Is This Really the Ukraine?

A few years ago, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands was both popular and esteemed. I found it an uncomfortable but powerful read. I mentioned it and two students – a Russian Jewish student whose grandfather had fought in the Russian army, been tortured in one of the Russian purges, but died loyal to Stalin and a student whose ancestors were from those borderlands ordered it. (My mention was cursory; it was after all American lit; both were hungry to know more about the obscure world of their ancestors.) I gave it to a son-in-law, who had heard Snyder discussing it with intensity and even despair. I can remember discussing passages with colleagues in philosophy and history – especially lies spoken and assented to as the truth stood (and died) before their eyes: families starved, Stalin argued, to sabotage Stalin. Snyder’s aim and success was to make that unreal world and its victims live. He eloquently countered the great arrogance of Stalin’s assumption (so often proved true) that a million deaths was merely a statistic. Of course it was futile – no one person can make millions live on a page. An intense experience to read, Snyder’s research must have truly looked into the abyss. Today, I tracked references at Chicagoboyz; several praised it. I haven’t read his later works.

May 2 may not be a bad day to remember both the hundred million that died under communism but also the tens of millions that died under fascism. And Snyder is a remarkable scholar.

So, skimming Instapundit today, an item on Snyder quotes a Salon interview; the title is longish – “It is inevitable that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy” – and so is a section to give you his argument:

In your book you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?

(Snyder responds)
Let me make just two points. The first is that I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like.
This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.
Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future.
My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.
What can citizens do? What would your call to action be?
The whole point of my new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” is that we have a century of wisdom and very smart people who confronted situations like our own — but usually more demanding — and that wisdom can be condensed.
What my book does is it goes across the arc of regime change, from the beginning to the end, and it provides things ranging from simpler to harder that people can literally do every day.
The thing that matters the most is to realize that in moments like this your actions really do matter. It is ironic but in an authoritarian regime-change situation, the individual matters more than [in] a democracy. In an authoritarian regime change, at the beginning the individual has a special kind of power because the authoritarian regime depends on a certain kind of consent. Which means that if you are conscious of the moment that you are in, you can find the ways not to express your consent and you can also find the little ways to be a barrier. If enough people do that, it really can make a difference — but again only at the beginning.

You may think this is, well, extreme. A coup against one’s self? For one thing, he is the president, with a majority in the House and Senate. And I’m not so sure his policies are that unpopular – at Yale, perhaps. Besides, this is a president who has spent his first hundred days trying (and if not always successfully, with clear intention to keep trying) to “deweaponize” the heavy handed executive power operating through the bureaucracy his predecessor established (and his opponent clearly intended to continue).

And if the coup takes power from bureaucracy – well that isn’t a coup, that’s democracy. Those who have a different concept may see disruption but we see a contractual relation reasserted – we haven’t seen ourselves as serfs but as active agents. Trump, whatever his faults may be, aims to devolve the power of government: Pruitt and Zinke and DeVos and Price have all been chosen not because they want to bring power to a leader or to Washington, but to return it to the states and the communities and individuals. This is not statism and calling it fascism doesn’t make it so. If fascism isn’t a strong state, exactly what is it? Without the state’s power, how are dictates enforced?

If the problem is nationalism, we might define its American form. We express it in an emphasis on individual rights, a belief in property and gun rights that let each family take an individual stand. Most of all, of course, it celebrates the Bill of Rights. We emphasize the free market: economically, intellectually, in the press and in the church. These are derived from what a Czech who’d been here a couple of years found arresting, our optimism. But optimism has served us well; it isn’t sentimental. It is optimism over the long haul. An editor of The Federalist Papers observed that their arguments always chose the long gain over the short one: this generation sets up the safeguards, the rights of property and thought, so that later generations will know what works, what is true. That is our tradition – and it is nationalism that chides us for not doing a better job in our generation. An openness – to products, to essays, to ideas, to beliefs – and a willingness to test them is each generation’s gift to the next. And each finds new facts, arguments, often support for old beliefs and generalizations and sometimes revolutionary new ones – and most often, of course, edits the old to fit new contexts.

