Dragonflies, On Tyranny, and the strange reverence for Putin
by Rob Tiller
On Saturday morning I had to drive out to Apex for a haircut with Ann, who’s been cutting my hair ever since we lived there. I asked Sally if she had any good ideas for nearby places to hike and look for dragonflies, and she suggested the reservoir at Apex Community Park. I spent an hour and a half there before my haircut, and took these pictures. It was quite hot and muggy, and with my 180 mm lens and tripod, I managed to work up a considerable sweat, as Ann noted.
This week I read On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder’s latest book. Snyder, a history professor at Yale, has a deep knowledge of the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century, and perspectives on how they bring civic life to an end. He points up that these developments have been the product of many individual choices, including choices to quietly compromise, let go of moral principles, obey orders, and submit. His book is short and unsystematic, but full of sparky insights and practical advice on opposing authoritarianism.
Do we need such advice? Yes. I’d been starting to think once again that Trump was more a disturbed clownish bumbler than a genuine threat to our democracy. But even after several months of failures, embarrassments, and scandals, he’s still popular with conservative Republicans (90 percent of them approve, according to one poll last week), which is making me wonder.
I felt a cold chill when I read in the NY Times yesterday that there’s a prominent branch of conservative Republicans that are aligned with Trump in admiring Vladimir Putin. The Times cited several high-profile ideologues like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and Pat Buchanan as viewing Putin as the kind of leader it would be nice to have here. Apparently they admire his “Christian” values (such as criminalizing homosexuality) and manly aura, and aren’t much bothered by his murdering of opponents, military invasions of neighbors, looting of his own country, or his subverting of elections here and elsewhere. I somehow had missed that this point of view existed, and found it shocking.
Snyder’s book shows how the personal is related to the political: authoritarian systems invade the personal realm and then undermine it. Accordingly, there is a political aspect to maintaining personal integrity and ordinary human relationships. Eye contact, smiles, and small talk have a deeper meaning and value when the government is unleashing attacks on minorities or suppressing dissent. Part of resisting is maintaining human contact.
Snyder observes that constant grandiose lying is a common thread of the successful authoritarian regimes in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere. But we now have a related problem never seen before: the internet echo chamber, filled with bots, which create and amplify illusions, and make it hard to distinguish true from false. The very concept of truth is at risk. For some, facts seem to be irrelevant. It is both ironic and scary that Trump and his minions have repurposed the term “fake news” to mean news they dislike. Part of resisting is serious reading, evaluating evidence, and applying reason.
Of course, it’s still possible that our institutions will work as intended and our traditional liberties will survive without permanent damage. The recent demonstrations of the weaknesses in our systems could teach us some lessons, and we might even emerge stronger and wiser. But it’s a good idea to do some contingency planning and worst case modeling. We may need all of our courage.