For two weeks I have had the most unsettling thoughts. Usually I am optimistic and hopeful, but lately I find myself angry and frightened. And I confess I now see how naive I am about political matters. I have been reading The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder. It brought back to memory a line in a sermon I heard 30 years ago by Fred Craddock, “A lie will get you far, but it won’t get you home.” It also reminded me of a parable told by Jesus about the wisdom of building your home on a rock foundation, not on sand. The rock is the truth, sand a lie. In a storm a rock will hold, but sand will shift, and your home will collapse. Grace means that a lie might take you far. You can get away with it, sometimes for a long time. But in the end if your life is built on lies it will collapse and you will lose everything. The Road to Unfreedom is about Russia, its collapse and re-emergence as a country built and maintained by lies.
The prologue to the book says that communism in Russia and democracy in the western world were both propagated by what Snyder calls the politics of inevitability. In this political view, it is the future when life becomes good, and you get there by living by the laws of progress as defined by your particular political structure.
In Russia this collapsed in 1991 and the western world said, “I told you so; it is our system that will inevitably lead to the good life”. But the collapse of the politics of inevitability did not lead to democracy, but to what Snyder calls the politics of eternity, where a nation sees itself at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. The politics of eternity narrative holds that the enemy is coming and we need to protect ourselves. Progress is seen as impossible; we must hunker down and be prepared to save our country from outside attacks. In this scenario politicians manufacture crises and manipulate emotions to hold onto power and distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform. One strategy to stay in power is to undermine foreign powers that exhibit a better way of life. Truth is not important; history is used selectively to show that we are the chosen people, and lies are used to demonize others and proclaim our innocence.
Why this is so frightening for me is that I had so completely bought into the inevitability of democracy that I did not allow for the possibility that some evil (the father of lies) could destroy us. The problem is that, when we live within the politics of inevitability, it is very hard to reform democracy because we believe we’ve got it right. We do not notice when our system has become self-destructive, unjust (e.g. the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) and vulnerable to an outside influence pushing us toward chaos. This does explain a lot about the rise of Trump in the United States. Timothy Snyder reveals (with 59 pages of end notes where he cites his sources) how the political philosophy of Putin’s Russia has been intentionally influencing and undermining western democracies, and is succeeding in defending its own politics of eternity outlook on the world through military intervention (Ukraine), making alliances with populist leaders in western democracies, and using technology and social media to spread lies and influence elections in Poland, the United States, France and Britain.
On page 215 Snyder states, “When Moscow brought to bear in the U.S. the same techniques used in Ukraine, few on the American Right or the American Left noticed. Essentially the U.S. was defeated, Trump was elected, the Republican Party was blinded, and the Democratic Party was shocked. Russians supplied the political fiction, but Americans were asking for it.” This is a very disturbing book. I wish this was fiction, but it answered many questions I have had over the past few years as to why certain events were happening. It also revealed my own naivety. There is a lot more going on than I had imagined in the political life of the world.
However, Snyder’s conclusion is hopeful. He says the rule of law, which brings order, depends on trust which is built through truth and factual accounts. We need truth and impartiality and one standard for all. We must protect our voting system, so it is dependable and reflects the will of the people, not the manipulations of political parties to ensure their victory. Voting holds out the promise that there is a future and I have a say in what it will look like. Rigging elections undercuts citizens’ beliefs that their vote counts and then they do not vote. We need to protect independent journalism, so we can know what is going on and whom to trust. It comes back to the spirituality of the people, whether they will sell themselves for wealth and power or whether quality of life, love and justice are more important values. In my opinion healthy religious and secular institutions must be supported because they teach values that are the rock to build our life on.