Our nationalism was also characterized by a belief in representative taxation and its obligation as contractual. And our nationalism, tied as we were and remain to the Anglosphere, was loyalty to ideas that could be declared, believed and respected by others. Our nationalism has always been an Enlightenment universalism – one that joins in an allegiance to common law and property rights, to free speech and press and religion. Our nationalism celebrates ideas not blood.

I glanced over the comments: I am influenced by Reynold’s take on many modern issues because I am comfortable with them. And so, I suspect, are many who commented. Few had read Snyder’s earlier work (I have only read Bloodlands) but it is hard to see him as narrowly partisan (though, of course, he swims in the fetid lake at Yale). It isn’t just that he reads ten languages – he thinks with the breadth such immersion can give. However, turning to the comments on Salon, which agreed with him, I found myself not just impatient but alienated.

They see Trump, with his emotive and imprecise discussions, as a fascist; I am more likely to see fascists as those who limit speech on campus, on streets, and in newspapers across America. I see a fascist in a black hood setting a two-story high fire in Berkeley and taking baseball bats to glass windows in New York on inauguration. I see fascists in hiring committees and peer review that limit “what works” from discussions in the social sciences. They see fascists in Trump’s jokes about the press corps (despite his extraordinary – and quite different from Obama and Hillary – openness to that same corps). Not surprisingly, I see fascism in the warrants against Fox’s Rosen.

This long year I’ve been reading Hannan’s work and Curry’s Common Sense Nation and Morgan’s Inventing the People and God and Churchill and Dyer’s arguments about slavery and natural law. These are all full of the energy of Anglosphere exceptionalism. They all run against Snyder’s observations. Perhaps it is in our human nature, but our tradition works against lining up villagers before great ditches, depeopling one village after another. Centuries of other traditions nurtured values (and constraints) we hope Trump understands – and if he doesn’t, Pence and Mattis and Tillerson and Gorsuch and about everyone else he has appointed do. Does Snyder really feel that we, like the director of United Airlines, will forget it is humans we are dealing with here? The more distant the government, the more powerful – the more regulations about our health care or the food in school cafeterias or how a state handles its historic landmarks or how a farmer handles his wetlands – the more “humans” disappear into abstractions. And those borderland villagers and urban true believers were less used to making their own contracts or having their own guns.

Those without optimism feel paternal: they need to shut down the marketplace. God knows what foolish ideas or products or religious beliefs the common man might be seduced by. Well, we, with our emphasis upon bourgeois equality and dignity, are likely to respond, yes, God knows, and we will, too, if given time and freedom to test them.

My respect for Snyder didn’t lead me to question my own beliefs – I’ve been too stoked by the jingoistic (maybe) reading of my retirement. And I’ve, myself, seen those ideas work for over 70 years. But it does worry me that someone who has shown in the past he is thoughtful has this certainty and perspective.

How will the sides be drawn? Geographically, the newspapers we read, our beliefs in climate change or that abortion is murder or the restaurants we choose? It will, I suspect, like the British and American civil wars before contrast those who believe in a more royalist, hierarchical and bureaucratic society and those who believe in a more representative, individualistic, bourgeois one. But I’d just as soon the battles were – as I suspect they will be – at the ballot box.

21 thoughts on “Is This Really the Ukraine?”

  1. I would worry about Mike Pence at this point. It looks like your president is right on the edge of dementia to be blunt.

  2. Pennie, you should know about dementia.

    Why continue to act like a troll and why not try to contribute ?

  3. How will the sides be drawn?

    I suspect that when it does break, it will not be geographical like the First American Civil War, but ideological. The Left does not regard anyone who is not their own as being fully human.

