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The Authoritarian Menace: Analyses and Answers

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Dear friends,

It's time to pick up my reading recommendations and I want to re-start with a beautifully uplifting topic: The continued rise of authoritarians, populists, and political bullies - chasing dreams of nativist supremacy, disenfranchising anyone who doesn't belong to their imagined tribe, and wrecking public discourse and democratic institutions along the way.

With Brexit becoming a reality, with Trump having withstood impeachment, and with many authoritarians across the globe firmly holding on to power, I am wondering:

How can we better understand authoritarianism? And what can we do about its rise?

These are the guiding questions of this collection of essays and analyses. With the aim to learn from the wise, we read about MLK's intellectual pilgrimage to non-violent resistance or about Hannah Arendt's call against apathy. Turning to the present, we look into the battle that middle-class men are waging against cultural elites and how some conservatives are openly playing with authoritarian tactics.

1. MLK's Pilgrimage to Non-Violence

Given the heaviness of the topic, I want to start with an essay that actually has given me hope: Martin Luther Kings Jr’s account of his own intellectual journey. How he studied Marx, Thoreau, Gandhi (who probably inspired him the most), and many others, how he rejected communism, and how he became the passionate advocate of non-violent resistance to injustice we know. His example should never cease to be an inspiration to us.

"Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man. To deprive man of freedom is to relegate him to the status of a thing, rather than elevate him to the status of a person. Man must never be treated as a means to the end of the state, but always as an end within himself.... My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate."

2. Listening to Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt is another great thinker to take inspiration from. She dedicated her work to illuminate the workings of authoritarianism and its quest to destroy individuality, plurality, and truth. In 2018, Richard Bernstein wrote a brilliant introduction to Arendt's work, reminding us of her call to take responsibility for our political lives:

"We must resist the temptation to opt out of politics and to assume that nothing can be done in face of all the current ugliness, deception and corruption. Arendt’s lifelong project was to honestly confront and comprehend the darkness of our times, without losing sight of the possibility of transcendence, and illumination. It should be our project, too."

3. "Thou shalt not be indifferent"

At the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, survivor Marian Turski gave a powerful speech: “Thou shall not be indifferent.” His call is directed at every single one of us:

"[I]t was Marian Turski, 93, who spoke for so many of his fellow survivors when he issued what amounted to a final warning to a human race that will soon lack first-hand testimony of the depths to which humankind can sink. He explained that “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky” but was the destination reached after a thousand smaller steps, each one stripping a single minority of its dignity and humanity. After the Shoah, Turski said, “The 11th commandment is: thou shalt not be indifferent."

4. Reading Primo Levi

Staying with the darkest hours of humankind, I've started to reread Primo Levi. A chemist from a Jewish family from Torino, he survived a year in Auschwitz and later gave a precise account of his experiences in the camps. One of his guiding questions was: how to understand the total dehumanisation that the Nazis employed. William Deresweciz gave a concise overview of Levi's work in 2015.

"Understand and judge: Levi’s greatness as a writer of the Holocaust is analytical as much as narrative. His effort to make sense of a phenomenon that is devoid of sense by civilized standards was a lifelong project that began, in effect, the moment he entered the camp... Far worse than the physical suffering, whose urgency fades from memory, are the affronts to human dignity. Those wounds, it seems, do not heal. As a chemist, Levi is drafted into a squad of skilled workers for the rubber factory. He must pass an oral examination administered by a Doktor Pannwitz, “tall, thin, blond.” Pannwitz looks at him. It is a look, Levi tells us, that “did not pass between two men.” Earlier, after a comparable incident, he had felt “as if I had never in all my life suffered a more atrocious insult”—that of being treated as a beast."

