Much discussed, gloomy book by Yale professor Timothy Snyder.
Snyder juxtaposes the “politics of eternity” versus “the politics of inevitability” – as far as I can see these concepts are his own. The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas. The cliche being: there are not alternatives. From the collapse of the politics of inevitability emerges the politics of eternity. Whereas the first promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of victim-hood. Eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate emotions and deny the truth, to mask there inability or unwillingness to reform.
Russia and Europe are telling examples of those methods. Russia is pure and innocent, and is under perpetual siege form foreigners wanting to destroy its innocence. On the other hand, Europe, and other democracies live by the adage of politics of inevitably: the notion that we are all moving toward the same liberal, democratic model. As we know now, this is an incorrect assumption, originating from lazy, wishful thinking
With broad knowledge and insight from his decades of study into Europa and Russia, helped by his proficiency in seven languages, Snyder delves deep.
Philosophers, historians, and politicians from across three continents are all brought together by Snyder to make his case; Russia wants to undermine Europa, because it has no future. Making the European neighbour as weak as themselves will relief Putin from presenting a long term vision to his people. Putin’s triumph is to have exported Russia’s problems to its chosen adversaries, the normalisation of Russia’s syndromes by way of contagion. A strong, undermining foreign policy is critical.
Central to this endeavour is a well coordinated campaign of disinformation – trough social media, but also through generating greater masses of refugees by bombing Syria. Russia’s strategy is playing out quite well: it managed to have their puppet elected in the White House. For this pièce de resistance, the Russians followed the same playbook as when they changed the Ukrainian political stage a few years prior: introducing a presidential candidate from a fictional word, who trumped everyone.
Although it is cynical, perverse and aggressive behaviour from Russia, Snyder insists that the Americans were asking for it. They wanted to go back to a time when America was great, a typical image from the politics of eternity. His take is that there are millions of Americans willing to trade in the prospect of a better future for the vision of a valiant defence of American innocence – and as long they are under the impression others (immigrants, blacks) suffer more.
Europa is under assault. From Russia, riding a wave of fascist ideas. It’s well crafted political fiction, taken really seriously. At the center: images of purity, innocence protected by a strongman against its enemies. One of the big issues of Europe is our naïveté. We don’t take Russia’s war on Europe seriously. We don’t understand the pivotal role of Ukraine plays and its bloody history. We (don’t want to) see that it’s not about what we are doing, but what we are portrayed as being. As long as Putin is in charge, a European future for his enormous country will be rejected.
One of the most interesting sentences on how to protect freedom is the following: “authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires”. We need to be able to tell the difference between the true and the appealing.
Snyder ends with a strong warning to America: it will have both forms of equality, racial and economic, or it will have neither. If it has neither, eternity politics will prevail, racial oligarchy will emerge, and American democracy will come to close.
Snyder doesn’t mince his words, is clearly knowledgeable, and has a great pen. But it’s as if it’s too much to swallow, too big to absorb. Is this all true, what about looking at it from different perspectives? Maybe his message is just too grim, to be acceptable…
One thing is certain: this is a book to read, and re-read.
Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, 368 p, Vintage Publishing – 2018