Friday, March 31, 2017

Historical Blindness

On February 27, 1933 there was a fire at the Riechstag Building (German parliament) in Berlin. A few weeks earlier, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had swept into power in a democratic election, forming a coalition government. A young Dutch communist was found at the scene of the fire and was arrested for the crime. Hitler framed this incident as an attack on the German nation and its sovereignty and urged the president to suspend all civil liberties and penalize the communist party of Germany, which was a sizable opposition in parliament. With a vengeance, communists across the nation were arrested enmasse, including parliamentary delegates. With the opposition seats emptied, this very moment paved the path for Hitler to consolidate power and become the dictator that he became.

Who started the Riechstag fire still remains an area of much controversy, debate and mystery. Many historians believe the arson was planned and executed by the Nazis to gain absolute control and suspend democracy and push their tribal fascist agenda. Whether the Nazis started the fire or not, they used this moment effectively to spread fear and hate and achieved one of the most diabolical political goals in human history.

The echoes of what happened then are ever present. They have become a text book example of how tyranny can take root in a democracy. Many hope that institutions built to defend democracy from tyranny are there to safeguard its fragile nature. But it is the people who make the institutions strong by being vigilant and proactive. Institutions by themselves can be compromised from within if there is no oversight and if people do not perform their sacred duty by being active participants in their democracy.

What always amazes me is that "History" has an uncanny way of resurfacing to remind us of our follies. This is partly because humanity suffers from amnesia. When the embers of insecurity rise on the horizon, humans gravitate to their most basic instinct and become "tribal". The comfort the tribe offers becomes very enticing. And those who blow their bullhorn offering a vision of tribal preservation, homogeneity and dominance, suddenly become appealing and things that were abhorrent in the past become acceptable. The recent rise in hate against immigrants and a love for parochialism across the globe, is largely driven by tribal insecurity and a fear of losing tribal identity. From the color of one's skin, to one's religious beliefs and imaginary geographical lines that separate the haves from the havenots, anything that seems foreign is seen as suspect and a threat to the tribe and its glory.

America's Riechstag Fire in some ways, was when the Twin Towers in Manhattan fell on September 11, 2001. Soon after, the Patriot Act was passed and many civil liberties were suspended. While the reaction was not as extreme as Hitler's, the wars that ensued led America down a dark path from which it is still to return. The fear of another terrorist attack is constantly used as a reason to undermine democracy and the freedoms of its citizens. This trend still continues almost two decades later with a demand for more defense spending and less on social programs.

Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia in 2000. Since then he has successfully managed to undermine democracy be steadily dismantling all opposition and gaining a tight grip on the Russian media. The state has successfully demolished all dissent and elevated Vladimir Putin to the stature of  president for life. Using the media the state has successfully programmed the Russian population into believing that only a "strongman" like him can guide them through the turbulence of globalization in an increasingly dangerous world, where the balance of power shifted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The control of the national media is so absolute, that the recent anti-corruption protests across the nation have been completely blacked out.

Vladimir Putin is said to enjoy high approval ratings, and is again foretasted to win the upcoming election, even though he has officially not disclosed his intention to run. It is hard to gauge how much of his popularity is real, as independent media has but all been extinguished. Anyone who opposes Putin either dies or is arrested as in the case of Alexei Navalny this week. Vladimir Putin has effectively rewritten the book on tyranny, and shown how an authoritarian system can emerge inside a democracy through corruption and deceit.

Russia played a prominent role in the recent American elections, and the US intelligence community strongly believes Vladimir Putin was at the helm of devising a strategy to undermine one of the world's largest democracy's four year ritual. His personal, vindictive, disapproval of Hillary Clinton they say was the driving force behind this action. The meddling brought the most unlikely candidate Donald Trump to the presidency and two months in, the shadow cast by Russia still looms large. Whether Donald Trump and his associates did Putin's bidding is a sordid tale whose conclusion is still chapters away. As the powers rattle sabers and the media refuses to let up, it is becoming more and more apparent that there is more to this murky affair than earlier thought.

Whether Vladmir Putin and Donald Trump had a back room deal, is a question for history to answer. But there is very little doubt, that the way the American president behaves, it seems he would rather be a strongman than a democratic leader who believes in consensus building. The slew of executive orders he has issued, have shown a desire to strike things with little regard for procedure and evidence. But unlike Putin, it did not take Donald Trump long to realize that institutions in America have more power than the president. What Putin took decades to do, Donald Trump wanted to achieve in a few months and realized this nation cannot be run like the Trump organization. Letting off steam on twitter, disparaging everyone who stood up to him, he showed the true colors of a man with an authoritarian bent. The despicable and shameful collapse of the healthcare bill put forth by an incompetent speaker of the house and an even more incompetent chief executive could not have been more telling on the limits to his power.

In his recent book On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from Twentieth CenturyTimothy Snyder proposes a survival guide to protect oneself and democracy, when signs of tyranny rise. Donald Trump's rise to the presidency have made many around the world uncomfortable. Primarily for the rhetoric he used during his campaign and the way he has behaved and continues to do so as president. In his book Snyder says "History does not repeat but it does instruct. Plato believed demagogues exploit free speech to install themselves as tyrants. It is thus an American tradition to consider history when our political order seems imperiled". According to Snyder, the Founding Fathers of America sought to avoid the kind of tyranny Plato and Aristotle warned us about, by establishing a system of checks and balances. The resilience of America's institutions are under scrutiny under Donald Trump's presidency. If he suffers from historical blindness, then as citizens it will be our duty to defend all that we hold sacred, with all our might.

It is what it is.