5. Dreams in the Reich

How deeply authoritarian systems affect the feelings and thoughts of its subjects, can be observed in one of the most intimate corners of human reality: our dreams. Between 1933 and 1939, journalist Charlotte Beradt collected and documented hundreds of dreams of her fellow Germans:

"In 1933, a woman dreams of a mind-reading machine, “a maze of wires” that detects her associating Hitler with the word “devil.” Beradt encountered several dreams about thought control, some of which anticipated the bureaucratic absurdities used by the Nazis to terrorize citizens... These dreams reveal how German Jews and non-Jews grappled with collaboration and compliance, paranoia and self-disgust, even as, in waking life, they hid these struggles from others and themselves."

6. Inspiration for bullies

Coming back to the present age, new reports find that bullies all over the US take inspiration from their Commander-and-Bully-in-Chief. The examples we set matter. Once Trump leaves office, we'll be busy with restoring trust and civility for at least a decade. The damage authoritarian politicians are inflicting on democratic discourse is immeasurable.

"Since Trump's rise to the nation’s highest office, his inflammatory language — often condemned as racist and xenophobic — has seeped into schools across America...'It’s gotten way worse since Trump got elected,' said Ashanty Bonilla, 17, a Mexican American high school junior in Idaho who faced so much ridicule from classmates last year that she transferred. 'They hear it. They think it’s okay. The president says it. . . . Why can’t they?'"

7. The revenge of the middle-class anti-elitist

This brings us to the question: who votes for populists? And what drives them? Simon Kuper argues that we should look beyond working-classes who switched from right to left and focus on middle class men who wage their own fight against perceived injustices of the current system:

"He [the middle-class Brexiteer] isn’t keen on positive discrimination for women or people of colour, or on high taxes. In fact, he doesn’t want anyone to get “handouts.”... This man’s advance has been slow. He has never been invited into the fast lane of life: the top universities, the biggest firms, the major corporations. He feels, with some justification, that his exclusion has been unfair — based on his accent, schooling, clothes and unfamiliarity with trendy conversational topics. He realised years ago that so-called meritocracy is a fraud..."

8. The Roots of Polarisation

Simon Kuper's analysis (above) points to the fragmentation of our polities. How far have has the tribalisation of public discourse advanced? Ezra Klein has written a new book that is worth reading for anyone who takes an interest in how to keep our democracies from disintegrating. Francis Fukuyama has written a book review:

"What has puzzled observers is why polarization has more recently intensified into what political scientists label “affective polarization,” a highly emotional attachment to one’s side that defies considerations of rational self-interest. Here Klein, like many others, reaches into the realm of social psychology and notes a basic human propensity to form powerful group attachments: Being red or blue has come to constitute an identity rather than an ideology."

9. The New "National Conservatism"

Anne Applebaum attended a conference where prominent nationalist thinkers and politicians from Europe and beyond came together. What brings them together is a shared contempt for liberal democracy, the US, and globalism:

"The new national conservatism, at least as articulated in Rome, is very different from Reaganism and Thatcherism. The starting point is that European integration and American hegemony are both evil, and that universal ideals like human rights are a dangerous ideology.... The arc of history once described by Martin Luther King and Barack Obama is now bending the other way, and a lot of people are leaping aboard."

10. What to do with Authoritarians within the EU?

To stay with European conservatives and its authoritarian fringes:, the parliamentary group of the Christian Democrats (EPP) is currently deciding whether to expel Orban’s Fidesz party. Jan-Werner Müller examines the political history of Christian Conservatives arguing that they played a crucial role in establishing post-war Europe. Müller concludes that Fidesz has no place in the EPP, and that it's a travesty for them to say they represent Christian Democracy:

"The sad, sordid truth is that Orbán and his ilk are trying to wage an EU-wide culture war because they have found this to be an effective way to distract domestic and international attention from the kleptocratic autocracies they have created. By portraying their critics as crazed progressives pushing for same-sex marriage and ever-more scurrilous forms of identity politics, they avoid any discussion of their cronyism, politicization of the judiciary, and stifling control of the media."

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