Final Response: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny, asks us to reflect on a lot of the issues we have discussed over the course of the semester. I think that there is an overlying message in this small book, which addresses issues from the necessary defence of democratic institutions to fake news. Overall what this book is asking people to do is to think, and to think critically at that.

This book highlights the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum. It asks people to be aware of historical precedents and to question the things going on around them. For example, the tenth thing Snyder asks is that people “Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” I think this request is a very logical one considering the barrage of ‘fake news’ and accusatory stories in today’s media. Facts are important because they prevent people from taking power who will likely abuse it. We have seen this over the course of the semester, as people spread misinformation that helps them create a sense of an Other.

Snyder’s book is clearly a reaction to the recent election in the United States. I think what he does in the book is important in light of this, because he puts the onus back on individuals. By asking average citizens to think about these things, it is possible to prevent the rising of dictators and authoritarian governments. As we have seen, these regimes require extensive manpower, so if people don’t buy in it will be harder for them to succeed.

In conclusion, this book was an appropriate way to tie up everything we have discussed this semester because it asks us to reflect on how these issues have unfolded over the course of the 20thcentury. It also asks us to look back and consider the actions we can take in the future to prevent history from repeating itself again.

First Responder – Eastern Europe

In a couple of this week’s readings I found that there was an interesting connection in theme between a couple of the assigned pieces. Looking at G.M. Támas’ article as well as the speech from Viktor Orbán there is a somewhat shared idea that liberalism, as we understand it, is on the way out. Now, both these pieces address this in very different ways, but the fact that it is present in both readings is interesting.

Much of Támas’s piece looks at how the term populism is applied to broadly, and that many people who are labelled this are just repeating old patterns of life. I found it especially interesting that he questioned whether or not Donald Trump was a populist. In the final paragraphs of his article, he notes that the political left are disappearing and that this is in part due to the fact that the practice living up to their own standards and ideals has been corrupted.

The speech given by Orbán is much less academically critical in its description of liberal politics, but rather states that being liberal and economically prosperous and content are incompatible things. At one point he states that liberalism can only be put into practice in the realm of ideas.

Both these pieces are interesting because they highlight the feelings about liberalism in Eastern Europe. Orbán’s speech does not seem out of place, seems relevant when considering more recent issues such as debates about free-speech in Poland. These readings raise interesting questions about the function of liberalism, and whether it is truly suffering in the way that these authors say it is, or whether these opinions are based on the history of their own political climates. I was interested to see how different these perspectives are from those we commonly see when discussing Western Europe and North America.

Sweeper: Zimbabwe

This weeks class was made especially interesting thanks to the guest lecture by Dr. Blair Rutherford. I agreed with my classmates assessment that his lecture was particularly useful in understanding the topic of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe. My classmates generally reflected that this was a new area of focus for many of us, as many history classes tend to focus on predominately Western narratives.

The additional context provided by Dr. Rutherford really aided with the class discussion because it gave us some important historical context and explanation of our readings. I found that my group focused on the post-colonial aspects of the political situation in Zimbabwe because we saw this as affecting the current government setup. This was reflected in the larger discussion with a debate about whether or not Zimbabwe could be called fascist. Both my group, and the class at large, seemed to think that as fascism is generally described as being against democracy and communism, it would be hard to call a state without a pre-existing democratic base fascist. I think the general consensus was that it seemed to be an authoritarian state with elements of fascism in it.

Some of the concluding remarks were also interesting, especially the observation that corrupt, or authoritarian, or fascist governments use the state to make their actions legal. This is interesting given the context of the lecture, that must of the violence in Zimbabwe was essentially state sanctioned in order to eliminate or quiet people who disagreed. The intertwining of race and politics was also interesting, as this reflects the history of colonialism that is present in Zimbabwe. Overall, this class focused on a wide variety of issues that led to a productive discussion and helped further an understanding of the current issues in Zimbabwe.

China’s new dictator?

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The recent repealing of China’s two-term presidential policy has concerning implications. U.S. President Donald Trump commented how he thinks America should also allow this option. These actions and statements are disquieting because they echo past totalitarian regimes. The rise of these kinds of governments has worrying historical precedents.

Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has moved to become a dictator for life. The current government has essentially allowed him to do just that.

In an attempt to increase the party’spower, Chinese censors have banned many words and phrases. The title of George Orwell’s book Animal Farm, the word “disagree”, and the phrase “ I oppose” are example of newly censored items. This highlights the level of control the government is seeking to have over its people.

An inability to criticise or question the country’s leader seems more like fascism than true communism. Much of the opposition to this new move has been met with interrogation or punishment. The claim that this shows “Chinese Democracy” is unequivocally false. There is clearly no room for a democratic process in this setting.

The banning of a book like Animal Farm speaks volumes to the intentions of the country. The plot of this book shows the rise of a group of pigs to what is essentially a fascist or authoritarian position of power. A book like this allows for critical thinking about these types of government. Banning the book signals that there is resistance to this kind of criticism.

It is not clear whether the current Chinese government can truly be called fascist. However, there exists a historical precedent of this kind of movement in the country. In an article titled “Blue Shirts, Nationalists and Nationalism: Fascism in 1930s China,” Jan Hong explores the rise of a fascist movement in China that mimic similar movements in Germany and Italy in the period. He notes how this brand of fascism was unique to China because it added elements of Confucianism in order to appeal to the Chinese people. This was also a period when those considered to be too liberal or radical were punished.

Hong notes that the movement of the Blue Shirts exemplified many fascist ideals. Similar to in Italy and Germany, there was a cult of personality surrounding the leader, Chiang Kai-Shek. He focused on the militarization of society and promoted movements that mirrored the Hitler Youth in Germany. Even when fascism fell out of favour, he was able to stay in power by cultivating a different image of himself as a Christian leader.

Another, more recent, example of problematic Chinese leadership is the period under the leadership of Mao Zedong. He was one of China’s many “bad emperors.” This term refers to the issue of dictatorial power in China. Mao too developed a cult of personality, allowing him to remain in power for a significant stretch of time. China is still recovering from the problems created by his time in power.

Jinping is currently trying to promote a similar cult of personality. He has changed the existing system in order to make himself more powerful. He is also seeking to have his political ideology ratified in the constitution. Doing so would mean that it would be mandatory for schoolchildren to study his way of thinking. Along with the new forms of censorship and state control, this is another way to try and control the thoughts and actions of Chinese citizens.

Based on these historical precedents, the current situation in China is one that warrants close observation. I see worrying echoes of the past in the movements of the current government. I do not think that China quite deserves the description of fascist in its current state of being. However, I do see the potential for the country to head further in this direction. There are people who live in China that have stated in the past few years that they too see the potential for their country to head in this direction.

This situation will continue to develop. The continued censorship will be an issue for those that live in China, as they will not be as able to express dissent. China claims to be communist, but their current trajectory makes me think that they are more like the power structure described in the banned Animal Farm. I think that now it is very appropriate to reflect on Orwell’s quotation, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

First Responder: Multicultural Europe?

This weeks readings provide an interesting picture of Europe as a place that has an undercurrent of xenophobia and racism. Zack Beauchamp discusses the anti-immigrant policies of Europe’s far-right groups. Gloria Wekker addresses the pervasiveness of the image of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Dutch Culture. Nilüfer Göle examines how the presence of Islam in Europe destabilizes its postcolonial identity. These readings bring into question whether or not Europe can be as multicultural as it may seem, because it cannot handle the challenging of norms.

Göle’s discussion of European hegemony makes the actions regarding the issues addressed in the articles make more sense because it highlights a sort of inherent desire to hold on to that power. For instance, in the case of the Dutch and Black Pete, those in favour of the figure often argue that it is an important part of their culture, but fail to recognize that this attitude is unintentionally racist because it seeks to continue caricaturizing non-white people. There seems to be no understanding of the postcolonial power dynamic in these assertions.

In Beauchamp’s article, there is the explanation that anti-immigrant sentiment and far right parties began to rise as a result of increased immigration and multiculturalism. To me, this signals a desire of these groups to hold on to the past and an imagined way of life where nations are full of only the “right” kind of people. These views are inherently problematic, as we have seen, because they lead to violence and oppression against minorities. Europe is home to many liberal democracies, so it is important to recognize these issues in order to prevent this type of democracy, that is supposed to protect all citizens, from being undermined.

