What if our government actually listened?

A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency

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 twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today:

1. Do not obey 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.

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. Bookmark PropOrNot or other 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 [current] president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

This article was originally published as a Facebook post by Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.


Listen, Talk, Vote

It is an election year for Minnesota. Much is at stake.
Midterm elections don’t usually draw much voter turnout. When the state economy seems to be doing well, voters may think that not voting returns the status quo. These conditions favor the opposition, whose turnouts produce stunning defeats and are followed by dramatic reversals.
Minnesota stands out as a great place to live, for now. The governor’s efforts to hold off the forces of capital side pressure have preserved many gains for Minnesotans. That could come undone in November. There is a fragile and unreliable balance in power.
If the effects of an international trade war sharply depress the equity markets and the economy, pensions and other retirement savings could be similarly depressed and under renewed threat from the investment industry. Losses in farm exports could put further demands on our state’s resources. Meanwhile, prices for consumer goods as well as medical costs and inflation could rise. Social Security and Medicare are already under threat from blossoming Federal debt and the prevailing “everyone for her/himself” attitude in Washington.
We can anticipate debates around gun sentiment and actual education needs upping that piece of the next budget, while the 2017 budget standoff gets revisited attention. The #MeToo movement will rightly demand some actions. Meanwhile, other gender rights agendas lie right beneath the surface. And there will be water quality problems and climate change effects that are unpredictable but seemingly inevitable. Actions taken will have long-lasting outcomes.
Voting in November could not be any more important. Your everyday lives are far more impacted by state controlled factors than any other. Every candidate must be asked about all of the above points, and their answers must be clear and their positions firm. That’s how you must decide your votes.
If you’ve read this far, you were already committed to voting. Now commit to getting family and friends to do likewise. Find out where candidates are on the issues and get yourself and others to the polls in November. Every day you should think about what’s important in your life that the State of Minnesota affects in some way. Listen to what others are saying about these things and talk with them about why you feel as you do. Then every day, tell someone to vote in November.

Never a Truer Word

Things are not going well with the world. I have recently pondered the overwhelming, perhaps overshadowing, general sense of dysfunction, this decay of civility we now endure. It blares out of politics, economies, technologies and even organized religions. It erodes our quality of life, our access to necessities, our feelings of safety, our sense of humanity. As is natural, we strike out at the things that threaten us, usually people whom we are predisposed not to like. And we declare our injuries, real and anticipated, demanding justice, yet accepting revenge which is more tangible.

Even when justice and/or revenge is achieved, the sense of impending doom remains and seems to envelope us in a vague fog of unknowing. A place of victimization and powerlessness becomes the abode of tens of millions, even hundreds of millions. Much of what we hear when we listen are the screams of rage and fear. Reality is cracking.

There is a churning cloud of words and images hovering behind, around and over people, a cloud so unstable and so filled with threat, yet so impervious to any efforts to quell it or fend it off, that it can only be called the Darkness. It is as if the Void and the Chaos that were banished in Creation have truly crept back in, not from the starry heavens, offended by arrogant space venturers, but from the inner depths of the very people whom it afflicts.

It is as if malignant insecurity, buried under the nurturing soil of civilization is reaching up from its grave to fuel the chaos of misinformation, accusation, incrimination and virulent conflict that surrounds us. Nothing is as it seems; everything is confuted with evil forces reckoning to destroy each of us, isolated and confused. Yet, it is from within ourselves that this malignancy originates; it is our own internal dysfunctions, made manifest and fed on by parasites of power, that have created the Darkness that threatens us. We feed the turmoil we dread.

Walt Kelly’s words have never been more true, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Pogo, 1971)

Pogo quote


Our common enemy is conflict

During the Viet Nam War, it was clear that the demonstrations, while they did not create the divide in positions, did amplify it. There we were in a Wagnerian opera, screaming across our mystic gulf with suspended disbelief. Our “rightness” and their “wrongness” were absolute and diametrically opposed.

