialized. And we’ve seen that, right? We’ve seen very disparate
responses to protests depending on who is protesting. When white supremacists
are allowed to walk freely, brandishing guns
and tiki torches, but peaceful Native American
protestors or black activists are deemed “black
identity extremists” or pelted with rubber bullets
and tear gas and arbitrary arrests, it makes
the call to protest carry this very heavy
weight and burden. I was wondering if you
could say more about the burden of protest and the
racialized response to it. – I completely agree with you. You captured in a way very
well what I am trying to say to people who might think,
I don’t have to protest yet. One of the reasons you have
to protest now if you are in a relatively
privileged position is
that for other people it’s already harder than it
is for you, and your presence on the streets will change
the nature of the protest. This is an old logic,
but everybody knows it. If you wait until you feel
you really have to protest, the game is already over.
The game is already over. So you have to get onto it
first, partly for precisely this reason, so that it’s harder to
characterize it as being just some Americans and not all
Americans, and pragmatically speaking so that police react
differently to protests. It’s really important for
protests to be bigger than they are, and it’s really
important to always protest earlier than
you think you have to. This is true for everyone. This is such a good question,
because what has already happened in Eastern
Europe and what happened in the ’30s and ’40s is
that people wait to protest. They think, the privileged
people in your categorization, they think, I can always
protest, but that’s not true. It can be criminalized. Ask the Russians. You can get to a point
where it’s illegal, and then the nice law-abiding
people will generally not protest at all, and
then the game is over. – And it is being criminalized
in various states. I wanted to step back
from the specific lessons and pull back a little bit
to the premise of the book, which is that we’re
facing new threats to the political order. I have in my own conversations
about these issues and in my own work as
a human rights scholar and defender encountered two
distinct schools of thought. One is that the current
administration is a dramatic, radical departure from
what has come before it, and the second is to see
it as a natural extension or logical extension or natural
culmination of longstanding processes, namely deepening
economic inequality, the corporate capture of our
democracy, which you also talk about, and of course our
long and undeniable history of upholding racism and
defending white supremacy. My question is, are these
threats to the political order in fact new, or are they
the results of longstanding processes, or does it
depend on who you ask? – I’m going to punt a
little bit and say both. The important thing for me is
that we are able to recognize a moment when we do things
or when we ought to do things that we wouldn’t have
done a moment before. I’m very sympathetic, and I
agree with my African American friends and colleagues who say,
“This is just the same thing “but maybe turned in a
slightly different direction “so that you’ve
happened to notice it.” I’m very sympathetic
to that point. But in political terms, and
this is a political book, we need to be able to agree,
as many of us as possible, that this is a moment where
we need to do something. We need to do something. I am going to try to answer
the question by saying that I think there are some
things here that are new, but I think some of
the best ways to fight them is by remembering the old. The whole method of
this book is not to say, “Tim Snyder understands
the 20th century.” The whole method of this book
is to say Victor Klemperer or Václav Havel or other
people who experienced moments that were in some
ways like ours left us interesting things
to think with. I think those things still work. In fact, I think I’m
seeing them work among some Americans in 2018. But I think there are some
new things or some things which we haven’t
seen for a while. One of them is economic
inequality on this scale. We’ve now reached a point
where the top decile in America owns about 78% of the wealth. We’re getting up to the
Russian standard, which is 87%. If we measure the wealth at
the top 0.1% that Americans owned, we’ve now reached
where we were in 1929. This is extremely significant. I think it’s quite significant,
and you know all this, but I will mention it anyway,
it’s quite significant that for 90% of the American
population there’s been no positive change in wealth
or income since 1980, which basically means
we’ve produced a couple of generations now where
this idea of social advancement or the
American dream isn’t there. That is an explanation. That is something which
has crept up on us, but that is an explanation
for Mr. Trump and in general for a kind of politics
which, rather than promising something in the future,
only promises the past. Another thing which is
new is the Internet, and it’s new basically
in a bad way. I’m happy to discuss this
back and forth, but I think basically a bad thing, all
told, basically a bad thing, at least in politics,