    Here in Colorado, Pueblo [both city and the county] is one of the Democrat centers. A friend of one of my daughters lived there with her husband who was a city department head. To be such, regardless of your inclinations, you had to be registered as a Democrat to get and hold the job, and to attend Party functions. When my daughter was visiting, they had to make a token appearance at a county Democrat function before going on to do something else. So they went and my daughter heard with her own ears speeches where they were looking forward to winning the election [2004] and placing Republicans in camps.

    The Left are not our countrymen, literally. We are two separate peoples stuck in the same set of borders. From our side of the divide, every street beating by Democrat sponsored thugs while Democrat local governments order the cops to look the other way is starting to make the feeling mutual. As the rule of law disappears, that breaking point comes closer.

    People are intermixed, regardless of ideology, with one notable exception. If you look at the county maps of who took which county in the country in the late election, Hillary Clinton’s votes come almost entirely from the chain of coastal enclaves and few scattered inland cities that people call the “Clinton Archipelago”. [Thank whichever Deity is turning the crank this week for the Electoral College.] Those urban areas are singularly vulnerable to siege [which itself might be worthy of a post] and one can expect something akin to the Balkans.

    Singularly untidy.

  4. Small beer:

    1. “his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire”: there are historians who think the fire wasn’t Hitler’s doing. The mad Dutch commie may well have set it.

    2. ” It isn’t just that he reads ten languages”: could be. I’ve heard that sort of claim made about quite a few people, but in only one case do I know it to be true. So I tend to lump it with “she has two PhDs” or “he plays piano to concert standard”: might be true but usually false.

    3. “he swims in the fetid lake at Yale”: well put. Drain the lake!

    4. How can he bear to work for an institution established by, and named after, a slave trader?

  5. I couldn’t make it through Bloodlands. Way too disturbing. Ukraine in the 1930s must have been the most horrible place to be in all of history. Snyder showed real fortitude in writing that book, sad to say in the academy today being explicitly anti-Commie is still a bad thing for your career. Maybe this Trump Derangement Syndrome is some of his penance for that.

    I’m always curious who exactly the crazies think is going to enforce this crackdown. No one ever follows up on that, because the answers would show how ridiculous the notion is. Who is Trump’s army to take over the country? The US military? Come on. And whoever it is, why did this force that is so powerful that it could take over the country just sit around and do nothing under Obama?

    In many ways the US can be made to look like pre-Civil War Spain, but the major difference is the government is just so much stronger, that there is no way there ever would be an actual shooting war. Stronger in the sense of force (the military), of knowledge (the NSA, etc.), and of the loyalty of the people.

  6. “Pennie, you should know about dementia.

    Why continue to act like a troll and why not try to contribute ?”

    I am an old man, it’s true. The last few days have been a bit of an eye opener and the man is not working with a full deck. Noted Republicans are saying he’s approaching dementia not me.

    Mike you are the biggest troll here. You may not recognize, it but you are.

  7. If true, PenGun, it means that the November election was between two invalids.

    Oh well, at least Trump won his primaries fair and square. What does it say about the Republic that the Dem selection process needed to be “fixed” to exclude the daft old socialist from the candidacy? In the US! A socialist!

  8. I won’t lower myself to trade insults but you seem to revel in outrageous statements with no links to anything that might support your argument.

    it will not be geographical like the First American Civil War, but ideological.

    Have you looked at a map of the 2016 election by county ?

    I even looked at a precinct map of Tucson and was pleased to see we bought our house in a Trump precinct.

    Tucson is pretty left wing with the university and all.

    The Civil War may not be hot like 1860, but it will be nasty.

  9. Mike K Says:
    May 3rd, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    First, here is the map I had in mind:

    Almost all her votes, and it is a reasonable proxy for areas of Democrat control, are along the coast with lesser areas inland. That includes Tucson, yes. And what this map calls Denver Island [which is actually Denver and Boulder Counties] here in Colorado; but unlike the First American Civil War if things break again, as Ginny referred to sides being drawn, I don’t think it will be by state or specific larger political units. The various islands of the Archipelago will be sites of conflict, but Left and Right are intermixed here sometimes on the same block all over the country. If the rule of law continues to break down and the government and law enforcement do not crack down on violence uniformly regardless of political party, then the notational Second American Civil War will be more akin to the former Yugoslavia.

