Timothy Snyder: 20 Things Americans Can Learn From Countries Who Lost Their Democracy

Since this important list by historian Timothy Snyder is only posted on Facebook, I want to publish it here in full.

Snyder is one of the leading American historians and public intellectuals, and enjoys perhaps greater prominence in Europe, the subject of most of his work.  He is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. His focus is modern Europe and the rise of nationalist movements.

20 Things American Can Learn From Countries Who Lost Their Democracy

by Timothy Snyder

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

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.
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Flamenco Flatlines Big Bank of Spain

Guerilla theater prophets at Rev. Billy’s Church of Stop Shopping have turned their sites to the thievery of Big Banks saying, “We return to the shiny, silent interior of big banks, the lobbies where we hope to establish a visual wedge, an opening of possibility in the rogue empires of Chase, Citi and B of A. Why do Americans continue to reverence these criminal organizations called big banks. Trillions in assets – with the money spent around the world as if from a detached dirigibles, untethered to any democratic controls.” Below are the flamenco artists who brought their message to the Bank of Spain.

They are, as Rev. Billy puts it, “artists who brave the high church environment of the big banks’ insides.” You can watch more at Fearofbanking.com. And read Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on Rev. Billy in What Would Jesus Buy?

Adrienne Rich: ‘Legislators of the World’

Poet Adrienne Rich (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)
In 2006, Adrienne Rich published this essay “Legislators of the World” in The Guardian saying, “In our dark times we need poetry more than ever.” At the time she had just been awarded the US National Book Foundation 2006 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and released her most recent book School Among the Ruins. Rich died this week at the age of 82. I’m including the full essay below because I think it is so important:

In “The Defence of Poetry” 1821, Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. This has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power – in a vague unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, “A Philosophic View of Reform,” Shelley had written that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged” etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft.

And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the “struggle between Revolution and Oppression”. His “West Wind” was the “trumpet of a prophecy”, driving “dead thoughts … like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth”.

I’m both a poet and one of the “everybodies” of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism huddling together on the faultline of an empire. I hope never to idealise poetry – it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.
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Guantanamo: ‘If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down’

Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay Indefinite Detention Center, January 2012
Blind Willie Johnson had it right back in 1927 when he sang, “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down.” The U.S. concentration camps on Guantanamo Bay turn 10 years old on Wednesday. As Americans — and as people of faith — we should tear those buildings down.

I’m not naive about who some of the prisoners are being held there. But if there’s one thing the U.S. does extremely well, it’s prisons. We’ve got lots of them. There’s no reason why the men and boys held at Guantanamo can’t be moved into stateside prisons – military or civilian – and held accountable under a clear rule of law.

I want to be part of the civilian team of Americans — with families of international victims — who come to Guantanamo this year with hammers in our hands. It is time to dismantle these concentration camps.

Read below for Abraham’s haggling with God about punishing the innocent with the guilty and further down read Murat Kurnaz’ reflections five years after his release from Guantanamo.

Abraham approached the Lord and asked, “Are you really going to destroy the innocent with the guilty? If there are fifty innocent people in the city, will you destroy the whole city? Won’t you spare it in order to save the fifty? Surely you won’t kill the innocent with the guilty. That’s impossible! You can’t do that. If you did, the innocent would be punished along with the guilty. That is impossible. The judge of all the earth has to act justly.” –Genesis 18:23-25

I left Guantánamo Bay much as I had arrived almost five years earlier – shackled hand-to-waist, waist-to-ankles, and ankles to a bolt on the airplane floor. My ears and eyes were goggled, my head hooded, and even though I was the only detainee on the flight this time, I was drugged and guarded by at least 10 soldiers. This time though, my jumpsuit was American denim rather than Guantánamo orange. I later learned that my C-17 military flight from Guantánamo to Ramstein Air Base in my home country, Germany, cost more than $1 million.

When we landed, the American officers unshackled me before they handed me over to a delegation of German officials. The American officer offered to re-shackle my wrists with a fresh, plastic pair. But the commanding German officer strongly refused: “He has committed no crime; here, he is a free man.”

