Coup d’Etat

As the first of potentially multiple follow-ups to a previous post about the book On Tyranny by Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, here is a link to an excerpted interview with Mr. Snyder you might find illuminating.

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In modern day America, we have largely settled into relative complacency regarding socio-political strife.   We have certainly seen an uptick in street demonstrations since the most recent presidential inaugurant settled into his new White House digs.  However, unless you are of a certain age, you have probably never experienced major violence nor upheaval associated with civil unrest leading to death in the United States.  Many twenty, thirty or even forty somethings are not old enough to know much about and certainly too young to have been present (as were some of us) for events such as the killing of two students at Jackson State in May 1970, the killing of four students at Kent State University (sometimes called the Kent State Massacre which occurred only eleven days prior to the Jackson State killings) or the Watts Riots (also known as the Watts Rebellion) in 1965, when thirty-four people died.  Most people cannot conceive of upheaval of such magnitude.  Perhaps this is partially why Charlottesville was so shocking.

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A generation ago, in a time when violence related to American political unrest was rampant, events such as murders (even of children) and the burning of churches was more commonplace than we currently might imagine.  In fact, while over the past have-century, there have been a multitude of incidences falling under the label “civil unrest”, most of us cannot fathom an actual coup d’etat to take place in the United States and the inevitable martial law (with attendant loss of civil liberties) that would inevitably follow.  Such a “lack of decorum” might seem out of place in relatively polite, modern day governmental behavior. Yet as the events of Charlottesville suggested, we in the modern age are not so civilized as to be above the most heinous, most unthinkable acts perpetrated towards one another.

As such, we tend to believe our government very stable, immune to coup d’etat and other such disruptive actions. We arrogantly assign such events only to so-called “third world” countries. As the words “civil war” have become a somewhat popular buzz phrase, we should recall the words of historian Shelby Foote, remarking about the American Civil War:  “We think that we are a wholly superior people.  If we had been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would never have fought that war.”

We have begun to experience a polarization expressed through the sharp rise in hate crimes since the last presidential election, blatant supremacist activity and increasing activity of supremacist counter-demonstrations by groups like Black Lives Matter, Antifa and Black Bloc.  Partisan division has become so severe that a lengthy article posted on Vox in early September hints at the potential death of democracy in the United States. People are priming for a showdown, creating a societal mood which could foster a shocking level of political cataclysm for which we are not fully prepared.  Perhaps even more frightening, beyond potential citizen to citizen strife, there is the dysfunction of Washington, D.C.

It Can’t Happen Here!

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We want to believe, ‘it can’t happen here’.  Some believe “it” can.  Timothy Snyder is one of them.  In his case, the “it” refers to a coup d’etat in the United States.  Mr. Snyder has predicted that such an event, in some form, is likely to occur within the next year.  While Professor Snyder’s book On Tyranny is quite interesting, it becomes even more so when you realize the theoretical prediction of political cataclysm that forms the backdrop of Snyder’s thinking.  In an article published in Salon at the beginning of May, Mr. Snyder cites various reasons for his prediction, including: current and future attacks on the judiciary , various present and potential constitutional issues, and a series of predicaments related to violations of the rule of law.  The problem, of course is that these issues present significant difficulties for the current administration—problems which, if they do not somehow magically dissolve, must be dealt with in some fashion if they are to be prevented from toppling the current executive power structure in Washington.  The current administration must find a way to bring itself to a place of “governing independence”, free from the limits and scrutiny of Congress, the judiciary, the press, and the public—a tall order. It is so tall, in fact, that the solution, which Snyder has deemed “inevitable”, might only reside in the executive branch attempting to seize a level of control unprecedented in the United States.

Professor Snyder points to the Reichstag fire in Germany in 1933 which Adolf Hitler used as a “shock event”, a phrase described in activist writer Naomi Klein’s book No Is Not Enough.  Mr. Snyder describes the historic German situation as follows:

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On February 27, 1933 the German Parliament building burned, Adolf Hitler rejoiced, and the Nazi era began. Hitler, who had just been named head of a government that was legally formed after the democratic elections of the previous November, seized the opportunity to change the system. “There will be no mercy now,” he exulted. “Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”

The next day, at Hitler’s advice and urging, the German president issued a decree “for the protection of the people and the state.” It deprived all German citizens of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly and made them subject to “preventative detention” by the police. A week later, the Nazi party, having claimed that the fire was the beginning of a major terror campaign by the Left, won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections. Nazi paramilitaries and the police then began to arrest political enemies and place them in concentration camps. Shortly thereafter, the new parliament passed an “enabling act” that allowed Hitler to rule by decree. (Excerpt from “The Reichstag Warning” by Timothy Snyder, published in The New York Review of Books. 

