TIME: 13:00 – 14:00 19th October 2017
VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower
21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP
Professor Timothy Snyder
Author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Housum Professor of History at Yale University
Timothy Stafford: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Henry Jackson Society. My name is Timothy Stafford, I’m the Director of Research here at the society, and I’m delighted to welcome a distinctly more eminent Timothy to join us today: Professor Timothy Snyder, a renowned academic and professor at Yale University. Many of you will know some of his books, my favourite is Bloodlands which is an excellent piece of work if you’ve not had the chance to read it. But today, Mr Snyder is going to be talking about his latest book On Tyranny, which has captured the public imagination both in the United States and in Europe, depending on both the election of Mr Trump but also a shift towards authoritarianism in a number of different countries. So we’re delighted to welcome Professor Snyder who will speak for maybe 10-15 minutes – something in that order – to give some introductory remarks, and then we’ll be delighted to have some questions. So without any further delay, Professor Snyder thank you very much for joining us, welcome to the Henry Jackson Society, and we very much look forward to your thoughts.
Timothy Snyder: So I’m a historian, but this is not a history book, this is a political pamphlet. So when I present it to you, I have to begin by describing what it is rather than beginning from a thesis. This is not a book about the way the world is, it’s a book about what one ought to do so that the world does not become much worse. So it’s a normative book. It’s a political pamphlet in what I took to be an American tradition. If you’ve read it you notice I begin with a gesture towards the Founding Fathers with two capital ‘Fs’, which is the most American thing I have ever done, even though I was a boy scout and I played baseball and I thought I was going to do it my whole life, that’s the most American thing I have ever done. The tradition is of course the enlightenment tradition of scepticism about human nature, and beginning from the assumption of the Founding Fathers which one sees very clearly in the federalist papers that the reason why you have to have institutions of a certain kind is that human nature is imperfect, and that democracy and republics are likely to fail because that’s what the Classics show us. So the references that Hamilton and Franklin and Jefferson had when they were thinking about whether democracies and republics can succeed where of course Classical references. They were thinking of Aristotle, they were thinking of Plato, they were thinking of the fall of Athenian democracy, they were thinking of the fall of the Roman republic. The way that I proceed in this book is to take that sceptical assumption and apply it to cases that they could not have known about. In other words, the cases of the last couple hundred years, especially the cases of the last hundred years of democracies and republics failing. And of course, the good news is that there are lots of cases, the bad news is that most of those cases involve democracies and republics failing. So what I try to do in the book is to turn that experience around and to extract from people like Hannah Arendt, or Victor Klemperer, or (*inaudible*), or other people who lived through various kinds of modern authoritarianism or totalitarianism, and try to extract their wisdom and put it into a form which I was thinking Americans – although it turned out lots of the readers were not American – would be able to put to use very quickly. In other words, the trick of the book was to try to take history and turn it into a way to buy time, to get people out ahead of what was going to be happening. The twenty lessons in the book were all complete well before Mr Trump actually came to office, and the idea was that these lessons would equip people with things they might be able to do to head off where we are going to go. So where I was coming from when I wrote this book was as a historian of the darker parts of the 20th century – as Timothy was kind enough to mention – and a historian of the holocaust and of Stalinist Terror. And therefore for me, from my point of view, the ‘it’ in ‘it can’t happen here/the it can happen here’, it was obvious that the ‘it’ can happen. I was also coming to this subject as a student of my teachers in Eastern Europe, most of whom lived under communism, some of whom were survivors of the holocaust, all of whom became my friends. And since that is my world, I take it for granted that the ‘it’ happens and it happens to people like us. I was also looking at this from the point of view of my students. I’m not as old as I pretend to be, but I’m old enough to have had a couple of generations of students now from Eastern Europe, and if you’re an Eastern European – if you’re from Russia or Ukraine or now even Poland or Hungary – and you were born in ’89 or ’95 or 2000, your biography has not followed the track of the freedom that was promised to you by the story of 1989. You have probably seen freedom recede from you rather than approach you. And from my students I learned a great deal about how post-modern authoritarianisms happen and what one can do about them. So some of the vocabulary and some of the tactics in this book are actually taken from my own students, people who have greater experience of this than I, people who in some cases have been oppressed, beaten, tortured and in a couple of cases even killed, which is so sad because it replicates the experience of my own teachers. It’s as though we’ve moved back a generation are not moving ahead.