Sweeper: Authoritarianism’s New Man

My discussion group and I mainly focused on the article regarding Japanese athletes and the Olympics. We discussed the implications of gender norms, particularly masculinity. We also discussed. This discussion came in a context of looking at expressions of homoeroticism and feelings about homosexuality in class.

I think that one of the major points that we discussed was the relationship between masculinity and sports. We touched on the fact that sports highlight examples of virile and powerful masculinity. In relation to homosexuality, this figured in the fact that from what we saw in the readings and in class it was more okay to be gay so long as that person was assertive and virile, and not passive.

This weeks topics really emphasized that a perception of a man or woman as more feminine meant that they were seen as weak. We talked about the women’s volleyball team as being required to overcome their feminine bodies in order to be successful. In general there was an idea that it was necessary to overcome the limits of your body in order to be seen as strong. We saw this as correlating with a sense of honour or duty. In relation to the Olympics, these expressions of loyalty to the state are a way to reaffirm older ideals in a new context. One of my classmates made the assertion that athletes and soldiers are similar in that their bodies are controlled by the state in these matters. Overall, this weeks discussion reflected on ideas about gender, sexual orientation, and how these related to the power and ideals of the state.

Representing the Past Should Reflect the Understanding of the Present

Symbols have powerful meanings and associations. As history changes, symbols can come to have new meanings, and the acceptance of the symbol can change.

Lately, the statues of leaders in both Canada and the United States have come into question. The issue is: whether or not keeping these statues up is important in preserving history, or whether it would be better to take them down.

Recently, a statue of Edward Cornwallis was taken down in Halifax. Though this statue depicted the founder of the city, it was taken down because of his having placed a bounty on indigenous people. Jonathan Fowler reflects on this in his opinion piece in The Globe and Mail, “Advances in historical understanding have made the continued public celebration of Cornwallis problematic.” In response to those who defend these statues as history, he says that they need to accept the evolution of history and the fact that taking down a statue does not diminish history.

I agree with Fowler’s point of view. Taking down statues or symbols does not imply that they never existed and that they had no impact. Rather, it is showing respect to those that were victimised in history. This does not mean that they will be erased, but rather re-contextualised into a historical narrative.

To frame this historically, I will do so by examining a well-known symbol: the Nazi’s swastika. James Skidmore, a university of Waterloo professor, discusses the history of this symbol in an article in The Conversation. He discusses the fact that it was a benign symbol before the Nazis appropriated it. However, he also acknowledges the fact that what this symbol has become means that it cannot now be used in any context. The history behind this symbol is important.

The history of a symbol is important, because it informs its meaning. When symbols are associated with genocide, racist movements, or fascism, these symbols become problematic.

We all know that the swastika is associated with the Nazi regime and the genocide of the Holocaust. We now accept that this is not a symbol that should be worn or displayed now. However, we have in the recent past seen the problematic appropriation of these symbols by alt-right groups in the south.

How can this use of offensive symbols by hate groups be considered connected to problematized statues? By looking at the history of these statues, and who erected them. For instance, if we turn to the United States, and specifically the south, we can examine the way that the statues reflect history and a challenging past. These statues have also been in the news lately, regarding a movement to take them down. Those that do not want the statues removed defend them by saying that they represent history.

Historians in an NPR article discuss the true nature of these statues: that they were erected many decades after the civil war, during the time of the Jim Crow laws. These monuments were put up in order to glorify ideals of white supremacy.

I think that by defending problematic statues, people are either purposely or inadvertently supporting the ideals of groups. For example, the KKK is related to the creation of these monuments in the south. Though these monuments seem less questionable than a symbol like the swastika, upon further analysis it is clear that they too are based on a tradition of violence and hate.

The messages portrayed by individual symbols are important, as is their current context. By defending them as part of history, that individual fails to see the history of that symbol and why that symbol is now out-dated and offensive. The context for the creation of these symbols is important as well. Defending these symbols is clearly not a harmless defence of a nation’s history.

