Rappler Talk: Timothy Snyder on tyranny, truth and democracy

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CONNECTICUT, USA – Award-winning author and Yale University Professor Timothy Snyder specializes in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and the holocaust. He has written several books about authoritarianism, fascism, and nationalism, the latest being On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

In this interview on March 6, 2020 with Rappler’s Maria Ressa, Snyder talks about the interesting political patterns he’s observed in his study of history, and what this might mean for the future of democracies. He highlights the function of truth as the foundation of a healthy democracy, and warns against the fundamental divide between true and false seen in politics today. 

“When you worry is when people stop caring about the laws and stop caring about the institutions,” he says in this Rappler Talk. “And above all, when people stop caring about - or even actively oppose - the thing which underlies all the laws and institutions, and that’s the truth. You can’t do without the truth.”


MR: Tim, you’ve been studying history a very long time. You started looking at patterns that seemed to be repeating itself. What drew your attention?

TS: One big pattern is globalization, and how at the beginning of globalization, people are very optimistic and think, “Aha! Things are going to go the right way. There are no alternatives. We’ll have liberalism, we’ll have democracy.” And then there are globalization shocks and suddenly we’re all surprised. And then democracy starts to roll back and liberalism doesn’t seem so inevitable. That’s happened once already in the beginning of the 20th century. It’s happening again in the beginning of the 21st century. That’s a pattern.

And then there’s a related human pattern, which is that people get used to things being a certain way. They forget that democracy is about the people, which means individual people, which means individual responsibility. And then when things start to turn, they say, “Well, what can I do? I’m surprised. This must be somebody else’s job. This must be the job of the institutions.” And once you go that far, once you say it’s someone else’s job, that the institutions will do it for you - then you’re going to lose your democracy. That’s also a pattern.

MR: What are the warning signals now that we are losing democracy?

TS: I don’t like to think about warning signals because I think that like, life is one long warning signal. We’re not really built for good systems or bad systems. What we are is capable of learning what is good and taking decisions about what is good. So I don’t like the whole warning signals/red lines way of thinking about things because I think life is just one big warning signal. We’re all heavily flawed, right? We have big problems. And good politics is about recognizing that we all have big problems, including the people who want to rule us - they often have even bigger problems. And so democracy starts from the idea that the people are going to check each other with laws and with institutions, right? And so when you worry is when people stop caring about the laws and stop caring about the institutions. And above all, when people stop caring about - or even actively oppose - the thing which underlies all the laws and institutions, and that’s the truth. You can’t do without the truth. Once you start thinking - it’s just your opinion, it’s just my opinion, there are no facts, who knows - once you start thinking that way, then laws and institutions become impossible. Because you can’t have a courtroom without facts, you can’t write laws without facts, you can’t implement a policy without facts, you can’t even organize a citizens’ protest without facts. So facts underlie everything.

The thing which troubles me the most, and I think the fundamental dividing line in politics right now is between true and false, between people who care about the truth and between people who say, “Who knows? There is no truth.” By the way, this is an interesting difference between now and the big totalitarianisms. The big totalitarianisms - the nazis, the communists - they had their one truth. Whereas our authoritarianisms, at least many of them - they have zero. They have none. They win the game when they get anyone to stop believing that anything is true.

MR: Truth, lies, facts. Right now, they all seem to merge, right? People keep saying “My truth is my truth. My facts are my facts. Why does it have to be yours?” How do you see leaders using this now?

TS: It’s so important because facts are something that we get together. If I want to know how much pollution there is, I can’t find out by myself. I need other people. If I want to know whether a school’s a good school, I need to talk to other people. The people who produce facts are all working in communities - whether it’s a scientist or a journalist. Facts come out of certain kinds of disciplines’ communal labor. If we’re alienated, if we’re all on our own, if all we do is look at our individual Google or Facebook feeds, we might think we’re getting to the truth, but we’re not. What we’re getting to is the stuff that makes us feel good and then we get confused, then we think what makes us feel good is the truth. And then it’s even harder for us to talk to other people because they’re off in their own internet world, with their own stuff that makes them feel good. And suddenly there’s a barrier between the two of us. Rulers exploit that directly by using the internet, because they’re in a much better position to use the internet than we are. But also, they exploit it indirectly. Rulers who are very good at understanding emotions - like for example, Mr. Trump - and who don’t care about the truth at all - again, Mr. Trump is a good example - are very good at taking advantage of this moment. It’s like an ecosystem which is built for a creature like that.