This division, which had many less than desirable collateral effects, subsided with the revelations of the Watergate cover up, a pathetic collapse of one camp. Among other issues, such as that in the Guardian article herewith (“Protesting Trump’s immigration policy? You might be accidentally helping him.”), the resistance, a high energy expense, must be maintained until one side or the other fades. Then the remaining side must pull back as well. Attempting to overwhelm the weakened camp, as the Republicans seem to be attempting, simply reinvigorates the insurgency.

The only true victors will be those who, when the opportunity, arises will attempt to put us back on a track of collaborative problem solving, and effectively sideline the zero-sum, single issue activists. No one can win until we all stop trying. Our common enemy is conflict.

I paraphrase Camus’s The Rebel

When they have finally gone too far, you draw the line and say “No more.” And “No” to all you have put up with so far. Then you have defined who you are and left behind who you had been told to be. Now you speak for all, in chains and free of chains. This is freedom.
Someone may say, “I have a right to be above you. I am better because I am who I am.” Such a person may believe that, but there is no support for such a belief. We are all who we are; therefore no one can be above another any claim of birthright. Only when we submit to that false belief, and are who it says we are, and thus accept the inequity do we support the inequitable superiority of anyone else. We are complicit in mastery and slavery as we are in government and citizenry.
Leadership and citizenry are not rightful. They are an agreed partnership, and they systematically advantage both the leader and the citizen. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that partnership advance the greatest good for the greatest number and disadvantage the fewest the least. This a common social contract with specified rights and limits, expressed in both letter and spirit.
Mastery and slavery are not rightful. They are a contrived falsity, and they systematically advantage the master and disadvantage the slave. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that contrivance violate our most fundamental human value. This is the basic and universal human right. When any leadership attempts to force itself on its citizens, it violates the spirit of agreement in its social contract. It goes too far and negates the freedom to choose to follow. The actions of even a single rebel then both affirms and negates un-rightful mastery. No counter action is required, only non-complicity in the broken social contract.
This is only my reading of Albert Camus’s essay, The Rebel, which I find quite informing to discussions of right and wrong in modern society, and guiding in my actions.

Ethical Authority

2,500 years ago, Aristotle had it right. There are several ways to make a point and move opinion. At one end of the list is reason. At the other end is passion. And this has been how it has been all this time.

Reason tries to get at the truth, because truth like justice should be the best of all conclusions. To get there, the reasoner puts together all the available facts, the evidence. He then presents these facts that anyone can see for themselves in an order that shows how one fact leads to the next and finally gets us to the truth of the point. However, this process takes time, even a lot of time. We have to sort through all these details to get to a point which, if it’s true, ought to seem right on its own. This is where passion comes in.

Passion tries to get at our feelings, because as good and fair people, our feelings should tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. To get there, the empassioner tries to determine what our strongest feelings are. He then lines up his point with those feelings. That point then looks like what is right because it feels right. However, this process does not show anything about how good the point is; it simply ties the point to our feelings about things. That conclusion we blindly take on faith, and faith is good for what is beyond human knowledge. Most of what we make decisions on however is not beyond our knowledge. So, there needs to be another way.

We need something between the pointy-heads’ information-overload and the snake oil salesmen’s slick talk. There is something. In the middle of the making-a-point list is the voice of authority. When we go to a friend we trust, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a butcher or grocer who sells good products, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a licensed doctor or pharmacist, we are going to a voice of authority. In each case, we go to these people in good faith, knowing about their history or their credentials, and we accept what they say as right. However, authority is power, and it can be misused to deceive or mislead us. There needs to be some way to tell if a voice of authority is really trustworthy.

There are two keys to deciding if a source of advice, a provider of services or a seller of products is deserving: having a good track record and showing little or no benefit to himself.

If the authority has a proven track record, he is more trust worthy. If we’ve done business with him before and the outcome has been good, that’s a good track record. If he has the regular legal certificate or license, and puts it out where we can see it, that’s a good track record. If he’s been around a long time and not received bad reports in the past, that’s a good track record.

