Hamlet and the Historical Sense

This essay came out of a futile Facebook exchange.

I’m making a practice lately of not letting my interlocutors define what I think about… which is tricky, because I am always more animated by dialogue, and argument, than by just thinking of things on my own. Blending energy and clarity is tricky… perhaps even the ultimate life skill.

I think there’s an intimate relationship between arguing fairly and arguing well, though in practice, power in argument is often achieved (or at least sought) through poor arguments that are also unfair. I realized a good decade ago that politics and truth are like oil and water, and all the propaganda I watch float past proves it a hundred times over, day after day.

So, my interest has turned to the rather lonelier pursuit of virtual argument, on a blog that no one reads; and beyond all that, to a dramatic world, inhabited by imaginary people having imaginary conversations of striking beauty and startling, yet subtle, insight.

I’m not saying this blog post is that, for heaven’s sake. I’m just spelling out my quixotic ambition, pursued occasionally by means of these essays.

what follows will be best understood if you watch the above first

Seeing through the politics of inevitability, after the whole scheme has been exploded by events, doesn’t suggest to me a gift for reading the present in terms of the past, like some secular prophet of possibility. In this lecture, historian Timothy Snyder claims just such a special historical perspective. In fact, he claims it so deeply that he thinks himself able to impart this perspective to students, in an hour long talk. What follows are my reasons for not finding this claim plausible.

Before getting into that, I’ll state the obvious by saying that none of this denies his expertise within whatever his exact historical discipline is. What I doubt is his ability to extrapolate from his place and period of expertise to the present moment and nation. I doubt his claim to a particular historical sense.

As near as I can tell from this video, by ‘historical sense’ he means a sort of fuzzy-logic pattern recognition, that allows him to snuff the prospect of tyranny in the breeze, even though he declares that history neither repeats itself nor rhymes. (As an aside, I think Gordon S Wood has provided a much clearer, and more useful, idea of what an historical sense actually is.) I doubt his claim to such a sense, given that he barely mentions any of the recent events that clearly fit the pattern he’s describing. In short: if he has this historical sense, where was it 15 years ago, when the odeur de tyranny was thick as smoke? Why was it less triggered by actual events then as it is by the prospect of such events now?

My hypothesis is that the events after 9/11 didn’t trigger Snyder’s historical spider sense because these events were executed by the extended class of people to which he belongs. My guess is that Snyder didn’t see it, or doesn’t mention it, because the system that unfolded over 20+ years under Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama/Clinton was the system he identified with – if not directly, then indirectly as the member of an extended social class: the American elite.

It was this social class driving the latest globalization program, while selling itself on, and subjecting others to, the myth of its own inevitability. If he had strongly and publicly noticed how profoundly well 9/11 and subsequent events fit the model of a fascist assumption of power, he would have entered into a dangerous position relative to the power structure he was housed within. Snyder ends his lecture by pushing his students to be like Hamlet, encouraging them to enter into an irreconcilable, quite possibly tragic, relationship with their government. Exactly the thing he didn’t himself do 15 years ago, when the legal and technical architecture of the fascist state was being methodically rolled out.

It is one thing to be an expert in the power structure of some other time and place. It is something else entirely to bring that expertise to bear within your own time, relative to the power structure of which you are a part, or at the very least, which you are subject to. Polite people compartmentalize. Polite people are strategically blind to the nakedness of the power structures within which they have membership. Insiders play ball and keep their mouths shut.

When I talk about him hiding out at Yale, that’s exactly what I’m referring to. [This refers to the Facebook exchange this essay grew out of.]

Granted, an hour listening does make not an exhaustive study of the man. I’m open to being proven wrong, and it should be easy to do. I’m open to information that doesn’t fit my picture of him. Everything in his hour lecture, though, fits the picture, from his emotional affect to his vague but supposedly objective dichotomy between eternity and inevitability, to his curious historical omissions, to his sophomoric advocacy and legitimization of extremism – with a line from Barry Goldwater, no less – to his typically poor summary invocation of Hamlet.

Let’s consider those things he tells his students to be on the lookout for, the shapes of incipient fascism:

  1. Beware a One Party state. Beyond the fact that it’s so obvious that it really needn’t be said, and the additional fact that a literal One Party state is not going to happen in America, there remains the strong argument that this is exactly what manifested as the Deep State under Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama/Clinton. The politics of inevitability was the politics of the one party Deep State.
  2. Beware the demonopolization of violence. Again, duh. Seriously. Is there any serious chance that the legitimization of a paramilitary force would go unnoticed and un-objected to in a world of cellphone cameras and the Internet? At the same time, by advocating for rioting and extremism he pushes in this very direction. The demonopolization of violence is something being explored rhetorically by partisans on both sides of the cultural divide.
  3. Beware a Reichstag fire followed by normalization of a state of emergency.
  4. Beware the use of “terrorist” and “extremist”.
  5. Beware extra-territorial black sites.

How can he possibly fail to mention to his students that these last three have already happened? Nearly their entire lives have been lived in the country constructed around these three. If he really means to prime them to recognize these patterns, why does Nazi Germany provide a better example than the recent history of their own country? It seems to me simple common sense that any further movement in the direction of outright fascism will not just look like but follow upon those steps recently taken.

Granted, in the question and answer period following his lecture, he briefly touches on 9/11 and the responses to it, but only by way of dismissing it as less directly relevant to our time than Nazi Germany, for reasons he refuses – in a strange emotional display – to articulate.

Rather than a sincere desire to warn his students, he strikes me as a man quite intoxicated with the transcendent importance of his own enlightenment.

More than that, I think Snyder’s glib and emotional glossing over of recent American history is essential to his thesis. Remembering our own Reichstag and the sweeping systemic responses to it would screw up his just-so narrative, wherein the move to fascism is shift into a delusional politics of eternity, following in the wake of a wave of a failed attempt at globalization. By noticing that the systemic moves toward fascism occurred long prior to both Trump and Brexit, his narrative falls apart.

The story, then, ceases to be about a mythically-minded public being exploited by unscrupulous demagogues into building deathcamps. By recognizing that the systemic move to fascism preceded the rightwing populism Snyder identifies as its cause, by recognizing that these systemic moves were executed by a One Party duopoly that was simultaneously pushing a globalist agenda, the picture becomes much more complicated. Perhaps, even, it becomes more like actual history.

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