On Tyranny – Timothy Snyder

Posted: August 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder is a professor of History at Yale University. In 2017 he published a collection of twenty short reflections on tyranny entitled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It challenges the reader to become aware of the fragility of democracy and how authoritarian regimes may arise in our own time. In one sobering statement he suggests that “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” I want to summarize here his twenty observations/suggestions.

  1. Do not obey in advance. Authoritarianism depends on the public giving blind ascent in advance to anything a repressive government or leader wants. Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.
  2. Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. Institutions do not defend themselves and can be undermined. It is in the interest of autocrats to have weakened institutions under the control of the regime.
  3. Beware of the one-party state. Tyrannical regimes eliminate the competition and turn elections into farce. One-party regimes controlled by the autocrat at the top breed the worst forms of tyranny because there are no competing voices.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world. We live in a society of symbols. Notice the emergence of symbols that exclude some while building the status or pride of others. Notice the way propaganda is displayed by the indoctrinated.
  5. Remember professional ethics. Totalitarian regimes redefine what is acceptable and what is not. When norms are abandoned under the rubric of doing it for the good of the cause, professionals often abandon their ethics. Don’t do it.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries. When people with guns start wearing uniforms in order to enforce the aims of the leader, the end is near. When the pro-leader paramilitaries, police and military intermingle, the end has come.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you are a member of the police or military, remember your Constitutional oaths and responsibilities to fellow citizens. Democracies fail when armed forces are swept into unconscionable behavior.
  8. Stand out. It is easy to follow along and autocracies depend on absolute obedience. The moment an individual sets an example to resist the regime the spell of the status quo is broken and others are given courage.
  9. Be kind to our language. Separate your way of talking from the terms of propaganda, typical phrases and buzz shorthand. Free yourself from the sound bites of hackneyed social media. Undermine cliches. Expose glittering generalities.
  10. Believe in truth. Dictators thrive on relativity and alternative narratives. With enough chaos in the rhetorical air, autocrats redefine law, norms and human decency. Be clear about what is and is not moral. Do not be blinded by loudness.
  11. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Don’t trust the propaganda of the regime. Encourage investigative journalism. Investigate propaganda sources. Take care that you do not pass on propaganda misinformation to others.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk. Do not let the regime set the tone. Engage in friendships beyond politics. Seek to understand others and share your opinion. Attempt to stretch beyond barriers. Dictators want neighbors to fear one another.
  13. Practice corporeal politics. Dictators destroy democracy when the only people that show up are their own supporters. People in power want us to stay home and be passive. Form common cause with new friends and march with them.
  14. Establish a private life. Despots want to control your private life and eliminate protections against government interference. Consider using electronic media less and have more face-to-face relationships. Tyrants seek a hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.
  15. Contribute to good causes. Tyrants want everything under the state and all energies directed to the state. Be active in non-governmental organizations that express your values. Pick a charity and support it. Make choices that support society outside of government.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are not unique and belong to a larger trend. No country will shore up their democracies in isolation. Anti-democracy autocracies are everywhere. Be aware.
  17. Listen for dangerous words. Be alert to words used by authoritarians: extremism and terrorists. Be aware of notions of emergency and that this is an exceptional time in which rights and norms must be suspended in service to the common good.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny depends on moments of terror. Authoritarians exploit these events in order to end checks and balances, suspend freedom of expression, end rights to a fair trial, and dissolve opposing parties. It is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
  19. Be a patriot. Set a good example of what America means for generations to come. They will need it. A patriot wants the nation to live up to its ideals. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well, and always wishing that it would do better.
  20. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny. It is a common error of our time to believe that democracy is inevitable; it is not. It is fragile. And narratives of great mythical futures insured by a cultic hero abound.

The founding fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew in their own time, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Anti-democratic currents in our own time provide a parallel threat, the forms of which would be almost unimaginable to those same founders. These times have been left to us with a similar charge, to be alert to the powers that would dominate rather than uplift the life of our people and nation. The charge to us is to remain vigilant, courageous, and willing to take a stand in the face of  every threat, foreign or domestic. There is no one else in the ring. Only us.

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