basically a bad thing. Havel and Klemperer didn’t
have to deal with the Internet. It’s now possible to reach
more quickly to more people’s most basic anxieties, fears,
and prejudices than it was before, and it’s more
possible with modern forms of propaganda to tailor
your message to what you think people will
already want to hear. There is something new, I
think, about the contradictory character of a
lot of propaganda. The Russians, for
example, had no problem, they did this in Ukraine
and they did this to us, in saying, for example, “In
Ukraine they’re all fascists” to one demography and then
to another demography saying, “All of the Ukrainian
state was created by “the international
Jewish conspiracy.” They have no problem
with that because they are targeting the message. Likewise with us, they have
no problem saying to blacks, “You should defend yourselves,
and you should buy guns,” and saying to whites, “You
should defend yourselves, “and you should buy guns.” They have no problem being
completely contradictory because unlike
old-school propaganda
they have the technical tools to target particular
groups and push them off in a certain direction. I think that’s new. It’s not just them, they’re
just better at it than we are, but the American right
does that now as well. You see it after
the school shootings in Florida, for example. This is what happens. The other thing which I
think is slightly new, although it happened
with fascism, too, is that the far right
is now much more internationalist
than the far left. They learn from each other. When Russia invades Ukraine,
the flag which is used for the pseudo state in Southeastern
Ukraine under Russian occupation is the
Confederate battle flag, just to take an example. – One other thing that I think
is so profound about the book and the contribution that
it’s already made is this idea of not only taking personal
responsibility and the call to action now, but
to do things that are transformative also
of your surroundings. You talk about taking care
of the face of the world, pulling down the symbols of
hate, not walking by a swastika and just saying, well, that’s
up now, but taking it down, or listening for dangerous
words and really being critical in your thinking about
how words like terrorism and extremism are
being used and who they’re being
applied to and why. I just was thinking maybe you
could say a little bit more about that, because I think
one of the things that really struck me in your descriptions
of Europe and the rise of fascism or Nazism there
is just the incredible normalization of the daily
march of dehumanization that takes place, and it takes
place in this very almost banal way today, in such
an onslaught of what is on the media and what comes to
us that we can just simply walk by it until it
becomes the new normal. Can you speak to that? – As a student of the Holocaust,
one of the things that really worries me, troubles
me about American discourse about the Second World War
and Hitler is that people tend to say, well, look, we haven’t
killed six million Jews, therefore everything is fine. Essentially, like if you
haven’t gotten all the way to the end of the Holocaust,
then nothing has happened, which ignores that to get
from 1933 to 1945 a whole lot of things had to happen
in a certain order. We are not in 1941, but
we’re kind of in 1933, and in 1933 what matters is
what you’re talking about, which is the
semiotics, the signs, the symbols, the public sphere. This is another thing
which historians of Nazi Germany also agree about. I am going to run out of
the list pretty quickly, but another thing that we agree
about is that the swastikas that were painted on the walls
or the Stars of David that were used to mark Jewish shops
were incredibly important. These are the things that
actually enabled the regime to change, because as
you say, they instructed people what they were
supposed to normalize. This is one thing which
really is a lesson that can be learned, because at the
beginning the people who were painting the swastikas
and the Stars of David, those were private initiatives. The SS was an NGO. It was. The SS was part
of the Nazi Party. Later it is merged with
the police and is the main instrument of the
Holocaust, and I do not mean to make light of
it, but those were citizens doing one thing. One thing that Americans have
done better than the Germans of 1933 is that
they’ve been more aware of their surroundings. So there are NGOs in the
United States, in this city, for example, who get
up early in the morning and paint over swastikas. This matters so much. It matters to all the people
who don’t see the swastika that day, and not just
the Jews, everybody. But it also matters to the
people who do the painting. It’s a very nice example of a
little thing that you can do. And it’s weird. It’s maybe weird. It’s maybe illegal
sometimes to paint. But doing that little
thing is liberatory. – My thanks to all of
you for being here, and let’s carry on. Thank you. Thank you very much. (applause) For more on this program
and other Carnegie Ethics Studio productions, visit
carnegiecouncil.org. There you can find video
highlights, transcripts, audio recordings,
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