On Tyranny: Final Reflection

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder is very clearly a book written in the wake of the Trump election, Brexit and other worrying events by a historian with experience studying fascist/authoritarian governments. Even without being able to gain that information easily, the book is a combination of useful advice to prevent and survive fascist governments and a look back at influences in societies that allowed this to happen.

He primarily uses the experiences of other survivors of fascist governments to provide examples of effective resistance. There are twenty main pieces of advice, most of which get a few pages of elaboration, but several main themes emerge, especially towards the end of the book.

Snyder stresses that complacency has oftentimes been a major component of fascist states. The first piece of advice warns against ‘pre-emptive obedience’. If citizens allow or ignore the first steps fascist states take towards undermining democracy or dehumanizing their enemies, it has emboldened them to be able to continue down that path. In the later parts of the book, he turns this more to the idea of ‘exceptionalism’ within American society. To believe that fascism will be held back by American institutions and that there is no way that similar corruptions would happen within the American electoral system is disregarding history. While this was not discussed in the book, his examples of how an ‘emergency’ gives an opportunity for a fascist state to implement anti-democratic measures reminded me of the Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While the Bush administration did not perpetuate this attack and did comply with election results, they were allowed to implement state actions that disregarded both American and international laws, while massively increasing government invasion into the privacy of citizens.

This theory of complacency aiding fascism culminates in his critique of views of society and history. After the end of the Cold War, according to Snyder, ideas about ‘the end of history’ emerged and created a narrative that history always progressed to a positive end. This idea has been disproven by the continued conflict of world politics, therefore giving space for fascists to push the idea of history as cyclical to support their aims.

Overall, this is an ideas-heavy book and therefore hard to sum up. These were just a few of the ideas that I felt were most present and therefore worth exploring.

Sweeper Response: Brexit

Many of the first responders this week focused on the topic of immigration. In our discussion, one of our first responders chose to open the conversation with a question on whether or not the focus on immigration tells the whole story. The consensus became that fears over ‘excessive’ immigration is a significant factor in people voting for Brexit, as shown by the statistics in the readings. However, it is a part of a larger narrative of concern about economic prospects and underfunded social programs. Immigration becomes the (misguided) scapegoat for these issues and therefore dominates the conversation. This also may explain why Brexit happened now: the refugee influx coupled with still-present economic issues created an environment for this radical re-thinking of political norms.

The second part of the discussion today focused on underlying nostalgia for the former British empire. A part of these anxieties seem to be a sense of unease at no longer being a hegemonic world power. In the speech we watched in class, Margaret Thatcher explicitly mentioned Britain’s past as a “civilizing” empire and European integration, in some instances, may serve as a reminder that they are no longer the leading military or economic nation anymore.

Trump as the Newest Avatar of Toxic Masculinity

The election of Donald Trump to the oval office is a dark reflection of how a toxic combination of entitlement and scapegoating now pervades a specific expression of masculinity.

A particularly nasty and common part of gender roles for men, as seen in many contexts, is the stress experienced by men who have to constantly struggle to express ‘manliness’ to an ‘acceptable’ amount. One consequence of this push to always measure up to other men is an idea that masculinity is under attack by society.

“Sissified ‘modern culture’ has ruined real men!” many men (and sometimes women) may cry. “It’s impossible to be a real, manly man with muscles and guns and emotional dysfunction!”. These quotes may be from strawmen, but the narrative of male gender roles being under attack has been criticized by multiple feminist theorists and masculinity scholars. More specifically, they criticize the fact that to many men, their masculinity must be constantly proved in their behavior, in opposition to femininity.

If men seem to be constantly struggling with their own and others expression of masculinity, this can easily be seen as the fault of the larger society around them.

The idea of a ‘new man’ coupled with a return to proper masculinity is something that many fascist and populist societies focused on in the interwar period. In Romania, fascist societies during the interwar period ran specific training camps that promised to bring ‘true masculinity’ to the young men who participated in them. Trials to prove manliness are nothing new but the immersion into a new form of masculinity that is separate from the corrupting influence of the society around them is present in this thinking. In many, less radical discussions is the idea that masculinity is under attack and men can no longer be men also there.

How does the election of Donald Trump fit into all of this?

From the start of his campaign, he appealed heavily to a sense of nostalgia. This is pretty obvious from his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” and this strategy gained criticism for not outlining when exactly America was great. To Trump and his supporters, the focus of the nostalgia doesn’t actually matter. It appeals to this feeling that things are bad now and once, they were great.

