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.

First Response: Brexit

Our readings and videos this week focused on the rise of the Brexit movement and why/how such a movement could have come to pass. What I found interesting was the anti-immigration sentiment within Britain that has been around since before the “river of blood” speech. As history students, we know that Britain is probably the largest exporter of immigrants since the Early Modern Era. Canada, America, and others were once considered “British Colonies” and as a result our most prominent populations are white, all with claims to British or UK heritage. Do you think that the British past will play a part in the British image in the future? Do you think that Britain still considers their past as “colonizers” their ‘great past’?

Brian Lewis’s speech was particularly interesting as he navigated the strategies the British government uses to gain support for their movements, such as allying themselves with the Gay/Lesbian community for political gain as opposed to genuine support. Do you think these communities will see through political schemes such as this? The British population was almost perfectly divided over Brexit, as Brexit won by approximately a 1% lead. Do you think minority populations were in favour of Brexit? Or do you think persecutions of the past have made them wary of all government?

My final question is this: What is the future of Britain? Will their government lean towards the less democratic?

It was a democratic vote that won Brexit the day. Should choices that affect the country on an international scale be left in the hands of the voters?

Op-Ed # 2: The New Enemy? The Misconception of the Muslim “Invasion” of the West

The rise in nationalist movements seems to be directly tied to the perceived invasion of Western spaces by Muslims. There is a deep-seated fear of “losing” their culture in the heart of many Westerners due to an increase in refugees and immigrants since the Arab Spring of 2011. There have been reports that hate crimes towards Muslims have increased dramatically in recent years, and the topic of immigration and refugees is still a largely controversial and divisive topic. Islamophobia seems to be at an all time high, and there have been dire consequences, not just for those at the receiving end of these damaging stereotypes, but also within Western society as well.

Doug Saunders, journalist and frequent writer for the Globe and Mail, discusses in his book The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? many of the common misconceptions circulating that fuel the belief of the “Muslim invasion of the west”.

This fear of “losing” culture seems to partially stem from the belief of high reproduction rates of Muslim people. To some, Western culture will literally be engulfed by Middle Eastern culture due to exponential growth of their populations. Saunders references research completed by the Pew Research Centre in 2011 that studied Muslim population growth. Though statistics vary by country, they estimate that by 2030 the Muslim population will account for 7.1% of the European population. These numbers are not as high as many make them out to be. Saunders states that “none of these studies project anything close to a Muslim majority…even the highest estimate of these trends would not produce a Muslim majority in any Western country during the twenty-first century” (Saunders, 2012, pg.42-43).

Additionally, their ability to integrate is brought in question. The answer to this is varied and complex, but studies seem to indicate that assimilation is embraced by most Muslims and this is especially true of their children raised within Western society. Furthermore, many who do wish to integrate may find a very difficult time doing so due to language barriers, prejudice and the need for adjustment to Western labour markets. Saunders quotes a Canadian study that indicated that skin colour, and not religion, was a major influence on the ability for an individual to assimilate into Western society and mentioned the existence of “ethnic penalties” within job markets (Saunders, 2012, pg. 75). Are immigrants refusing to adjust, or are we not giving them the tools to do so?

Image result for islamophobia cartoon

image source:

There are also claims of an increase in violence (specifically sexual assaults) and susceptibility to terrorist attacks within Western countries who have accepted refugees. The Swedish government has stated that “studies show that the majority of those suspected of crimes were born in Sweden to two Swedish-born parents. According to the most recent study, people from foreign backgrounds are 2.5 times more likely to be suspected of crimes than people born in Sweden to Swedish-born parents” ( They do point out that there has been an increase in crime in Sweden, but that the number is actually equal to levels in 2005 – which was before the current refugee crisis. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that an increase in migrants from the Middle East has contributed to this increase in crime. If anything, they are more likely to commit crimes such as theft due to a lower socio-economic status as a result of language barriers, discrimination and adjustment to a new country.

This fear of invasion and the “take over” by a minority group is not something new, and we have seen xenophobia and isolationism rear its monstrous head time and time again throughout history with other immigrant minority groups. I am hesitant to compare this situation to other historically prejudiced parts of history like the Holocaust and the African slave trade as the circumstances, victims and motivations are different. But, the psychological and sociological causes and effects are hauntingly similar, and this is not an issue that, in my opinion, should be swept under the rug and allowed to fester any more than it already has.

