On Tyranny: Power, politics, and people

There’s an old adage that says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most people take that statement to mean that leaders with absolute power inevitably become corrupt, which historically has tended towards being true.

But what if what that statement really means is that anything in the presence of absolute power will become absolutely corrupt? In this case, the people who are under the authority of totalitarian leaders are destined to became corrupt simply by association?

I am not arguing that every person who has ever been under the influence of an authoritarian leader is inwardly or outwardly a corrupt and evil person, simply that an authoritarian environment can breed corrupt displays of power even among average people.

In On Tyranny Timothy Snyder comments on the experiments done by Stanley Milgram, and the idea that under the influence of an authority figure people will do almost anything, even things they know to be morally wrong.

I think that Snyder in his book and history in general show us a lot of examples of people just needing to be given the opportunity in order for them to do evil things. Think of the French police (even the French people for that matter) during the Holocaust, think of all of the military personnel  in the South American Dirty Wars who tortured, raped, and killed innocent people, think of the white supremacists who have been rearing their ugly skinheads since Trump’s election. All that any of these people needed was a nudge in order to do evil things. They weren’t coaxed or cajoled. They openly and often enthusiastically chose to participate.

I don’t think that “evil” authoritarian governments can be blamed for all the bad that happens during their reign. Because without the complicity of at least some of the people, without what Snyder refers to as obeying in advance, their power would hardly exist at all. They are simply giving people an opportunity to express something that deep down they’ve been wanting to for a while, whether that’s a desire to please or something more sinister.

Sweeper: Eastern Europe, explaining the resurgence of anti-Semitism

In writing for my personal blog this week I came across two different articles on the return of anti-Semitism in Europe, not just Easter Europe though, France and Germany.

For France, the anti-Semitism is a sentiment that appears to remain from the distant past when Christianity was everything to the nation and the Jewish people were a hated religious minority. Their anti-Semitism was rampant during the second world war, and they actively persecuted the Jewish people.

For Germany the anti-Semitism is also historic but is also influenced by other factors. A recent influx of over a million immigrants and refugees, many of whom are from the Middle East or Muslim has stoked the feelings of anti-Semitism in Germany due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Eastern Europe where countries tend to be, to put it bluntly, less progressive and less liberal anti-Semitism is on the rise again but for different reasons.

For Poland, it is a call to a form of imagined, idealistic nationalism. As Maya Vinokour points out in this article, the new wave of far-right sentiment in Poland has aroused a desire to reclaim and save a pure Polish people. In order to do so, they need to point the finger at the impure, in this case the Jewish people.

Rather than openly attacking the Jewish people, they are choosing to systematically erase Polish involvement in the persecution of Jewish people during the Holocaust, a form of historical revision. Their invented narrative also elevates and prioritizes Polish suffering during the second world war over the suffering of Jewish people.

This a more subtle but still powerful form of anti-Semitism, as memory is a form of power.

The resurgence of nostalgia for nationalist myths helps to explain the anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe alongside the rise of the far-right and totalitarian governments.

First responder: Brexit was a long time coming

What struck me most about these readings was the idea that immigrants are an economic drain rather than an economic benefit. Refugees, who fall into the humanitarian category, are one thing. But immigrants are people who come to the country in order to directly contribute to the economy, or to live with and support loved ones who contribute economically.

In the Brexit initial reflections reading, this line section really jumped out,  “Cameron referred to the need to build the EU around ‘the right to work, not the right to claim’, stressing the need to prevent ‘vast migrations’ when new countries joined the EU.” These types of mass migrations and the perceived strain that they put on the UK were one of the main reasons the UK ultimately voted to leave. That quote comes from a 2014 interview. But these anti-immigration sentiments and the belief that immigration is a strain on the system originated much, much earlier.

In Enoch Powell’s 1968 River of Blood speech, there is a hauntingly familiar sentiment, “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.” This language of dependents is the same idea that Cameron invokes nearly 50 years later.

A cultural lack of understanding about the benefit and importance of immigrants is what, in my opinion, pushed the UK to exit the EU.

What makes the UK different from other countries in the EU? Are they more racist? More anti-immigrant? Or simply more desperate to reclaim their status as a global power?

Why “For the People” really means “For themselves”: Debunking the myth of populism

Populism is a buzzword nowadays. Trump is a populist, populism in the West is thriving, the far right needs to sort out its populism. No matter where you look populism is apparently cropping up. But how much do people actually understand about their latest buzzword?