In relation to the monument of Edward Cornwallis, though he was not a populist leader or fascist dictator, his racism is still problematic. With the advanced understanding of our current society, it is easy to see why his statue was taken down. To return to Fowler’s comments, these statues clearly have important connotations and them being taken down does not diminish their value for historical education.

In the same way that Nazi symbols are not condoned in our society, we too should not allow the use of symbols of oppression. Symbols have power, so it’s important that we remove and contextualize the negative ones, while being educated about them.

First Responder: The Thirties in the United States

This weeks readings were interesting in that they addressed populist discourses in the context of the US during the interwar period. This is not something I had considered a great deal before. Populism in this time period is usually examined in a European context, as we did in class the past couple weeks when discussing fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Linda Gordon’s article is a useful jumping off point for the discussion about the United States, because she attempts to clearly define populism. It is interesting that she notes that there are 13 essential characteristics of populism, but that most liberal ‘populist’ movements do not meet most of these criteria. Gordon makes it clear that from her perspective, the groups that tend to conform to this model tend to be more right wing. This begs the question of whether or not there is something inherent in more liberal movements that makes them less prone to Gordon’s populism? Or whether Gordon’s definition is structured in a way that makes it more likely to focus on right wing groups? For instance, the one American group that she defines as populist is the KKK. While I agree with this assessment of the KKK, I think it is important to consider how her list of 13 attributes functions.

In relation to Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, Gordon’s article reinforces the point made in the book, that it can in fact happen in the U.S.. In the book, Senator Windrip’s “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man” feels like reading something out of fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. So while this is a work of fiction, it is important to consider the messages and lessons it presents. Together, this two readings provide an understanding of how populism can and has developed in an American context, and in some ways both seem to be providing warnings about how to look to the future.

Sweeper: Italian Fascism

This week’s examination of Italian Fascism brought to light several ideas that are essential to keep in mind when examining the rise of fascism generally. Some of the important points that were brought up, both in class and in the primary responses, were ideas about the way in which fascism began in contrast to other ideologies.

One of the main points that stood out in class was taken from Federico Finchelstein’s reading. It is the idea that fascist movements in different countries are not just imitations of what happened in Italy. In each different country there were circumstances that lead to the rise of a fascist group. For example, it could come from general social anxiety and a loss of faith in institutions.

Another idea that stood out in particular to me, and in my classmates responses, is the premise of fascism being distinct from other political theories, like communism. The main principles of fascism seek to distinguish it from other ideologies. In particular, this theory was developed to counter enlightenment ideals. This is clear in some of the twelve attributes of fascism that we discussed, such as the glorification of violence, and a leader cult.

Clearly, this is an ideology based on sentiments that reflect a desire to react to the social and political situation of a given moment, such as the post WWI landscape of Mussolini’s Italy. As my classmates have noted, this movement that sought to bring back an ideal, by any means possible. Many of my classmates noted in their blog posts one of the driving forces behind this, and one of the twelve attributes, a way of defining oneself in opposition to the other.

Week 2 Reading Reflection

At issue this week, is the discussion of how ideas about the medieval period have been incorporated into popular discourse. There are two main ideas that are relevant from this week’s readings. The first is the borrowing of chivalric values from the middle ages and the problems that lie with this. The second is the idea of the constructed nation, and how the use of texts and ideas from the middle ages help in the construction of these groups.

It is important to consider how ideas of chivalry affected the actions and ideas of groups, such as the KKK, as mentioned in Amy Kaufman’s article. She discusses the idea that these ideas are appropriated in order to make the members of these organizations feel more secure because they are looking back and dreaming of the patriarchal society of the Middle Ages. However, it is important to look at how these ideas have been taken out of context, warped and applied in ways that are not in keeping with historical fact.

This leads to one of the other main themes that I saw in these readings – the construction of groups (as nations, or social groups) based on “facts.” It is clear from what Patrick Geary says in both his article and podcast that these ideas are constructed to suit certain groups, and by extension disadvantage others. If we understand these histories as being constructed we must ask ourselves: who is telling this story, and to what end? It seems to me that the ultimate goal of these narratives is control and to assert that control by creating an identity.