The form that the book takes is as a series of 20 lessons, and the 20 lessons have a logic to them. They move over time from the beginning of a regime change to an end. The first ones seem to be easier, and the last ones seem to be harder. They also have a logic of necessary conditions: that is to say the first lesson is a necessary condition for all the rest. I’m not going to try to discuss all 20 in 20 minutes, don’t worry. The book is actually so short that you can read it while I’m talking, I’ve seen people do it which is fine with me, it’s probably a more effective presentation. So I won’t talk about all 20, but I will mention a couple of them. I’m going to dwell for a second on number one. So number one is don’t obey an advance. The reason why number one is don’t obey an advance is that this is one of the few issues on which historians of the holocaust and the Third Reich actually agree. I don’t know how much time you spend with historians of the Third Reich, but I spend a lot of time with historians of the Third Reich – they’re not a particularly fun-loving bunch and they’re not particularly good at agreeing on things, and even when they do agree they’re not good at agreeing that they agree. But one issue that historians of the Third Reich generally do agree on is that in 1933 German citizens had more power than they thought they had, and that the consent that was given to the Nazi regime, especially at the beginning, was given in ways that people didn’t recognise at the time as consent. So for example, looking away, changing the way that you talk, crossing the street instead of greeting someone, ignoring the swastikas, ignoring the signs on shops that said ‘this is a Jewish shop’. These things turned out to have much more political significance than people realised at the time. So don’t obey an advance is number one because of a historical consensus. It’s also there because of psychological research. One of the things that we figured out before these studies became illegal – except on reality television which for some reason is still legal – one of the things we found out from certain kinds of experience is that people do tend to react very quickly to new authorities. They adjust even before they realise they have adjusted. Which means when in the real world there is something very new it is important to catch yourself before you make that adjustment. That’s the psychological part. And then there’s the moral part if I can be permitted the word, which is that if you are the person who adjusts in advance or as the new regime comes, then you have become that person, and then afterwards you will explain why you had to become that person, and by extension you will also explain why the world had to change the way that it did, a phenomenal that is already visible in the United States of America only a year in. Finally, there’s the political logic of lesson number one, which is that we know that in the first 12/18/24 months, citizens actually have more influence than they ordinarily would. If you have this amount of influence in a regular functioning democracy – which America of course is not but just bear with me – when the region is being changed, temporarily influence brings a way out, because the stakes of the entire game are now open. Once the regime has changed your influence goes way down. So there’s a timing question to this as well. So for all those reasons, number one is don’t obey an advance. Then the first suite of lessons are some of the fundamental ones. So number two is defend institutions, number three is beware the one party state, and the next several have to do with basic rights and have to do with violence. I want to pause for a moment on the second cluster of lessons which have to do with truth. So talking about truth in the 21st century actually costs me $15. The American Historical Association charges us $15 every time we use the word truth because we’re supposed to be beyond all of that. Okay, that wasn’t actually true, but you know what I mean right? If I were a member of whatever the (*inaudible*) society is it would be $30, so you know what I mean. You know that it’s very unusual for academics to stand up and talk about how there is truth and how we should pursue truth and how truth is important, and now I’m going to do that just like a dentist who says you should brush your teeth, because this is even more important than oral health. Oral health is pretty important, but this is more important. So 9, 10, and 11: be kind to our language, believe in truth, and investigate. They’re (*inaudible*) lessons of this book. And again, you could make a historical case about this, that at the time of the enlightenment, or at the time of say Milton or later with John Stuart Mill, there’s an enlightenment assumption that the more we communicate, the closer we will get to truth. Unfortunately, as the ancients pointed out, there’s also a certain tendency towards demagoguery. And in modern tyranny – fascism and communism – what we see is a deliberate effort to transform what truth means. So if you’re a fascist what you say is there’s a single truth and the truth is the unity of the people and the mystical connection with, let’s say, Timothy Stafford. And if you’re a communist you say there’s one truth and that truth is in the future, and therefore the facts about today are less important, it’s alright to lie about today if it gets us to the future. What postmodern authoritarians do is they say ‘there’s no truth, we all know there’s no truth, what are you, naïve? Everyone just has a certain perspective and now let us overwhelm you with spectacle, now let us overwhelm you with the permanent production of artificial crisis’ – which is the new motto of the United States of America by the way, the permanent production of artificial crisis – ‘let us overwhelm you with twitter and the internet, let us overwhelm you with an emotional sense that things are just going round and round again. And above all let us give you the sense that you have story, you all have different stories. Because if you all have different stories, that’s beautiful for nursery school, but it’s not so good for politics, because politics depends upon truth, and civil society depends upon trust. Any form of organisation or, to use an important word, ‘resistance’, depends upon trust. If we all lose our sense of factuality we might feel that we’re being rebellious in some way but we won’t actually be able to rebel, hence the lessons on truth.
I’m going to close with a brief word about what I think is happening, so if you’ll indulge me I’m going to take a step back and just be an intellectual for a second, I’m going to say some things that are not really in the book or just at the very end of the book. How I would characterise what I think is happening is that I think we’re moving from one view of time to another view of time, where the first view of time I would call the politics of inevitability is the sense that things are basically going in the right direction and they automatically do. The right wing version of this would be something like ‘they automatically do because markets create good things like democracy’. There’s a left wing version in America that says something like ‘the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice’. There’s a European version of the politics of inevitability which says ‘we all have nation states and they get better for the nation and they make good choices’, which is also complete nonsense: Britain was never a nation state so you can’t go back to it. Sorry, it never was. It was an empire, and then it was part of an integration process, it was never a nation state so you can’t go back to it. The European story is that we were all nations at one point and then we made good choice. That’s what you were all taught and there’s no truth to it. Britain was never a nation state and neither was France, so you can’t go back. So the politics of inevitability has been the bubble that many of us have been living in, and I think that’s what happening is a kind of shift to something which I would call the politics of eternity, a different timescape, a timescape of populism, a timescape of fascism, where instead a sense of progress there is a sense of doom. Instead of expecting the good things in the future you expect the same bad thing to happen over and over again, and the bad thing is always the same thing, the bad thing is that the innocent national body is always being attacked by people from abroad for some reason or another. And I think it really is as simple as all of that. That sounds abstract, but if you look at the way that American politics has turned – I could give you a bunch of great examples from Russia which you could ask me about and I’ll talk about, but I have this new policy to only talk about America first because we’re now taking the lead in so many bad things I feel like we should take responsibility for it. And also it exploits common potential. So, ‘make America great again’. That is not a slogan to do with the future, it’s a slogan that loops back into the past. And now because we have good political scientists and sociologists, we know when Americans thought America was great. It turns out that America respondents to the question ‘when was America great?’ respond ‘when I was young’. Which is funny, but it’s also politically interesting, because we could have disagreements about how big government should be and what government can and should do, but one thing we can all be pretty sure of is that government cannot actually make us young again. And this is revealing actually of the deep style of this politics of eternity: you create problems that cannot be solved, and then that becomes a reason for government not to make policy in the normal sense of the world, but rather just push your buttons over and over again. I’ll give you a less funny example. Most American white people who voted for Mr Trump – most, way over half, over ¾ actually – believe that racism against whites is a bigger problem than racism against blacks. Mr Trump has done nothing to disabuse them of that idea; on the contrary, he’s reinforcing that idea. If you think that is your problem in the world, government cannot solve it, because that is a fictional problem. So if the leaders set the problems as fictional problems, they’re then creating a situation in which the task of government is not actually to make policy in the conventional sense, but rather just over and over and over again in a more refined fashion to push your buttons to create a sense of artificial crisis. The very last thing I want to say is that the assumption of this book and everything I’ve been doing for the last year, is that the thing that stands between these two timescapes – there may be other things but the thing I know that stands between these two timescapes – is history itself. So, the sense that there is some kind of measureable, meaningful connection between past, present and future. In the case of this book, you can actually learn things from the past. If you read a little bit of Arendt or Klemperer or Havel or Orwell, you’re casting a line back to the past in a tangible, sensible, coherent way. And if you use what you know to change the future you’re helping to create a line, you’re casting a line. And so some of the lessons in the book are little lessons apparently about how simple human actions make a kind of difference. Number 12 is make eye contact in small talk. That’s the one that actually provokes the most discussion in the US, which is in a way quite appropriate. Number 13 is practise corporeal politics. Number 14 – establish a private life. Number 15 – contribute to good causes. Number 16 – learn from peers in other countries. Now the very last lessons of the book are about scenarios where the republic totters and something dramatic happens. You’ll know what I mean, the applicable metaphor is Reichstag fire, a Reichstag fire type scenario, this is now page 1 of the Dictator’s Playbook, pirated versions of which are available online if you’re interested. On page 1 of the Dictator’s Playbook, there is the Reichstag fire, which is also Putin in 1999 with the apartment buildings burning, it’s also Erdogan last summer with the coup. You take advantage of some real or half-real or manufactured crisis to declare a state of emergency, when a state of emergency never in fact ends. There are reasons that I’m concerned about this in the US which I’m happy to talk to you about, but for now I’m just going to read the last four lessons. 17 – listen for dangerous words. 18 – be calm when the unthinkable arrives. 19- be a patriot. 20 – be as courageous as you can. Thank you very much.
Timothy Stafford: Well thank you very much for that introductory explanation of the book and the lessons it has within it. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask the first question because you came up with a wonderful line which described something I’ve been thinking about for a while. You talked about the permanent production of artificial crises, and this style of managing, and I just want to put that in tyrannical context, because historically, when you look at most tyrannies, the way they sell themselves is ‘we are required for stability’. If you go to China it’s ‘if you don’t have the Chinese communist party running China there will be chaos’ like you saw in Russia in the 90s or now in the United States and other democracies. Whereas with Trump, and whether you want to say he’s a tyrant or not, there is this permanent sense of crisis. Someone will be fired this week, or some inflammatory comment will be made next week, and it continually dominates the media cycle and is always visible – which is how he managed his campaign. And I’m just wondering on that basis whether the tyrannies that we might see in the 21st century will be different from the tyrannies we saw in the 20th century, and therefore what lessons might we also have to learn in addition to the ones you’ve enunciated in your work?
Timothy Snyder: that’s a wonderful question, and I think you’ve pointed to something that’s different about the regimes that we’re seeing, because what you say about Mr Trump is very applicable to him but also to Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan, and it’s also applicable in Poland and in Hungary to a lesser degree. I think it’s related to a certain change in the markers. When an authoritarian government promises stability, they usually mean something like stability for development. So everything is going to be peaceful, the trains are going to run on time, it’s going to be safe in the parks, and then the country can get back on its feet and everything can slowly get better. So behind the stability of surface there is a narrative about how things are going to get better. But what I find personally very striking is that Mr Trump doesn’t really promise that, nor does Mr Putin. There isn’t really a sense that things are going to get better or that we have policy instruments to make them better. So I think that might reflect on the impossibility of doing so, although I don’t think that’s really impossible. But I think it relates to a couple of things: the first is the name of the game in at least the American and the Russian cases seems to be about the legitimation of oligarchy. So Mr Putin is an oligarch who pretends not to be, and Mr Trump is not an oligarch but he pretends to be. But in both cases the political logic is about the status quo, and so if you’re defending the status quo paradoxically you can’t promise stability because once you have stability then people say ‘okay everything’s stable, now it’s time for things to get better’. And if you can’t promise that things are going to get better, what you do is you substitute permanent crisis – real, fake, or imagined – for that promise of stability. So I agree with you there is something here which has changed. Something else which is interesting is this: if you look at authoritarians in the 20th century when they use the word ‘system’ they were often talking about what they were going to build. These postmodern authoritarians, when they use the word ‘system’ they’re talking about something they’re going to destroy.
Timothy Stafford: Interesting. Okay, very happy to open up now for questions. So I’d be grateful if people could introduce themselves with their name and the organisation that they’re representing.