And further …

The Reichstag fire shows how quickly a modern republic can be transformed into an authoritarian regime. There is nothing new, to be sure, in the politics of exception. The American Founding Fathers knew that the democracy they were creating was vulnerable to an aspiring tyrant who might seize upon some dramatic event as grounds for the suspension of our rights. As James Madison nicely put it, tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.” What changed with the Reichstag fire was the use of terrorism as a catalyst for regime change. ~Timothy Snyder


Civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.”
~ Donald J. Trump


Dangerous Waters

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Broadening our focus, beyond the spectacle of Russian meddling in our elections, administrative cabinet shakeups, chants about a divisive wall, and a Loser President who thrives on sensationalist headlines as well as rude, unscripted comments hurled at foreign countries, how much credence should we place on whispers concerning concepts like “deep state” and shadow government?  Perhaps the executive branch attempting to usurp unfettered control of the government is not all we need to worry about. What do common citizens really know about the actual workings of the U.S. government, the CIA, our current political parties, or, for that matter, the media, corporate or otherwise?  Can we actually make “informed” decisions about anything if these crucial elements of societal maintenance are hidden to us?  As we approach the 2018 mid-term elections, how can we justifiably vote for any candidate without understanding, for instance, the covert machinations of that candidate’s party and the counter moves of competing political entities?   What “Good” actions can we enact in a situation in which we are largely ignorant? The fragility of the current presidential administration notwithstanding, what other sources of potential tyranny lurk within the bowls of our government which could instigate a shock event to which we must respond?

Mr. Snyder does not believe the bid for such tyrannical power will be successful in the United States.  If we understand the nature of tyranny and the use of (perhaps state-sponsored) terror to establish such abuse of power, we can be forearmed to resist it. On Tyranny was a reminder that we have the knowledge to avoid and combat attempts at the establishment of tyranny—but we must be vigilant.

In weeks to come, attempting to transcend violence and reactionism, this blog will begin to explore what societal vigilance for Good might look like.


As an addendum, consider this. In the May 1, 1989 edition of the New York Daily News, a wealthy citizen named Donald J. Trump authorized this full-page advertisement.

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Attitudes die hard.  Still, most of us are not criminals–not yet.  Under the freedom crushing weight of tyranny, things change.

Any questions?

Apologies to those expecting a follow-up to the post on Tim Snyder’ book On Tyranny.  That post is in the works, but has proven to be more complicated than expected.  (As a teaser, Mr. Snyder has predicted a coup in the U.S. within the next year).

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While researching the possibility of a coup d’etat in the U.S., we came across a site called QuoraQuora is a question and answer site where questions are “asked, answered, edited and organized by its community of users”.  We have not researched this site enough to rate it, however, a brief perusal suggests the questions to be interesting and the answers to be well thought out and thorough–sometimes.

You will have to register through a real account like Google or Facebook.  During the registration process, you can focus the article categories as a filter for your personalized topic “menu”.  Available topics like politics, health, technology, music, etc.—just as you might expect—are included.  These topics become immediately available to you when you complete the sign up process.

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The site cannot be characterized as either heavy or light.  Backing into the site, so to speak, by following a link to a particularly good article (answer to a question) initially gave the impression of depth and seriousness.  However, further exploration for only a short time began to feel pointless. The questions posted vary dramatically.  For instance, there are questions which roughly might be characterized as trivia (“Could a current medical doctor have saved Presidents Lincoln and McKinley with our current medical knowledge?”).  Some are personal (“When is the loneliest moment of your life?”).  Some are political (“Why aren’t jobs coming back to the USA?”, “Have there ever been any countries that have tried to overthrow the US Government?” and “Is a coup d’etat underway in the USA?”). The profundity of the answers are largely determined by the questions. (Incidentally, the articles on the possibility of U.S. coup d’etat are quite interesting.)

Quora will probably never be one of your go-to sites for research.  But you might find it an interesting ancillary source of information.

A Little Gratitude

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While a follow-up piece around Tim Snyder’s book On Tyranny was planned for this week, given the tragedy unfolding in the Houston area (and the general tragedy occurring in the U.S. in general), perhaps we should pause and give thanks for some instances of Good and the people who initiated them.

Jennifer-Hofmann (small)This week, on her weekly Action List, under the “Acts of Gratitude” section, Jen Hofmann posted the following entries (appearing here verbatim, but be sure to check out Jen’s list).

