STITCH BY STITCH: A BOOK
Claire Berlinski, a historian by training, has been a foreign correspondent for thirty years. In Stitch by Stitch, she places the breaking news that flashes and flickers incessantly over our cellphone screens in a wider historical and global context. This context is often absent from our discussion of the news, but without it, we cannot make sense of it.
From this context we can see that events that seem to us new are not. They recapitulate distinct, recurrent patterns, and from these patterns we can discern, step by step, what is likely to happen to us next.
What many Americans see as a uniquely American crisis is no such thing. Since the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy has come under threat the world around. It is now in particular danger—and in some places dead—in Europe. The rise of antiliberal political movements and regimes in Europe is a more direct threat to Americans than they realize, and it is closely connected to their own recent political experiences. Europe’s past and its recent history suggest lessons to Americans who are struggling to respond intelligently to Trumpism.
Stich by Stich argues that threat to liberal democracy comes in the form of a distinct, rival ideology that is at once historically familiar and genuinely novel: the New Caesarism, or illiberal democracy—a hollow form of democracy that spreads mimetically and consolidates itself through the new technologies of the 21st century. When American pundits and journalists call the Trump presidency “unprecedented,” they do their audience a disservice. There are countless recent precedents abroad, and they are often eerily similar. The idea that our experience has no precedent and no analogue is bound up in a particular notion of American exceptionalism, one that has persuaded us we exist outside of time, history, and the world—an idea that is not only wrong, but harmful. It deprives us of the ability to learn from the experience of other countries and from historical evidence that is not only abundant, but relevant to us.
The author is intimately familiar with the recent precedents she describes. She has lived through every stage of the new Caesarism: She watched it arrive in Turkey, where she spent a decade reporting on the rise and consolidation of the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Millions of others have lived through a similar chain of events in in a long list of countries from Hungary to the Philippines. Most importantly, they have lived through them in Russia. Russia is the pioneer, and the chief global exporter, of this empty form of democracy, as well as the ideology upon which it rests and its techniques of control.
The new Caesars are learning from each other. Above all, they’ve learned the recipe for creating an illiberal democracy from Vladimir Putin, the ur-Caesar. The steps are distinct and predictable. First, rewrite history. Then foster nostalgia for an authoritarian past. Exploit ethnic, racial, religious, and class divisions. Magnify fear of foreigners and outsiders. Enter Caesar—the voice of the “real people” in their struggle against a nebulous class of “elites.” Conflate entertainment and politics. Create chaos, confusion, and a sense of permanent emergency. Destroy confidence in the idea of objective truth. Humiliate or destroy the people who are better fit to be leaders. Gain control of the media to starve adversaries of access to the public. Discredit what media you cannot control. Reward loyalists with government tenders. Punish the disloyal with punitive taxes and lawsuits. Stack the courts. Jigger the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. Erode critical civil rights and freedoms, stitch by stitch—until elections still happen, but denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.
If we fail to understand how and why liberal democracy around the world is collapsing, we have scant hope of preserving ours. If we fail to understand why the West, in particular, has come under attack, we have no hope of responding intelligently or organizing ourselves to defend it. Stitch by Stitch shows that Europe—the other half of the West, from which we have been deliberately and systematically alienated—is now the central battlefield in the war for liberal democracy. The crisis in Europe has become so acute that its long postwar peace, the basis of the postwar global order, is under threat.
To survive, illiberal democracies—and Putin’s regime in particular—must undermine liberal democracies. Successful liberal democracies are an inherent threat to these regimes. Their existence refutes the story the Caesars tell their citizens about the world. This is why Russia is working assiduously to discredit liberal democracies and replace them with illiberal regimes sympathetic to the Kremlin. To do this, he must alienate the United States from Europe, and alienate European nations from each other. This is precisely what is happening, putting our security and the world’s at risk.
Claire Berlinski is an essayist, literary critic, novelist, travel writer, and biographer. She brings thirty years of personal experience with the new Caesarism to vivid life, showing readers exactly what it is like to live in the kind of society we are now on the path to becoming. The result is a book that falls under no conventional category: It is a work of scholarship that is informed by her background as a historian and the academic literature about this regime type. But it is also riveting journalism, a memoir, a warning, and a step-by-step guide to escaping the trap.
If you would like to read this book, please contribute: It is, so far, wholely crowdfunded.
The manifest content of this scandal, as thus far reported in the highbrow press, is indeed a scandal. But as French scandals go, it is a tremblor on the French Presidential Scandal scale. The latent content is what matters—and it matters because of the larger geopolitical context. ... https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/08/21/jupiter-and-rambo/
No one has really written about the latent content. I fixed that.