Question: Paul Maddrell, Loughborough University. Thank you very much for the very interesting introduction to your book, which obviously is a work of American Idealism, the great American belief in freedom. I’m rather surprised you didn’t talk about the United States Constitution. Could you say what role you think the United States Constitution plays? Because frankly since President Trump was elected, we’ve learned more in Britain about the United States Constitution and every single amendment over the last 8 months than I’ve learnt in my entire life. Listening to your talk I was very reminded of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas who talks very like you, and what he says is ‘I’m a patriot, but I’m a constitutional patriot. (*inaudible*)…if the federal republic of Germany is loyal to its constitution’. So what is your view of the United States Constitution? Can it defeat tyranny in this particular case? Are you not overreacting?
Timothy Snyder: At some ideal level I would identify with the positions that you describe, maybe not quite this constitution. But lesson 19 is be a patriot, and I identify patriotism normatively as the nation that you won’t your country to live up to certain ideas, as opposed to nationalism which is the discursive practice of leaders telling their people that they’re already the best. I’m close to the position that you identify, however, our constitution itself has some shortcomings. We have this great romance with our constitution which is funny because it’s hard to love things that are more than 200 years old. We have the oldest one, it’s old and it’s creaky. I wouldn’t normally (*inaudible*) Americans if I didn’t distinguish between the amendments and the articles. 25 is an article, when you’re thinking of 1 and 2 you’re thinking of amendments. The first thing I want to say is that we have in our country a deep problem with democracy. The constitution itself is not bringing us democracy. I will list a half-dozen of our problems with democracy, I always forget some of the major ones, but they include the electoral college, they include the fact that the small states have extra senators and therefore voters in small states in fact get more votes, they include the mass of gerrymandering so that you get situations like in my home state of Ohio a democratic vote counts for half as much as a republican vote, or in North Carolina where the majority voters are democrats but there’s nevertheless a constitutional majority in the State House which is Republican. Voting on Tuesday when it’s not a national holiday is obviously crazy. Unlimited money in politics, the argument for that being free speech, which I find that just completely untenable, and in practice one just observes how a billionaire in one state can just throw tens of millions of dollars at another state and change the outcome. So all of these things hold us back meaningfully from one person one vote. And if we did have one person one vote a lot of our political outcomes would be different. For one thing, I don’t think Mr Trump could have been elected. He was elected thanks to the undemocratic parts of the system to which he is now very beholden, and one of the reasons why I worry about a one party state in the US is that the Republicans are very aware that their base is very ethnically-defined. So it’s very tempting for them, because they’re human, to think of ways of making the system more like that, hence Mr Trump’s so-called voter fraud investigation. So the constitution is not giving us democracy, which is the first point, which means there have to be interpretations or amendments or legislation or most-likely state-level legislation to get us more democratic before one can completely say the constitution solves the problems. Second point, the founders didn’t think that the institutions defend themselves on their own. The founders thought that the institutions – the constitutional institutions, such as article 2, the legislature, the judiciary, article 3 – were necessary but not sufficient conditions. That without these things you would have tyranny, with these things with good will and good luck, you might not have tyranny. So hence my call at the beginning to say don’t expect the institutions to defend you, you have to defend the institutions. Which brings me to my third point: in practice, it’s been very mixed. To my mind, the checks and balances unfortunately that we have between president and congress, between supreme 1 and 2, are party rather than institutional. And so when one has president and congress of the same party, unfortunately, even though it’s obvious that this man should be impeached – I mean, just on the alloyments clause which says that you can’t profit from being president, it’s obvious that he should have been impeached from day one. The fact that he was probably installed from another government is the kind of thing that from a different congress might have inspired a more serious reaction. The constitutional checks and balances have worked moderately well. It’s been more the level of the rule of law that we’ve been holding on to. As of yet, no one has said ‘I’m not going to abide by a court ruling’. I think the moment someone says that then all bets are off, because that’s the only rule that everyone’s respecting. I’m just going to step back and talk about how the checks and balances are actually working in the US because the checks that are working are not so much the constitutional ones. There’s a check that’s coming from independent journalism which is incredibly important because without the knowledge from independent journalism we wouldn’t know what we were trying to stop them from doing because what they say about themselves is so surreal and grotesque. That’s been a very important check. So without the journalists there wouldn’t be the Russia investigation. The Russia investigation is the second check, but the Russian investigation doesn’t come from anywhere constitutional, it comes from a law enforcement agency. Then the other check that people are expecting that the various generals – who in a better situation would not be in the civilian jobs that they hold now because that’s fundamentally inappropriate – but we’re counting on them as a kind of check. And then as a last resort we’re counting on Ivanka. So we’re counting on the FBI to check the generals to check the kleptocrats to check Trump. Those are checks, but they’re not the checks that we’re supposed to have, they’re not the constitutional ones. That’s how I see it.
Question: (*inaudible*) I’m an undergraduate here in London. I wanted to ask whether you think that there could be a symbiotic relationship between the apparent disregard for classical norms of free speech in the academy and amongst young people at universities in America, and the apparent disregard for truth on the populist right.
Timothy Snyder: So, have you studied in the US?
Questioner: Yeah, I was at UC San Diego.
Timothy Snyder: Is there an example from UCSD of students and issues with free speech?
Questioner: No it wasn’t particularly bad, I would probably make more reference to Yale, the incident with the college masters at Yale.