Often times, the vague feeling that things are bad now can be shifted to blame a marginalized population. I.e. things are bad now because illegal immigrants are stealing all the jobs. Things are bad now because gay people are destroying the family and no one goes to church anymore. While Trump is less blatant than this (most of the time), all of his campaign promises tied to the nostalgia he deliberately tries to provoke backs up this narrative of specific people being to blame for the state things are now.

Clearly, this ties to an idea that true men are becoming rarer specifically because of nefarious forces. Antifeminist hubs online, such as Return of Kings, A Voice for Men and specific Reddit forums have shifted since their conception from focusing the brunt of their anger on women to expanding into gathering spaces for various alt-right internet people. In fact, according to the chronicler of ‘men’s rights activists’, WeHuntedtheMammoth cites that “one of the most notorious participants in the racist Charlottesville march last year-a man jailed for his assault on a counterprotestor- was a former contributor to AVFM” in an article detailing for both Return of Kings and A Voice for Men have been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Both sites heavily supported Donald Trump in the election.

Donald Trump, to men who fear their emasculation (and in a greater sense their loss of power in a more egalitarian society), is the embodiment of a true, masculine man who will return things to the way they were supposed to be. He is tactless, power hungry, deeply insecure and an accused sexual assaulter with incredibly few qualifications for the job he has been elected to do. Yet, all of this made him more popular to a core group of supporters.

There is a much longer op-ed that could be written about how much of this backlash is because of how America elected a black president and the other candidate was poised as the first woman president.

Unfortunately, the insecurity over the perceived emasculation of America that many men felt now has far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world.

First Response: The Zimbabwe Dictatorship

All three readings for this week deal with what an authoritarian government looks like in Zimbabwe. The first reading, Feeling Precarious by Rudo Mudiwa is more visceral than the other two readings and describes a street-focus picture of what everyday state violence looks like. There is a particular care paid to the concept of almost intuition, of people who have experienced so much of this violence that they can avoid it based on subtle cues. In particular, the article describes taxi drivers and sex workers as having this intuition

The second article compares Zimbabwe and Italian fascism. They share certain key characteristics such as a seizure and redistribution of land to party supporters and a focus on cleansing the nation of enemies. A revision of history in order to paint the party as the main liberators and real warriors of the nation is also found in both cases. So, is Zimbabwe similar enough to Italy to classify it as a fascist state rather than just an authoritarian one?

The third reading, Rethinking Chimurenga and Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Critique of Partisan National History discusses the specific context of the Zimbabwean dictatorship. It attempts to build a national hegemony in a way that conflicts with how linguistically, tribally and religiously diverse the country is. In doing so, it ties itself to past liberation from colonization and constructs a history of sharp dichotomies that group their enemies in with former colonists. The continued influence of these ideas hinders newer political theories that are starting to spring up in Zimbabwe.

Overall, these readings discuss both how the Zimbabwe dictatorship has factors in common with past fascist governments and how it is a unique state in itself. Which one do you think is more significant? How does this government complicate other discussions surrounding post-colonial Africa and the progression of the continent?

Potential Discussion: Class Facilitator

The topics of discussion that would have been explored this class are: the continuation of the theme of in-groups and out-groups in terms of refugees. One response in particular was calling for a sense of balance in this debate: between safety and inclusion of refugees. In a way, this is adhering to the idea in global politics that sovereignty and borders do have meaning. An out-group, refugees, are assigned a separate value in the nation than the people born inside the borders. The second topic of discussion would be religious diversity inside a nation and the tolerance principle. The last was a personal anecdote with my own grandmother coming to Canada as a refugee and a comparison to the last major wave of displaced people after the Second World War.

Sweeper Response: Violence and Shame

In our brief class discussion (as well, I should admit for honesty’s sake, a post-class smaller discussion with some fellow classmates) several topics were touched upon concerning dictatorships in Latin America.

The readings for this week mainly focused around the Pinochet regime in Chile. This regime has become notable for the intense brutality and torture undertaken by the military dictatorship that overthrew the previous democratically elected Socialist president. Thousands of people were executed or ‘disappeared’ to hidden torture camps were set up around the country.

The targets of these disappearances were largely young men (and sometimes women) who were classified as ‘subversive’ and scapegoated as communist agitators that wished to overthrow the state. To right-wing/military supporters of the state, the dehumanization of these people was a large part of their thinking and the specter of Socialist Cuba could justify brutal treatment in their perspective.