If the authority shows little or no benefit to himself in our decision, he is more trust worthy. If the authority offers to share the sources of his information, that shows little or no benefit to himself. If the authority offers ideas on both sides of a question, that shows little or no benefit to himself. On the other hand, if the voice of authority asks us to join him, that shows some benefit to himself. If the authority tell us what we should do, that shows more benefit to himself.

If the supposed authority talks a lot about why we should believe him, we should doubt him. If the supposed authority talks a lot about us rather than someone or something that is neither us nor himself, he may be trying to play on our feelings. If the supposed authority buries us in an avalanche of details, he may be trying to hide something under all that manure.

The voice of authority should sound calm and clear. If it is not, it may be pulling the wool over our eyes or firing us up to do what he wants. An ethical authority tries to help us figure out for ourselves what’s best, because an ethical authority trusts that we can.


Trumped? No.

The worse thing has happened, but it’s happened. We feel hurt, depressed, afraid. We have grieved or are still grieving.

When I witnessed my students lose the girls’ basketball quarter finals, I was unhappy too. We grieved, but we all recovered and went back to school. It was a game where both sides played well using similar tactics, and both sides had exactly the same objective: winning the game. Elections are not games. It’s not about win or lose; it’s about what’s next.

The election of Mr. Trump was not a game, and he did not win. He may see a world of winners and losers, but we see a world where all can rise higher. He may believe that the world is all about zero-sums, but we know it’s not. No one has won and no one has lost here, except the gamblers. So what’s next?

Things may get worse, for some very much worse, and those of us who care need to and must help support and shield those we care about, those who are in fear and those who are in danger. Of equal importance is to support and shield those who for whom it has been bad for some time now, and for whom we have failed to be supportive or shielding. Yes, I’m saying that we, whose candidates were not chosen, need to do better about helping those, whose candidate was. I’m not talking about the malefactors and sociopaths who will jump on any excuse to exercise their distorted thinking. I’m talking about people who have been left behind in their work, in their position in the community, in their understanding of what it is to be an American. They didn’t “win” by this election. If any of the campaign promises bear fruit, they may win the jobs and the respect they seek–maybe, but they will certainly be left behind in the frame of the 1950’s white America, because they are more “useful” to some interests in that frame.

Those of us who believe we are of the “enlightenment” of the 21st century, who look for a better life for everyone in America, for a better world, not just for a better job and a better house–we need to help those who feel left out to see that we can have all of these. We could all be winners. This we must believe. It means we’ll have to actually do something.

We have long and loudly complained about the division and the stalemate that it creates. We need to actually do something different, or we will have the same division and the same stalemate. We will remain a nation of winners and losers trading off our roles in a zero-sum mindset, us and them, always at odds, always at war.

Who will be the better persons; who will be the peace makers? Can we not step forward to say, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening, but I want to listen now. Let’s talk. Let’s work together to find solutions.” Coming together doesn’t mean leaders must come to my position. It means I must give up my idea of just my position. I must articulate what my interests actually are. Then I must seek out and listen to the interests of people who feel staked to other positions. And together, we must work to find solutions that help us meet as many of our interests as we can, many of which are likely shared already.

The problem with slogans and donations is that they are surrogates for real action. We can do better for everyone together if we act on things together. We must talk with one another, not at one another. We must open our hearts and minds, not close them. We must seek solutions, not oppose them. And it may be hard.

Let’s get to work.

Divided We Fall

The political expedient of offering a free lunch leads government authorities to make commitments they cannot support in the long term without assessments and tax increases–both political suicide. The get hit in their campaign funds and hit at the polls. The American wealthiest and their corporate empires assume a 19th century uber-privilege, owing nothing to the societies that fed their greed and freely buying the politicians to insure that. American voters meanwhile have been convinced that they deserve to have the amenities but not pay for them.

Then, when the bills come in, the authorities, beholden to their wealthy benefactors, look for excuses and scapegoats rather than biting the bullet, correcting tax law, and convincing tax-payers to pay up or give up the things they’ve come to expect. So the result is that they go after two of their own big expenses–the public workers, who make our society civilized, and the neediest, who don’t pay much tax and often don’t vote. Breaking the life-long promise of a pension to public employees, cutting funding to schools, and reducing the public work force, government chews off its own leg to free itself from the trap of its own design. Cutting off the needy is simply barbaric.

