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Blurring Distinctions

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Blurring Distinctions

As Timothy Snyder rises from academic hotshot to intellectual celebrity, the quality of his work declines. July 13, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

Yale historian Timothy Snyder rose to prominence on the strength of two books: Bloodlands, which treated the Holocaust and Stalin’s terror as dimensions of a single event; and Black Earth, seemingly conceived in response to criticisms that he had denigrated the specificity of the Holocaust, and entirely about that dark hole in history. Though both books were bestsellers, the scholarly response was mixed, ranging from glowing praise to assertions that Snyder is adept merely at giving a clever gloss to the work of others. In his second book, where he claimed that Hitler’s destruction of the Jews was an act of “ecological panic” because Hitler regarded the Jews as a threat to the harmony of the planet, some critics threw up their hands: “it is here that [the book] really goes off the rails,” wrote one. Snyder argues that the Holocaust should serve as a warning that climate change could cause food shortages, which would trigger the collapse of states and a revival of fascism.

An honest appraisal of Snyder would have to acknowledge that he writes about horrific events with scrupulous mastery of his material. But a skeptic might add that he knows opportunity when he sees it. Snyder draws crowd-pleasing connections: just as he turned the Holocaust into a lesson on global warming, he made his experience of a nearly fatal bout of sepsis into a thundering indictment of the American health-care system, filled with heavy platitudes and seemingly oblivious to the irony that the source of his illness was his misdiagnosis by German doctors in a German hospital.

It was the advent of Donald Trump—mentioned no less than 100 times in Snyder’s latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America—that catapulted Snyder from academic star to intellectual celebrity. Shortly after the 2016 election, he published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, in which he warned Americans that Trump could launch a fascist revolution. The book disturbed many historians, who believed that Snyder was trafficking in alarmism. But Snyder reaped a small fortune from his prophecy, despite the gathering authoritarian gloom, establishing himself as the liberal media’s resident credentialed doomsayer. This distinguished Yale historian has become a kind of American apparatchik, validating and enforcing the elite media’s party line in such snappy articles as “How Hitler Pioneered ‘Fake News’” (New York Times), “Trump’s Big Election Lie Pushes America Toward Autocracy” (Boston Globe), and “Trump’s ‘Delay the Election’ Tweet Checks All Eight Rules for Propaganda” (Washington Post).

My grandfather, Menka, who escaped the 1905 pogrom in Odessa in which most of his family was killed, liked to tell the following joke. Two Jews are standing blindfolded against a wall facing a firing squad. One turns to the other and says, “I’m going to ask for a cigarette.” “No, no!” whispers the other. “Don’t make trouble!” The joke mocks what it regarded as a certain Jewish tendency toward passivity. Its force consists of its ironic self-awareness. Groupthink is an intellectual somnambulism, and, lacking self-awareness, it is humorless, but when looked at with detachment, it often possesses the stunning ironic turn that is at the heart of the greatest jokes, like the one my grandfather liked to tell.

For what could be more darkly funny than imagining, in 1940, at the height of Hitler’s reign, the publication in Germany of a bestseller called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Nineteenth Century? Or the publication, in a Berlin newspaper, in 1938, of an article that helpfully informed readers how Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland “Checked All Eight Rules for Dangerous Irredentism”? Snyder has made a lucrative career of commodifying historical analogies, but no precedents exist for a popular historian leading his country away from political disaster via bestselling books and newspaper articles. For a historian of the Holocaust, Snyder is remarkably at ease while living through history, even as he cries that it is closing in around him. As he told the Yale Daily News: “The bad news is that our republic is in a lot of trouble. The good news is that On Tyranny is a practical guide for how to defend a republic, how to defend individual freedoms, so if a lot of people are reading it, that’s good news.”