Male and female prisoners were often tortured in ways that was expected to ensure silence if they were released. Sexual assault was incredibly common against both men and women. There were many cases described where brutal treatment against women was used to emasculate their male relatives due to their inability to prevent their torture. The shame that both men and women felt because of the sexual and feminizing nature of their torture was a large part in why few spoke about it publicly afterwards.

Our discussion group felt that Chile has not successfully confronted the past as well as other post-dictatorship societies. Many of the army that committed human rights abuses still is in service and when Pinochet died, many, many supporters showed up to his funeral. This lack of culpability given to perpetrators may have lasting consequences for many victims of this regime.

Overall, these readings and the discussion was very hard to do. Reading about descriptions of torture and mass executions was something that was sometimes hard to get through. However, examining the event may have lessons for the future.

Masculinity and Authoritarianism: First Response

In the first reading, by Claudia Bruns, she outlines some of the interesting discussions that were happening in Weimar Germany surrounding the ‘acceptability’ of male homosexuality in some, largely academic, circles. Homosexuality at the time was heavily tied to deviance from societal norms in a way that also played into conceptions of race and the nation. Because homosexuality involved sexual deviance, white gay men were viewed as undermining the genetic makeup of the nation since they would not procreate. At a time when eugenics were a common belief, this was a big deal. Some gay men, including Bluher, advocated for ‘acceptable’ homosexuality by separating themselves from effeminate gay men and women. If they were masculine, they were still exhibiting proper behaviour for their gender and should therefore be embraced, as the argument went. Do you think this sort of thinking about ‘acceptable’ queer people can be found today in queer spaces? Bruns provides examples in modern Germany media where gay men are viewed as undermining the state when they are in leadership roles and how male political leaders are still mocked using femininity. Can you think of examples of this thinking today? How do these viewpoints impact women in politics?

The second reading, by Rio Otomo, is a very interesting look at how the Japanese state and corporations tied militaristic and nationalist narratives to their athletes. “By encouraging citizens’ self-governance of their own bodies, state power can operate more efficiently and thoroughly without manifesting itself as an oppressive authority” is a key quote from this reading and efficiently explains the thesis of the reading. Narratives of self-control, overcoming your own body and nationalist pride in victory were heavily present in how Japanese athletes spoke and were spoken about. These narratives are theorized to have replaced earlier militaristic narratives about the state in Japan and used as tales of ‘folk heroes’ to deal with the vast amount of change happening in Japanese society at the time. Women athletes in particular are described as training through their period and working through the cramps, in a way that feels like they are ‘overcoming’ their limitations that are viewed to come from a female body.

Finally, there is Valentin Sandulesco article. This one fully outlines how fascist societies in Romania had an ideological vision of a ‘new man’, fully masculinized and able to reform their ‘corrupted’ society. These groups put mechanisms in place, such as training schools, that would create this ‘new man’ at the end. These had the effect of diverting revolutionary feelings among the youth after WW1 towards their vision of a new society. How does this mirror masculinist movements nowadays? In feminist theory, this could play into the idea of a constant “crisis of masculinity. Is this accurate?

Resist Tactics to Turn Us Against Each Other

“Identity politics” are now being misused by the alt-right.

Let’s begin with a somewhat controversial statement: identity politics are not the problem here. Several terms have been taken by alt-right internet trolls and used to attack the very people they were invented to serve. See: ‘triggered’ and ‘safe-space’.

In fascism, individual identities and wishes are absorbed into the wishes of the whole. Allegiance and obedience to the state overrule any other desires. Societal problems, such as economic issues, are blamed on specific groups who do not fit into their idea of ‘proper citizens’. These people then become ‘un-pure’ and will corrupt the rest of society. The most obvious example of this was how the Nazis blamed the status of Germany (a struggling economy, lack of military) after the First World War on Jewish corruption. They then used this made-up narrative as an excuse to systematically murder six million Jewish people. Another example of antisemitism in European fascist states (not that there aren’t multiple books worth of examples) is anti-Jewish laws in fascist Italy. These laws were either supported or ignored by the larger population because Jewish people already were labouring under being viewed as inherently unable (read: unwilling) to conform. When identity becomes a detriment to loyalty to the state, identities that are already viewed as the ‘Other’ in society have been painted as inherently disloyal and open to being targeted.

