An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Jan. 31: Anne Applebaum gives Bernie Noe Endowed Lecture on Ethics and Politics

On Jan. 31, Anne Applebaum came to Lakeside Upper School for the Bernie Noe Endowed Lecture on Ethics and Politics, speaking to Upper School students and adults at an assembly exploring what attracts individuals to authoritarian politics, the nature of conspiracy theories, and the importance of not taking democracy for granted. Those conversations continued in an extended Q&A hosted by history teacher Bill Souser, an interview with student journalists for Tatler, and lunch with students in the course Leadership in the Modern Era, followed by an evening lecture in St. Nicholas Hall. 

A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, journalist, and commentator on geopolitics, Anne Applebaum examines the challenges and opportunities of global political and economic change through the lens of world history and the contemporary political landscape. Informed by her expertise in European history and her years of international reporting, Applebaum shares perspectives on the far-reaching implications of today’s volatile world events. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History” is about the Soviet concentration camps. Her book “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine” received her second Duff Cooper Prize and the 28th Lionel Gelber Prize in 2018. Her other books include “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1946,” which won a Cundill Prize for Historical Literature, and “Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe.” She is a senior fellow of international affairs and Agora fellow in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

At the Upper School assembly, Applebaum illuminated the research process — and impetus — for her 2020 book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.” Applebaum spoke of her experiences as a young journalist living in Poland in 1989, living through revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe and watching as “one country to the next turned from dictatorship to democracy.” Recalling the excitement and optimism of her young friends, she shared, “It felt like from now on, there would only be good news.”

A New Year’s Eve party in Poland in 1999 — interrupted by the need to report on Boris Yeltsin’s resignation from the Russian presidency — served as a key anecdote within Applebaum’s lecture. The friend group attending that party — a mix of journalists, lawyers, and civil servants, mostly sharing a center-right political disposition and a belief in democracy, free-market liberalism, and the transatlantic community — had, 20 years later, ruptured dramatically. Half the attendees were no longer speaking, as one contingent veered toward what, in American terms, would be termed the far right, joining Poland’s Law and Justice party and attacking their former friends in the press. Applebaum found herself reflecting on two major questions: “Why did this happen?” and “Has this happened before?” 

Her research examined parallels within political shifts that had occurred in Poland, Hungary, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries, also seeking historical parallels across Europe. Among those who are attracted to authoritarianism and come to reject democracy, Applebaum found cultural factors in common: first, a sense of disappointment, either in their society or their own role in it, and second, an element of nostalgia, leading to a desire for the grandeur, glory, or traditionalism of some vision of the past, sometimes tied to bygone empires. 

Regarding the tactics of authoritarianism, Applebaum also took time to describe her research on conspiracy theories, saying, “This is not something that happens by accident.” She described the ways that intentionally disseminated conspiracy theories are used to persuade and manipulate. “Once you’ve broken up a society, and persuaded people not to trust institutions, how do you rebuild trust?” 

Applebaum’s final remarks focused on a hopeful call to action: the need to think about and proactively nurture a democratic society. “Over the last 20 to 30 years, we talked about and treated democracy as water coming out of the tap; something we didn’t have to think about. We didn’t have to think about where the water came from, who built the pipes — we took all this for granted.” In reality, democracy is much more like water from a well: something that we can’t assume will always be there, and which takes maintenance and effort. 

Before concluding the assembly, Applebaum also answered questions from students on American presidential elections both past and upcoming, Poland’s lessons for the United States, and the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Applebaum delivered the Bernie Noe Endowed Lecture on Ethics and Politics, an annual lecture or debate on political, ethical, or philosophical subjects, with the intent of promoting open discussion. Lectures are designed to foster a robust exchange of ideas. The lecture was renamed by the Belanich family in honor of Noe in September 2021.

 

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