MR: Well, one of the things that Trump and Duterte have done is to actually attack truth-tellers, right? How do people figure out who’s going to lie when the most powerful voice in the land says, “You journalists are lying.” How can we function?

TS: Yeah, for one thing, the people who are being attacked are the ones telling the truth. The tyrant doesn’t attack the people who tell you what you want to hear. The tyrant doesn’t attack the people who repeat his message. The tyrant attacks the people who are telling the truth. And so that’s already a sign - whether it’s the Philippines, Russia, the US, or anywhere else - if the tyrant is calling people out by name, if the tyrant is getting people imprisoned, if the tyrant is having people killed, if the tyrant is claiming these people are liars - well that’s a good sign that they are the ones who are seeking the truth.

Another thing which is really, really important is to just make a distinction between people like you and like a few thousand of your really admirable colleagues around the world - the people who actually travel places and talk to other people - the reporters. Make a distinction between them and everyone else. Because there aren’t that many reporters, there aren’t that many human beings who are actually going out and looking for truth. And that’s special. And I think also, we just have to give it a moral valence. We have to say, “People who are looking for the truth are courageous. They’re doing something that is courageous.” They’re taking risks. But they’re also courageous in a different way, which is that - the truth is never what you want it to be. It’s never comfortable. But it’s the thing that we all need.

MR: Your book On Tyranny compresses so much of your work, right? The Road to Unfreedom gives it in a much longer version. But it’s almost prescriptive in a way, right? So if you’re talking to somebody in a democracy that’s under attack, what are the key things you would want them to do?

TS: You just used the word ‘prescriptive.’ It’s a very important word. I mean, democracy is something that you have to want. It’s not like gravity. It’s not just there whether we care about it or not. Democracy is about the people ruling. The people have to want to rule. And so you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to rule? Or do I not care?” If you don’t care, there will always be somebody who wants it more than you do and is willing to break the rules. Then you lose the system and your children won’t have the freedoms that you took for granted. So it has to begin with a decision that you actually think some things are better than others, that democracy is better than other things - which I happen to think it is. And then as far as what we can do, I think the very first thing after caring about truth - which we’ve talked about - is to try to do things a little bit differently than everyone else. The moment that you’re guided by how everyone else is drifting is the moment that you’re very vulnerable. Because authoritarianism is very good at creating drift. It’s very good at creating the sense that this is normal, and why should you stand out? You have to stand out - not much. I mean, some courageous people do stand out a lot. But you have to stand out a little, tiny bit. You have to be a little bit unpredictable. You have to be able to say, “It’s not just that I don’t like this. I think something entirely different. I’m going to act in an entirely different way. I’m not going to stand up when everybody else stands up, or sit down when everybody else sits down. I’m not going to use the same words that everyone else has used. I’m not going to repeat the things that people said on the news this morning. I’m going to say something different. I’m going to be unpredictable.” 

I think that’s where it all begins - the individual who thinks on her own about what’s important and behaves in an unpredictable way. And then that means you can bring other people along with you. 

MR: Where do you draw courage, and that kind of thing? Especially when there are consequences. I guess, what was it like in Nazi Germany? Or what can we take from that? How can we give our people courage?

TS: I guess there’s always an argument for acting now rather than later. Because if things are going to turn out fine, then acting now has no risks. If things are going to turn out badly, acting now has lower risks than acting later. So there’s a really strong argument against putting things off, against mañana, when it comes to politics. And when you talk about courage, different people in different countries are in very different positions. In some countries, like my own, most people, if they’re citizens - especially if they’re white - are not taking very many risks at all at this point. And that’s the luxurious position which you have to exploit. Like, so long as that’s true, you’ve got to get out and march, you’ve got to write your letters to the editor, you’ve got to do the things that you can, because it’s going to get chipped away. If you say, “Well now it’s OK for me. Maybe those immigrants are in trouble or those black people are in trouble, but it’s OK for me.” If you say that, then inevitably you’re going to be unprepared when the time comes for you. 

But as far as courage for people who are really taking risks, I think that’s more about how the rest of us have to admire them. I mean, I think it’s very important that we don’t see people like Trump, for example, as exemplary. I think it’s very important that we learn to value and cherish people who actually care about values and take risks. I think it’s very important that we think about heroes not in terms of who the media or who the power gives us, but heroes as actually being the people who are individually courageous. I think it’s hard to talk about courage because it’s so unpredictable, and you never know who’s going to turn out to be courageous. What I try to think about it is admiring the people who are courageous, and giving them their names and giving them credit.

