On Tyranny | Reflections & Notes

Timothy Snyder. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017. (126 pages)


It’s hard to know how to evaluate the importance and even validity of the contents of this book given the current state of American politics. Depending upon your political persuasion, the clarity of the articulated principles found here will be received and understood as either prescient or treacherous, axiomatic of the principle that while content is important, context far more important.

While I appreciated so much the wisdom found in this book, I also find myself struggling to ground my understanding of tyranny in even more foundational principles, the bedrock upon which we build. And so I ask, Is what Snyder writes here truly the bedrock principles that guard against tyranny? Or are they more simply plucked precepts of observation? As I read through these ideas, the totality of them together forms a robust philosophy. However, individually, it is easy to see how these dictums could be leveraged by tyrants to impose authoritarianism just as much as they could be used by the tyrannized to advance liberation, freedom, and equality.

For example, “defend institutions” does not clarify the ethos of those institutions, nor their epistemic validity. Insurrectionists wreaking havoc and tyranny could very well appeal to this in and through their imposition of tyranny. “Stand out” is another laudable goal when tyranny looms. But tyrants, by their very nature, “stand out,” and can appeal to a mass of people who are perceiving disenfranchisement, inciting them to revolt and violence. “Believe in truth” is perhaps the most difficult, for it gets to the very heart of our current epistemological crisis. Those who tyrannize would absolutely claim they are “believing the truth.”

And so, it is critical to say that while books like these and the principles found within them are absolutely necessary to mature a body politic in its philosophies and strategies in defending a democracy, they are insufficient to the totality of the cause which requires something just a bit more. In addition to understanding that guarding against tyranny requires the whole agenda as laid out in this book, the “more” that I propose is ‘faith/trust,’ in the ‘community,’ of our entire body politic. Philosophers have appropriately noted the “will to power” and the “will to pleasure.” The evolutionarily honed impulse of fear has also led us to a “will to suspicion,” the conjuring up of a negative narrative that we tell ourselves of “the other.” The rhetoric of “they just want to destroy America,” or “they are evil,” is a fundamental step in distorting the anti-tyranny principles into a justification for tyrannical action. Extending faith to one another, especially in light of our political differences, may be the most important bedrock principle, the psychological, social, and political path away from tyranny. Seeking a shared set of values, and a common humanity may be powerful enough to overcome disparate epistemologies, and oppositional philosophies.

To those emboldened by the righteous fight against tyranny, may faith in humanity be our guide so that we can gather the entire global community against tyranny together.

I commend this to you as a critically important read for our current moment. I thank you @TimothyDSnyder for this critical contribution to the conversation, and our democracy.


History and Tyranny

History does not repeat, but it does instruct. (9)

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. (11)

History can familiarize, and it can warn. … The European history of the twentieth (11) century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why. (12)

1 Do not obey in advance.

Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do. (17)

Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy. (18)

At the very beginning, anticipatory obedience means adapting instincively, without reflecting, to a new situation. (20)

[Stanley] Milgram grasped that people are remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting. (21)

2 Defend institutions.

It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side. (22)

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. (24)

3 Beware the one-party state.

The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office. (26)

…American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end. (27)

…eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. …the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. – Wendell Phillips

A party emboldened by a favorable election result or motivated by ideology, or both, might change the system from within. (28)

Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote. (29)

Does the history of tyranny apply to the United States? Certainly the early Americans who spoke of “eternal vigilance” would have thought so. The logic of the system they devised was to mitigate the consequences of our real imperfections, not to celebrate our imaginary perfection. … The odd American idea that giving money to political (29) campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens. (30)

4 Take responsibility for the face of the world.

The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so. (33)

Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. (33)

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. (35)

5 Remember professional ethics.

When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor. (38)

If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it. (40)

| Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of professions think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain (40) confidence and indeed a certain kind of power. Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as “just following orders.” If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable. (41)

6 Be wary of paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come. (42)

Most governments, most of the time, seek to monopolize violence. (43)

The SS began as an organization outside the law, became an organization that transcended the law, and ended up as an organization that undid the law. (44)

| Because the American federal government (44) uses mercenaries in warfare and American state governments pay corporations to run prisons and internment camps, the use of violence in the United States is already highly privatized. (45)

7 Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (47)

In fact, the Holocaust began not in the death facilities, but over shooting pits in eastern Europe. (49)

…without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible. (50)

8 Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow. (51)

9 Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books. (59)

Politicians in our times feed their clichés to television, where even those who wish to disagree repeat them. … Each story on televised news is “breaking” until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean. (60)

Christians might return to the foundational book, which as ever is very timely. (63)

10 Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights. (65)

You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. …as Victor Klemperer noticed, truth dies in four modes. (66)

| The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. … Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld. (66)

| The second mode is shamanistic incantation. …the fascist style depends (66) upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable. (67)

The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. (67)

The final mode is misplaced faith. (68) … Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant. (69)

Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. (71)

| Post-truth is pre-fascism. (71)

11 Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others. (72)

It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant. (73)

Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some private responsibility for the public’s sense of truth. (79)

12 Make eye contact and small talk.

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 will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life. (81)

13 Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them. (83)

For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends. (84)

The choice to be in public depends on the ability to maintain a private sphere of life. We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen. (86)

14 Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks. (87)

What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life. We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it. (88)

Rather than reporting the violation of basic rights, our media generally preferred to mindlessly indulge the inherently salacious interest we have in other people’s affairs. (89)

| Our appetite for the secret, thought Arendt, is dangerously political. Totalitarianism removes the difference between private and public not just to make individuals unfree, but also to draw the whole society away from normal politics and toward conspiracy theories. Rather than defining (89) facts or generating interpretations, we are seduced by the notion of hidden realities and dark conspiracies that explain everything. (90)

15 Contribute to good causes.

Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good. (92)

16 Learn from peers in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports. (95)

The fact that most Americans do not have passports has become a problem for American democracy. (97)

17 Listen for dangerous words.

Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. (99)

…the legal theories Carl Schmitt, explained in clear language the essence of fascist governance. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety. (100)

People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both. (100)

There is no doctrine called extremism. When tyrants speak of extremists, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream–as the tyrants themselves are defining that mainstream at that particular moment. (101)

In this way the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny. (102)

18 Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it. (103)

For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so. (110)

19 Be a patriot.

Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it. (111)

The point is that patriotism involves serving your own country. (113)

A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what (113) happens in the real world.” Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” (114)

| A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well–and wishing that it would do better. (114)

| Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. 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. (114)

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. (115)

Epilogue | History and Liberty

We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. (118)

The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. … If everything in the past is governed by a known tendency, then there is no need to learn the details. (119)

The man who runs (120) naked across a football field certainly disrupts, but he does not change the rules of the game. The whole notion of disruption is adolescent: It assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up. (121)

| But there are no adults. We own this mess. (121)

| The second antihistorical way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. (121)

In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a (123) discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate? (124)

If you once believed (124) that everything always turns out well in the end, you can be persuaded that nothing turns out well in the end. If you once did nothing because you thought progress is inevitable, then you can continue to do nothing because you think time moves in repeating cycles. (125)

Both of these positions, inevitability and eternity, are antihistorical. The only thing that stands between them is history itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz thought that such a notion of responsibility worked against loneliness and indifference. History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have. (125)

If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. This is not the end, but a beginning. (126)

| “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” Thus Hamlet. Yet he concludes: “Nay, come, let’s go together.” (126)

About VIA


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: