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.

Sweeper: Sacred vs Secular in a Multicultural Europe

This week’s lecture and readings were all about multiculturalism in Europe, and how we tend to fall into certain narratives because of our own biases. This may be why it is so difficult for us to recognize a multi-cultural and multi-denominational Europe and why we tend to overlook the long historical past Europe has had with Islam.

The readings discussed the many different responses to multiculturalism. In the Wekkers’ article we see the rise in criticism of the Black Pete figure which leads us to believe that people are more open minded. Yet the anti-immigrant sentiment from right-wing parties in the Beauchamp article may lead some to think otherwise. In class we discussed the Bershidsky article which gave an interesting take on the high rates of sexual violence among asylum seekers in Germany. The readings and lecture asked us to consider looking at Europe as something influenced by many cultures in a multipolar world. One example is how Islam has had a long historical presence in Europe that we often to not discuss. One reason for this could be that it was often believed that European modernity was mature, yet Islam more backward thinking.

This bring us to a point that our class discussed in detail. The relationship between secular and sacred. The idea that a modern society may be separate from a public life.

While we may believe that religion does not have to play a role in everyday life, we can see religion in many aspects. From political norms, to holidays and school systems, there is no doubt that our society incorporates religion into the public sphere, especially when it comes to Christianity. So why are we so uncomfortable with outward displays of religion? What is it about religious signs that makes us so uncomfortable? Is it the a sign of a religion, or perhaps a sign of the “wrong” religion?  Is Europe becoming more multicultural?

Cultural Tensions in Europe: Sweeper

There are a lot of ways the migrant population has affected Europe. Especially since the recent refugee crisis, the EU has seen some tension resulting in the distribution of migrants. Values are one of the issues that are seen to be facing the Europeans that encounter the refugees, ie. can they be integrated into a culture that is secular when they are from a country that does not have that system? It was viewed by some in the group that if a person chooses to go to a country then they must adopt the values that are held there and this was agreed to work for migrant workers, such as is often an issue in the EU due to freedom of movement. However, refugees do not get the luxury to choose where they want to go. Being forced from their homeland, which they may very well want to remain in, refugees are fleeing death so accepting the values of another country is a point that is not as easy to think about.

As many Europeans are opting to not take refugees regardless of what the EU expresses there is the increasing feeling that Europeans are looking to protect their countries from some outside influences that are seen as negative. It is possible that if countries such as Germany had a clear strategy and openness with the public in dealing with refugees people may feel like their culture is less attacked. With openness and clarity, citizens would have the ability to understand what the future will look like with refugees in it.

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.

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.

Sweeper: History, A Glamourized Tale?

This week’s lecture and readings focused on the Middle Ages and the 20th-21st century’s imagination, which can taint historical accuracy. Our group touched upon many different ideas, one that intrigued me the most was the idea that what we believe to be entrenched in our society is important to study, because many times this box that we are put in is created by people. Therefore what we think is an absolute can actually be quite arbitrary.

To put this into better context, our group focused on the Geary reading which talked about nationalism throughout time. Our group discussed how nationalism was widely ignored until it could be used for political gain. We started noticing that people tend to reuse the past for specific reasons, something that was also touched up in the Kaufmann reading. What interested us was how we first thought that nations were the way they were because of a shared culture amongst its people. However, we soon learned that in many situations, nations were build by conquest, where one more dominant culture takes over and weakens other cultures until they fade and become homogeneous. We related this to British culture invading what would be Canada, and dominating first nations people.

Just as the Medieval Ages is tainted by romantic imagery, so is our idea of nationality. So I will leave you with some questions to ponder. Does Canada have a Medieval past? When does Canada’s history start? Finally, why is Parliament gothic?