Timothy Snyder: Political ideas matter

Ezra Klein interviewed Tim Snyder (you can get Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom from the Vancouver-based Massy Books) on this recent podcast episode: “Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans” (March 15, 2022).

They discuss Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine as a clear illustration of why political ideas matter.

If ideas don’t matter, how would that affect our behavior?

“The politics of inevitability,” Snyder says,

“assures you that whatever the good things are, they’re being brought about automatically by some invisible hand, right? The market is like Mom. You know, it’s going to take care of you with that invisible hand. And you don’t have to think about what the values might be, what you actually desire. You lose the habit, right? You never perform the mental gymnastics of stretching to figure out what a better world might actually be because you think you’re on track to that better world no matter what happens.”

Political ideas that once felt “thrilling” eventually devolve into a “tedium of implementation, conflict, regulation, et cetera” because we are no longer creating but merely maintaining the nations and institutions. Our belief in historical inevitability justifies the tedium. We assure ourselves that we have to work to maintain things the way they are because it is inevitable that they are this way.

People today tend to say that “ideas don’t matter.” This is not to say that we don’t have political ideas, because of course people have their own strong myths about race, language, nationalism, etc. But we tend to overlook these ideas and discount their importance, and in so doing, “we are excusing ourselves from thinking about the future.” And: “the worse we get at talking about ideas, the harder it is for us to imagine the future as being anything else but like the present” — or, alternatively, “the present with some kind of catastrophe.”

How we behave and think when we believe the future can’t be changed

Politically, a belief in inevitability can be convince us to do unethical and dysfunctional things, like, for example, the US invading Iraq in 2003. A belief that “democracy arises because of natural forces” will suggest to you — contrary to all real-world examples — that you can smash a country and democracy will immediately sprout forth from the scorched earth.

Philosophically, too, there are consequences. If an outcome is guaranteed, we don’t need values nor reason. Those are about desiring a particular future and strategizing how to arrive there. If we don’t believe there are real options and different possible outcomes, nothing prompts us to examine our own desires and strategies, nor to recognize that other people may have their own ways of thinking, feeling, and planning. Values and reasons are obsolete appendages, or maybe outright fantasies, if we cannot change the future.

People do have different values

So regarding Russia’s current war against Ukraine, Snyder explains, Putin “doesn’t care about the things that we think people ought to care about. You know, he doesn’t care about the Russian economy. I don’t think he even cares about Russian interests, perhaps not even the survival of the Russian state.” In the US, discourse tends to assume geopolitical motivations, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “can’t be motivated geopolitically” since he’s actually hurting Russia. (China may very well someday dominate Russia, and Russia’s behavior right now isn’t helping.)

Instead: “He cares about how he’s going to be remembered after he’s dead. He cares about an image of an eternal Russia.” These are Putin’s values, and they are different values than other people have. Putin wants to achieve political unity, but not through what others might mean when we say “unity,” e.g., listening to different perspectives, empathizing with others, building solidarity, collaborating in the midst of differences, etc. Putin, instead, wants the kind of unity achieved through “charismatic acts of violence.” He is trying to dominate and annex another country.

Ukraine, for its part, Snyder says, right now is not focused on a Russian-style project of reinterpreting the past. Instead, thy are actively fighting in the present and envisioning the future, going about “being a civic nation and having a nation which is based upon asserting its own existence day to day.” Their national identity isn’t about when and whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian, but “being there…helping one another out…having some kind of a common cause,” with President Zelensky as the emblem because he has chosen to stay and fight the invasion. It is legible from an outside perspective, too. People in North America (for example) understand what it means to be Ukrainian today not because of what language the Ukrainians speak but because of “universally recognizable” moral choices by the people and their leader.

War, brought to us courtesy fossil fuels

What is Russia’s war on Ukraine about, if not competing narratives about history?

Snyder offers an alternative interpretation: It’s about oil. This is “the kind of war we will have if we become the kind of world which is dependent upon the natural gas and the oil and the people who are able to control the profits from them.” This is the sort of war that “global warming is going to bring to us” if we do not restructure the way we get energy. “If we’re going to have a future,” Snyder says, “we’re going have to start thinking about different ways that things could turn out.”

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