Like millions of others, I’ve seen the warning signs that our democracy in is danger: the rise of an authoritarian leader, his violent rallies (where “law and order” is lauded, yet physical aggression is encouraged), his demonization of scapegoated minorities, a minion who speaks of alternative facts, his other lickspittles who tell their audiences that they should only look for answers from their not-to-be-questioned head of state.
No doubt, like many others I’ve wondered if I’m overreacting. Thus, on the one hand it reassures me about the state of my sanity, but on the other it terrifies me about the precarious state of our state, when a scholar of Timothy Snyder’s caliber and gravity sounds the fascist alarm in his newest book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
Snyder’s credentials are unimpeachable. As a professor of history at Yale University, he has previously written lauded narratives of the Holocaust and the ascent of fascism and communism in Europe. He’s also a member of the Committee on Conscience at Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. His enviable ability to read ten languages has allowed him to spend plenty of time in primary sources.
For his latest work, Snyder has aimed both small and big. On Tyranny is a tiny book. Clocking in at 127 pages, it’s squatter than a Penguin or Signet Classic paperback. Yet, within its diminutive frame are 20 galvanizing, historically-informed recommendations for resisting the rise of the authoritarian state.
If you’re looking for concrete specifics – whether you should break the law with Greenpeace, donate to the ACLU, or phone your senators daily – search elsewhere. Snyder’s exhortations are more general, leaving plenty of room for individual application.
Take Chapter 2 (“Defend institutions”), where the author writes to “[c]hoose an institution you care about – a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union – and take its side.” Per Snyder, each of these is in danger in 2017, either of being gutted or converted to statist propaganda, so all are worthy of our support and defense. Follow your passion, and devote your energy accordingly.
Or take Chapter 13 (“Practice corporeal politics”). Snyder doesn’t command his readers to go to this month’s March for Science. Instead, he writes more generally that protest via social media is inadequate, that “nothing is real that does not end on the streets.”
In these two chapters, Snyder shows how Klemperer’s wisdom on the co-option of language by Hitler and the four means by which truth dies in authoritarian regimes is pertinent in today’s Europe and America. To whet your appetite a bit, the first method is “open hostility to verifiable reality.” In describing this, Snyder tosses in the bon mot that our current president lied so frequently during his campaign “that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction.”
Snyder also gives us a chapter that basically instructs us to brace ourselves for our own Reichstag fire (Chapter 18: “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives”). After all, he reasons, Vladimir Putin – our president’s personal hero and enabler – has used the same tactic multiple times to shore up his popularity and squelch Russian democracy.
The author discerns, too, when to resurrect relevant historical figures. His chapter on standing out, in order to break the numbing status quo, points to the famous and more obscure. Snyder cites Churchill’s resistance to the Blitzkrieg, in addition to high schooler Teresa Prekerowa’s assistance to Jews in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
Snyder is the uncommon academician who knows his subject matter encyclopedically and also writes deftly. Stylistically, he has smartly made the choice not to name our current president in his book. I suspect this decision had a couple of purposes: refusing to feed into our leader’s narcissism, while giving On Tyranny a more timeless and analytic feel.
On Tyranny waxes philosophical at times, but always accessibly. Echoing the existentialists, Snyder speaks of the centrality of taking responsibility for the aspects of world events we can change. (For instance, with our current surfeit of fake news and lazy sharing on Facebook, he challenges us to be responsible in selecting the information we digest and propagate on social media.) Like Jean-Paul Sartre, Snyder instructs us never to privilege the false promise of safety over true freedom.
Put simply, On Tyranny is the most important new book I’ve read so far in 2017. In it, Snyder writes that “no doubt the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been.” Urging us to live out true patriotism and shun the evils of nationalism, Snyder is doing his best to ensure that Americans will have the liberty to vote in a new president in 2020 and beyond.
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