How to Spot Tyrants: A Literary Guide

We live in dark times. America’s President-elect is busy appointing a group of dangerous right-wing ideologues to his administration. Meanwhile, right wing populist parties are on the rise across Europe, and already in power in Hungary and Poland, and may soon be in power in France. WTF.

There are multiple reasons for the crisis facing western democracy, but not least among them is our catastrophic failure to learn from history. We may live in the information age, but people spend less time reading books than they do absorbed in social media where facts are disposable, and truth can be anything you want it to be. Books are our greatest defense against ignorance.

To quote the great Fran Lebowitz: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.” To get you started we invited the journalist and LGBT activist, Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, to put together a list of ten books that explore the meaning of dictatorships and the consequences of autocratic rule.

  • Best known for her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coined the term “the banality of evil,” Arendt’s earlier book, from 1951, has become one of the most influential studies of totalitarian ideas and regimes on either side of the political divide, illuminating the shared characteristics of Nazism and Communism.
  • For the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the Holocaust was not simply the most grotesque of a litany of grotesqueries committed upon the Jews, but a direct consequence of the modern world itself. Far from modern life being in opposition to barbarity, Bauman argues that it enables it.
  • Freedom is not easy—it comes with dangers and responsibilities. In this classic text, Erich Fromm argues that if we cannot find a way to live the complexities of freedom, humanity will turn to authoritarianism. As part of his analysis, Fromm addresses many issues pertinent to contemporary life: the coercion to conform, the desire to be a part of “something greater,” the loss of authentic thought and action all emerge as consequences of what he describes as an escape from freedom.
  • Vaclav Havel is one of the great heroes of the 20th century, a playwright and towering intellect frequently jailed for his involvement in dissident organizations like Charter 77, who wrought change by simply deciding to act as if Communist Czechoslovakia was a free society. Among the arguments he posited in this extensive essay was that by “living in truth” in their daily lives, people could differentiate themselves from the officially mandated culture prescribed by the State since power depends on submission to succeed.
  • An extraordinary document of life under the Nazis, Victor Klemperer’s diaries weave details of his life in 1930s Germany into a powerful indictment of a state moving ineluctably along the road of tyranny. The son of a rabbi, Klemperer converted to Protestantism in his twenties but was still forced to endure the deprivations and humiliations of German Jews. He survived the war thanks to his wife’s “racial purity” and lived in east Germany, working in Dresden as a professor in Romance languages until his death in 1960.
  • Of all the chroniclers of the Nazi genocide, few are as lucid and as clear-eyed as Primo Levi, an Italian chemist who was transported to Auschwitz and miraculously survived to tell the tale. Best known for his extraordinary biography, If This is a Man (known in the U.S. by the less enigmatic title, Survival in Auschwitz), Levi’s last published work before his suicide in 1987 is a powerful meditation on the culture and mindset of both the operators and the victims of the extermination camps.
  • A passionate activist for social justice, and a fierce critic of the Vietnam war, Robert Lifton’s specialty is the relationship between psychology and violence, Lifton was particularly interested in the process of “psychic numbing,” whereby some people become insensible to the pain of others. It is, in essence, how bad people are able to get away with bad things.
  • Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychoanalyst famous for promoting sexual liberation—and later imprisoned in the U.S.—published this book in 1933, long before Hitler unleashed his Final Solution. His analysis of how the National Socialists came to power in Germany broadens into a stunning critique of modern society, and the devastating implications of our attitudes towards sex, religion, the family, and the state. 
  • Published in English 1924, and the first novel to be banned by the Soviet Censorship Board, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is a dystopian novel about a future nation constructed almost entirely of glass in order to aid mass surveillance. Said to have influenced both Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, We imagines a world in which freedom and happiness are incompatible. He writes, “A man is like a novel: until the very last page you don't know how it will end. Otherwise it wouldn't even be worth reading.”
  • Marie Vassiltchikov was a white Russian princess with a front row seat of the Nazi war machine, in large part due to her roles as secretary to Adam von Trott, mastermind of the unsuccessful 20th of July plot to assassinate Hitler.

Kristen Bell ‘Pinksources’ Cheap Labor in Gender Inequality PSA

Kristen Bell calls out gender inequality in a new short from The Huffington Post. As a part of their new video series, Celebs Have Issues, Bell humorously takes aim at sexism in the workplace.

This parody ad for “Pinksourcing” demonstrates why women are the best and cheapest resource for American companies: they always bring baked goods to the office, work overtime for free, and make 77 cents on the dollar. And apparently, they’re all named Kathy. But it’s ok, because they get free tampons in the bathroom.

Watch Kristen Bell and The Huffington Post sell you on “Pinksourcing” below:

Edward Snowden Asks Obama for Pardon

Photo courtesy of Freedom of the Press Foundation

Edward Snowden’s supporters are leading the campaign to have him pardoned before the end of President Obama’s term. The US whistleblower has been exiled to Moscow since 2013 when he leaked confidential information regarding surveillance measures made by US and British intelligence agencies. He is currently wanted in the US where he faces at least 30 years for violating the Espionage Act.