Timothy Snyder: The college masters at Yale – I’m going to start small and then go big – have the job of looking after undergraduate students. The college master (*inaudible*) had two African American students working for him, one of whom he called by the wrong name – the name of the other African American student. He sees them both every day. While he called her by the wrong name, his friend was holding his cell phone and filming her. The film was then made public with the specific goal of making it look like this young woman was irrational. I ask you, is that man fulfilling his pastoral duty vis-à-vis with that student? And remember, like with all of these tape incidents, video or audio, it’s only the best/worst bit that we ever get to see. In that particular case, there was a much longer discussion going on about whether the name of the college Calhoun should be changed. This was formulated as a free speech issue but I don’t see why it should be because names of things are changed all the time. So when Ukraine has a revolution they knock down the Lenin statues no one says ‘oh wait what about free speech? What about Lenin?’ Yale had a college called Calhoun so that we could attract money from racists in the 1930s. You know who Calhoun is, Calhoun was one of our great orators, a spectacularly eloquent defender of slavery, who argued that America was like the classical world and therefore we should have slaves because the Greeks did. He made the point much better than I’m making it. He was one of the famous, famous orators of the third-quarter of the 19th century. So we named a college after Calhoun not then but in the 30s because we were trying to attract donors from the South. Like a lot of things in American life, you can say ‘well do we still identify with that or not?’ just like in Ukraine you can say ‘do we still identify with Lenin or not?’ So the background to the moment that you’re describing is a longer discussion about whether Calhoun, the most eloquent and probably the most noted American defender of slavery, should still be the name of a liberal arts college in the 21st century, which I think is a legitimate discussion, and it’s a discussion that eventually went the other way – the name of Calhoun college has been changed. So that’s small. Big: in general terms, in the United States of America, campuses are one of the few places where people can actually say what they want. This means that people say lots of stupid things – I teach students every day and I am aware of this. But it’s one of the few places in the US where people actually do say what they want. And those 4 years as undergraduates is the time when they are the freest to say what they want. And among the few people in America who are actually trying to describe what’s going on, you’ll notice there’s a disproportionate percentage of people with tenure at universities, and there’s a reason for that, and that’s because campuses are places where people can actually say what they think, as opposed to other places the risks are a lot smaller. If I was working somewhere else it’s less likely I would be saying the things that I’m saying right now, as much as I’d like to think otherwise. So what’s actually going on in the US is that we have campuses where free speech is practised being tested by a rather organised funded campaign to send right wing speakers to campuses and then say ‘okay why won’t you let them talk? Don’t you believe in free speech?’ Whereas I think ‘look okay, I believe in gravity, but I don’t feel like a have to prove it to you by jumping out that window. I believe in free speech, but that doesn’t mean that I think Yale should invite Nazi paedophiles’. That’s how we’re being tested. Universities are being tossed these people and then if we don’t allow them to come the claim is we don’t believe in free speech, which in turn is part of a campaign to defund the state universities like CUCSD. All of this goes back to the fact that the state universities are seen unfortunately by one of the political parties in the United States as the source of dissent. So very important campus systems – for example the North Carolina system which was once the pride of the world, when I went to Oxford 25 years ago you wouldn’t see it was as good an institution to Oxford, which is now not the case, and it’s not because Oxford is so much better, although I love the place, but because the university of North Carolina system has unfortunately gotten much worse, and it’s part of a general campaign. So the answer to your question is no, I don’t think there’s a symbiotic relationship. I’ll tell you where I think the left is at fault, which is somewhere else. I think by establishing the norm that we don’t know what truth is, it makes it much harder to then respond to truth claims from the other side. So if Mr Trump says for example that an American general dipped bullets in pigs’ blood and kills Muslims with them, which is a crazy thing to say anyway even if it were true, we’ve kind of gotten out of the habit in the way we think about history of just saying ‘actually that’s a lie, it never happened, that’s just wrong’, we have to hold a discussion of the point of view of the bayonets and the point of view of the pigs and everyone’s subjective perspective before we get down to the issue that the incident in question never actually took place. So I do blame the left for that, I think in that way the left has set us up for the right. Or to put it in a more straightforward way: once you reduce factuality’s subjectivity, what you’re going to get is that the people who can produce the best spectacle are always going to win, which is what we’re seeing now in the US and other places.
Question: I’m Ms Carter, (*inaudible*) individual and humanist. You mentioned Orwell and you mentioned truth and that inevitably leads you to the book that I grew up with ‘1984’, and I re-read it every ten years because the world had moved on and moved up closer to all the structures and all the fabrications and all the ways of dismantling truth in ‘1984’, until it came to be almost a given that ‘1984’ was meant to be a warning, it wasn’t meant to be a blueprint. But I’ve kind of stopped reading it because we’ve gone so far beyond it. So where you mention the change in the way that tyranny happens today, is there any sense in the thought that actually it’s because people are trying to make it up as they go along in a post ‘1984’ world? Because truth at least in ‘1984’ there was a whole raft of people whose job was to re-write the truth of yesterday in the light of the truth of today. They would actually go back and edit the newspapers and the news and make sure everything was actually in line with the truth of today. Whereas as you say today they don’t even bother to do that, they just pour fake news on fake news on fake news to bury the truth.
