Review and recommendation: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

image from libapps.s3.amazonaws.comOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder.  Duggan Books (Crown), 2017. 126 p. ISBN 978-0804190114. List price $8.99

Yale University professor Timothy Snyder has spent a long time learning the languages, reading the documents, exploring the archives, and listening to witnesses of the totalitarian tyrannies of Europe in the last century –particularly of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. His scholarship bore particular fruit in books such as Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, and Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning. He came to recognize that certain characteristics in the development of those tyrannies are present in the world today, and in the United States. This book is no partisan screed: Snyder recognizes in the 45th President features he knows from other contexts; those other contexts underscore the drift towards totalitarianism apparent from Russian to Europe to the USA. On Tyranny is not only about an American moment, but about a worldwide one.

This short book consists of a brief introduction, twenty short chapters, and an epilogue. Each chapter directs an action, such as no. 12, "Make eye contact and small talk" followed by a historical example, or expansion of the point. All the actions can be undertaken or performed in daily life; there is no grand theory here.

In place a grand theory, there is a fundamental point: respect and value facts, truth, and accurate usage of our common language. In Moment (magazine), he explained: "Once you say that there isn’t truth and you try to undermine the people whose job it is to tell the truth, such as journalists, you make democracy impossible." He told Bill Maher (at 2:02) than while "post-fact" postmodernism might connote "Berkeley, baguettes, and France and nice things," it more likely means that "every day doesn't matter; details don't matter; facts don't matter; all that matters is the message, the leader, the myth, the totality" –a condition of Europe in the 1920s.  Such disdain for the truth goes hand-in-hand with conspiracy theories that put assign blame to a group associated with undermining the purity of the majority. "Rather than facing up to the fact that life is hard and that globalization presents challenges, you name and blame people and groups who you say are at fault."  Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, Rohingya, Tutsis, Hutus, globalists, evolutionists, or any other "outsider."  The myth: "Make [fill in the blank] great again."

A librarian or research might particularly resonate with Snyder's directions, "Be kind to our language," "Believe in truth," and "Investigate" (lessons 9-11). This is all a way to prepare to "be calm when the unthinkable arrives" (lesson 18) –when a leader exploits a catastrophic event to urge follows to trade freedom for security, and suspends the rule of law. The Chief Executive may or may not be attempt to stage a coup; that American democracy survived the dark moment after the Charlottesville.  Snyder told Salon in August, "We are hanging by our teeth to the rule of law. That was my judgment at the beginning of his presidency and it is still my judgment now. The rule of law is what gives us a chance to rebuild the system after this is all done."

Whether or not current politics result in tyranny and oppression is still (at this writing) an open question. The importance of Snyder's book is that it points beyond this moment to the wider trends and challenges of a world which is global (like it or not), connected (like it or not), and interdependent on both our natural climates and accrued, hard-won cultural heritages. A University founded on "a rigorous and interdisciplinary search for truth and wisdom" that "forms the cornerstone of all University life and welcomes people from all faiths and cultures" cannot leave our students unprepared. In order to make history, young Americans will have to know some (p. 126)  Will that be the twenty-first lesson on tyranny from the twenty-first century?

–Gavin Ferriby

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