Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.
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1. Timothy Snyder
Historian Timothy Snyder has put together 20 lessons for democracies, based on what we’ve seen from the war.
Lesson One: Do Not Obey in Advance
Lesson Two: Defend Institutions
Lesson Three: Beware the One-Party State
Lesson Four: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Lesson Five: Remember Professional Ethics
Lesson Six: Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Lesson Seven: Be Reflective if You Must be Armed
Lesson Eight: Stand Out
Lesson Nine: Be Kind to Our Language
Lesson Ten: Believe in Truth
You can read his newsletter post here. These ideas are from an expanded—and updated—audio edition of Snyder’s book On Tyranny.
I’m only giving you the first 10 because I want you to click through and read the whole thing.
What struck me in Snyder’s list is how apt they are not just for democracies defending themselves from external threats, but also for democracies under attack from domestic threats, too.
Volodymyr Zelensky has shared these lessons with us over the past six weeks. If we choose not to learn them, we have only ourselves to blame.
2. The Pillar
My friends at the Pillar published a story this week from a reporter on the ground in Ukraine. I keep pushing these refugee items at you because it’s important that we pay attention to their stories:
The war has radically changed the lives of all Ukrainians . . . nearly a quarter of the country’s population of 44 million have already left their homes, representing the most significant migration and humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
According to the latest figures, about half of Ukrainian families have been separated because of the war. Women and children have often moved to safer places or other European countries, while men and elderly people remained.
One such family is that of Anton, 31, from the Havrylivka village near Kyiv. His wife, two children, and sister managed to escape to Italy while he remained in Ukraine.
Telling his story to The Pillar, Anton recalled in vivid detail his family’s escape from their besieged and destroyed village. He remembers the broken cars they saw as they drove away, with dead bodies strewn along the road.
But what makes this piece special is that it also reports on how the volunteer groups trying to help these folks are doing the work.
3. Joan Didion
In 1975, Joan Didion gave the UC-Riverside commencement address. The text was lost in the Riverside archives until the university dug it up following her death last year. Now we have the entire speech. Didion never disappoints.
I’ve had to struggle all my life against my own misapprehensions, my own false ideas, my own distorted perceptions. I’ve had to work very hard, make myself unhappy, give up ideas that made me comfortable, trying to apprehend social reality. I’ve spent my entire adult life, it seems to me, in a state of profound culture shock. I wish I were unique in this, but I’m not. You may not be afflicted with my misapprehensions, and I may not be afflicted with yours, but none of this starts “tabula rasa.” We all distort what we see. We all have to struggle to see what's really going on. . . .
I’m talking about trying not to be crippled by ideas; I’m talking about looking out, about looking out at the world and trying to see it straight, about making that effort to look out for the whole rest of your life.
She goes on to talk about what the culture was like as she was leaving college:
I sometimes think that the most malignant aspect of the period was the extent to which everyone dealt exclusively in symbols. Certain artifacts were understood to denote something other than themselves, something supposedly abstract; some positive or negative moral value. And whether the artifact was positively or negatively charged depended not on any objective reality at all but on where you stood, where the polarization had thrown you. . . .
I spent an hour studying a sentence I’d copied down from a book by a Brazilian guerilla. Now here is the sentence: “The fact that our organization is revolutionary in character is due above all to the fact that all our activity is defined as revolutionary.”
I don’t know that that means. I can track the sentence – the sentence parses but it has no meaning at all. It’s like broken home, it’s like culture at the crossroads, it’s like ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. It is devoid of meaning.
And here’s the passage that became famous, even when her speech was lost:
Now I don’t know how you deal with these convulsions, how you make those connections if you’re sitting around in sneakers congratulating yourself for planting a tree. Planting a tree can be a useful and pleasant thing to do. Planting a tree is not a way of life. Planting a tree as a philosophical mode is just not good enough.
Read the whole thing. Obviously. It’s Joan Didion.
The dynamic Didion talked about in the spring of 1975 is very much with us today.
When I look around our public life, I see a great many people in thrall to ideas. People who, because of their ideas, have decided that liberal democracy is no longer important. Or who, because of their ideas, refuse to confront reality.
The first group is obvious. You know who they are. Of the two, I sometimes think that the second group is more dangerous. That second group is personified in guys like Brad Raffensperger. You remember him, right? He’s the Georgia secretary of state who refused to overturn an election and then became the target of almost unimaginable hatred from Republican voters.
And yet Raffensperger still calls himself a Republican, and is running for reelection as a Republican, and talks all the time about how terrible Democrats are.
This is a man so hostage to an idea that he thinks the people who want to kill him and his family are the good guys.
There’s a lot of that going around. I’m not sure if knowing that Didion saw the same pathology 50 years ago makes it more, or less, depressing.
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I would add, to Didion's observation, that for many Americans– especially on the right– we've entered into an age of slogans. Policies are not ideas and ideas are not slogans.
For example, "pro life." Pro-life isn't a policy; it's not an idea. It doesn't address abortion, or unwanted pregnancy. It's a slogan, a battle cry. One reason our political situation has become so unserious, of late, is that our conversations have become inundated with slogans.
Ideas cannot be expressed by tweets, or on TV commercials. They're best expressed in white papers and essays and treatises. Policies follow from ideas, but they're more practical. They also involve tradeoffs, and price tags and consequences. Republicans these days oppose defunding the police. They also oppose funding the police. They want Biden to implement a NFZ over Ukraine. They also don't want to send military troops abroad. They do this on pretty much every issue: no policies, no real ideas even; only slogans.
It hasn't escaped my attention that their voters have been quite miserable for many years now. If I were them, I would be, too. All talk, and no action.
Excellent as always.