Timothy Snyder: I’m so glad to meet you because I also read ‘1984’ every 10 years. I started doing it in 1984. In 2004, I wrote an essay about ‘1984’ in the context of the American war in Iraq, which someone in this blessed country published because it was still at that time when I couldn’t get it published in the US because I had views about the Iraq war which were way out of the mainstream. I can tell you haven’t read ‘On Tyranny’ because if you had you would know that Orwell is everywhere in it. There’s a shortlist of books that I recommend in the middle. That book (‘1984’) has been an inspiration to me for my entire life, I can say without hesitation. Every time I read it I read it differently, possibly because I change but also because the world changes. So I read it again this time around out of sequence and there a couple of things which struck me that are in this book. One of them which I already mentioned is kindness to the language, which of course comes out of his essay ‘Politics of the English Language’ and a number of other things that he did. It matters so much that we are able to generate the language in a way that doesn’t just repeat or rephrase the things that come into our ears or into our eyes when we enter that. That was so clearly important to Orwell, and the way that one does it is by reading books, it’s very simple. If you read a book then you’re getting yourself out of the repetition cycle that we’re all in every day. Deep in the book, the darkest parts of the book are too close (*inaudible*). When ‘1984’ was produced on Broadway that’s one of the things that they made central, the 2+2=5, the ability to see 2+2 as being 5. That’s pretty close to where we are now as well, because we’re not having a problem just with factuality, we’re having a problem with people being able to believe in two incompatible things at the same time, and resisting logic. So with Mr Trump, it’s not just that he lies all the time, it’s that he doesn’t believe in the principle of non-contradiction. He doesn’t believe he’s doing anything wrong if two propositions contradict each other or if one of them contradicts the world or if both of them contradict the world. He never apologises for these things, and it’s that lack of apology and that lack of shame which is so worrying. And the ability of others to go along with this and to say ‘well it doesn’t matter that I believe one thing or that I said one thing’ is worrying for me. Another thing with Orwell that really struck me rereading it a few months ago was the screen time. Americans spend 7 hours a day in front of screens, which is about as long as my sleep, and I don’t imagine in Britain it’s hugely better. Whenever I say it in America it’s like a laugh line, and then I just sort of ask you to reflect. And in general by the way I think it’s important for us to realise that we’re all in this together. These phenomena appear with different strengths in different places but they’re present all across the West. With Trump we got a little bit unlucky, a few things could have been slightly different…we had the first potential woman President…the French got a little bit lucky. Anyway, if screen time had been 6 and a half hours a day, I think Trump would have lost. The more time people spent in front of the internet, the less likely they were to be thinking about their own interests and the more likely they were to being drawn in to some kind of fable. We’re learning more and more a year on out about just how skilful people were in the production of these fables. Usually these fables by the way are not to motivate but to demotivate, so the idea that Hilary Clinton was sick, which a lot of people in the real world believed, was deliberately fabricated and transmitted to people who according to calculations and protocols were thought to be susceptible to that kind of story. The idea that Hilary Clinton was a mass murderer which I also heard from a lot of people in the real world was targeted to another set of people. But in ‘1984’ of course you have to spend time in front of the screen, you have to. And one of the things that strikes me about our world is that we just do it anyway, we’re just drawn into it. I had a lot of time this morning because I had to go through a British passport line, and there was a mother and daughter behind me and instead of talking to each other about London or whatever they were not only on their phones but all they talked about was the phone, like ‘do you have eough battery power?’ You’re two layers of separation away from reality all the time. In the Trump White House – not to pick on the Trump White House, but what else should one pick on? – the Director of Homeland Security was carrying a phone from December of last year until August of this year, which was not only insecure but almost certainly corrupt. Why did he not turn it in? He’s the Director of Homeland Security. Every time you hand over one of your bags to be checked in an American airport, the Director of Homeland Security was carrying a phone that was bugged for 8 months. Why was he doing that? Because he liked his phone. White House staffers right now are resisting instructions from American security agencies to not use their phones, because they dislike them too much right. That’s a question of national security.
Question: Hi, Lucy Harris. I was wondering, going back to this gentleman’s question, you brought up two conflicting responsibilities of a university. Is a university ideally meant to search for the truth through questioning or is it there to protect its students, which one wins out in your opinion?
Question: John Richard, member of the society. You seem to be focusing very much on tyranny coming from government institutions and the like, but I put it to you that given that the human race is accelerating towards its own self-destruction there are other tyrannies far more dangerous like the tyranny of democracy itself, which requires that there be more public expenditure on voters to get people elected, therefore that will destroy economies. The tyranny of capitalism which demands that more consumption take place, which accelerates the problems of global warming. And the tyranny of religion perhaps that’s been there a long time. But also computers. Computers are undoubtedly the biggest threat to human life that is around. Please let us hear your views.