It was a more tolerant society in its way. The great question of African-American civic equality was formally resolved, even if the de facto would take generations to follow the de jure. There was an expectation that Southern white heritage would and could coexist with a society of equity and toleration. President Gerald Ford restored the citizenship of Robert E. Lee. President Jimmy Carter restored the citizenship of Jefferson Davis. These were intended and accepted as acts of reconciliation rather than revanchism. In 1979, a television show about a car with a Stars and Bars on the roof went on a national network and ran for six years. No one experienced anguish over it. No one assumed it was about the legitimization of enslavement. The spirit of destruction and the fanatical extirpation of public memory did not exist. The general hatred of neighbor did not exist. Not as it does now.
You see, forty-three years ago there was media, but no social media.
Accompanying this was a general absence of fear. There were moral panics to be sure, but they didn’t prevent mothers of the time from putting five-year old children outdoors to wander unattended for hours. I remember 1980 in part because it was the year a friend and I discovered the fenceline for a state prison in the woods behind our house; and also because it was the year we returned from a different forest expedition howling and pursued by a cloud of bees. We were put back outdoors the next day. Perhaps it is best not to valorize it too much. Children did die from stupid accidents. I did walk home with a broken arm one day. But it is what it was, and what is was is gone.
So much of it is gone now. The edifying sense of history and its perils is gone. The great sense of mission in the world is gone. The lamp lifted for the weary and oppressed is — well, if not gone, then dimmed. The existence of an independent Congress is gone. The prevalence of societal toleration is gone. The absence of the tools of distributed totalitarianism is gone. The sense that American greatness is a function of, and secondary to, American goodness is gone.
It’s the last that tells the most.
Forty-three years ago today, this was the world and the country I was born into. It was a good place, worthy despite its best efforts of all that came before it. We were handed it whole and living. We were given its hard won prizes. It was the world of yesterday. And we lost it.
The second war that overshadowed everything was the one that hadn’t happened yet. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the feared preludes to the consuming fires that would end civilization. Across the seas, the menacing empire built its stupendous arsenal, and under its aegis nation after nation fell on its march. At home, America struggled to keep drug use among her soldiers to a manageable level. Everyone understood what the imbalance meant. Not even the deliberate national amnesia after Vietnam obscured the great issue. One year later, it would be the centerpiece of the convention address that eventually propelled the Californian to the White House:
“We live in world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive in each other's country and destroy virtually the civilized world we live in. And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge.”
Forty-three years ago, Americans were willing to meet the challenge. And so those Americans of that time rebuilt their armies and revivified their navies. They recommitted to the defense of Europe. REFORGER 1975 returned the United States Marine Corps to Europe for the first time since the First World War; and it grew until REFORGER 1988 became the largest military exercise in Europe since the Second World War. They doubled down on the free nations clinging to the east Asian littoral. The North Korean dictator, emboldened by American failure in Southeast Asia, tested American will with the axe murders of US Army soldiers in the DMZ. He found 1976 rather different than expected: Operation Paul Bunyan brought a full force of US Army Engineers and ROK commandos to the scene, plus B-52s, plus a carrier battle group. The dictator backed down. The line was drawn.
Within a few years, as the revival gathered pace, America went over to the offensive. American arms and advisors ground down Soviet armies in Afghanistan, and Soviet proxies in Central America. American ships and aircraft eradicated the Iranian navy as a force in being in a single day. American F-14s streaked across the skies over Soviet islands in the far Pacific. American ingenuity delivered parts and software to the Soviet energy industry, and then monitored the resultant pipeline explosions.
America stood watch. America paid the price and shouldered the burden. My own childhood had its idyllic qualities stripped away with a sojourn in Korea. The experience focused the mind, but it was not resented: every man a volunteer, every family for their man. And when a rickety vessel on the high seas, laden with refugees from oppressed Indochina, had the good fortune to encounter a United States Navy ship, the refugee man who stood to call to it said:
“Hello American sailor! Hello freedom man!”
It was a time when America understood itself as that refuge. Forty-three years ago, there were millions of Americans alive, elderly to be sure, who were part of the great emigrations through Ellis Island. They came from the worst and most benighted corners of the world, from lands and societies where the habits of liberty and self-governance might as well have been legends for fools. They came from autocracies, tyrannies, despotisms, theocracies, and monarchies. They came from the rule and cruelties of emperors, kings, sultans, and emirs. They came from the Ottoman, Qing, Habsburg, and Romanov dominions. They came from Irish hovels. They came from Sicilian huts. They came and they built and defended the greatest republic in the history of man.
