On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is an interesting and frightening review of some of the most troubling moments in world history. What makes it especially disturbing is that Snyder connects each of these moments with a current event or situation, articulating the similarities in clear detail and noting why we should all be concerned about what is happening in the United States, Europe, Russia, and China. Ultimately, each lesson is a rule for how to resist tyranny, and these rules come together to create a kind of resistance ethos. The historical moments connected to current events make the problems clear, and Snyder’s lessons remind us that, in the end, power rests with the people, even when all seems lost.

The twenty “rules” laid out in this book are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Even a cursory look at this list gives one an idea of how to go about the process of resisting authoritarianism, as well as subtle reminders of when and how fascism has manifested itself in the past. Of these rules and reminders, all of which are crucial, a few stood out to me.

First, “do not obey in advance.” Snyder recounts an experiment that was conducted to determine how willing individuals would be in causing pain to others if an authority figured (like a doctor) deemed it safe and necessary. The results were not encouraging, to say the least. Snyder reminds us to trust our own instincts and morals, and to put them into deep consideration against the instructions of any authority figure. Just because someone says “temporary pain is necessary for” whatever, doesn’t make it true. Should we ever inflict pain or hardship on anyone else? Really?

Another remarkable moment for me, in reading this short guide, is the call-to-action for defending democratic institutions. “We need paper ballots,” Snyder writes, and he is right. After what Russia did in the most recent election cycles, including in France and the United States, we must rise up at the local and state levels and demand that our representatives ensure the integrity of our electoral process. That probably means eliminating electronic polling machines, at this point, and returning to the paper process. It might take longer, but isn’t the effort and patience worth it, if it means rebuilding confidence in our process?

Snyder also asks us to “be kind to our language,” by which he means, don’t succumb to hyperbole and double-speak. Read books. Learn history (real history), and avoid the twenty-four-hour news cycle that treats everything like “breaking news” and conditions us to be always on the lookout for the next tragedy or event. This particular presidential administration seems masterful in its use of “breaking news” as devices of distraction. I hope that what we are seeing out of the Parkland students’ reactions is the beginning of a new mode of thinking, one which encourages long-term engagement and attentiveness.

“Believe in truth” is a particularly powerful idea right now. A long-feared problem has manifested itself in these last few years, one which has been predicted for a half-century by luminaries such as Isaac Asimov and George Orwell: the destruction of truth and fact; the creation of an environment wherein everything is true and false at the same time, and where opinions are treated as equally valid to fact. This has caused quite the nightmare for those of us who do deal in truth, but I think is even more damaging to those who haven’t yet recognized what is happening. We have to vocally and vehemently re-assert our right to truth and speak up in support of it whenever possible. Truth does exist. Not all opinions are valid. At some point, this is more important than hurting someone’s feelings.

Finally, taking personal action in the form of making friends, creating a private life where you surround yourself with like-minded people, and looking people in the eye, your neighbors and colleagues, is another important reminder. When tyranny rises, as it did in Nazi Germany and as it did during the “Red Scare” in the United States, it becomes only too easy for people to turn on their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. But we can make it harder by getting to know the people around us and building trust with them. There’s no easier prey for the state than a person with no friends or support. This also means, get active in one’s community and support the causes that one believes in. Chances are, when you are there for others, others may be more likely to show up for you, if and when you really need them.

These are just a few reactions to the twenty very important lessons Snyder details in his short but powerful book. I think fans of history and politics will enjoy this one for its blend of past and present, and the clear parallels Snyder draws between “then” and “now.” But I also think it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the survival of democracy and the rule of law over the rise of tyranny and authoritarianism that encroaches more and more each day.

4 thoughts on “On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

  1. “Make eye contact and small talk stood out to me on this list” as well (having not read the book). What a difference it makes when people know they are seen and valued. I see this in my students all the time. It’s amazing how often people think no one sees them at all. (My students, for example, are always surprised when I notice they’ve gotten a haircut or changed something about themselves.)

  2. I think everyone should read this book. In fact, I bought it for everyone on my list this past holiday season. I own my own copy as well and have read it straight through a couple of times, and keep going back to re-read specific parts. Such an important book, and so succinct and easy to read.

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