Timothy Snyder: so I think the university is there for lots of different things. I was just in Riga, it was a great honour for me to be in Riga because in Riga they have an Isaiah Berlin lecture every year and I got to give the Isaiah Berlin lecture which was a great thrill for me because he was one of my teachers. But one of the things that Isaiah Berlin certainly had right and which I try to keep in mind and which seems simple although on the day to day it’s hard, is that there are many good things in life, and trying to get them to go together is the challenge of ethical thought, not trying to find the one thing that’s the most important, but getting various good things to fit together in some kind of practical way. That’s not as glamorous as performing a logical exercise where you end up with just one thing at the end of the reasoning, but I think it’s a much better way to think about life in general or politics or university. So when I’m at a university, my main job is to teach students to think in certain ways, which includes teaching them facts. But it also includes teaching them methods of interpretation. And I’m happily to call both of those things truth, I have no problem with the word truth. At the same time, it is part of my pastoral duty – as it would be if I were a doctor or a nurse – to make sure that there’s an environment in which this is possible. There are certain things which I would consider to be inappropriate at my university, for example violence. I don’t consider my job to be raising them like their parents. But I do think that precisely for there to be environments for people to learn, you have to have certain preconditions, like for example in a library. There are things that one has to have: quiet, for example. If it were up to me I would stop Wi-Fi for one day a week – I actually did that once, I had this experiment where I bought a Wi-Fi jammer which is completely illegal and took it on a train just to see what would happen, and of course what happened is that people had actual conversations and read books. In my classes I ban all electronics of any kind and even when I give lectures in other universities I just won’t do it until everybody puts their electronics away. I see that as a kind of protection of the students – probably not what you were thinking – but I think certain conditions have to be obtained before what I’m happy to call the pursuit of truth can actually take place, and it’s part of my job to make sure those conditions are obtained and to think about what those conditions are. If you mean do I coddle them and take care of them when they have break ups, then no that’s not my job. If I’m a professor then it’s my job to not only teach them but to maintain the conditions in which that’s possible.
Yes, of course there are many tyrannies. In this book I perform the exercise of trying to give a kind of first aid to what is already a flawed creature, but to keep it going in the notion that if we keep it going we can make it better. Going back to the earlier gentleman’s question: if we lose our constitutional order, imperfect though it is, it’s going to be very hard to build something somewhere back up. This is a targeted exercise, but you’ll notice that in the remarks and if you have a look at the book, that some of the things you’re concerned about I treat as being inherent to this. I’m not sure where you come from on the computer question, but where I come from is that what the internet has gotten very good at is addressing our hippocampus and medulla oblongata and maybe on a good day the cerebellum, it doesn’t actually address the cerebrum, it actually keeps us away from building the kinds of useful neurological connections that help us have the kind of conversations that we’re having right now. So time with the internet actually bestialises us in certain ways. Of course you can do good things on the internet, but if people just let it flow it does tend to de-enlighten us. I’m not sure if that’s the tyranny you’re talking about, but it’s a form which worries me. It convinces people that the things that are not true are true – and this is something I learned when I tried to canvas in real life. I wasn’t joking about Hilary being a mass murderer and being sick, that’s what millions and millions and millions of Americans thought. One of the interesting things about the Russian connection is that there are certain stories that you can track from Petersburg into America and then you talk to the people who believe them and you just cannot convince them that some Russian in Petersburg made that up, because for them it’s true, for them it’s life. That is a fairly deep kind of tyranny, the separation from experience. But y’know, with the capitalism and the democracy – I’m going to resist slightly on democracy and say that the more money that is in democracy the less it works like democracy. We’ve kind of done this mixed experiment where we say if you’re an oligarch you can spend as much money as you want on elections, which turns out to be a really bad idea. I think democracy with public funding and with limits and so on probably works a lot better. Okay, I’ve rambled on your question, probably unsatisfactorily, but there we are.
Question: I’m John Wilk, not from any organisation. At the start of the primaries, the Republican establishment, particularly Senators (*inaudible*) and Rubio, weren’t very keen on Trump at all. Would you like to comment on the extent to which the party has fallen in line behind him?
Andrew Foxall (HJS): Thank you Timothy. I wonder if you could just return to the notion of the timescapes that you mentioned towards the end of your talk of inevitability and of doom. How does the transition between the two timescapes occur and where and when did you first see that transition take place?
Question: Charles Zaviaga, gentleman of leisure. Basically, what is to be done?
Timothy Snyder: On what is to be done I am just going to shamelessly punt and say that that is what the book is about, the book is 20 things and each of them are pretty straightforward. If we keep our pluralist constitutional system going, at least in my country and as I see it in Russia the nastier problem is inequality. This is going to now speak to Andrew’s question as well. What is to be done is to find a way to make these things that we value – let’s say democracy or let’s say Europe – attractive in a near future in a way that inspires people to action without stories about how it’s automatically going to go, because those stories were never true and they no longer work. That’s my short answer. But I think you’ll find some of the 20 lessons are pretty punchy.
Questioner: A bullet would be quite punchy.
Timothy Snyder: I’m sorry?
Questioner: Thinking back to the days of my youth I’m starting to realise the impact Hitler had on Europe, and I think maybe sometime around 1935 if somebody had taken him out it might have been a bit different.