Finding a coherent, accessible definition of populism is practically impossible. For a word that the media throws around so cavalierly, it would seem there are very few people who actually understand what it means. According to Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, populism is a “thin ideology,” one that merely sets up a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite, wrote the Economist in this article. This means that populists are not inherently left or right, conservative or liberal, pro-immigration or anti-immigration etc. They have no fundamental core value, but rather the idea of the people versus corruption superimposed over any number of values.

Here’s the thing: Populism as a theory exists, but populism as a reality does not. Like many political theories, it looks good on paper, but is impossible to truly replicate in practice.

One of the common tenants of modern populism is this idea of a hero figure who is the only one with the ability to save the people. Populist leaders like Nicolas Maduro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan start their campaigns on the promise of eliminating corruption. Because populism is such a vague ideology, this corruption can take many forms. Corruption in the courts, corruption in the media, corruption in the population, corruption in the corporate sphere.

Certainly, these leaders start out with the intention of eliminating this corruption, of fighting for the pure people in the face of adversity. However, lately what we are calling populism is simply a veneer for what quickly becomes authoritarianism.

Take for example, the Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. His socialist-populist government is promising poor families heavily-subsidized food boxes as a way to sway votes. This sway is happening for two reasons. First, the obvious one, Venezuelans are willing to support a leader who is doing at least something to help with their food insecurity. Secondly, they are being encouraged to vote out of fear. “The government distributes these boxes through an ID known as “el Carnet de la Patria or the homeland ID. This ID has a QR code used to store information about citizens, their socio-economic conditions, the benefits they receive and where they live. It is also used to replace the traditional citizenship ID,” writes the Globe and Mail. This ID must also be presented when they go to vote. Venezuelan citizens are, justifiably, concerned that the Maduro government will record their voting information and consequently withhold CLAP boxes from citizens that don’t vote for them. For many Venezuelans, that simply isn’t an option.

Maduro isn’t supplying these boxes for the people, he isn’t doing it to save them from the corrupt and broken economic system. He is doing it as a way to scare and blackmail people into supporting him and his party. It is not a selfless desire to help the people, it is a selfish desire to maintain power. Maduro’s control is increasingly shifting into the realm of what the public would call authoritarianism.

I would argue that populism from the beginning is destined to become something much greater and much more dangerous. This happens because populism is such a thin ideology, it really doesn’t stand for anything concrete. Many ideologies are like this but it becomes problematic when the flexibility is used to do bad things.

Institutions, like people, have the possibility to become corrupt. However, blaming institutions for corruption in the name of populism is all too often a cover for a leader’s questionable behaviour. When Donald Trump spews claims of “fake news” and skewed coverage, he delegitimizes the media industry. Since the media is one of the only industries that has the ability to hold people of power accountable, when those people discredit it, they begin to lead towards authoritarianism.

By controlling or discrediting major institutions like the media or the courts, populist leaders make it nearly impossible for their power and mandate to be questioned. This is why populism inevitably crosses the line into authoritarianism. In practice, it is not possible for a leader to tear down “corrupt” institutions without offering themselves as a replacement, and in doing so, becoming corrupt themselves.

Multicultural Europe? Sweeper

This week’s discussion was a particularly interesting one because it reflected hugely on the intersection of politics, race, religion, and nationality. Historically, Europe was not as homogeneous as popular narratives would have us believe. While predominantly white and Christian, there was also significant cohabitation and intermingling with other peoples, including Muslims. As Zach Beauchamp describes in this article, far right movements have equated Islam with backwards, oppressive ideas and actions, making it the universal enemy to democracy and liberalism. By doing so, they are able to continue to paint themselves are liberal, open-minded countries that promote progressive values while still being incredibly exclusive of and discriminatory towards other faiths and ethnicities.

This notion of European moral superiority is not a new one, and dates back long before their colonial efforts. Whether through religion or state, Europe has a longstanding habit of painting itself as the best, the most moral, the most progressive. In the case of immigrants and refugees, they attempt, and often succeed, at painting a picture of an incredibly moral, modern nation that must close its doors in order to maintain its own values.