I was not a strong secondary school student in Bremen, but I remember learning that after World War II, the Americans insisted on a trial for war criminals at Nuremberg, and that event helped turn Germany into a democratic country. Strange, I thought, as I stood on the tarmac watching the Germans teach the Americans a basic lesson about the rule of law.

How did I arrive at this point? This Wednesday is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the detention camp at the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. I am not a terrorist. I have never been a member of Al Qaeda or supported them. I don’t even understand their ideas. ….

… a number of American and German intelligence documents from 2002 to 2004 [that] showed both countries suspected I was innocent. One of the documents said American military guards thought I was dangerous because I had prayed during the American national anthem.

Now, five years after my release, I am trying to put my terrible memories behind me. I have remarried and have a beautiful baby daughter. Still, it is hard not to think about my time at Guantánamo and to wonder how it is possible that a democratic government can detain people in intolerable conditions and without a fair trial.

New York Times (8 January 2012) Notes from a Guantanamo Survivor by Murat Kurnaz

Sheena Iyengar: Health-care Debate and ‘Different Views About Freedom’

artofchoosingI was listening this afternoon to social psychologist Sheena Iyengar interviewed on the Diane Rehm show. Iyengar, who has a new book out called The Art of Choosing, made a very insightful comment on President Obama’s role as mediator and consensus-builder between Republicans and Democrats in reforming the American health-care system. She said:

The job of the mediator or the leader becomes how do I make sure that I surface all these ideas and take them in a constructive direction and don’t allow this group to disintegrate into a dysfunctional conflict. …

“[The leader’s role is] is to create a truly phenomenal choice that will work. And that’s actually Barack Obama’s challenge right now. If you think about the Republicans and the Democrats in terms of the health care debate. What they are really arguing about at its essence is the different views they have about freedom.

On the one hand, the Democrats are saying the only freedom that’s fair, the only freedom that I value, is one that gives everybody the same outcomes, the same health care. The Republicans are saying the only freedom that’s fair, the only freedom I value, is one that ensures equal opportunity, not equal outcome. So that means that anybody who’s worthy or who has more money or who has better health, whatever the criteria is for greater merit, the people who are more meritorious should get better health care and the people who are less should get less.

Neither position is particularly right or wrong but they are so fundamental to the two parties different views that Barrack Obama has this major challenge on his hands as to how is he going to come up with a health care option that will speak to both models such that people believing in either one of those models will believe in the choice he’s providing.”–Sheena Iyengar

Sheena Iyengar, researcher and S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University, is the author of The Art of Choosing.

Save A Nun: Cokie Roberts’ Keynote Address to Leadership Conference of Women Religious

cokieroberts

New Orleans native and NPR’s senior news analyst Cokie Roberts gave the keynote address at the recent gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in New Orleans. LCWR represents 95% of  U.S. Catholic religious women and is under investigation by the Vatican. (See my earlier posts LCWR Calls For Transparency and Vatican Investigation.)

Roberts gives an excellent overview of the historical role of Catholic women in America – especially in New Orleans. When she veers toward the current Vatican investigation, she frames it in a way that brings out some of the essential tensions: The true nature of the American experiment is still not understood by Rome. Here’s an excerpt:

This country remains a puzzlement to our ancestors in Europe and their modern day descendants. After all we are very young—it’s not even 300 years since the Ursulines arrived here and that was almost 50 years before independence. I understand why the Europeans continue to see this as some sort of upstart nation. They often see only the chaos without witnessing the creation. And they don’t appreciate the fact that we have traditions that are different from those of the old world, traditions that have to do with service both inside and outside of religious life. So–at the same time that the Ursulines were here creating schools and hospitals and orphanages, and Elizabeth Seton was doing that on the East Coast–women of every religion and color were creating similar institutions–whether it was Isabella Graham the Scotswoman who worked with Elizabeth Seton to create the Widows Society and many other social service agencies, or Rebecca Gratz–a Jewish woman in Philadelphia who worked with other women in the community to create orphanages and other societies for the poor and then established a parallel set up for Jewish children who were being taught Christian doctrine in those other institutions. Or Catherine Ferguson, a former slave, who started the Sunday School movement in America. Or first lady Dolley Madison who worked with the local women of Washington to set up an orphanage after the British invasion of 1814. These women of course couldn’t vote and married women could not own property. They were the property of their husbands. But with great difficulty and determination they lobbied the legislatures, solicited funds from the public, petitioned the Congress, organized rallies, performed highly political acts in order to create the safety net for the poor in a time of exciting unbridled capitalism. And that tradition of service continues.