I am not arguing for a certain solution to this issue, for the answer is undoubtedly multifaceted and more complex than I can begin to imagine as a third-year university student, but I think it’s safe to say that our attitude towards the discussion and deliberation surrounding this topic could be more empathetic and less prejudiced. I also believe that open-mindedness and respect for others’ cultural beliefs is something that is inherently lacking from this conversation, which is ironic considering we pride ourselves so much on having the autonomy and freedom to do as we please in the West.

I believe that we should try and learn from history instead of playing into the patterns that we’ve seen time and time again, and the first step is to properly educate ourselves on the reality of the current situation and not give into hyperbolic claims.

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.

Op-Ed: “Putin’s populism absolves him of just about anything”

methodetimesprodwebbin2cd7c276-278e-11e8-bb7d-85110f4c5caaVladimir Putin is facing serious international estrangement and political hostility by other world powers on the eve of Russia’s presidential election. You might think this would throw a wrench in voters opinions, but likely it won’t.

On top of dealing with his normal routine of denying Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, Putin has become embroiled in new political dramas. Stating that Jews, Ukrainians and Tartars were behind the election meddling has raised criticisms abroad. The current expulsion of diplomats from Britain and Russia following the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy this week seems like a throwback to the Cold War as tensions rise between Russia and the West.

The Russian presidential election is this weekend. If I was betting, I would say Putin is still going to be ruling Russia on Monday. And here’s why.

Putin is a populist leader, and he has made his brand of populism synonymous with the well-being of Russia. How we define and examine populism can explain this.

Patriotism and populism in Russia

Many Russians support Putin because he has enshrined himself as the strongman who will pursue and advocate Russia’s interests internationally. He is an unabashed patriot. This vigorous patriotism is critical, and Putin plays it up every chance he can get.

Just look at the new Russian missiles that were unveiled earlier this month, aimed to re-establish Russian influence that has been absent for decades. Or the decision to move the election so it takes place during the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, which remains hugely popular domestically.

In Neil Robinson and Sarah Milne’s article (Populism and Political Development in Hybrid Regimes: Russia and the Development of Official Populism)  we see that populism can be invented around this patriotism after a government has already taken power.

Putin’s government has  consistently fallen short of its socio-economic goals and his ratings are decreasing. Russia’s electoral authoritarianism and unfair elections require populism in order to survive. As Robinson and Milne argue, Putin has merged voting patterns with the welfare of Russian society since the election of 2011-2012. Being a Russian patriot means voting for Putin, and this populist tactic has been hugely successful.

The importance of a powerful leader

Putin would not have been able to create this populism surrounding him if he wasn’t a charming leader. In Federicho Finchelstein’s book, From Fascism to Populism in History, he emphasizes this greatly.

As Finchelstein explains, historically populism has been an evolution of fascism. This post-fascism revitalizes an authoritarian view of democracy and translates itself into a regime. This is dovetailed with a leader who works within the democratic system, but is more “trustworthy ” than any of the institutions in place. The leader knows what is best for the people, and is considered legitimate by working within the existing political system.

Putin’s time as Russian president fits this description surprisingly well. He is perceived as a strongman who defends Russia from the West and NATO. He “saved” Russia from economic stagnation when he first came to power almost 20 years ago. All without overthrowing the political system or causing major political instability.

He can do no wrong?

What needs to be taken away from all of this is that Putin probably isn’t losing sleep over whats going on in the world news and how it may affect the election. And neither are his supporters.

By harnessing Russian patriotism and channeling it into support for his government, combined with his strong leadership, Putin has crafted his own variety of populism. And despite lower ratings, he continues to wield it with great effect.

This is important to recognize as the Western world begins to rally against Russia. Perhaps these insights can be valuable tools for how we understand why Putin manages to get away with just about anything.

Works Cited:

Booth, William and Mathew Bodner. “Britain to Expel 23 Russian Diplomats after Poisoning of Ex-Spy.” The Washington Post, March 14, 2018.

Carroll, Oliver. “Russian Election 2018: Voters are Faced with a Difficult Choice – Vladimir Putin or Vladimir Putin.” The Independent, March 12, 2018.