This is an example of European nations ignoring their own racism. European countries don’t want immigrants, but instead of coming out and saying it, they hide behind excuses and placations. This notion of mass ignorance is seen in Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. The Dutch people self-describe as an inherently anti-racist people with no negative intentions, despite a long colonial past and a present fixation on the character of Black Pete.  Black Pete is not a case of white innocence, it is a case of white ignorance.

Remembering in Order to Resist


One of the key components of fascist, totalitarian regimes is the deep-seated element of masculinity. Fascist regimes are rooted in a particular belief about masculinity and male superiority. While some regimes, such as the Nazi regime give women the opportunity to participate, their role is limited and they are still seen as different and lesser because of their femininity.

Weakness and submission were characteristics associated with women, but they could also be applied to men. Male prisoners in war camps were often subjected to the same types of submissive exploitation and humiliation and degradation as women were. As Kaplan’s article points out, this type of degradation was dehumanizing and ripped people out of their usual social statuses and contexts. This is significant because by refusing to back down, by refusing to be reduced to a victim, by refusing to stay silent about the abuse, people are resisting authoritarian power. Simply maintaining your identity and self-worth in the face of horrific authoritarianism is a form of resistance.

        Another form or resistance is the seemingly simple act of remembering and informing. As Meade discusses, providing locals and tourists with the necessary context for sites of memory is crucial to gaining historical understanding. Once that understanding gained, we are able to use the past as a form of resistance against the future. When they acknowledge past wrongs and hold the authoritarian powers accountable, it is a type of resistance.

Authoritarianism is interesting in the way that it can be found on any end of the political spectrum. Populism can also be found on both ends. It is interesting that populism, authoritarianism, and fascism all appear to be very reactionary regimes, chiefly based on some skewed sense of heightened and dangerous nationalism. This misplaced desire to preserve or save their idea of “the nation” often escalated into large scale and inhumane violence, as seen in Stalin’s Russia, the Nazi concentration camps, and the Chilean prison camps.

Equal rights mean equal responsibilities

With recent revelations about BBC gender pay disparities making headlines, and a magazine like Maclean’s going so far as to ask men to pay more for their issue about the pay gap, it’s fair to say that gender equality, or a lack thereof is on people’s minds.

Over the past century women’s rights have made great leaps and bounds, particularly in the West. Women have earned the right to vote, we are able to participate in the military, in political life, and we can hold any job that a man can.

Unfortunately, with power comes responsibility. When looking at women’s actions, past and present, we need to remember that we are just as capable of making bad decisions as men. Even though the idea of women’s historical agency and participation is fairly progressive, that doesn’t mean that all women are progressive.

According to exit polls, in the 2016 presidential election, more than half of white female voters cast their vote for Donald Trump. While the overwhelming majority of women voted for Clinton, this subset exists and it exists for a reason. When given the opportunity, women are just as capable as men of picking the wrong side. While this sort of misguided political support has always been more systematically available to men, it is not unique to them.

Another, more recent example of this misguided support is the support of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Despite allegations that Moore pursued sexual relationships with teenagers, white women rallied around him. According to CNN one woman, Jane Porter, went as far as saying, “Because it’s not about facts. It’s not about trust. It’s not about women. It’s about the assassination of an honourable man who is running for Senate.” Saying that allegations of sexual misconduct with female teenagers isn’t about women is ridiculous. Or is it?

Both Trump’s election and female support of Roy Moore show that white women are more interested in supporting men who share their ideologies than they are in supporting other women. And supporting your ideologies is fine, it isn’t inherently wrong, men do it all the time. However, it starts to be wrong when these ideologies are problematic. When they become racist, sexist, xenophobic, classist, or otherwise oppressive, that’s when we have a problem. And unfortunately, white women have a habit of showing their support most strongly when one of those factors is at play.

White women are drawn towards extreme beliefs when it benefits them in some way, real or perceived. In her book, Hitler’s Furies, Wendy Lower uncovers and explores this idea. German women flocked towards the Nazi regime not just because of its ideology, but also because of its practicality. It allowed young German women freedom unlike any they had ever experienced. Supporting the Nazi party was beneficial because it allowed them the freedom to leave the home, serve the military in some capacity, and have “adventures” that would have been otherwise unavailable. Many German women may have genuinely believed in the Nazi ideology, but for others supporting the party was simply a gateway into a new, more interesting life.