Snowden has argued that his actions were morally right and have not caused any harm but have actually benefitted citizens.

“Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but that is perhaps why the pardon power exists – for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things,” he said in a recent interview with The Guardian.

Although chances of a political pardon are low, Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder has said that Snowden performed a public service with his act.

Oliver Stone’s film about the whistleblower, Snowden, premieres in the US this Friday. Stone hopes the film will positively affect the public’s opinion of Snowden.

Cate Blanchett & Other Celebs Stand #WithRefugees

If you were suddenly displaced from your home, what would you take with you? Luckily it’s something we don’t all experience, but for millions of refugees fleeing war in their own country, it’s their reality.

In a powerful new video for the UN Refugee Agency, Cate Blanchett joins forces with Stanley Tucci, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and other celebs to recite “What They Took with Them,” a poem by Jenifer Toksvig. The video is accompanied by photos from Brian Sokol’s project, “The Most Important Thing” and firsthand accounts from the refugees he photographed.

The video asks people to sign the #WithRefugees petition which will be presented at the UN General Assembly on September 19. It asks the government to ensure refugee children receive education, provide housing for refugees, and offer them new skills and employment opportunities.

Sign the petition and watch the video below:

What They Took With Them

Cate Blanchett performs the rhythmic poem ‘What They Took With Them’ alongside fellow actors Keira Knightley, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Capaldi, Stanley Tucci, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kit Harington, Douglas Booth, Jesse Eisenberg and Neil Gaiman. The poem was written by Jenifer Toksvig and was inspired by stories and first-hand testimonies from refugees forced to flee their homes and items they took with them. One of the sources for the poem was Brian Sokol’s photography project, ‘The Most Important Thing,’ made in collaboration with UNHCR. Many of Brian's photos, along with firsthand accounts from the refugees he photographed, are featured in the film. ​ Released exclusively on Facebook, the film urges people to sign the #WithRefugees petition to help ensure refugees have the basics to build back their lives – an education, somewhere safe to live and the opportunity to work. To see the full version of the film and to sign the petition go to

Posted by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency on Thursday, 8 September 2016

Hillary Clinton Kicks Off NYFW with Political Runway Show

Another New York Fashion Week kicked off last night with all the usual designers, plus one new label: Clinton. Anna Wintour and Huma Abedin hosted a rooftop celebration and runway show in TriBeCa to raise money and show support for the Hillary Victory Fund.

Demi Lovato performed, and Chelsea Clinton was in attendance to support her parents.

“I didn’t know I could care any more about politics and who’s running for political office until I became a mother and found that I could,” Clinton told Vogue. “Everything we care about is in question at the moment.”

The runway show featured patriotic pieces from 15 New York designers. A diverse group of models sported designs by Marc Jacobs, Prabal Gurung, Tory Burch, and Diane von Furstenberg to name a few. The collection is now available online.

Girls Protest Racist Hair Policies at South Africa School

Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa was the site of a peaceful protest this weekend as young black women confronted their school’s racist hair policies. The school which was once a segregated institution has been recently come under fire for discriminating against black students in their code of conduct’s appearance guidelines. Although afro hairstyles are not directly mentioned, girls have been sent home for wearing afros and cornrows.

Photos from the protest went viral as young black girls embraced their natural hair, raising their fists and marching to confront the policy. The hashtag, #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh has gone viral, calling attention to the country’s ongoing racism and Eurocentric ideals over two decades after apartheid rule ended. A petition to revise the policy has gained over 20,000 signatures.

The petition reads:

“We stand in solidarity with the learners, who marched at the school on the 26th to say enough is enough. It is unacceptable that in a country in which Black people are a demographic majority, we still today continue to be expected to pander to whiteness and to have it enforced through school policy.”

Burkini Ban Protestors Throw Beach Party Outside French Embassy

Erin McLaughlin Instagram

Multiple cities in France have recently banned the burkini, a full body swimsuit popular amongst Muslim women. Following numerous attacks on French soil, officials cited terror risks for the ban. After a woman was recently forced by police to remove a tunic while lounging on a beach in Nice, people have begun to fight these policies.

Protestors in London staged a demonstration on Thursday in front of the French Embassy as the State Council, France’s highest administrative court, was deciding whether or not the ban was legal. The peaceful protest came in the form of a “wear what you want beach party.” Women and children played in a pile of sand with beach toys and towels spread about.

One of the organizers of the protest, Esmat Jeraj, spoke with TIME about the issue:

“The war on terror should never begin in a woman’s wardrobe. The idea that it is happening is absolutely ludicrous and absurd.”

The ban includes any garment that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” For Muslim women, this policy perpetuates not only Islamaphobia, but sexism.

“I don’t think they understand that we do it out of choice … we want to be modest,” Muslim protester Yasmin Basith said. “What the French government is doing is oppressive… I think it is so hypocritical because they are a country that say ‘égalité, fraternité’ but they don’t let women wear what they want.”

Although the protest is gaining traction mostly amongst social media, the ban is met with widespread support. French pollster IFOP found that 64% were in favor of the new restrictions.