Timothy Snyder: I’m going to take a kant on that one, it’s not a rule I would wish to describe into politics. I don’t even think I have to go into details. On the inevitability/eternity: since these are my own little inventions, I’ll just recall what I mean. So inevitability is the idea – it could be Marxist it could be capitalist etc – that you know what the future is going to be, that history basically follows one line. So what’s happening in the present takes its significance from the future. Sure maybe there is a financial crisis now, but that’s a bump in the road because we know that in general capitalism is going to produce greater welfare and so on. Or y’know sure we’re having a great terror at the moment but the great terror is part of a story in which there is going to be a class struggle which is eventually going to produce a utopia. That sort of story is inevitability. And then eternity is a story which says the nation is good, the nation is innocent, the things that are not in the centre are beyond our boundaries but they’re regularly coming in for us. This is the key question: how do you get from one to the other? The way I see it the relationship is intimate. One of them prepares the way for the other. Going back to inequality, if you believed in the politics of inevitability and its American version, and you conducted an experiment after ’89 in which you basically set out what happens if you take a very large population and you allow levels of economic inequality to reach the same levels of 1929, which is where we are now. What happens? Oh and by the way, while you’re doing it make sure not to build up any kind of adequate welfare state, because that would ruin the experiment. That’s basically what we’ve done to ourselves and now we’re seeing the result. And the result is that individual by individual, family by family, the story of progress stops making sense. There’s data for this, it’s not just people feel this way. If you’re an American born in ’45, your chances of living better than your parents in terms of income were 80%. If you’re an American born in 1980, your chances are down to I think it’s 50%. Today people believe that there’s a 60% chance that their children will live worse than them, which is the first time we’ve ever crossed that threshold. Inequality has an effect on objective but also on perceptions of social advance. You see this as individual families, and then you see it in a town, then in a valley, then you see it in (*inaudible*) as a whole, where this idea that mobility breaks, and maybe the people of Washington and Los Angeles don’t see it, but it breaks. So inequality is one thing. Another thing is – now we’re being a little more intellectual – inevitability prepares the way for eternity by clearing away the facts of the past. Inevitability says that there are no alternatives. It says that history is over, and once you declare that history is over then all the nice things that I have the pleasure of talking to you about no longer matter. It doesn’t matter whether there is an article or an amendment, it doesn’t matter what Orwell said, it doesn’t matter what the Classics actually have to tell us. You just get rid of all the details, because there aren’t really alternatives. So fascism or communism actually happened has become irrelevant. Or how regime changes actually happened, nobody knows. Then you don’t recognise alternatives when they start to appear. Another way that a transition is made is by way of shock. This I saw, and it was origins of the two terms which are at the beginning of the new book. I saw how young people went from thinking ‘everything is okay I can do what I want’ to ‘everything is horrible therefore I can do what I want’. One of the first talks I gave about the book was at Harvard and it was a discussion with 100 people in the room, there were some undergraduates looking at their watches and I said what’s up guys, and they said ‘Goldman is interviewing right around now’, and I said ‘okay here’s what I think. I think that up until November you guys thought everything was great therefore I can work on Wall Street, and now you think everything is awful therefore I can work on Wall Street’. They said ‘yep, that’s what I think’. If you think that history is beyond you, that you don’t really have responsibility of agency, the shift from ‘it’s all good’ to ‘it’s all bad’ is smaller than it seems because you have already entered the world of ‘history happens without me’. ‘history happens without me and it’s good’ is very close to ‘history happens without me and it’s bad’. So that’s another way that inevitability prepares the way for eternity. Then I have this longer account about how Russia gets there first, and then helps us move towards eternity faster.
Timothy Stafford: just a quick question on the Republican party. This is the question on how quickly do dissenting voices bend to new realities?
Timothy Snyder: I’m going to answer that, I’m just going to first point out that one of the many things that people got wrong was this: that Trump can never be the nominee because the Republican establishment will stop him. That was the conventional wisdom of conventional wisdoms, I’m sure you heard people say that, and that turned out not to be true. And then another thing people said ‘well once he’s president they’ll box him in somehow’. He’s been boxed in by some people but not by the Republican establishment, not by the senators and Republicans in the House and the Senate. And interestingly, the reason that he’s having trouble is in trying to get rid of healthcare. This is something about time by the way – my idea that leads to the manufacture of crisis. There is no legislation in the United States, things happen, the President announces things, but we don’t actually have legislation, which is interesting right? We used to have legislation, you still have legislation. The two things they’ve been tempted to do are one: tax regression – rich people pay less; poor people pay more. The second is removing people’s healthcare. Neither of which is policy in the conventional sense or it’s not policy in this normal democratic sense of giving people stuff and they vote for us because we give them stuff. The policies that have been proposed are not policies that would generally benefit most of their electorate. But the striking thing is they can’t even get those things passed. The reason why is because in the Republican party, especially in the House, you have lots of people whose careers depend upon a version of Republican ideas that are different to Mr Trump’s, according to which the state should not be involved in these things at all. Obamacare, the affordable care act didn’t get repealed because many Republicans thought that the thing that was going to replace it was too radical. So it’s not exactly that there’s Mr Trump and there’s the next Republicans trying to stop him, a lot of people in the House are in many ways much more radical than Mr Trump, especially on the issue of whether the state should be doing anything. So the outcome is the state doesn’t do very much. Now, the main issue that Republicans want, the main thing they care about is tax regression, that’s their number one issue – tax cuts for the rich, tax reform is what they call it. They’re probably going to get that in in some form, and I don’t think there’s going to be any impeachment of Mr Trump until they get that. But as far as the ‘heroic Republicans resisting Mr Trump’, it’s few and far between. People said lots of creative things during the campaign, but since the campaign it’s like Porker who’s not running, McCain from time to time, but it doesn’t amount to a whole lot, and it’s surprisingly little. I’ve give you an example of a discussion that’s going on now in Washington. It’s hard to talk about this because it sounds funny, but Nuclear War is not actually funny. People are seriously considered within the beltway that we’re going to have a nuclear war with North Korea for no reason. So there’s discussion amongst congressmen and senators about whether there should be a law which says the president cannot unilaterally start a nuclear war, but people are afraid to actually talk about this openly. Now I would have thought that if there were any serious concern about a nuclear war being started for no reason, that would be the kind of thing that would inspire people to talk openly about the president, but even with that we’re not getting very far.
Timothy Stafford: Cheerful note on which to end. But the book is available outside, and before that I’d like to thank Professor Snyder for coming in and for sharing his thoughts with us.