20 lessons we should know from the 20th century: minimum standards to meet now, from Timothy Snyder + Bernie Sanders’ address

Thanks to In These Times for re-printing this post, which Tim Snyder shared from his page.  

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. He is also the author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are 20 lessons from across the fearful 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey or curb your actions or what you are calling for, in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom. 

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf.  Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the Internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting.  Consider using alternative forms of the Internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble.  Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend.  And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. He is also the author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Bernie Sanders to College Graduates: Take on the Fossil Fuel Industry, Transform Our Energy System

By Jon Queally, Common Dreams

Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered the commencement address at Brooklyn College (May 2017) and told graduating students that entering an “oligarchic” society, like one the U.S. is fast becoming, will demand vigilance and perseverance on their parts but that it was because of determined young people that he has “enormous confidence” in the country’s ultimate future.

Sanders recounted learning about “oligarchic societies” when he was a high school student in Brooklyn. Described to him as “small developing countries” in which the “economic and political life of the nation were controlled by a handful of very wealthy people,” Sanders admitted it “never occurred to me as a kid in Brooklyn that the United States of America, our great nation, could move in that direction.” But, he added, “that is precisely … what is happening today.”

While commending graduating students and their parents for often working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, Sanders lamented that more than fifty percent of all new income now “goes to the top one percent” of earners.  And in order to disrupt and combat such a system, Sanders said that throwing up your hands and giving up was simply not a viable option.

“The truth is that the only rational choice we have, the only real response we can make is to stand up and fight back—reclaim American democracy and create a government that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” he said. “And for us to do that it is necessary that we fight for a vision of a new America. An America based on progressive, humane values, not the values of the oligarchy.”

As he railed against economic inequality and a system rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful, Sanders told students that unity would be key in order to defeat the destructive forces represented by President Donald Trump.

Sanders referenced his Jewish heritage and his family’s experience with the Holocaust in Europe, which he said offered important lessons for “tough times” like these.

“From that experience, what was indelibly stamped on my mind was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation,” Sanders said to wide applause. “Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim and every religion, straight or gay, male or female—we must stand together. This country belongs to all of us.”

Sanders concluded on a message of hope, telling the graduates that Americans are “prepared to stand together; if we take on greed and selfishness; if we refuse to allow demagogues to divide us up there is no end to what the great people of our nation can accomplish.”

Watch the full commencement address:

The full transcript of Sanders remarks follows:

You know and I know that these are tough times for our country. But I do want to say that standing up here and looking out at the beautiful people in front of me, I have enormous confidence in the future of our country.

Let me begin by congratulating the graduating class of 2017. Today is an important day in your lives, something that I know you have worked very hard to achieve, and I want to wish all of you the very best of luck in your future endeavors.

I do want, on behalf of my wife, Jane, and myself, to pray that you all live healthy and happy lives, doing the work you enjoy surrounded in love by family and friends.

Let me thank President Michelle Anderson, Nicole Haas, the Brooklyn College Administration, faculty and staff and all of you for inviting Jane and me back to Brooklyn where we were both born and raised. I am greatly honored of the honorary degree you have given me.

I grew up in Flatbush and, like Senator Schumer, graduated from James Madison High School. My wife, Jane, was also raised Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and graduated from St. Savior’s High School a few miles away from here.

In 1959, as a first-generation college student I attended Brooklyn College for a year—a year which had a major impact in my life. After that year I left for the University of Chicago, where I eventually graduated. My mom had died the previous year and I felt it was time to leave the neighborhood and see what the rest of the world looked like.

My childhood in Brooklyn was shaped by two profound realities. First, my mom, dad and older brother, who graduated from Brooklyn College, lived in a 3 1/2 room rent-controlled apartment. As with many of your families who don’t have a lot of money, financial pressures caused friction and tension within our household. From those experiences of growing up without a lot of money, I have never forgotten that there are millions of people throughout this country who struggle to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, try to save for their kids’ education or for retirement—people who against great odds are fighting today to live in dignity.

The second reality that impacted my life was that my father left Poland at the age of 17 from a community which was not only very poor, but from a country where anti-Semitism, pogroms and attacks on Jews were not uncommon. While my father emigrated to the United States, and escaped Hitler and the Holocaust, many in his family did not. For them, racism, right-wing extremism and ultra-nationalism were not “political issues.” They were issues of life and death—and some of them died horrific deaths.

From that experience, what was indelibly stamped on my mind was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation. Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim and every religion, straight or gay, male or female, we must stand together. This country belongs to all of us.