They were still around in 1975. One of them, in 1982, recalled his voyage as a five-year old boy in 1903 from Sicily to New York City. As their vessel entered the harbor, his father brought brought him to the deck, and pointed toward the lamp on the Statue of Liberty. “Ciccio, look! Look at that! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That's the light of freedom! Remember that!” Frank Capra never forgot.
And so Americans believed then it was important to take in Southeast Asian refugees — although there was contention around it to be sure. And so Americans believed it was important to take in Russian Jews. And so Americans believed it was important to take in those fleeing from oppression in other lands: I remember the little girl from martial-law era Poland with whom I played as a child. And so the two men contending for the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1980, each seeking to portray himself as conservative as possible, would debate over which of the two of them had a better plan for integrating illegal aliens from Mexico more fully into American society.
Mr. X, as I'll call him, shared these words with as small group of friends. He's told us to reprint them as we like, but he wishes to remain anonymous for reasons only too easy to understand at times like these.
I found this moving. It expresses my own thoughts and emotions well. Perhaps you will find that move you in the same way, so I'll share them with you.
Forty-three years is a span in memory and being that embraces a distance to a foreign land. Forty-three years ago this week, Americans were listening to The Eagles, Van McCoy, and Bazuka; and the Vietnamese republic entered its fourth month under occupation. It was a traumatized country forty-three years ago, coming off the self-inflicted tragedies of a lost war and an imploded presidency. The Indochinese were abandoned and forgotten, consigned to genocide — “I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.” wrote Sirik Matak in refusing the evacuation that would have spared him execution at the Khmer Rouge’s hands. So too was Nixon in his way. Just a few months earlier President Ford’s pardon of his disgraced predecessor had set off a firestorm that culminated in his own appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. Americans disliked the perception that a powerful man had escaped justice, and the elite set that had hated Nixon ever since he had the effrontery to oppose Communism and support racial integration in their Georgetown neighborhoods were furious at being denied the satisfaction of destruction. But the firestorm died as quickly as did the pangs of conscience on the fall of Saigon. Forty-three years ago, America was willing to accept a particular bargain: the decade of war, riots, domestic terror, and dishonor would end, even if a few more dishonorable compromises were necessary to make it so.
This is the thing to understand about forty-three years ago: there were resources and reservoirs within American society to pull it off. There was still a sense of a good people and good institutions even if overlaid by a corrupt edifice. There was still an Article I branch of national government able and willing to summon a sitting President of the United States before itself to render accounts. There was still a belief that America would send forth good sons to do good things, if only we rediscovered ourselves fully. The belief sent first an earnest Georgian, animated by the conviction that America must first be good before great, to the White House. Then it sent his successor, an earnest Californian also animated by the conviction that America must first be good before great. The difference between them was that forty-three years ago, the Georgian would believe that America must be brought to that goodness — and the Californian would believe that despite everything, Americans were already there. They were both right.
It was a time when goodness was on the agenda, and greatness was not.
Forty-three years ago, two wars — among them not the swiftly forgotten Vietnam — overshadowed everything. One was the Second World War, a mere thirty years in the past, as close to them then as 1988 is to us now. Every person over forty in 1975 remembered these things: world war, the SS, the Holocaust, D-Day, hundreds of thousands of dead American boys, total mobilization, the camps, atomic incineration of women and children. They lived in an era and land of extraordinary prosperity and security, and they remembered these things. They understood, however dimly, that America was the prime factor in bringing it all to an end. They grasped that America was the only guarantor against it ever happening again. It was a time when the genial father across the street lay awake at night with memories of Okinawa or the Hürtgen. It was a time when the nice woman in the third-floor apartment, the one who gave piano lessons to your son, had numbers tattooed on her forearm. In 1975, Americans knew.
