Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University, which of course makes him part of the eastern Liberal Elite, and therefore he must be ignored and discounted. Pity that! His booklet On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century could have been the very thing that enlightened us, the very thing that warned us of how would-be tyrants use labels like “eastern liberal elite” to pave their path to power. We could have been equipped.
First though, let’s celebrate an act of leadership during our troubled times. My friend Kevin Carnes happened upon On Tyranny. He took the time to read it. In doing so, he anticipated something Snyder would write:
From Lesson #9: Be Kind to our Language:
Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can.
Kevin then posted a short recommendation of On Tyranny on his Facebook page, where I read it and took it to heart. Kevin had learned from Snyder’s Lesson #9: Investigate, which includes such statements as, “Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. . . . Take responsibility for what you communicate to others.” Snyder has much to say about truth, propaganda, and how we can employ the internet to resist tyranny instead of enabling it. Kevin didn’t stop there though. I am surmising this next thing from my own knowledge of Kevin’s past history and of his insider connections at Manhattan Public Library. Your local library is willing to purchase the books that you suggest. When I walked down to the library to see if they had On Tyranny, I found it “On Order” and I became the first reader to put it “On Hold.” (I was convinced that I had Kevin to thank, but he just walked past the window at this coffee shop while I was editing this article, and so I asked him. Nope. If someone did recommend this book to the library, it was someone other than Kevin.)
I was prepared to return the book to the Manhattan Public Library as soon as I finished writing this review so that local readers of the Liberator Today could go check it out, but my wife just called. “Hey, are going from the coffee shop to the library? Don’t return that book yet. I want to read it.” In flipping briefly through it, she had seen Lesson #12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk. “I’ve always believed the value of that,” she told me, “but I never thought it could be an act of resistance against tyranny.” Lesson #12 is actually a good one to quote in this review. It demonstrates the booklet’s formatting, brevity, and historical referencing. For each chapter, there is first the title: “Lesson #12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk.” Then there is a brief boldface summary, often written up as action points, but not really in #12’s example:
This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
What follows is your “lesson from the Twentieth Century.” Number 12’s lesson takes up only one small page:
Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment. Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy in the 1920s, of Nazi Germany of the 1930s, of the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of 1937-38, or of the purges in communist eastern Europe in the 1940s and ‘50s, people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.
In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change.
Having you gotten a sense of how readable this booklet is? Only 126 half-size pages. Three part formatting. I read its entirety in a little over an hour. The cost is US$7.99 or $3.99 on Kindle—or free at your public library, thanks to [someone like] Kevin Carnes.
Snyder wrote this book following the election. He never mentions Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, the alt-Right, or Breitbart News by name, although he does include events that we all witnessed but perhaps have not yet fully interpreted. For instance, in Lesson #6 Be Wary of Paramilitaries, Snyder points out, “As a candidate, the president ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies, but also encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions.” Snyder is much more explicit about Vladimir Putin, a real-life example of a tyrant at loose in our times. Our great disadvantage is that none of us have grown up in an era of proto-fascism. We’ve never had to discern the warning signs of the move from proto-fascism to full-blown fascism. Historians like Snyder speak for those have lived through such times. We can’t have someone time-travel from 2020 to warn us about where the Trump/Bannon administration eventually ends up. We can however listen to voices—“lessons”—from the past. Snyder’s booklet is meant to be more than just a scholarly indulgence. It is meant to be a training manual. “Lessons” sounds like a cerebral pursuit, but such chapters as “#7 Be Reflective if You Must Be Armed” or “#10 Believe in Truth” or “#18 Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives” feel like an actionable check-list of wise vigilance and preparation. Perhaps you think that these Lessons might not be necessary in the next four years—fair enough. I hope so too. Nonetheless if our citizenship continues on into the Twenty-first Century, we’d be wise to listen to Timothy Snyder, even if he is an eastern liberal elite:
We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper response to it. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.
Timothy Snyder On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
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