Carroll, Oliver. “Russia Rolls Back Putin’s Cold War-Era Rhetoric as Kremlin Denies ‘Nuking Florida’ in Video Mock-Up.” The Independent, March 2, 2018.

Finchelstein, Federico. From Fascism to Populism in History. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017.

“Putin says Jews, Ukrainians, Tatars Could be Behind U.S. Election Meddling.” USA Today, March 10, 2018.

Robinson, Neil and Sarah Milne. “Populism and Political Development in Hybrid Regimes: Russia and the Development of Official Populism.” International Political Science Review 38, no. 4 (2017): 412-425.

“Russian Election 2018: Why Does Vladimir Putin Always Win?” The Times, March 14, 2018.

Smith, Alexander. “Putin on U.S. Election Interference: ‘I Couldn’t Care Less.'” NBC News, March 1, 2018.

Image taken from:

China’s new dictator?


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.”

Fear Itself

American president Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Time and time again this quote has proven true. The Cold War is a prime historical example of fear taken to the extreme. When looking for a modern example, look no further than your smartphone

There are hundreds of things you should be scared of and it’s always there, all the time, thanks to 24-hour coverage by social media. In the past, horrors of war or other events came at a much slower pace. Today, the use of smartphones has enabled us to have the world at our fingertips in an instant. But should this wealth of knowledge make us scared?

When used by politicians, the answer is yes. We should be scared because that’s how they make us like them. The idea of fear tactics isn’t new and it will never go out of style. A politician’s only promise that he or she needs to uphold is to protect the people. Protection and security is our most primal instinct and we are drawn to those who keep us safe.

In the age of smartphones, everything we think we should fear is instantly available. Which means there is plenty of material for a politician to work with. Donald Trump is the world’s leading example in using fear as a tool. Fuzz Hogan, a contributor to the website Behavioral Scientist, says that “Last year’s election in the United States, whichever candidate you preferred, showed how powerful fear could be in rallying citizenry in unhealthy ways.” He describes how our response to fear has changed with the advancements in technology. Our brains once only had to fear what was in front of us. The introduction of global fears has left us in a type of drunken smog where we don’t know which threat is the real one to our person.

So of the thousands of things to be scared of, which ones should we actually fear? The threats that get extensive media coverage are the ones that we pay the most attention to. It’s easiest for political leaders to focus on foreign affairs, because the people they are rallying are less likely to have a personal stake.

It seems as if our focus on foreign countries has made us forget about our struggles at home. Recently Parkland High School in Florida, USA was the victim to a mass shooting. In America, school shootings are more common then they like to admit and so many of them get swept under the rug when a foreign country can be forced into priority.

Lots of Americans like their guns and lots of them do not. It’s a divided country that kills more of its own people than foreign extremists do. So why the lack of change? Events likes these that happen on home soil certainly get plenty of media coverage. The witnesses to these events, however, don’t control this media. It’s hard to be overheard amidst the terrified talks of foreign nuclear threats.

While social media is rapid, what is often misunderstood is the new generation’s aptitude for it. Those who remember the cold war also remember a time before smartphones. In their case, they can remember when worldwide news wasn’t readily available whenever they wanted. Because of this, the older generation isn’t used to handling this wealth of information. The youth of today who can text before they can talk are the ones whose voices will be heard amongst the chaos. As Steve Denning, a contributor to Forbes magazine says “They are at home in the world of social media and at ease with mobilizing support among strangers.”

The younger generation doesn’t fear a war that can’t kill them. Like our ancestors, they fear the threat that is right in front of them. Social media is a second nature and they are able to see the difference between real threats and ones used for political gain.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This will always be relevant. Generations have come and gone that knew fear, but our current one is a unique kind to be born into a constant, global state of it.



First Response: Zimbabwe’s politics are a symptom of its history

A notable saying comes to mind for this week. Perhaps you can’t see the entire forest from the trees.

This weeks readings looked directly into the authoritarian ZANU-PF party that has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. To provide context, Timothy Scarnecchia’s piece, The ‘Fascist Cycle’ in Zimbabwe, 2000-2005 shows how the regime can resemble Italian fascism through the usage of paramilitaries, abuses of power and party membership as a necessity for success.

