“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” So begins Timothy Snyder’s slim yet vital book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder — a historian of the Holocaust who teaches at Yale — has written a guide to resisting tyranny that provides present-day advice in the vein of that used by the Founding Fathers when they sought to build a governmental system of checks and balances that would be resistant to the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy.
To help instruct us in the 21st century, Snyder looks at recent history.
“Today our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
Snyder is no believer in American exceptionalism. Instead, he notes that while we “might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats…this would be a misguided reflex.”
After opening this 126-page book with thoughts on history and tyranny, he moves through twenty short lessons that resonate with the power that comes from long, serious study of the interwar years in Germany and the horrors that came after the rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism. Snyder’s lessons and writings are very accessible, but that doesn’t make them less compelling. His very first lesson is “Do not obey in advance,” followed by a few short pages that show how most power acquired by authoritarians is freely given by citizens of a country. In that act, they are teaching the authoritarians seeking power what they can do.
There are lessons dealing with the need to defend institutions, think for ourselves, and take responsibility for our actions in the civic sphere. As an example, Snyder writes that “you might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them.” Other lessons and suggestions are focused more on the individual choices we make to stay active and alive in a civil society, such as joining and supporting causes; reading more books and spending less time on the internet; making eye contact and small talk.
Snyder’s book was published in 2017, about a year into Donald Trump’s presidency. So much of what he describes of Trump’s language and actions worsened over the course of his term, culminating in the failed insurrection of January 6th. Lesson #6 — “Be wary of paramilitaries” — discusses actions in the 20th century run-up to World War II that were repeated following Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Lesson #10 — “Believe in truth” — ends with the chilling reminder that “post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Synder is especially aware of the misuse of language, and he has no problem in showing how Trump’s language is very much like Hitler’s in that it only serves the leader.
“Hitler’s language rejected legitimate opposition: The people always meant some people and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president says winning) and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as the president puts it, libel).”
Lesson #19 — “Be a patriot” — begins with two pages of things that a patriot is not, each taken from Donald Trump’s life, campaign, and first year of his presidency. Patriotism, he notes at the end of this long list, “involves serving your own country.” Donald Trump is a nationalist, not a patriot. A nationalist “encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us we are the best.”
“A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which meanas asking us to be our best selves.”
What makes Snyder’s work so important is that he shows a way forward. Each lesson is built on actionable steps we can take. And he returns to the critical need to study history in the epilogue “History and Liberty.” He notes that “the habit of dwelling on victimhood,” the province of the nationalist, “dulls the impulse of self-correction.” History, on the other hand, “gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.”
This is a work that can be read in a very short sitting. But if you are like me, many of the pages will be underlined and filled with margin notes, and its lessons will stay, hopefully, for a lifetime. For as Snyder notes at the end, “to make history, young Americans will have to know some. This is not the end, but a beginning.”
Writing the preamble for the fall 2020 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly two weeks before the election, Lewis Lapham speaks in Uncivil Liberty of how the labor of democracy never ends. Lapham is a writer of great eloquence and “lethal wit”, both of which come through in this important essay that pairs nicely with Snyder’s book. One of the opening quotes to the preamble is the famous scene from the 1976 film Network featuring the outraged news anchor, Howard Beale.
“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!‘
While the county has been slow in getting to its feet, Lapham asserts that
“two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, they’re up from their chairs and out in the streets, mad as hell, insisting that their lives — black, white, and brown; young, old, and yet to be born; male, female, transgender, or none of the above — matter. The long-delayed uprising was provoked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, unarmed black man, age forty-six, arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill in a Minneapolis convenience store. A passerby took note of the incident with a cell-phone camera that sees Floyd in handcuffs lying facedown on the pavement. A police officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck holds the position for eight minutes and forty-six seconds; Floyd struggles to breathe until he loses all trace of a pulse.“
As many have written, the officer’s face lacks all trace of human feeling or expression, Survivors of the Holocaust, writes Lapham, “mention similarly empty faces of the Sonderkommando loading Jews into an oven.”
One of Lapham’s great strengths is his call on history to help us understand those lessons we need to apply to today’s events. And he understands and does not underestimate the authoritarianism of Donald Trump and today’s Republican Party.
“On the day that George Floyd died, the American people had been locked down for three months, sheltering in place from the storm of the coronavirus spreading into all fifty states. The death toll was moving steadily up (100,000 on June 1; 200,000 as of October 1); the economy slowing to almost full stop; 22 million people summarily unemployed; the nation’s churches and schools shut down; sports events, funerals, and weddings canceled; bars, restaurants, public parks, and movie theaters closed.
Liberty, equality, and fraternity being suspended until further notice, citizens of all ages and colors were given the opportunity to feel the loss of their freedoms of movement and thought, the chance to realize that black persons live every day of their lives fearful of venturing into an environment known to be armed and dangerous. Given time for further reflection, the home viewers awakened to the fact of their having been locked down not just for three months but for fifty years — not only under heavy government and Silicon Valley surveillance but also by the colossal capitalist cash machine under the knee of which freedom is a privilege fully available only to those who can pay the going price.…
The capitalist subjugation of democracy makes money the measure of all things, sets the exchange rate for our value as human beings. The terms and conditions of the two witness-protection programs build up in the citizenry a stockpile of fear and resentment akin to the dead trees in a mismanaged California forest. The sight of George Floyd dying in Minneapolis touched off the wildfire of nationwide protest on May 25, 2020. Donald Trump’s tossing a rhetorical match into the same compost heap of fear and resentment elected him president of the United States on November 8, 2016.”
As he often does, Lapham turns to Thomas Paine as the voice of democracy that we need to recover. Even the Founding Fathers found Paine’s rhetoric both too simple and too radical for their purposes once he helped inflame the revolution with his Common Sense. But Paine’s vision of
“America’s democracy is geared to the hope of the future….We protect the other person’s liberty in the interest of protecting our own, and our virtues accord with the terms and conditions of an arduous and speculative journey. It isn’t easy to be an American, and if we look into the mirrors held up by our prime-time situation comedies and our best-seller lists (invariably topped by memoirs and travelers’ tales), we see that we value the companionable virtues — helpfulness, forgiveness, kindliness, above all tolerance.
If democracy means anything at all, it is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are beautiful or rich or famous but because they are one’s fellow citizens, and to know what they say and do is taking part in the shared work of the imagination among a multitude of voices, talents, quirks, colors, interests, and generations. The labor never ends, entails the ceaseless making and remaking of customs and laws, of matinee idols, equations, and songs.“
Democracy, in both Snyder and Lapham’s view, allies itself with change. The labor never ends. Nothing is final.
“Freedom of thought brings to society the unwelcome news that it is in trouble, but because all societies, like all human beings, are always in some sort of trouble, the news doesn’t cause them to perish. They die instead from the fear of thought and the paralysis that accompanies the wish to make time stand still.“
Snyder and Lapham, important voices for our time, would have us read, and them make, some history.
More to come…
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles (or in this case, a short book) that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. This week, my fervent hope is that you find something that makes you think and act.
Graves of those who fell at Normandy fighting fascism in World War II by DJB