    It is not a desirable state of affairs, but it is one that is reasonably forseeable. If you had stayed in California, definitely it was possible you could have been caught up in it. Tucson is safer than Southern California.

    Small mountain towns in Colorado are even safer. ;-)

  10. I’m shipwrecked behind enemy lines. Cook County voted over 2 to 1 for Hillary. The GOP here is like a political version of the Washington Generals, only kept around for entertainment purposes. There’s just no understanding that the community thrives despite the government not because of it. Too much bread and circuses has decreased the testosterone levels to the critical point.

  11. Dementia has a meaning and identifiable symptoms. It’s not just a “not thinking like I do” insult. Trump has been a blowhard for years, and I don’t see any deterioration. He makes some things work.

    To the main point about Snyder. Bloodlands was indeed disturbing and important. It’s strength is that Snyder does read the neglected languages (neglected in Western Europe in the US, at least) of Eastern Europe and so was familiar with a host of documents that tended to get ignored by other historians. I recommend it often. Also, Snyder was willing to say that Stalin was as bad or worse than Hitler – mostly he saw them as mirror images, each driving the other to greater insanity. That was unpopular among left-leaning historians. Jewish historians who objected got the most press, because they insisted that Hitler was something unique and worse because of the genocidal focus and manic intensity at the end. It’s not a bad argument, but I noted that the Jews quoted were also liberals. There are conservative Jews out there who were more muted in their criticism and some even praised Snyder – but they got let off at an early stop on the bus ride.

    Snyder’s current comments, I note, are not really in this area of expertise, of telling us what did happen, with some observations on why that might be. In Salon he is making predictions. He is trading on an expertise in one area to another that is only partly related. I had a running conversation at my own site a half-dozen years ago about the types of errors that experts make versus the type that talented amateurs and untalented amateurs make. I’m not sure I said anything so brilliant then that it needs to be linked to now. However, two of the important points were 1) an expert is more prone to get something exactly 180 degrees wrong, rather than randomly wrong. They get carts before horses, they leap to conclusions. I think this may be in play here. It is not only that Snyder thinks he is on the side of justice and Trump is not – it is that another possibility does not even occur to him. From that standpoint then, any discomfort in his gut, any reading that the times are disruptive and we are in a newly-vulnerable state, will only be interpreted in one direction. They have the data at their fingertips that allows them to defend against all comers, even if they are wrong, like a powerful hand forcing in a screw that is cross-threaded. 2) They are even more susceptible to fads and fashions than the average Joe, not because they are more credulous, but because they are more consistent. They adopt their peer-group and its biases slowly, and eventually there is little escape. Lesser men such as myself can afford to throw ideas away and change opinions without upsetting the entire edifice of our careers and lives.

    Snyder does not know that he is more vulnerable, he thinks he is less so. European intellectuals – and to the extent that they signed on American intellectuals as well – got nearly every major political question wrong, and repeatedly. (I would say religiously as well, but that a who ‘nother topic.) Yet still they persist in thinking they are correct, only because they do not make the coarser errors of we unwashed.

  12. I think you have a good point about expertise and how it misleads us. And sometimes if you are used to pontificating (or even just explaining or just lecturing), you begin to take a tone that is not always appropriate to your knowledge.

    What struck me was that Snyder was so thorough about the borderlands and seemed so unaware of our history and institutions – the bottom up vision that the Tea Party so beautifully portrayed. And, frankly, I’ve spent a lot of my time with central Europeans who speak numerous languages – I’ll grant them skills I don’t possess, but if you are in a small land-locked country with slavic, germanic and romantic languages on all sides, it is easier to get a handle on these and then learn more. (I’m from a small landlocked state and know only English.) Anyway, I’d never bothered about his bio before and just assumed that was his background. If so, he still, apparently, graduated from Centerville High, close to Dayton; his father was a veterinarian. And perhaps this says something, too, about the choices we are all making in the current intensifying allegiances. The vets around here are awfully smart, but they still seem in touch with reality – you have to be in their profession.