Your vision is acute, but oddly distorted. The Trump phenomenon, like the Tea Party before it, is a reaction to the growing Caesarism of American politics, not a cause. Were I, as a long-time libertarian-leaning conservative, to set out to describe the Progressive playbook, I could not better your description: “Conflate entertainment and politics. Create chaos, confusion, and a sense of permanent emergency. Destroy confidence in the idea of objective truth. Humiliate or destroy the people who are better fit to be leaders. Gain control of the media to starve adversaries of access to the public. Discredit what media you cannot control. Reward loyalists with government tenders. Punish the disloyal with punitive taxes and lawsuits. Stack the courts. Jigger the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. Erode critical civil rights and freedoms, stitch by stitch—until elections still happen, but denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.” Only in the New York Times can these trends be attributed to Trump, or to conservatives. The real threat to the liberal political order is the combination of crony capitalism, public employee political activity, massive government subsidies for leftist causes, relentless lawfare, and celebration of victimhood as the highest form of human achievement. I confess to being puzzled by the gap between the brilliance of your Warlock essay and what I regard as a strange and skewed view of current U.S. political forces. I think you need some better reference points for anti-Progressive thinking. I will suggest just one, Manhattan Contrarian, which is my personal favorite for consistently shrewd analysis of the Progressive state. [See http://manhattancontrarian.com]
All Europe needs to do is defund their Global Progressive Agenda worldview from education in K-12, university, law and journalism schools and replace it with Western Enlightenment. This is the sword that cuts the Gordian knot. However Europe won't do this thing. See Jer. 6:16. By the way, the other countries should. That would be Kenya, the USA, the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Japan, Russia... all of them. Will they? (It a fight: Tribal Control vs. Prog Control vs. Tragic Liberty.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrkN5Pqh5ok
I am ALSO "puzzled by the gap between the brilliance of your Warlock essay and what I regard as a strange and skewed view of current U.S. political forces." For a start read Peggy Noonan's 2016 piece on 'the unprotected' voting for Trump. Whether it is NATO, global warming, or immigration just follow the money. Who benefits? Who is harmed? Seven of the nine richest counties in the US border DC. What happens to anyone even threatening to disturb this? Why is Trump's threat to NOT invade or meddle in every country's affairs such a bad thing? I do not understand.
Hi Claire, Coming up on one year since you started this journey. I was getting updates regularly on Ricochet and through Facebook. I enjoyed the podcasts and initial involvement, but have lost touch with the whole project. Wondering how its going and if you plan to share your project going forward through the same avenues? If not, where can we follow the book's progress? Best wishes.
I prefer "Europe in the Age of ISIS" for two reasons: 1) It's more accurate, in that Trump is new to the scene, and nothing he has done (yet) has had any effect on the European recovery of backbone; and 2) by putting Trump's name in the subtitle you're somewhat tying the book's fortunes to his. Yes, he won the election, but now he must govern. If his presidency doesn't go well . . . And are you a Trumpista?
It is a hard argument to prove the US decrepit. It is uncertain of what to do next. Post WWII liberalism is mostly done and the impact has not always been kind to Americans - at least they feel this way. Russia and China are better, but adversaries. Russia is still feared after almost 2 centuries since the Congress of Vienna attempted to construct alliances to restrain them. But Russia fears as much as it is feared. A threat at the margin, not at the inflection. Likewise, once the richest nation in the world, China remains large and lacking enough resources, unable to project real power to secure them. The Chinese still are mistrusted - and for obvious reasons. The world is not coming to an end, though the US has lacked a grand strategy for almost 30 years. We have fought many times since then and become distracted or conflicted, but we have no clear strategy. Until a real enemy emerges, we will continue to lurch. And remember, as divided as Americans appear, this is not the first time a nation without clear adversaries has taken advantage of peace to embroil itself in rabid democracy. All is not over.
JV DeLong has his finger on some important items in his quote below. To which could be added, the European paucity of NATO defense spending is the flip side of its decades of reliance on US military spending on their behalf while their own went to sumptuous social welfare programs. Small wonder Trump berated them - he doesn't feel the US should face Russia unsupported, and bluntly says so.
I will reserve judgment until the book appears, by which time the West will presumably have unraveled. I have a feeling that we shall agree on the effect and disagree on the cause. I shall gallantly give you the advantage by declaring my hand straight away. The West IS unraveling, but US policy is not to blame. There are two destructive tendencies working in parallel. The first is a rise in populism coupled with the decline of the nation-state. The second is the substitution of Islamic values for Christian values, particularly in Europe. The other piece of knitting which is unraveling stitch by stitch is the Democratic Party of the US.
You know there is a book in there somewhere in the pile of ideas. The problem is the premise. Trump is a bit of an oddity - like Teddy Roosevelt, a celebrity. But he is not Putin. The real book premise worth pursuing is the slide into authoritarian/oligarchic capitalism similar to what China promotes or what Russia, Iran, Venezuela, etc. promote. In fact, to the extent the US is oligarchy (and it may be becoming that) that is the issue that spawns Trump, or in the UK Brexit, and challenges conventional climate, social justice, immigration, income equality, etc. policies when promoted by Davos Man to the masses.
what a complete load of crap. MAGA
Your essay "The Warlock Hunt" is one of the most honest, intelligent and insightful essays I have read in a long time. On the strength of that alone, I gratefully make a contribution to your book. In fact, I encourage you to consider a book-length version of "The Warlock Hunt." PS -- Friendly suggestion: evolutionary psychology has much to offer -- certainly moreso that Freudianism.
claire, best wishes in your efforts. we really live in interesting times, and i don't know how you concentrate on this with all that is happening in the world. Just the turkish part is unsettling. Remember however, things have been a lot worse in times past, and there is a lot of ruin in a country.