MR: Technology has done a lot to enable this kind of rise of tyranny, of fascism, right? What does civic engagement look like in the age of social media?

TS: There’s a little hygiene step, which is - if you’re doing something on social media, it should be for the purpose of getting people to do something off social media. So I wouldn’t be giving you this interview if the purpose weren’t to get people to become more active in real life in politics. That’s basically all I use social media for. I mean, I have weak moments like everybody else... But the idea is if social media begets more social media, then we’re going to move towards authoritarianism. If you use it as an instrument to get people to vote, to write, to move their bodies out into the world, then it can be a good thing. But one has to be very, very careful. Before you go on social media, you have to think, “What am I doing this for?” Then when you’re done with that, you have to get out. Because if you don’t have a purpose going into it, you’ll just get drawn in and you’ll never come out.

MR: The behavioral modification system… This happened so fast. It seemed like democracy was OK, and then within a short period of time... And you outlined the 20 steps that people should be doing In On Tyranny… I guess, it happened so fast. What will prevent it from accelerating? 

TS: That’s a great question. The underlying things, I think - the underlying problems are globalization shocks, economic and social inequality, and then this problem with the internet and truth. That happened really fast - between 2008 and 2016. People just weren’t ready for it. And still, very few people have really understood what is happening to our brains. So to reverse those things, first of all we humans have to have awareness. I mean, humans have to have conversations where we say, “Hey! These things are going on.” I mean, even inequality is not really broadly understood. Just how many Americans, for example, are not paying just how much tax - that’s just not really well understood. That Amazon didn’t pay any taxes last year - at all - which is an extraordinary fact. These are things that have to be known and have to be changed. Our individual attitude towards the internet. But then again, also the way the internet is run and the way it’s regulated - that it’s not given a free pass. I mean, books don’t get a free pass. There are rules, there’s copyright. There have to be rules. And also, thinking creatively about how we can use taxation of the big internet companies to fund local journalism. I think that can be a really good thing. 

And then we have to think about, for me, the state again as a way to create normal lives for people. So without big ideologies, I mean, I agree that those are done for. But the idea that the state is there so that we can have education, healthcare, pension. So that life, which is hard enough already, doesn’t have the stress of the beginning of life, sickness, the end of life. Some of that stress can be taken away. And then move freer, then we can make up our minds about what kind of people we want to be. Those are basics. Those are like the big, underlying things. But the things that we’ve been talking about in the short term are really important. That people have to wake up, look around, make their own decisions, care about what’s true, and support other people who are looking for what’s true.

MR: In the age of chaos though, and abundance of information, how do people figure out what to believe?

TS: See, I think that’s really easy. It’s like you’re in a buffet, and all there is is candy, and like cake and cookies. And you say, “Well, where can I find my vegetables? Where are my carrots?” And the answer is, you’re in the wrong restaurant. The answer is not that hard. The answer is, you trust the investigative journalists and you figure out where they are writing. So you don’t start by opening the screen and seeing where that’s going to lead you. That’s going to the wrong restaurant. You start by saying, “Who are 5 or 10 investigative journalists in my own country who I know travel and talk to people and do hard work?” And I’m going to follow them. Whether they’re writing for the New York Times, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, or Novaya Gazeta or whoever they’re writing for. I’m going to follow those people. And then I’m going to read what they write. Do that first, and then if you’ve got time for other things, do those other things. That’s the trick. I’m going to pay attention to other people who I know are doing the work, rather than saying, “I’m going to just kind of drive down the street and there’s a restaurant. I’ll just go to that restaurant.”

MR: And that’s not a generational thing? I mean, cause kids are getting all their stuff from TikTok. I guess I love that, because I’m a journalist. Journalism, news groups are under attack now. Our business model is dead, and the very same platforms that are attacking us on the revenue model are also attacking our credibility and eroding that trust. What do you do for people who are so easily distracted?