Lets unpack the nature of Zimbabwe’s extreme ideology and proclivity to political violence.

In Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article, Rethinking Chimurenga and Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Critique of Partisan National History, the idea of extreme ideology as an engine for violence against dissenting opinions is explored. Any black person who does not align with the anti-colonial cause is a target for violence. Anyone who is white is inherently dubious to the state (just look to the farm invasions when Mugabe first seized power).

Rudo Mudiwa’s article, Feeling Precarious explains the characteristics of the Zimbabwean youth, who can go from docile civilians to fearsome weapons of the state if the need arises.

Obviously a strong case could be made that Zimbabwe’s government has resembled and employed various fundamental tactics of fascist authority over the last 30 years. Today, we might use the term “populist” in following Finchelstein’s notion of populism as a modern variant of fascism in his book From Fascism to Populism in History.

So why has this occurred? Why has Zimbabwe’s extreme and radical political history unfolded in the way it has? Why is political violence the norm?  Look to its colonial history, look back to Rhodesia.  

The ZANU-PF should not be excused. However, we need context if we want to truly understand why fellows like Mugabe and ideologies like chimurenga could flourish.


Alienation and Xenophobia in Europe: Where Do We Go From Here?

Many of the arguments that are dominating politics today seem to be discussed as extremes – a middle ground is almost never considered or is sometimes even dismissed as being unobtainable.  I believe that this is the common theme among the readings assigned for this week and could quite possibly be a solution to many of the issues being discussed around the world today. The readings make you wonder: it is that a middle ground is truly impossible, or is it our own limited thinking that is preventing us from obtaining it? Furthermore, it could be argued that it is from this tendency to look at issues as black-or-white that we are seeing a political shift and an influx of populist movements which, some argue, are threatening democracy as we know it today. I think that the driving force behind these polarizing issues, when really boiled down, is a lack of empathy and a willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – regardless if you like or agree with the other person or culture.

For example, think of the refugee crisis and rise of anti-immigration protests. When this is being discussed, many people fail to remember and visualize that these are real people who are being bombed and driven from their homes. In the instance of Black Pete, many people who expressed outrage over anti-Black Pete protests failed to think for a moment how a person of color might feel and instead were hyper focused on what they perceived as an attack on their culture as a whole. In the instance of homelessness, someone may see a person on the side of the road and easily reduce them down to a good-for-nothing bum and walk by, instead of thinking of the culmination of instances and experiences that may have pushed that person to be in this situation (childhood abuse, lack of resources for mental health and substance abuse issues, etc).

The Black Pete reading resonated with me as I am biracial with a predominately black family, and I found myself offended and extremely saddened by the responses from the Dutch in regards to the anti-Black Pete protests (the author describes it as like taking a dose of undiluted poison and I have to agree). But, I made myself imagine the viewpoint of the Dutch and how Black Pete and has been embedded in their culture – thus their national identity – even though I don’t agree with what they are saying. It saddened me as well that so many people claimed it was an attack by immigrants on Dutch culture, while almost forgetting that not everyone born and raised in the Netherlands is white. There are some Dutch people who might be offended and feel rejected by their own culture! This made me question if there could be a middle ground that would appease both sides of the debate. Could it be possible to keep Black Pete, but instead of having him portrayed offensively as a white person in black face with exaggerated lips and idiotic mannerisms, maybe he could be portrayed, in the media and in-person during parades and other celebrations, as a person with soot on his cheeks? Black Pete wouldn’t have to be erased from the culture but would be portrayed in a way that is less offensive and objectifying and also more true to the original story (for he is apparently only black because he is covered in soot).

Finding a common middle ground is so important if we want to be able to co-exist peacefully. I know that there are some who do not want to co-exist (racists, xenophobes – but that is another problem altogether, unfortunately). The argument over Black Pete could be compared to virtually any other majority versus minority struggle as the underlying psychology remains the same. Empathy and the ability to truly listen and compromise (instead of alienating ourselves and sticking our heads in the sand) is the key to many of the issues we are facing today and might be the solution to some of the troubling populist movements we have seen. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but approaching disagreements from a common ground and attempting to see the common humanity among all groups of people from all walks of life seems to be a good start.