Acts of Gratitude
Get out your stamps, postcards, and sparkle markers for some gratitude mail.
(more…)

Us Helping Us

I am only one, but still I am one. 
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.
~ Helen Keller

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Help! We Need Help!

Who is “We”? We is you, me, all of us. In particular, part of our community living in the Houston, Texas area is in need of assistance, now and in the near future. As of Tuesday, August 29, the hurricane might make land fall again on Wednesday in Louisiana. With heavy rain and possible tornadoes expected, more folks might be in need. Reach out and help create the community many of us want to believe in. Here are some opportunities.


Make a Donation to the Red Cross

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Some have balked at the notion of donating to the Red Cross, proposing that the organization is not up to the task of large-scale disaster relief or that they do not actually need the money.   Whether such claims are true or not, folks still need our help (here-now and in the near future).  Second, we need to express, if only to ourselves, that We are the those who will offer such assistance when anyone of us needs it.

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Beyond the Red Cross

The New York Times has put together a list of other places to help.  Take a look.

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More Motivation

ABC News (with commercials) offers this encouragement as well as other opportunities to help.

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In case you missed it, you can simply
text “HARVEY” to 90999 to make a $10 donation to the Red Cross.

Make a difference for US.

 

 

On Tyranny

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In a country fond of seeing itself as “the land of the free”, in the last couple decades, fear seems to have considerably tarnished this idealistic notion. We say we want freedom, but for whom? Too often, such notions suggest that we want freedom within the boundaries of what we idiosyncratically define as “US”—a term that has increasingly become more grounded in exclusivity than inclusion. This “US” comes to inform our socio-politically charged definition of freedom. In an attempt to stave off fear, our expectations are tinged by a new found xenophobia; we redefine a continually shrinking concept we used to refer to as “a free American”. In so doing, we open the door for those who would exploit our assumed sense of vulnerability. But when freedom does not apply to all, ultimately, it will fail to encompass any of us.

On Tyrrany“European democracies collapsed into right-wing authoritarianism and fascism in the 1920s and ‘30s… The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

So writes historian Timothy Snyder in his recently published book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. On Tyranny is a tiny book, 126 pages measuring only about 4×6 inches. Each of the twenty suggestions forms a chapter consisting of only two to five pages.

Mr. Snyder does express certain biases (such as casting a jaundiced eye toward the Internet). However, for the most part, the book is largely written from a non-partisan perspective, focusing on various means of preserving freedom and staving off tyrannical control. As the book is quite easy to read, you can probably finish it in an hour (although you will likely ruminate over its contents for much longer).

Some of Snyder’s suggestions are expected (such as #3 – Beware the One-party State). Others are either surprising or defined in a thought provoking manner. For example:

  • #  2 – Defend Institutions
  • #10 – Believe in Truth
  • #11 – Investigate

All address–directly or indirectly–some of the more hidden aspects of what is currently happening in the United States.

In a Washington Post review, Mr. Snyder’s book is described as “a slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and feels only slightly less vital.”  Some folks have been so taken with this little gem that they have bought multiple copies to distribute for free (a little over $6 on Amazon).

Requiem - Chomsky book coverOnce you have read through the Snyder book a couple times you might, on reflection, find yourself thinking a bit differently about the state of affairs in the United States. While the twenty suggestions Snyder offers are pointed and helpful, the brevity of the book prevents comprehensive treatment of any idea. As such, you might want to follow-up Snyder’s book and expand your understanding the mechanism of tyranny by tackling the more in depth descriptions of “reality” in the U.S. by reading Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky’s new book. Professor Chomsky addresses tyranny from the perspective of identifying various tactics of oppression such as reducing democracy, attacking solidarity and marginalizing the population—all of which have been happening and continue to occur as you read this. Like On Tyranny, Requiem is easy to read, although not quite so brief.

Finally if you are really committed to understanding tyranny and how it might have been the underlying mode of governance in the United States for decades, consider Sheldon Wolin’s more challenging and comprehensive book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.

Responding to Hate

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The tragic events last week in Charlottesville, Virginia stand as a reminder that the actions of some of us express staunch opposition to what we might call Good.   Steve Tanner, writing under the umbrella of 500 Pens: an anti-hate news project, offers an annotated list of thoughtful actions we might take when confronting hate in EveryDayLife.  In Mr. Tanner’s own words:

By arming ourselves with a solid understanding of best practices, we can all be ready to respond properly — and safely — when acts of hate unfold before our eyes. Every situation is unique, but the following list is meant to serve as a guide for how to best respond to acts of hatred and bigotry.  ~Steve Tanner 

His brief list of suggestions includes the following.