America has been effectively marketed a dream that everyone deserves a life that is fun and feels good. Watch almost any TV ad. Americans are discouraged from thinking about how that could be true when we know that life includes effort and pain. Only when enough of us look around and think will we begin to reverse the seemingly inexorable trend toward a country of 350,000,000 individuals, each at the center of her or his own universe, and start to reestablish America as a united society, who share common needs despite individual differences. If “divided we fall” has not been apparent before, certainly watching the human pieces of our civil society fall away over the years should alert us to the future we will leave our children and grandchildren.

Every thoughtful person must stand up, speak out, help out and vote. 


The world convulses once again.
Stunned, we watch in horror as
Bloated dragons careen across her flesh.
Homelands are swallowed in hatred and despair,
As All,
The mighty and the frail,
Are devoured in vapors and flames.

Wave after wave of bewilderment
Sweeps toward us and over us,
Crushing our complacency into fear.
We see the monster at our door.
Panic runs like acid through our veins, and yet
We must not hide inside our walls.
We must not shut out the terror and the pain.
We must not close our Selves behind our gates.

Shutting ourselves in, to be free of terror and risk,
Is to doom ourselves to the other side of chaos.
Hiding from Grendel has always been an arrogant delusion.
Famine, war, disease and murder are
The rampaging agents of
Vicious persecutions,
Wanton bigotry and
Deranged greed,
And we must sally forth to meet them.

Hiding in our enclaves,
Closing our eyes and ears,
Shutting our lives away
In the illusion of security
Is consigning those lives to
Desolation and
The death of the selves we might have been,
Entombed instead in anti-life behind our gates.

Beowulf sought out Grendel and his mother, and slew them.
So we too must come from inside our walls.
We must come out into the light of the world.
We must seek out the monsters and dispatch them.
Then we can join the human festival of the living,
And set aside our lethal fear and crippling timidity.

Our world clamors with exciting diversity.
We must reach out to the teaming dance,
To the brilliant colors, to the ringing songs.
Humanity is a glory, and we must remain part of it.
We must throw open our doors to the vast adventures of living.
We must taste the startling honey and pepper kaleidoscope of life,
Inhale the inebriating fragrance of far ranging gardens, and
Join the choruses of the world’s joyful songs.

We must be our most incredible Selves.
We must throw open the gates and
Be of Our world

July 2106


The Problem with the “Achievement Gap”

Words carry baggage. A gap in a society has a near side and a far side. We put people on one side or the other. “We” are of course on this side and “they” are on the other. So a gap forms groups, absorbing individuals into one group or another. “Gap” and “group” are constructs imposed on reality, not derived from it.

If the separating measure used in creating a gap is achievement, it ignores the fact that achievement occurs on a continuum. So “gap” is a false construct, which not only does not accurately reflect reality, but which must serve some other agenda as well.

When we align the achievement-gapped construct with the long-standing race construct, we simply reinforce the notion of racial difference. In addition to focusing our attention on achievement, one very impersonal aspect of education’s many acculturating functions, it turns our attention away from the broader cultural and institutional aspects of a society that so stubbornly exclude individuals from opportunity and access to full and equitable participation based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

The achievement gap is only a glimpse of the vastly larger culture gap from which we suffer, and for which there is no self-elevated committee, council or cause resourceful enough to correct us, it seems. Even the good news is bad: we are not the only ones. Almost every culture on this planet suffers the same twisted, albeit self-serving, perspective on reality. Markers of “group” difference are plentiful—race, religion, ethnicity—all social constructs that have no basis in essential reality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there may be no solution to a “gapped” world. In the absence of the motivation of six billion plus individuals, there may only be resignation or eternal angst. Given how many of the world’s people will read this article, what are the chances?

Meanwhile of course, we can use “achievement gap” as a political tool for funding and policy decisions, the other agenda.