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Announcing "Thinking about..."
Greetings from the edge of something good.
Greetings from the edge of something good. I am a historian of Europe who writes and speaks about contemporary politics and life in the United States. I have decided to write here in order to share more of what I am thinking about with those who want to read it. I am happy to have this chance to write about what I want to write about, and I hope you will join in.
For the last thirty years I have written about some of the darker issues of history, and have been able to join in some important debates. I have shared some thoughts that have made a difference. I coined "bloodlands" to describe the lands between Berlin and Moscow where the worst Nazi and Soviet atrocities took place. I wrote of "sadopopulism," "the politics of eternity," and "pre-fascism" to describe new forms of tyrannical rule. I moved "tyranny" itself towards the center of discussions about the collapse of democracy. We don't have many ways to talk about "unfreedom," a word that I borrowed from eastern Europe. In my most recent book, about a "malady," I show how the pandemic reveals deeper American problems. Late last year I introduced the term "big lie" into the American discussion of the outgoing president's electoral fiction, his claim to have won.
Now and then I have broken a story or made a correct prediction. I think I was the first person to write about the Putin-Trump connection during the 2016 presidential campaign, which turned out to be rather consequential. I wrote that the Soviet Union would come to an end, and was sure that the second Iraq War would be a disaster (although no one would publish me on that particular subject just then). I made the historical comparisons before the Trump administration began that were conventional wisdom by its end. More recently I predicted that Trump would attempt a coup to stay in power, and took some heat for that, but was right.
We are always living in history. The better we understand this, the more freely we move, pushing away veils and finding passages. We live in an age of instrumentalism, where everything is now and in the service of right away. I like instant gratification as much as the next person, but the historian in me knows that thought is elsewhere. Thinking is a connection between two points, neither of which we quite see. History gives us more coordinates for those points. It gets us above the fray, finds us a language, buys us time. What is happening just at the moment always seems urgent -- but for a historian it is always happening in concert with all we think we understand about the past. Nothing is ever quite new. Nothing breaks all the rules. Nothing is ever so exceptional that we should panic or bow.
I teach history at Yale, and that means that most weeks of the year, whatever else I am doing, I am running through centuries, running through events, living a little bit in worlds that are no more, seeing them a bit differently each time I teach them. Whatever else I am doing, I am always writing a history book, which means that I am living more intensely in one of those worlds, trying to make out the connections that were invisible at the time, trying to make them legible for us. I love those forms, those books and those lectures. But they always leave something out.
Most of what I think about has no place. That's what this forum will be for. I will write here about what you might expect, the state of democracy in the U.S. and around the world. I will write about places I know: the European Union, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia. I will comment on the news, but not all the time. I will keep gathering recent events into themes, such as “mob rule,” “fragile masculinity,” and “pre-fascism,” which will be subjects of posts to come. I will certainly write about the digital future, the politics of time, inequality, and children. But I will also be writing about history as such — and about literature, science, and philosophy. I will translate poems, discuss books, and talk about math. I will sometimes post a photo I have taken:
Some of this will be quirky, and some of it will be personal. I am in Vienna now, and a third of my life has been spent abroad, and I mostly read in languages other than English. I hope at least in some of my posts to come to you from mental coordinates that are fresh and unexpected. We think best when we don't anticipate all the connections we can make. We are free when we are unpredictable. I will be writing in that spirit.
Most of what I write will be free of charge. But I hope that you will subscribe. I will do some podcasts and some other media for subscribers, who will also have access to the full archive. I also want to make the general point that writers should be paid. There are certainly writers who deserve to be paid more than I do: the ones who carry out investigative and local reporting, for example. Reporters are the heroes of our time. If you have to choose between them and me, choose them! The importance of local news will be one of my first subjects. But I hope you will consider paying the five dollars a month. It amounts to affirming a choice about what you want to read. But by all means read for a while first!
I will keep it simple, I will keep it real, and I will keep it open. I want to think together. One of those correct predictions I made was that Russia would invade Ukraine. I went to Kyiv at a time of war and propaganda and helped to run a gathering called “Thinking Together.” I want us to learn from the twentieth century. A few years before that I helped a dying friend write a book. He could no longer use his hands, and so we spoke together and edited together. He called his book Thinking the Twentieth Century. The last book that I wrote was about how freedom looks from the edge of death. In the hospital I made little notes, leaving behind the points to connect. And I later wrote Our Malady, but only because I had help. In the end, that was its subject: solitude and solidarity.
I miss thinking together: the unknown opening, the response, the reach higher for something better. In some recent years, especially after I wrote Bloodlands and after I wrote On Tyranny, I was able to speak in person to tens of thousands of people all across the country and all across the world. I haven’t done that lately, because of my own illness and the pandemic. In this forum I can share much more of what I am thinking about, across a much wider range of subjects. And just as with lectures, here I will answer questions. Every day I get your questions in waves, over email, and themes emerge. Over email I try to answer everyone, and I eventually do, but not as well as I would like. What I want to do here is catch your themes, answer your big questions, and in that way think together, better. If this works the way I hope, I will regularly devote posts to questions that come from you.
We know what thinking is, until we stop and think about it. And then we realize that the connections we make are coming from exciting places that we can’t quite see. The internet and the pandemic pull us toward the tedious and the frightful. We will learn to use the internet better, and we will get ourselves clear of this disease. But then come the real questions: what kind of society should we have? how can we be most free? how can we turn coming disasters into opportunities to rebuild? In the broadest sense, this is what I am thinking about now.
Thinking is always about the past, because every connection we make has to do with a voice we have heard, words we have read, something we have experienced already. But thinking is also our guide to the future, because with it we see the outlines of the not yet real. All thinking is thinking ahead. We can do this, but we can’t do it by ourselves. We need the the unpredictable thoughts of others. I will offer mine here.