Totalitarianism and Loneliness11-27-2019
Martha Minow recently spoke accepted the Leo Baeck Medal at the Leo Baeck Institute on November 19, 2019. Minow describes what she calls “upstanders,” those who stand up to dehumanizing and oppressive systems and have the courage to act against bureaucratized evil. “To be an upstander,” Minow writes, “may seem daunting especially if it implies solo, heroic action. So, we need to build practices to help us resist peer pressure to do nothing and to strengthen peer support for standing up against suffering and injustice. That includes demanding that our leaders do the same. We must address fears, denial, and bewilderment so often experienced by those who do nothing in the face of oppression. Standing up includes “liking” and praising those who stand up; it can include shunning those who engage in hate. In her speech, Minow invoked Hannah Arendt to argue that “Totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another.” You can read Minow’s full speech here.
“When Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and others founded this Institute to preserve the history of German-Jewish culture, they acted with resolution and hope—qualities much needed right now. How meaningful that they named this effort, this Institute, for Leo Baeck—who served as its inaugural leader….
Today’s leaders in Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Turkey are individuals who appeal to the fears and hatreds of masses of people—at the expense of minorities, truth, reason, and fundamental values of equality, tolerance and the rule of law. Disdaining human rights, justifying oppression in the name of national security, manipulating mass media and elections, demonizing critics, spreading corruption—these are the elements identified by Yale professor Timothy Snyder in his historical lessons on tyranny.
Look to the 1920s and 30s, says Snyder, when too many people celebrated fascism and violence over reason and law; when Germany elevated a leader who claimed to have a mystical connection to his people; and when so many treated internationalism as a conspiracy rather than a set of problems. There are eerie parallels from that period’s Hitler and Mussolini with Orban in Hungary and Duda in Poland today. Netanyahu and Trump make similar claims that only they can save their nations. According to court filings by his ex-wife, Trump used to keep by his bed Adolf Hitler’s pre-World War II speeches and drew these lessons: blame others, attack immigrants, foment social divisions, and demonize any source of authority other than himself.
The problem is not a handful of demagogues. Every age produces them. The problem is the discontent of millions of people, facing economic instability, climate insecurity, mass migrations, technological change, cultural shifts around gender and race—people who in turn seem all too willing to embrace the politics of fear and blame. So, the time is ripe for unscrupulous demagogues who urge people to throw out reason, law, fairness, truth, and memory. Unfortunately, increasingly relevant is Hannah Arendt’s vital reminder: 'Totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another.'”