Read Cokie Roberts’ whole address.

Personal, Prolific, Provocative: Thomas Merton’s Life in Letters

merton-life-in-letters-coverI was honored to be asked by Patrick O’Connell, Thomas Merton scholar and editor of the Merton Seasonal journal, to review a new collection of Merton’s personal letters titled Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, published in 2008 by HarperOne. Below is the review for your reading pleasure.

Personal, Prolific, Provocative

by Rose Marie Berger

Esteemed Merton scholars Christine M. Bochen and William H. Shannon have again brought to bear their years of wisdom and insight into Thomas Merton—the man, monk, merry prankster, mystic, master poet, and writer—in crafting the essential epistolary collection Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters.

Carefully culling from the more than ten thousand letters archived at The Thomas Merton Center, Bochen and Shannon—who edited individually or together the previous five collections of Merton letters—have selected what they consider Merton’s “best letters” from January 2, 1942, when he was a novice at Gethsemani to November 1968, when he wrote his final letter from New Delhi, India.

The breadth and variety of Merton’s correspondents is staggering. Quite simply: He wrote to those who he was interested in learning from and he responded to many who were interested in him and his ideas. The constraints of monastic life and the sometimes ill-fitting gift of stability lent themselves to making out of Merton the prolific letter-writer he became. In this collection, one finds letters to American writer Henry Miller, Pope John XXIII, Nicaraguan journalist Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Nicaraguan president Somoza, American sixth-grader Susan Chapulis, Pakistani Sufi Abdul Aziz, Saturday Evening Post editor John Hunt, Ethel Kennedy, mayor of Hiroshima Shinzo Hamai, ecologist Rachel Carson, novelist James Baldwin, religious scholar Martin E. Marty, Coretta Scott King, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, rabbi Abraham Heschel, Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The art of letter writing was for Merton an expression of intimacy. His letters reveal his affections for individuals, ideas, and express theological and political affection for humanity to be its best self. “I do not hesitate to confess,” wrote Merton to Sister Therese Lentfoehr in 1956, “that letters from my friends have always and will always mean a great deal to me” (vii).

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Vincent Harding on Barack Obama

On election night, Democracy Now! interviewed one of my favorite people, Dr. Vincent Harding. Dr. Harding was a close friend and colleague of Dr. King.

I’ve interviewed Vincent a few times. But, in 2006, I interviewed him about his writing Dr. King’s major antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” the speech that Dr. King gave a year to the day before he was assassinated. The speech was given at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. I consider this one of my most important interviews and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity. You can read that interview here.

Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Harding’s comments to Democracy Now! on election night:

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I am much more deeply involved in the hopes for what we can do to help push him into the place that he needs to go. He is taking a good start at this point by winning this magnificent election, but he is not going to be out there as a messiah by himself. We who believe in freedom are going to have to stand around him, stand beneath him, stand in back of him, and do everything that we can to keep reminding him that what we need is to move towards the very thing that he’s been talking about: creating a more perfect union, creating a more just and peaceable society, creating a more democratic society. So my hopes are very much focused on him, but not on him alone. I see the energy that’s been built up over these two years of campaigns, and I see the possibility that we could gather ourselves together and begin to ask, in a very powerful way, not what should Barack Obama be doing next, but where do we go from here? What is our role as committed, progressive citizens to move to the next stages? …

For me, that question about the contradictions that would stand between seeing Barack as a second coming of Martin and seeing Martin as someone who clearly understood that militarism was not the way towards a solution of humanity’s problems. That’s why I said that those of us who believe in creating a more perfect union can only do it by standing around him, under him, behind him, pushing him to ask questions about what is the role of the military in a democratic society, by encouraging him to see the possibility that maybe he would be a better community-organizer-in-chief than commander-in-chief. Maybe a democracy needs community organizers more than it needs commanders.

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