Friday, September 9, 2022

Book Review: On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder

From On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder:

Open quote
On Tyranny


  Since the American colonies declared their independence from a British monarchy that the Founders deemed “tyrannical,” European history has seen three major democratic moments: after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989. Many of the democracies founded at these junctures failed, in circumstances that in some important respects resemble our own."

Book Review: On Tyranny: Short book drawing parallels between modern America and Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. Timothy Snyder lays out 20 simple ways each of us can fight the creep of fascism here in America. It's a how-to, a timely call to action.

After the jump, my full review.

Grade: A-

In a speech right after I finished reading this book, former President Trump said: "The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters." Timothy Snyder never mentions the name Donald Trump in this book, but it's obvious where he thinks the modern threat comes from. The parallels between what Trump is saying today and what Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin did in the 20th Century are stark. (See Lesson #2.) Snyder says, "Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people." That's as good a summary of the cult of Trumpism as any.

But convincing readers that America faces a new threat of resurgent fascism is not Snyder's goal in this book. Rather, he focuses on how to fight the threat. He provides a call to action. The action is condensed into 20 simple precepts. Some seem obvious. Some seem obscure. And some seem to be aimed directly at me.

The 20 lessons are captured in the chapter titles. If the meanings aren't obvious, read the book. It's a short read. I will embellish only the few that seem to speak directly to me.

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.

    "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 that they will do."

    I want to reform various institutions, not destroy them. To the extent that my calls for reform weaken institutions instead of defending them, making it easier for the neo-Fascists to destroy them, I will be partly to blame for the coming downfall of America. I might have to set aside reform until after we defeat the neo-Fascists.

  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.

    Timothy Snyder makes recommendations to add to my reading list:

    "Some of the political and historical texts that inform the arguments made here are “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (1946); The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer (1947); The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951); The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951); The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz (1953); “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel (1978); “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” by Leszek Kolakowski (1978); The Uses of Adversity by Timothy Garton Ash (1989); The Burden of Responsibility by Tony Judt (1998); Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning (1992); and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (2014)."

  10. Believe in truth.

    This precept doesn't change my thinking as much as it informs it. Snyder says, "As observers of totalitarianism such as Victor Klemperer noticed, truth dies in four modes." I won't go into the four modes, but each of them can be seen in neo-Fascist speeches, television interviews, and social media posts today.

  11. Investigate.

    This is the precept by which Snyder most calls me out personally. He says, "So try for yourself to write a proper article, involving work in the real world: traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and revising drafts, all on a tight and unforgiving schedule."

    I'm a blogger. I don't interview. I mostly comment on other people's own original work. I like to think I do a pretty good job of filtering out bad sources of information, but that's different from seeking out primary sources. Frankly, I don't see me changing. Not that I shouldn't. It's just that, as Snyder says, "Writing is hard work." I'm an introvert. And lazy.

  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.

    I do some, but not nearly enough. Snyder gives a practical reason to do it beyond it just being the right thing to do. If neo-Fascism does take over the government, those non-government organizations just might be all that stands between us and tyranny. Snyder reminds us, "In the twentieth century, all the major enemies of freedom were hostile to non-governmental organizations, charities, and the like."

  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

    I admit that recently, for the first time in my life, I seriously ran through the options of moving to another country, just in case "the unthinkable happens" here. I've since resigned myself to staying home. Instead of leaving, I'm thinking about how an old man can resist neo-Fascism. That brings me to lesson #19.

  19. Be a patriot.

    "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."

    I used to think, "it can't happen here." I'm past that. More of my thinking recently has been devoted to how to resist if (or when) it does.

  20. Be as courageous as you can.

    When talking about my blogging, I frequently tell people that I'm old, so I'm free to say what I think. My hat is off to those who say what they think regardless of its affect on their future. At the same time, I have to admit that I sometimes pull some punches. When facing off against neo-Fascists, that cedes ground, as they don't hesitate to sacrifice truth in service of party. See lesson #10.

I recommend buying this book and reading it. It's short. It's relevant. It may be the most important thing you read this year.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Just so you know, I have a copy, and I'm half way through. There is little enlightenment for me, but it organizes my thinking! Are his other books any good?