Sunday, March 5, 2017

"Don't it Always Seem to go, that You don't Know What You've Got 'til it's Gone?"

A month after the election, Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, gave a talk to a group of undergraduates about what European history can teach us in the age of Trump. It's worth a listen.

History never repeats, said Snyder, it doesn't even rhyme, but there are certain things that go together, and some of those things should make us uncomfortable.  It's time to think of counter-measures, he warns, and he has written down a handy cheat sheet. We should take note. We are way past the point where we should question the relevance of lessons offered by 1930's Germany, he says.

In the first 25 minutes of the lecture, above, Snyder outlines what he sees as two danger poles in our "incredibly boring politics." Although, suddenly, our politics are boring no more.  These danger poles are the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity.

The Politics of Inevitability

In the U.S., we've lived the politics of inevitability since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We've had a sense of inevitability about liberal democracy as we've known it. We have lost the capacity to envision and take seriously alternatives to liberal capitalist democracy. It's all that's left.  Even the Chinese have come around to capitalism with Chinese characteristics, and surely democratic liberalization and civil rights must follow.

Don't tell that to Xi Jinping.

We've fallen into a trap of assuming, since communism has proven untrue, our liberal democratic alternative must be true. But nothing is inevitable, says Snyder.

Our politics have become boring because we could no longer imagine an alternative. We've taken our Enlightenment heritage for granted. One party has become the party of the status quo that must be: Bill Clinton, Barak Obama and the Democratic party have been the technocratic custodians and defenders of the status quo. That's boring. "Don't it always seem to go," sang Joni Mitchell, "that you don't know what you've got 'til its gone."

"They paved paradise, and they put up a parking lot." That was written in 1967-68; but today we're talking about much more than DDT and a parking lot. We're talking about the whole liberal order.

The feeling that our liberal democratic politics are inevitable, says Snyder, has given rise to a paranoid impulse. If there is no alternative, perhaps it's fixed. Perhaps there's something dark and sinister about it. Perhaps there's a secret reality underneath. So opposition in this politics of inevitability, says Snyder, has consisted of fancy, crazy, rebellious, system destroying ideas--from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump.

These reactionary ideas are not particularly articulate. "Shrink government 'til we can drown it in a bathtub." There were pledges to never ever, under any circumstances, sign on to a tax increase. There is denial of climate change. "The Democrats don't listen, so we'll just have to cram it down their throats," said one Trump supporter in my Facebook feed recently. He did not explain what the "it" was he was referring to.

Such opposition can be effective despite the lack of an intelligent program beyond opposition and destruction. Attackers of the liberal order derisively speak of "neoliberalism" (like others speak of neo-conservatism to paint the devil black), says Snyder. But neoliberalism is not a program; it's no criticism to call the Democratic Party neoliberal. Such a label buys into the lack of alternatives. It's a gesture of helplessness, says Snyder.

Opposition in an environment where there is no intelligible alternative becomes the politics of disruption. Trump's senior advisor in the White House, Steve Bannon, talks frequently of disruption. But be careful with disruption, says Snyder: the premise of "disruption" is that the system will automatically rebound no matter how obnoxiously or seriously we disrupt it. But what if the system does not bounce back? What if the disruption is entirely empty, but successful? What happens after our disruptor-in-chief is done with his disruption? The liberal order is not inevitable in fact, warns Snyder. It is not invincible and it won't necessarily bounce back.

Disruption is vulnerable to shocks. If something significant happens (a 9/11; a Reichtagsfire) suddenly there is no story. Everything is new, and suddenly everything is permitted. As Germans and Eastern Europeans tragically discovered in the last century, systems that seem "inevitable" can suddenly collapse.

The Politics of Eternity

The danger is that we can shift from a politics of "inevitability" straight to a politics of eternity. The politics of eternity refers to an ideal past; but it's a past that never existed. It is a politics that pays allegiance to a fictional past, and that is nostalgic for things that never were. 

The politics of eternity asks us to jump arm-in-arm into a black hole to escape non-existent, or much exaggerated threats. The politics of eternity invokes the threat of terrorism, immigrant hordes, and unseen criminals. The politics of eternity puts forth a political savior who rides the wave of this (imagined) threat. This savior will save us by dismantling the administrative state, by arresting schoolchildren brought here as infants and expelling them from our midst, by dismantling environmental protections and consumer protections, by expanding and streamlining the police state to answer to the White House. This savior means to save us by dismantling our civil liberties and our free press, by disrupting our boring liberal democratic values. 

And don't it always seem to go, that we don't know what we've got 'til it's gone. It's a lesson we should take to heart.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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