My first memories of America were formed watching it out the window of our Ford Fairlane, one year a Vega, on our way down to North Carolina to visit dads family. Through upper New York State, to Pennsylvania, where we would stop for the night, right at the turnpike, and in the early morning light we would pass into Maryland, skirting round Washington D.C., Virginia, and once we reached Raleigh we were almost back to where my father came from – tobacco country – where bits of cotton still line old dusty rural roads in summer, and winter never stays long, unlike in Canada.
I was thinking how that most people I meet find out I’m really American, and not a Canadian, when they have just finished saying something derogatory about that land where I was born, and lived in a tiny trailer till I was 2 1/2. I will smile and just say I’m American, and watch their expression change – ah, yes, it is those simple things in life that keep me amused.
Although of late it has not had quite the same effect, perhaps its pity I see on their face now?
So, another of those moments, a memory not so long ago and far away – it is sometime early April 2017, and I’m sitting on the floor at my front door, cleaning off the grime that had accumulated over the course of a couple winters, springs, summers and falls, the music I was listening to was a playlist I’d found on YouTube, of classical pieces.
So there I am, cloth in hand, scrubbing away when this piece comes on that swirls me back in time, a song my grandma would hum, a song she loved, called Simple Gifts. This rendition had been done by the Cellist Yo Yo Ma, and beautifully sung by Allison Krause. It was hauntingly beautiful and strangely sad.
The tears began to stream down my face, it was a kind of nostalgia, maybe a bit of disillusionment, of grief, confusion, it was about what I saw happening down yonder in the land of my birth. This America that I really didn’t understand, and for some reason that beautiful piece somehow represents, I don’t know, a lost sense of decency, grace and character that once defined what I saw out our car window, maybe aspired to, that simplicity of an illusion, a fantasy I had developed, it came crashing down the day that man was elected.
To give you an idea of how out of the loop I once was, politics-wise, back in early 2017 and it was some weeks, months had passed since the inauguration and investigations into the Russian influence in the election was starting to ramp up, Comey had been fired as the Director of the FBI, Flynn was out, because you know, Russia, and I was out asking Google why the Russians were so against Hilary Clinton that they would get on the bandwagon for this buffoon? Why were they so scared of her?
Yeah, wrong question I found out, since what I found instead was one Timothy Snyder and a video of him sitting on the edge of a desk in a lecture hall at Yale, speaking about the new president-elect, Trump, of his tyranny, and that new stench of fascism that seemed to be seeping into American politics, with him really more a figurehead than an instigator, a puppet, a stooge. He spoke of Russian Oligarchs and their dirty money laundered through American real estate, and bots and trolls and agents of disinformation, and aspects of eastern European history I really knew very little about, still really know very little about.
The video I later learned had been shot in mid-December 2016, a month since the stooge had been elected, and Snyder was worried about the future of the land of his birth. Given that he is a Yale History Professor and that his expertise is Eastern European history, his knowledge of fascism and the spread of Nazi Germany, his words and thoughts are significant, important, worth reading, understanding, digesting. I wrote about it at the time, and still I find comfort in historical knowledge.
He tells this one story of the night of the election, and some journo’s he knows from his extensive time in Eastern Europe had just landed on American soil to cover the election, and they had texted him “he’s going to win”, as they had all seen this before, when the majority of news media, polls, average Jo’s, really still believed that was impossible, that Americans would never elect this man.
They knew cause they had seen it all before, seen these far right-wing parties, these new sort of extreme right populist sort of leaders rise, and take over, they saw the similar campaign tactics, the fear-monger politics, the ripe citizens desperate for something different, it all had a familiar ring, and they knew that Russia had their number, and knew the effects that the troll bots had had across Eastern Europe.
“The hero of a David Lodge novel says that you don’t know, when you make love for the last time, that you are making love for the last time. Voting is like that. Some of the Germans who voted for the Nazi Party in 1932 no doubt understood that this might be the last meaningfully free election for some time, but most did not. Some of the Czechs and Slovaks who voted for the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1946 probably realized that they were voting for the end of democracy, but most assumed they would have another chance. No doubt the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been. Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
They also knew that most Russians had not known, that 1990 would be the last time they would vote in a fair and democratic election, and they knew that most American’s were oblivious to the precipice that possibly lay before them.
Snyder is a very serious man, and many probably find his talks and books difficult, he is not one of those animated and engaging type of speakers, he is careful with his words with a vast wealth of knowledge on his subject, and he means every single word he says. Perhaps that last is why I find him so engaging, that he is very honest, humble and intelligent, and his experience, not his gut, his vast experience is what instructs his words, his books and his lectures and talks.
One thing that Snyder points out, is that the word “collusion” is a misdirection, a twisting of the truth, a smoke and mirror dance to distract everyone from what had really transpired.
“What is patriotism? Let us begin with what patriotism is not. It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. It is not patriotic to discriminate against active-duty members of the armed forces in one’s companies, or to campaign to keep disabled veterans away from one’s property. It is not patriotic to compare one’s search for sexual partners in New York with the military service in Vietnam that one has dodged. It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes, especially when American working families do pay. It is not patriotic to ask those working, taxpaying American families to finance one’s own presidential campaign, and then to spend their contributions in one’s own companies.”Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Something inside me changed over the course of the next few days, after I watched everything I could on Snyder, after I had bought On Tyranny, consumed it.
As On Tyranny was more of a pamphlet, a concise guide, 20 Lessons he had learned, Unfreedom took those ideas and provides historical background and details his theories and knowledge of the past, the present and, well, possibilities that lay in the future – for good, or otherwise.
So I finally went out, not went out per se as I bought the ebook online, The Road To Unfreedom. It is one of those books that you read a bit, think a bit, read a bit, think a bit. It is not something to gobble up in one go, but needs to be absorbed, going back again after the last is digested.
I’m going to probably share some of what I learn over the next while, as I make my way through.
In a way I’ve kind of come to see Snyder as a sort of guiding light, a light in the dark, illuminating the shadows, making sense of what we see, and what we do not, what is hidden.
“In the end, though, freedom depends upon citizens who are able to make a distinction between what is true and what they want to hear. Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.”Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America