Read Timothy Snyder; skip Ben Sasse

[Originally posted on Facebook May 24, 2019. I had been reading The Road to Unfreedom slowly, posting quotations and comments as I went. This was my concluding post.]

OK, a concluding comment about Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom.

For me Snyder was a scales-from-the-eyes read. His European and specifically Ukrainian and Russian focus through the first half or two-thirds of the book is so helpful for discerning the deep, important geopolitical and geocultural stuff behind and beneath the perpetual ink cloud/ shitstorm of daily Trumpery that keeps us off-balance here. As he says in one of the excerpts that I posted, fans and opponents of the Trump can become addicted to the daily highs and crashes of the latest provocations. And so we miss the bigger picture.

I sense a deep sobriety, stability, and groundedness in Snyder. His writing is a wonderful symphony of lucid narration, acute analysis, and poetic/prophetic rhetoric. A real balm to the soul, though of course he can’t make you feel that it’s necessarily all going to turn out well.

And turning back to reflect on Snyder in comparison with Sasse: I read Ben Sasse’s book Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal some weeks ago and posted numerous excerpts. What Sasse and Snyder have in common is a certain amount of exhortation to live life for real, locally. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your friends. Pay attention to local and regional life and news. Don’t obsess on the turmoil in DC to the extent that you lose your center in God, friends, family, and local community. (Snyder doesn’t talk about God—I’m extrapolating a bit.) [Prof. Snyder pointed out to me in a private communication: “God is not entirely absent” from his book.]

So that’s a commonality between them, and they are surely right.

But there is also a difference. Snyder says: look beyond the daily circus of stupidity to discern the larger pattern. To discern the larger pattern, open your horizons to look seriously at what has happened and is happening beyond our own national borders, across the sea. Look at Ukraine, Russia, Poland. Look at Britain. Look at the fascist movements in France, Germany, Austria, and their links to the arch-fascist in Moscow. Look back over the years and decades from 2016 back to the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Pay serious attention to Vladimir Putin. Pay serious attention to the diachronic international picture.

This is what makes Snyder infinitely more valuable than books that merely expose the outrages of the last two or three years in our own confined North American space. Snyder’s stability, his refusal to fixate on getting excited about the last stupid thing Trump said or did yesterday, generates a sane sobriety that allows you to see the bigger picture. And then hopefully to think, speak, and act in a way that may help change the trajectory.

Sasse in the final analysis tends, as it seems to me, to take the same observation that we must not keep letting ourselves be jerked around by the outrage-du-jour and uses it not for deepening but for heading into the shallows. Sasse’s own words (and silences) and actions (or rather inactions, or capitulations) exhibit a descent into quietism. Sasse for me represents a to a certain point admirable—but then ultimately deplorable—instance of the tendency of some Christians to opt for personal serenity over persistent engagement and dogged commitment to truth.

The Lord who entered this world so thoroughly as to touch the lepers, diss “that fox” Herod, turn over the tables of the moneychangers, and bleed to death on a stake for the crime of exposing, denouncing, and defying the corrupt religio-political establishment of his day will not be pleased with us if we look the other way and whistle “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through” while compromised preachers exalt an utterly fradulent “Cyrus” (please . . .) who makes their flock complicit in a global neo-fascist revival. And if you don’t think that’s what Trumpism (whether Our Dolt Leader himself even realizes it or not) amounts to—well, I don’t think you have reckoned yet with all of the evidence.

Grace and peace to you all. But no false peace.

Read Snyder.

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