    I think this has (tangentially) something to do with your comment, Assistant Village Idiot. Jay Parsini, a Frost biographer, noted this interview when he gave his argument for free speech against the Middlebury ruckus, on Tucker Carlson (he’s written a wonderful biography of Frost):
    FROST: but the point of what I said was that we’ve got to go ahead on limited knowledge. A general has to go into battle on limited knowledge, insufficient knowledge, insufficient. And someone has said a poet ought to learn all that all the other poets have ever said before he undertakes to say anything so he’ll avoid repetition, you know. But if he did that he’d be fifty years old before he started and all the poetry that was ever written was really started somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five. You know, you got to start on insufficient knowledge and you got to have that kind of courage.
    The problem, of course, is not that the experts have some expertise nor that they have opinions but that they lack humility and a constant appreciation of the fact we do, indeed, always proceed with insufficient knowledge and we should neither become inactive, mired in skepticism and doubt, nor arrogant, thrusting forward with no sense we might be wrong.

  13. “The problem … is … that the experts … lack humility and a constant appreciation of the fact we do, indeed, always proceed with insufficient knowledge”: well said.

    P.S. “The vets around here are awfully smart”: in Britain it’s harder to get into Vet school than Medical school. Woof!

  14. “in Britain it’s harder to get into Vet school than Medical school.”

    Are vets employees of the state?

  15. For years, I’m not sure it’s still the case, it was harder to get into vet school in California than medical school.

    I suspect there is no affirmative action effect in vet school, for one thing.

  16. I’m going to go in the comments into my thinking behind that inclusion of that, though it may have nothing to do with this particular family:

    I’d always heard around here it is harder to get into vet school than med school – but didn’t think I was on solid enough ground to say that. I’ve had students trying to get into vet school who were, of course, brilliant. (Not that the med school ones weren’t, too. And why I get people who have B.S.’s – a vet student said he had an A average in 120 hours of biology/chemistry/etc. – who have to take a lit course before they can enter post graduate work in veterinarian science, med school and pharmaceutical work is interesting but for which I am very thankful.)

    And here’s something I don’t know but doubt I’m wrong about: that few if any vets believe in postmodernism or critical race theory, etc. This area, like other stem ones, is grounded in reality – in real science. So, his son, brilliant, too, grounds descriptive works in well-researched and deeply felt facts. But academia’s magnet draws such thinkers toward theories less grounded, more faddish.

  17. who have to take a lit course before they can enter post graduate work in veterinarian science, med school and pharmaceutical work is interesting but for which I am very thankful.)

    I used to read essays by a women who was an art instructor at Cal Tech. I think she taught Art History. Civilizing the nerds, I’m sure.

    I was an English Literature major when I did my pre-med but that was because they would not approve a student loan for a pre-med in 1960. I was alread an engineer and going back for pre-med.

    I enjoyed my English classes very much but I’m not sure I would today. I got an invitation for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship before I began medical school.

  18. MikeK: FYI, for future reference, the proper way to write it is Caltech.

    I’ve met plenty of vets who seemed nice enough but not too expert, but that’s what rural areas will get for doctors as well not too long as the job moves completely away from individual practice to the employee model.

  19. It’s definitely Caltech. Look at pictures of the Rose Bowl Scoreboard prank–as part of the hack they even wrote special software to write it like that, since the scoreboard itself didn’t support lower case letters. Sometimes you see CALTECH written in instances where lowercase is difficult to impossible, but you never see it written as two words, when done at all officially.

  20. ‘P.S. “The vets around here are awfully smart”: in Britain it’s harder to get into Vet school than Medical school. Woof!’

    I looked but I cannot find that great quote by somebody: If you need medical attention in Britain you have a choice between toffs and vets. Always pick the vet.

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