Some people that would be also targeted for bigotry have tried to distance themselves from more marginalized groups. They may think that they can avoid oppression by allying themselves with the alt-right early. This is absolutely wrong. The alt-right, primarily online, have been trying to invoke this deliberately. Specific arguments are used as an attempt to divide up people who would otherwise be allied. One of the more widespread tactics is used specifically against Muslim people, something that Jasib Puar described as ‘homonationalism’ in the essay Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Neo-nazis with ulterior motives now are using homophobia in what they classify as ‘Muslim countries’ as an excuse to feel morally superior and in turn deny rights to Muslim people. Personally, this was used in full force at a rally I protested this summer. The rally was ostensibly against unfettered immigration but was full of Islamophobic slogans and speeches. In some of these speeches, men would talk about how Muslim people were homophobic and women-hating, complaining about the hypocrisy of the Canadian government for welcoming in refugees yet claiming to be for gay and women’s rights. Many, many more examples of neo-nazis suddenly finding a deep passion for queer liberation when the plight of the LGBTQ+ population in Saudi Arabia is discussed can be found online.

This strategy isn’t anything new. And unlike some voices, this is not at all a call to ignore intersectional analysis in activism. Quite the opposite: listening and elevating other experiences is crucial to presenting a united front in any sort of anti-fascist resistance. Authoritarianism often works by manipulating already-existing social prejudices as a strategy for gaining power. Struggling against each other to be accepted as an ‘in-group’ with the people in power hurts all of us in the long run. Despite the ability of some to find a place in the group oppression of others, this should not be seen as an actual option by any. Unlike in other historical contexts, supporters of fascism and white supremacy are still outnumbered. Letting them divide activists and set us against each other can happen when larger movements ignore the specific needs and realities of more marginalized members.

Identity politics is a dismissive term for acknowledging the specific experiences of different people and working to guarantee a decent life for all of them. Don’t let them turn us against each other: criticisms need to be there, but we need to keep in mind what can happen if we ignore the real danger. If we let them hurt one group of people because they aren’t us we open the door for whatever oppression they see fit to be turned on us.

Power and Narrative

In the discussion today, our group discussed a wide variety of topics related to the readings. To sum up a few of our most important points, we began with a debate concerning culpability versus innocence. The reading was specifically examining how much culpability specific German women had in terms of the crimes of the Nazi regime. This book is viewed as enlightening because it changed the narrative about women’s roles in the Nazi regime, pointing out how many women were involved and confronting the idea of all German women as innocent victims. However, some argued that it detracted from this by describing their political involvement in the election as being swept away by a populist movement of men.

There was some discussion over the cruelty of women in positions of power. Because one of our facilitators has a background in studying philosophy, there were some ideas about their lack of power in society in general and how that might translate to controlling tendencies when some of these women were finally given a chance to influence lives.

Finally, we talked about in-groups versus out-groups and the phenomenon of women who might have otherwise been disadvantaged gaining power through oppressing other victim groups. This evolved into how this played out into the larger society, with a significant culture of snitching and internal group monitoring.

Overall, it was a wide-ranging discussion with a lot of very interesting points of view.

First Response: The Significance of Italian Fascism

Italian fascism is credited with being the first fascist state in mainland Europe in the 20th century and for providing a model that other authoritarian states sought to emulate or expand on. While whether it was the first to engage in extreme state control can be debated, the impact that Italian fascism had on the ideologies of other authoritarian state is very evident.

One of the readings this week was a primary source document by Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile that outlined what the considered some of the essential tenets of fascism. A key quote from this reading that embodies Italian fascism (and all fascism) is “he Fascist idea is embodied in the State. It is for the individual insofar as the individual coincides with the State, [which is] the conscience and the universal will of Man in his historical existence” . All individual needs and characteristics must be ignored for the benefit of the construction of the state. Mussolini, as shown as well in the Ruth Ben-Ghiat reading, was more pragmatic about the controls his state put into place. In comparison to Hitler, “For Mussolini and most of his officials, unlike the Nazis, national prerogatives almost always took precedence over racial ones” is used to describe the process in which they instituted anti-Semitic laws.

However, attempts to portray Italian fascism as the ‘nicer’ version is both useless to debate and also untrue. The casualties of their war with Ethiopia are examined in the Ben-Ghiat reading, as well as the lack of recognition of the atrocities committed. Comparatively, they pale against the holocaust but framing the atrocities of two separate regimes against each other in order to diminish the significance of one is not a fair examination of the events. Overall, the readings do a good job of outlining what was significant about Italian fascism and gives some context as to why it is often overlooked in popular understanding, at least compared to Nazi Germany and the USSR: their fascism was more pragmatic and focused the outright slaughter less on people inside the regime.