Snyder has become a one-man industry of panic, a prophet whose profitability depends on his prophecies never coming true. He could flourish only in a country so far removed from “totalitarianism”—a word he freely applies to America—as to seem historically blessed with eternal freedom. Yet while he remakes himself into a media functionary, genuine figures of intellect and principle in actual authoritarian countries suffer when they speak the truth. As Snyder draws facile analogies between America and Russia from his aerie in New Haven, Alexei Navalny struggles to survive each day and night in Vladimir Putin’s asphyxiating universe.

Snyder’s articles in the New York Times Magazine, the publisher of the 1619 Project, have become increasingly irresponsible. His most recent, “The War on History is a War on Democracy,” first invokes the Soviet Union’s and Putin’s attempts to erase historical accounts of the Holodomor (or Great Famine) and to rewrite the history of Russia’s early alliance with Nazi Germany in the Second World War—what Snyder calls “memory laws”—before drawing an analogy between this monstrous suppression of history and the current fight in the United States over public school curricula. “Last November,” he writes portentously, “five days after the latest Russian memory law emerged from a presidential committee, the American president, Donald Trump, created the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.” He spends the rest of the article arguing that the “1776 Report” and Republican efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory from public school curricula prove that American conservatives are, like Putin and his Communist predecessors, rewriting history as a strategy to destroy democracy.

In making such an argument, Snyder does his own injury to logic and reality. He describes the 1619 Project as “an attempt to bring the history of slavery closer to the center of national narratives.” But that is not true. The 1619 Project is an effort to make slavery the master narrative of American history. Jake Silverstein, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, described the premise of the 1619 Project like this: “Out of slavery—and the anti-Black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” Since the 1619 Project is a Times production, the paper has a proprietary interest in defending it; it also has a proprietary interest in publishing an asset-protector like Snyder.

When Snyder accuses Putin and his forerunners of gross intellectual dishonesty, he knows whereof he speaks. Snyder argues, absurdly, that an exact moral equivalence exists between Putin’s memory laws and efforts to teach The 1776 Report instead of the New York Times Magazine’s version of history in American public schools. Yet it is hardly undemocratic for two competing versions of history to clash, especially when it comes to what should be taught to young children. No one is assigning Fifty Shades of Grey, Casanova’s memoirs, or Mein Kampf in American public schools; no one is teaching the McGuffey Readers anymore, either. The decision not to teach these texts is the result of a rational process of moral discrimination, one that involves teachers, parents, school boards, and state and federal departments of education. Putin’s unilateral diktats are hardly the equivalent of leaving the decision to teach critical race theory to a contentious democratic process or to democratically elected state legislatures responding to the desires of their constituents—not every parent in America teaches at Yale or works at the New York Times. Putin is not traveling around Russia appealing to local PTAs. Despite Snyder’s flashy equivalences—Stalin and Hitler, Putin and Trump—comparing Russia’s memory laws to America’s culture wars is, as the British philosophers say, a category mistake.

The mark of a good historian is his ability to make fine moral distinctions. Does Snyder pass the test? In his recent Times Magazine essay, he finds it “shocking” that The 1776 Report should place progressivism alongside slavery as one of the “challenges to American principles.” But the original Progressives were ardent defenders of Jim Crow and eugenics. Woodrow Wilson was an impassioned supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, along with being a vigorous enforcer of racial segregation in the federal work force. Presenting the original Progressive movement as a challenge to democracy is certainly debatable—it also humanized an often-cruel capitalism—but it is an intellectually serious argument.

The anxious editors of the New York Times Magazine, however, consider any alternative version of history to the 1619 Project heresy (here is where an analogy to Putin might be apt). Yet The 1776 Report encourages the teaching of slavery in all its aspects. What it does not do is make white racism fundamental to the Constitution or to American society. For Snyder’s editors at the Times, though, the very idea that there would be vigorously democratic opposition to the 1619 Project is proof of the antidemocratic nature of the opposition. Enter Snyder, whose status as a historian of authoritarianism means that anything he calls authoritarian must be, by virtue of his authority, what he says it is.

Photo by Julia Reinhart/Getty Images

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