TS: Well, this is where it started. We’re imperfect. We’re imperfect, which is great. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need politics. We’re imperfect, we’re easily distracted. And that’s why you have education. And that’s also why you can’t hand off education to the platforms. Why you can’t digitalize education. Because if you digitalize education, you create a situation where the kids know more than the teachers, and the kids know all the escapes and all the ends round. And the kids end up thinking that life is just a place where you escape from life. So yeah, we’re easily distracted but that’s why you have to have schools. And that’s why the schools, I think, have to be about pens and paper, very traditional methods, and teachers talking to children, and as much human contact as possible. 

So I teach kids, I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I have kids. And my experience with the gadgets has been that - yeah, they’re addicted to them but on the other hand, if you take them away by force, they actually enjoy it. I banned gadgets in my classroom in 2006. And I teach very big classes where the students do very well, largely as a result of that. They like the feeling that they’re together in a classroom as people. And they also learn better. The research is all on my side here too, but it’s just my experience. They simply learn much better if they’re not distracted by their own screen, and the person next to them’s screen, and all the noise of people [typing]. So yes, everyone’s distracted. But I wouldn’t give up on young people at all. I would say, there just have to be some sensible rules. Sure, you can do that when I’m not around, but in the class, we’re going to pay attention. We’re going to be human beings. 

MR: I’m keeping track of time. Two last questions. The first one is, when was the point of alarm for you that something had changed and you had to write something?

TS: Yeah, I mean we all try to be internationalists and follow the whole world, and you do a great job… But I work on Eastern Europe. And so for me, the moment it was clear that something had changed fundamentally was late 2013, when there were protests in Ukraine because Ukraine was about to sign an important agreement with the European Union and most of the population was in favor of it, but the President, under Russian pressure, changed at the last moment. And then there was this weird barrage of Russian propaganda which had seemingly unrelated themes like homosexuality and fascism, and it was unclear what that had to do with anything. And I was asked to go on American TV and talk about this a little bit. I was living in Europe at that time. And I realized, wow. It’s the Russian memes that are doing the work even though the protests are a very simple story. People want to be closer to the European Union, they want to be able to travel, they want to have jobs, they want law, they want normal lives - it’s really not very complicated. And yet, we’re talking about this stuff which is unreal. And that got worse after Russia invaded. And I realized, hmm, we seem to have flipped, where it’s not reality driving the internet - it’s clearly the internet driving reality at this point. And then there are certain people who are driving the internet in very clever ways, and there are certain tricks that they’re using. So I noticed that and in 2014 I started writing about it, and that’s what led to The Road to Unfreedom and also to On Tyranny. And then of course, the same thing happens in other places. It happens in the European Union, it happens in the presidential elections in the US in 2016. So that was the moment - 2013 - when a light bulb sort of popped over my head and I realized that we’re dealing with some old things in some new packages. 

MR: I keep thinking sometimes 2020 is the year that will determine whether globally we can act in a way to prevent decades of fascism, of tyranny. How do you see this moving forward? Do you agree with me, do you disagree with me?

TS: I think I agree with you. Of course, the picture’s not all bad. Like, in Slovakia there’s a very good president and the parliamentary elections just went in a very interesting, anti-oligarchical, anti-corruption way. There are bright spots here and there. As you know very well, there are good people. And even the places that look bad right now, it’s often like a 54-46 divide or a 52-48 divide and things could also go back the other way.

The way I see it is that democracy is going to come back when people are able to make truth cool, as opposed to [make] cynicism cool. And I think truth should be cool because… Like, cynicism was cool when I was a kid, which means that cynicism has been cool for a long time. Which means that it really should go out of fashion at some point. It kind of breaks my heart when I see teenagers thinking that being cynical is cool. And I think - you realize that everybody was doing that in the 80s? Can’t you come up with something else? 

Anyway, I think democracy comes back when facts and investigation and journalists become cool. And I think democracy comes back when the people who care about it do a better job for articulating the future. So we’re talking about how things are going wrong, and that’s fine and that’s important, but we also have to be able to say - like the democrats in the US right now for example have to be able to say, “Look, things could be a lot better. Not just normal - but a lot better than they are right now.” It’s not just that we can stop climate change, it’s that we can make an economy that is better based on different kinds of energy. It’s not just that we can stop people from being sick and dying - we can remove a lot of the stress of daily life with better healthcare. That things just could be a lot better than they are now. Cause what the authoritarians now have done is they’ve taken away the truth, but they’ve also taken away the future. And democracy has to have the future. It’s all about how we can make decisions now, and then things will be a little bit better.– Rappler.com