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Winter Reading: Two books to keep outrage fatigue at bay

February 12, 2018

There have been times over the past few months when I’ve felt myself succumbing to a malaise. What’s the point in adding my voice to the chorus of disapproval – in my echo chamber at least – at the antics of Donald Trump, whose malevolent acts and attitude spreads way beyond the shores of the United States?

What’s the point in ranting about the incompetence of the British government in its handling of Brexit, and the vicious attacks by the likes of the Daily Mail on anyone who sees things differently from its bombastic editor?

Why continue to be angry about the role of allegedly responsible countries in prolonging the suffering in Syria? And why rage about the relentless encroachment of Israeli settlers, and the detention of a 16-year old girl for slapping a soldier after the death of her relatives?

And if we can’t be bothered to raise our voices about these issues, how will the people of Yemen and the Rohingya in Burma get an ounce of our sympathy?

The other day, someone came up with a phrase to describe the malaise: outrage fatigue.

It would be quite possible to spend all day absorbing stories on any of these subjects. And then what? Do you shout and scream, and bore your friends (who are starting to think you’re boring enough already)? Do you march until your feet are sore? And if, like me, you blog, do you post endless polemics in basically the same themes?

Or do you retreat into yourself, thinking “what the hell, there’s nothing I can do anyway. Nobody but a few journalists, lobbyists and twitterati really give a shit about this stuff. How foolish to think that Trump can be brought down, Brexit stopped and all the affronts against human decency elsewhere magically resolved”?

I’m not at that point, but there are times when I fear that that’s where I’m heading.

Then I come across On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder. He’s a professor of history at Yale University. The book is about what we can learn from the rise of fascism and communism, and what we can do to prevent the transformation of democracies into tyranny in our century.

It’s mercifully short. His first, perhaps unintended, lesson, is that you don’t need to write a 500 page tome to get a powerful message across. My volume is a mere 126 pages. Oh joy.

Each of his twenty lessons begins with a succinct piece of advice. Number 18 for example:

Be calm when the unthinkable arrives

Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terror attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.

He then goes on to talk about the Reichstag Fire, after which Hitler seized the opportunity to impose a one-party state and round up those who opposed Nazism. And Putin, who used the attacks on a Moscow theatre and the school in Beslan to seize control of private television and do away with elected regional governors.

Though Snyder didn’t cite recent events in Turkey, President Erdogan’s rounding up of journalists after the attempted coup also comes to mind.

Throughout this slim volume, Snyder quotes extensively from writers with direct experience of the twin tyrannies of fascism and communism, such as Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel and Eugene Ionesco. His arguments are eloquent and compelling.

Although you sense that his lessons are principally aimed at Americans, whose democratic institutions he sees as being under threat by Trump and his henchmen, they are just a relevant to democracy still worth of the name, including my own. Perhaps for that reason he doesn’t mention Trump by name anywhere in the book – simply referring to him as the president. He writes for all of us who have not yet fallen under the yoke of authoritarianism.

On Tyranny serves as something of a morale booster. Snyder reminds me that if people like me, and millions like me, simply lie down and accept that might is right, and that we should always accept the will of the people, no matter how fraudulently that opinion was manipulated, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the tyrannies of the last century are repeated during this one. Buy it, read it, and then read it again.

Another book reminds me that no matter how old and decrepit we are, we are still capable of small acts of resistance against those who would wish to control our lives. Hendrick Groen, if he actually exists, is an 85-year-old resident of an old people’s home in Amsterdam. He, or whoever uses the pseudonym, has written a sequel to The Secret Diary of Hendrick Groen, 83 ¼ years old. It’s called On the Bright Side.

In the new book, which the publisher describes as a novel, Groen describes the adventures of his Old But Not Dead Club, as they sally forth despite their various ailments to destinations chosen by each of the eight members in turn – restaurants, museums and cultural events. Back at the home they carry out a quiet campaign of subversion against the authoritarian instincts of Mrs Stelwagen, the manager.

Like the first book, it’s touching, funny and full of gentle yet biting social commentary. It’s also a poignant reminder of how the older we get, the more our world shrinks and our power as individuals slips away.

What both books tell me is that while we have the power, we should be sure to use it. So I’m afraid that I shall have to continue to bore my diminishing circle of friends for a while yet.

Outrage fatigue will have to wait.

From → Books, Politics, Social, UK, USA

3 Comments
  1. rohini99 permalink

    Reblogged this on FictionPals and commented:
    A good phrase, may we continue to keep it at bay

  2. rohini99 permalink

    Nice one Steve. Long may you rant.

  3. Thanks Rohini. I don’t need much encouragement!

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