As a United States senator from Vermont let me give you a very brief overview of some of the serious crises we currently face—crises which do not often get attention they deserve.

As a student at James Madison High School, many years ago, I recall my social studies teacher talking about how there were small developing countries around the world that were “oligarchic” societies—places where the economic and political life of the nation were controlled by a handful of very wealthy people. It never occurred to me as a kid in Brooklyn that the United States of America, our great nation, could move in that direction. But that is precisely, in my view, what is happening today.

Today, the top one-tenth of one percent now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Twenty Americans now own as much wealth as the bottom half of America and one family now owns more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of our people.

In the last 17 years, while the middle class continues to decline, we have seen a tenfold increase in the number of billionaires. Today in America CEOs are earning almost 350 times more than the average worker makes. In terms of income, while you and your parents are working in some cases two or three jobs, 52 percent of all new income goes to the top one percent.

At the same time as we have more income and wealth inequality than any other major nation, 43 million Americans live in poverty, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country in earth, half of older workers have nothing in the bank as they approach retirement and in some inner cities and rural communities, youth unemployment is 20, 30, 40 percent. Unbelievably, in our country today as a result of hopelessness and despair we are seeing a decline in life expectancy. People are giving up. And they’re turning to drugs, to alcohol, and even to suicide. And because of poverty, racism today in a broken criminal justice system we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth. Those people are disproportionately black, Latino and Native American.

Directly related to the oligarchic economy that we currently have is corrupt political system which is undermining American democracy and it’s important we talk about that and understand that. As a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, corporations and billionaires are able to spend unlimited sums of money on elections. The result is that today a handful of billionaires are spending hundreds of millions of dollars every single year, often on ugly 30-second TV ads, helping to elect candidates who represent the rich and the powerful get elected.

And we are seeing the results of how oligarchy functions right now in Congress where the Republican leadership wants to throw 23 million American off of health insurance, cut Medicaid by over $800 billion, defund Planned Parenthood, cut food stamps and other nutrition programs by over $200 billion, cut Head Start and after school programs, and by the way, make drastic cuts in Pell grants and other programs that help working class kids be able to go to college.

And, unbelievably, at exactly the same time that they are throwing people off health care, making it harder to people to go to college, they have the chutzpah to provide the $300 billion in tax breaks to the top one percent. In other words, the very, very rich are getting richer and they get huge tax cuts. The working class and the middle class are struggling and they are seeing drastic cuts in life or death programs that could mean survival or not for those families.

Now, in response to these very serious crises it seems to me that we have two choices. First we can throw up our hands in despair. We can say, “I am not going to get involved.”

That is understandable. But it is wrong.

Because the issues that we deal with today—the economic issues, the social issues, the racial issues, the environmental issues—not only impact your lives, they impact the lives of future generations and you do not have the moral right to turn your back on saving this planet and saving future generations.

The truth is that the only rational choice we have, the only real response we can make is to stand up and fight back — reclaim American democracy and create a government that works for all of us, not just the one percent.

And for us to do that it is necessary that we fight for a vision of a new America. An America based on progressive, humane values, not the values of the oligarchy.

And what does that mean, briefly in concrete terms?

It means that, no, we are not going to throw 23 million Americans off the health care they have. We are going to bring about health care for all as a right, not a privilege.

It means that, no, we are not, as the current administration does, deny the reality of climate change. We are going to take on the fossil fuel industry, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

It means no we are not going to cut Pell grants and other student assistance. We are going to do what Germany, what Scandinavia, what countries all over the world do. And that is to make certain the public colleges and universities are tuition-free and we’re going to significantly lower student debt because we believe that anyone in America who has the ability and the desire to be able to get a higher education regardless of his or her income.

And no we’re not going to do what the attorney general of the United States now wants. We’re not going to put more people in jail. We’re going to fix a broken criminal justice system and invest in education and jobs for our young people, not more jails and incarceration.

No, we’re not going to defund Planned Parenthood. We’re going to vigorously defend a woman’s right to choose.

My friends, let me conclude by saying this. We live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We are seeing exploding technology, which if used well, has extraordinary potential to improve life. We are an intelligent and hardworking people. If we are prepared to stand together; if we take on greed and selfishness; if we refuse to allow demagogues to divide us up there is no end to what the great people of our nation can accomplish.

So today as you graduate Brooklyn College, my message to you is very simple. Think big, not small, and help us create the nation that we all know we can become. Thank you all very much.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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