On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
Summary: A Yale historian draws twenty lessons from fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century and applies them to the American context.
This has been an unexpected book for me in several ways. I selected it in one of the review programs I am a part of expecting to receive a standard size book that was a treatise on tyranny, particularly given the academic background of its author, a Yale historian. Instead, what I received was a “pocket book” sized paperback with twenty pithy lessons on tyranny summarized in titles of six words or less, with a short paragraph summary at the beginning of lessons, the longest of which was nine pages.
The other unexpected thing about this book is that it is currently selling like crazy. At one point it was a number one bestseller in the Washington Post listings, and is currently at number three in the latest New York Times paperback non-fiction category. It is plain that this book has appealed to the apprehensions of many.
The author’s research is on Nazism, fascism, and communism, particularly around the Holocaust. What he has done here is distill all that down into a slim book that can be read in an evening, but will leave one thinking, “can it happen here?” It is clear that the author thinks it can and he is writing so that Americans will not be taken by surprise. The epigraph quotes Polish philosopher Leszak Kolakowski who said, “In politics, being deceived is no excuse.” Snyder’s short lessons are designed both to help readers discern the signs of incipient tyranny, and to know how to act in its face.
The first lesson is a case in point: “do not obey in advance.” He uses the phrase “anticipatory obedience” to describe the kind of voluntary compliance with tyranny that Hitler and other tyrants enjoyed. In the second lesson, he argues something I’ve discussed in different posts, that we ought defend the institutions from courts to a free press to local government that are bulwarks against overweening power. Just because we have them, we can’t assume they will survive. Later on, he extends this to voluntary and recurring contributions to organizations whose work reflects our worldview.
Another of his lessons also touches on a theme I’ve written on: “be kind to our language.” He notes all the tactics of tyrants from the Big Lie to the attribution of insidious motives to all opposition. He warns against falling into the banalities and emptiness of a language shorn of its resistant edge. He writes,
“Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”
He is quite serious about limiting presence on the internet. As is clear from recent laws removing privacy protections, as he puts it, “email is skywriting.” Between the information we yield to commercial interests, the selves we reveal on social media, and other ways we expose ourselves, we provide in his words “hooks on which to hang” ourselves.
His call is not, like some, a call to withdrawal, but in the vein of Edmund Burke, who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” he argues that we, like Rosa Parks should stand out (or sit down in her case) in the face of tyranny. His last lesson is summed up in two sentences. “Be courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
The author leaves no question that his concern is the current president of the United States. While some, no doubt, will admire the fact that the author pulls no punches; others will see this as simply one more broadside against the president who they think is a bulwark against tyranny, and reject its message wholesale. The work would have had far more credibility if it named examples of recent acts on both the political left and right that are incipient acts of tyranny. One could equally point to the erosion of religious freedom protections. Then there are the ways Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure have been diminished (under both Republican and Democratic administrations). While I would agree that the current president’s actions (particularly the politics of “alternate truth”) have been especially egregious at times and are concerning, they represent what I believe is a new stage in an ongoing erosion of the democratic and civic virtues that have served as protections of our liberties.
You can probably tell that I do not think this book excessively dark or unwarranted. I think tyranny can happen here. Pre-Nazi Germany was a center of culture, of innovation, and some of the greatest universities in the world (by the way, I also think the author is blind, or at least doesn’t mention, the tyranny of the intelligentsia, both then and now). The lessons Snyder draws are warranted and all who care about our liberties do well to heed them.
What I wish Snyder might have seen and acknowledged was that the fear of tyranny on both left and right motivated the decisions and voting behavior of many. I find myself wondering if that might open up a better conversation about how we preserve and safeguard liberty for all — rich and poor, religious and secularist, LGBT and straight, creative class and working class, majority and minority culture. Too long we have pursued a politics in which the pursuit of liberty is treated as a zero sum game, where liberty gained by some must come at a loss for others. That, too, is a form of tyranny, where the liberties of some of our citizens are dispensable. It was just such habits of thought that allowed Hitler to arouse ire against the Jews, and those with various disabilities. Perhaps Snyder might add a twenty-first lesson: the attack upon the liberty of any of us is an attack upon the liberty of all of us and must be resisted.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.