Road to Freedom | Timothy Snyder | 2019


My friends, I am standing here
before you, alone on a stage. But, I am standing surrounded by, and preceded by,
the people who matter to me. The activists, the journalists, the organizers.
The people who make history. Now, I’m a historian and my simple job, in the few minutes that we are going to spend together is to think with you about
what that means. What does it mean to make history?
Why do we need history? What does history have to do with human rights?
With freedom? With democracy? Now, we all know that history
can teach us about patterns. If we think historically, we’re less likely to be surprised.
We’re less likely to be caught off guard. If we think historically, for example, we know that climate change can bring a civilization to its knees. If we think historically, we know that rapid changes in the form of media can cause decades of confusion. And even war. And if we think historically, we know that
democracy is the exception and not the rule. We know that democracy
is always a struggle. The Ancient Greeks, who gave us the word “democracy,” concluded that the struggle was too great. In my American tradition, or in one of
the good parts of my American tradition Frederick Douglass. That wasn’t supposed to be a laugh line but thank you. Always welcome. Frederick Douglass reminds us that democracy is always an uphill struggle against inequality. But that it is a struggle
that is worth it. So democracy gave give us patterns.
Democracy can keep us from being surprised. History can also give us lessons.
We’re not so far away from the 20th century. Here in the 21st, we need the 20th century not just
as a reminder of how things can go wrong. but also as a source of lessons about
how to put things back right. The 20th century is the century of the transport,
of the concentration camp, of the gulag of mass starvation, of the killings fields,
of the gas chambers. But it is also the century of the people who observe
these events and other forms of mass violence. Around the world. And who left us with a series of very specific lessons, which I think are worth remembering. We know from the 20th century that it is very important
not to obey in advance. That in the beginning, at least, it is not
so much that dictators take power. As that they receive power from people who
are willing to normalize along with them. That was an American
reference. Thank you. We know from the 20th century that it is
very important to stand out. That if you don’t feel a little bit strange, if you are not doing something that is different from what other people are doing. You are probably
not free. We know from the 20th century
that freedom is association. We all want to be free as individuals, but to be free
as individuals we have to be able to work together. The moment we’re all on our own
is the moment that we lose. Which is why institutions, such as
the rule of law, are so important. But also institutions that are outside
of government, like labor unions. We know from the 20th century
that language matters. That leaders prepare us for regime
changes by working a language. And that one of the ways that we have to respond,
is by using language carefully ourselves. We know from the 20th century that we have to watch out for “states of exception.” “States of emergency.” That virtually every authoritarian or totalitarian who changes regime prepares the way by saying “this is only for a moment. This is an exceptional circumstance. I’m just suspending your rights for now.” But very often “now”
turns out to be forever. And last, but not least, we know from the 20th century that truth matters; that facts matters. We know that the people who want to take our
freedom away, first take the idea of truth away. In the 20th century the idea was that
truth was to be taken away by myths. Now truth is taken away to be replaced by total cynicism. By indifference. By withdrawal from the future. And this is why, my friends, we made such a mistake
when we said that history was over. Because if history is over then we are disoriented.
If history is over, we don’t have these lessons. If history is over then freedom is over.
Then democracy is over. If we say that there are no
alternatives, what are we really saying. We’re saying that it doesn’t matter what
you do. It doesn’t matter what I do. Somehow things are always
going to sort themselves out. If we believe that Europe will be democracy, or capitalism will bring democracy, or some larger force will bring democracy, we’re actually saying, “we don’t care about freedom. Freedom doesn’t matter.” Because, of course, nothing brings democracy
except for the people who care about it and decide upon it as a value
and work for it and take risks. Where we are now, this road to “unfreedom,” is that we are moving from a world where we thought, “oh” “good things
are inevitable” To a world in which we’re afraid
that there is no future left at all. If you look at the people, or the groups, who are trying to take freedom away from us now it is striking that what they have in common is that
they are killing the future. They are trying to kill time. Whether these are traditional dictators, who try to take a common story away from us and replace it with a myth about how we’re always right
and the others are always wrong. We’re always innocent.
The other’s always guilty. Whether it be digital powers, private or public, who try to keep our eyes peeled to the screen and draw us into an eternal present where we get angry at others but we never actually do anything about it. Or whether it be those
who deny climate change who are also taking the future away from us but bringing a disastrous future ever closer to the present. The enemies of freedom
are also the enemies of the future. And this is why, my friends, I think
that history is so important. History is the thing that breaks the log jam. History says that facts are real and that we have to search for them. History says we’re all in this together. Every perspective matters and has to be understood. And history says time is moving in one direction. That we learn from the past about the limits in the present. But that once we learn about the limits of the present
we also learn the ways around; the ways through the combinations that will
get us into a better future. We need history in order to have the future because what is freedom after all except a choice about what is good. A choice among various goods. The ability to imagine what is better and project it into the future and to make that future. We can’t
do that without history. And this is my plea then, those of you who have power, and some of you are here and some of you are listening be concerned about structures, whether they are digital, ecological, or structures of inequality which make it harder
for others to be free. And those of you here, my friends, the dissidents, the activists, the journalists, the organizers thank you. It’s not that you are making history in the sense that others will write about what you do. You’re making history in the sense that
you are helping us all to have a future. And that is why those are my last words.
Thank you.

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