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How to build an authoritarian regime — and how to stop one | Timothy Snyder


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Timothy Snyder: It’s normal that when a new medium comes along, a new communications technology comes along, that this is very disorienting to our own hardware. The same thing was true when the book came along. I mean the book, as compared to the manuscript, was a very powerful technology, and one could even say even in our 21st century world, where we claim that everything is so new and everything has transcended everything, where everything transcends everything every 15 minutes, the book is still a pretty powerful technology even when stacked up against all the things that it’s stacked up against now.

But think back to say the 16th century when the printing press is beginning to make hay, what happens is that people are overwhelmed by new ideas, specifically religious world views are challenged, and religions fracture, and people fight wars, and a third of the European population is killed. So we think about the book and we think “That’s Enlightenment,” but Enlightenment happens 150 years after the printing press, and in the meantime an awful lot of Europeans killing off a lot of other Europeans. So I like to take that as the starting point—that new media are going to be destabilizing.

And so the assumption that the Internet was going to come along and just take a basically good world and make it faster and more connected and cleaner and so on—that was something that we should have been skeptical about from the very beginning. And now we’re seeing why we should be skeptical about it.

So does the Internet allow new things, or does the Internet create a channel for old things? I would say it’s rather the latter. We know, because this is something that people have theorized about since the Enlightenment, that in order for there to be a democracy there has to be something between you and me and our fellow citizens, something between you and me and our leaders, which is: a factual world. We have to have this thing called the public sphere where you and I and our fellow citizens and our leaders agree that there are certain realities out there, and that from those realities we draw our own conclusions, our own evaluative conclusions about what would be better or worse, but we agree that the world is out there. And that it’s important for you and I, as citizens, to formulate projects, but it’s also important in moments of difficulty for you and I, as citizens, to resist our leaders. Because if we’re going to resist our leaders we have to say, “On the basis of this set of facts, this is the state of affairs; it’s intolerable; therefore we resist.” If there are no facts we can’t resist, it becomes impossible.

So there are a couple of centuries of Democratic theory which make that argument in one form or another. That’s an old argument. And what follows from that is that if you want to build an authoritarian regime you try to make that factual world less salient, you try to make the world less about the facts that are between you and me and more about the emotions that will either divide us or bring us together, it doesn’t really matter which.

Authoritarianism depends upon people getting used to hearing the things that they want to hear, and what it does is it takes that public sphere and dissolves it.

It says, “There aren’t really truths out there, there aren’t really experts out there who can tell you those truths, it’s really all about how you feel about the world.” And that’s true in old authoritarianism and in new authoritarianism.

So Germans in the 1930s who were no less educated than we are, probably more educated than we are, more literate—they got themselves believing all kinds of things that they wanted to believe, and they believed in, many of them, right down to the bitter end, and they got themselves convinced that truth was not a matter of constant evaluation of evidence, but truth was a matter of some larger truth, something that made them feel like they were together and that others were against them. That’s all old.

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