The Ku Klux Klan is an even more recent example of white women supporting an ideology that left them feeling empowered. They may not have been superior to white men, but at least they could feel superior to everyone else. For women who are used to submission and subservience to men, the opportunity to dominate other people, to get to be better than them, could have been incredibly appealing.

Gender equality means giving women a deeper, more nuanced identity. This depth and nuance can make women’s identities more complicated, and not always as nice as we would like to imagine. Allowing women to express and experience these complex identities means accepting the good, as well as the bad.

Getting closer to gender equality means having the first woman in U.S. history win the nomination of a major political party, but also allowing American women to vote freely. Even if that means voting for an unqualified, sexist, xenophobic man instead.

Sweeper: The American Exception

America has a unique sense of nationalism that sets it apart from other countries. Unlike European nation states, America is not formed of a mostly homogeneous ethnic, religious, and cultural group. America, regardless of what the current president may think, is a nation of immigrants.

For immigrants, there is the pseudo-mythical lure of the American dream. And, as one of my colleagues points out, for Americans there is the fundamental, inarguable belief that they live in the greatest nation on Earth.

America is a country that was originally established with the desire to throw off the tyrannical rule that people felt was plaguing Europe at the time.  The second amendment exists in part to ensure that Americans have the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government.

It is therefore interesting to see how easily and comfortably Americans can adopt very extreme political views. A lot of this stems from the theme of blame and resentment. Blaming the “other” for everything that is going wrong in the country. One extreme example of this is the Ku Klux Klan, who felt that America was meant to remain a white nation and believed that the presence of the other, Catholics, Jews, blacks, was subverting this national destiny (Gordon).  

When a nation firmly believes that its own greatness depends on the extermination and erasure of the other, it inevitably creates and supports figures, such as Hitler, Windrip, and Trump, who have the power to do so.



First response: Hitler’s Furies

Nazism, like fascism, is rooted in a deeply masculine framework. However, Nazism, unlike fascism tapped into the female potential and gave women a space in the movement. For women in particular the appeal of the Nazi regime was as practical as it was ideological. What could be better than a movement that celebrated their ancestry, prided their ability to carry on the greatest race, and gave them the adventure they craved?

Beyond inclusion of women, Nazism took fascism and made it inescapably systematic. Everyone had their place, at work, at home, at school, at war. And those who did not neatly fit into the idealized places and categories were killed because systematic categorization was everything to the Nazis.

Would this level of systematic categorization and subsequent killing have been possible without the involvement of women? And by extension, to what degree was this involvement complicit? Were these women involved because of the ideological appeal of Nazism, or the practical appeal?

Lower’s text also demonstrates that women often lacked a distinct understanding of what they were signing up for. She notes that a number of female nurses were shocked upon arriving at their posts in the East. If women weren’t signing up for the Holocaust, what did they believe they were signing up for? Was it a fairly innocent belief in supporting the war effort? An ideological support of Nazi ideology? A belief that they had to in order to be good German women/? Or were these traumatized women the exception, and did most women join in the pursuit of carnage?


Sweeper: Nostalgia is no excuse

Marc Saurette’s lecture helped to draw critical links between the Middle Ages and contemporary ideas. One example in was Francis Bernard Dicksee’s 1885 painting, Chivalry. Chivalry, which itself was not painted in the Middle Ages, invokes a sense of nostalgia about the period. Chivalry is seen, both rightly and wrongly, as a medieval value. Therefore, in later periods, such as the 19th century, many people invoke chivalry as a medieval value. Dicksee’s painting does this in more than just title. His painting paints a very clear picture of a chivalrous medieval knight coming to the rescue to protect the virtue and purity of the white damsel in distress. This painting, while today historical itself, is hundreds of years from removed from the Middle Ages. However, it, like many other works, reinforces this cultural idea of a chivalrous medieval period that valued and protected white female purity.

In her article, The Birth of a National Disgrace: Medievalism and the KKK, Amy Kaufman speaks to the resurrection of this value. She writes that the Klan harnessed and reinforced an anxious white male chivalry that demanded the protected of frail, virtuous white women. This was a value that had been reinforced and painted as medieval for centuries.

The Klan used this fetishization of Medieval values to advance their racist agenda. As seen over centuries in Europe, nation states based on ethnicity tend to ultimately result in failure (Geary). Therefore if they would like to truly invoke and learn from history, these failures, should logically trump their nostalgia for the Middle Ages.