  • Draw Attention Away From Hateful Protests and Demonstrations
  • Do Not Engage with the Attackers
  • Focus on Protecting the Attacked Person
  • Alert the Police and Other Authorities When Appropriate
  • Prepare in Advance

Food for thought:  Consider the principle of the “golden rule” which appears in some form in almost all major religions and which forms the basis of Good to which this blog often refers.  Does a “hate stance” espoused by a group seeking to exclude others fall within the definition of a golden rule-type Good?  (Do not answer too quickly.  This so-called golden rule is not the same as “live and let live”.)

For example, a white supremacist might be perfectly willing to live in peace as long as non-white folks (and in some cases Jews) live elsewhere.  While some hate groups essentially preach genocide, others simply do not want to have to deal with others they do not considers to be “us”.  Is this a non-Good stance?  What are the criteria for Good?  How can we effectively express Good—treating others as we wish to be treated—in a pluralistic society? Perhaps the deeper question is this: What are the requirements for a pluralistic society sustaining itself within the idea of Good? What does freedom look like in such a context?


You might consider subscribing to the 500 Pens newsletter.  You can also follow 500 Pens on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

Metaphor as Identity as Metaphor…

We know from neuroscience that most thought is unconscious, carried out by neural circuitry. In Metaphors We Live By, Mark Johnson and I showed that much of that unconscious thought is metaphorical, and further, that we often live our lives according to those metaphors.

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So says George Lakoff, neuroscientist and linguist.  Mr. Lakoff recently posted an article in which he presents his take on the nature and implications of a primary metaphor driving the person currently occupying the oval office.  Mr. Lakoff’s central premise is that POTUS 2017 operates according to the assumption “the president is the nation”.   The “meaning” of the phrase itself, out of context, presents very little significance.   However, the true meaning of such a metaphor only appears in the expressed attitudes and behaviors that ensue from it.  Assuming the Lakoff depiction is accurate, an important question arises:  how might a person who suddenly finds himself in the most power office in the world behave as a result of the validation offered by the new found title “President of the United States”?

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The article describes an interesting psychological configuration as it plays out in specific desires, decisions, and communications delivered through the current White House occupant’s tweets.  Perhaps what is most interesting is not what Mr. Lakoff has to say about POTUS 2017, but how the psychological structure of what he is proposing might (and probably is) operative in ourselves.   How much does self-identification by this person in the chief executive’s seat parallel our own understanding of ourselves?   On a deeper level, to what degree does our reaction to the current person posing as the 45th president reflect our own attitudes toward the world in general rather than toward any specific person? Similarly, what might be the metaphor operating in each of us as we assess the various reported events presented by the news media?  When we react in defense of the office of this loser president, for instance, to what degree are we actually reacting to feelings about ourselves, our own fears and our own need for self-protection?  Similarly, when we reject actions and statements relative to the current regime, to what degree are we not reacting to any particular person, but rather, to our own sense of indignation and sense of violation regarding the general state of affairs in the United States?

When Mr. Lakoff says something like “We need to reveal the existence of the metaphor”, we should hear the statement not so much as a discovery of something unknown to us, but as a paradigmatic manner in which we all encode and perpetuate what we believe to be real. We need to identify our own metaphors. What do you believe to be the central metaphor driving your life?  When you say “I am a <fill in the blank>, what are you actually attempting to communicate to the world, and, more importantly, to yourself?  If your description of <fill in the blank> is accurate, what assumptions do you habitually make because of this, your, particular metaphor? Are you a beacon of what a person should be (by your own standards)?  How do you know your guiding metaphor actually is what you think it is?

Suggestion: Read through the Lakoff article focusing on your life situation and the ways in which your behavior and attitudes “play out”.  We too often relate to depictions of people and current events as if we are watching a movie, as if the world comes to us as entertainment.  Most important, we too often allow these depictions to remain in the realm of “other”, as if they are not about us.  We allow the stories to be about them, written by them, presented by someone else.  Doing so, we can easily judge—either the person or situation that forms the focus of the presentation or the author or medium presenting the ideas.  In this case, forget POTUS 2017.  Reality–for each of us individually and collectively–is so much larger than such a person.  Forget George Lakoff.  You might accept or reject his ideas.  But what about you? What about us?


George P. Lakoff is an American cognitive linguist and philosopher, best known for his thesis that lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena. (Wikipedia)