On Tyranny

Author: Timothy Snyder

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century

Published: 2017

I read it: August 2017

on tyranny

We seem to lack a consensus on the acceptability of referring to Adolf Hitler in the course of argumentation. Most of us are convinced that even using the name or historical reference is an instant reductio ad Hitlerum that reduces the argument to rubble immediately. It’s as if mentioning the ultimate super-villain is so inherently outrageous that it must mean the end of rational argument. But doesn’t that view underline our misconception about what humans can become? If we only ever view Hitler as the ultimate super-villain, then he will forever be regarded as an anomaly, an almost supernatural force of evil. An extreme fluke, a one-in-a-million figure who we could never witness again.

Is this even close to accurate?

Or is it more likely that humans can and will do terrible things, especially in a specific set of circumstances? Hitler was human, and so is Donald Trump. Perhaps they point to distinct brands of mental disorders, but surely we can map tendencies on a spectrum. Is it all that outrageous to compare at least some of Trump’s actions and preferences to the worst leaders of our past? Perhaps that act of comparison should not in and of itself sink the conversation.

Timothy Snyder brings a host of historical credentials to bear in his new book. Pocket-sized and poignant, he gives miniature summaries of spooky regimes to outline how a society can come to allow a tyrant to take shape. In an interesting rhetorical move, he only uses the words “the president” when he’s directly referring to Donald Trump. Perhaps this is meant to convey the sense of timelessness (although other proper nouns are used consistently throughout). One of the most enlightening parts of the book is the epilogue, “History and Liberty,” in which Snyder explains how we came to lose sight of history’s lessons, and how no democracy is invulnerable to the rise of fascism.

The meat of the book consists of 20 lessons, starting with “Do not obey in advance” and going all the way to the chilling “Be as courageous as you can,” a single-page entry that consists of one sentence. The author asks us to be wary and vigilant, and to read the signs: “The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced they will do.” And nothing can be taken for granted: “Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

A few of the lessons can be enacted immediately, such as “Make eye contact and small talk” and “Practice corporeal politics” (which basically means getting out in the world). Some require resources, such as “Contribute to good causes,” or the plea to pay for print journalism. This last one is tough and seems to be a dying battle. I love long-form writing (books, anyone?) but I’m also not in a position to pay for much of it. In fact, I checked out this book from the library. But I think Snyder would add “Support libraries” to his list of good civic duties. (Still not sure how the journalists and writers will make a living. Sorry.)

Snyder derides the post-truth mindest, claiming that “post-truth is pre-fascism.” This is a lesson for those who lean left as well as  right: either side can fall into dogmatism and dubious scientific thinking. Twisting facts to suit a narrow purpose and reinforcing tribal thinking may come to be the doom of us all. We must investigate with honesty and curiosity and not distrust everything just for the sake of distrust: “Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference.” Not all politicians and political movements are equally good or bad. There are gradations. There are the facts on the ground. Snyder even goes so far as to call spreading online falsehoods as “doing violence to the unseen minds of others.”

The book winds down with warnings to be wary of the nationalist, who is not the same as a patriot, but rather someone who “encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best.” Democracy can fail under nationalism: “A nationalist will say that ‘it can’t happen here,’ which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.” The biggest lesson I took about potential disaster is what might happen if a dramatic atrocity were to occur close to home. If something like 9/11 took place, Trump’s yes-men could quickly coalesce into a real force, and we would need all patriots on deck to not succumb to the instant power grab (and rescinding of civil liberties) that would surely arise.

A good first step away from disaster is reading this book, which comes like a quick splash of cold water. You can read it in about as much time as it takes to read this review. Go check it out from the library, or if you can, support print journalism and buy a copy. Remember to make eye contact and small talk with the bookseller!

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