Book review: On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder

How should one respond to political events in Washington in such an unsettling time? Activists advise us whom to call about what issues and where to show up to protest. These are powerful tools for taking action. What’s often lacking is historical context. Even the best commentators fail to note the parallels between what other societies experienced and what we are seeing in 2017.

Historical lessons on tyranny and preserving freedom

book cover: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”

So writes Timothy Snyder in this slim paperback volume On Tyranny, which offers “twenty lessons from the 20th Century.” (The full list is summarized here in Yes! magazine.)

Written for the post-2016 era, Snyder’s short chapters focus on choices we can make–such as maintaining a commitment to truth and facts, supporting print media and other institutions that preserve liberty and contributing to civil society organizations. Several of his lessons emphasize the importance of language. He notes the alarms raised about extremism and terrorism by authoritarian leaders to justify emergency powers. Evoking George Orwell, he warns against the cheapening of language; e.g., we can avoid cliches, read books and print media and stay skeptical about dubious sources of information.

Has it really come to this?

In On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder notes historical parallels between 20th Century tyrannies and the present.

Timothy Snyder

This book is an early contribution to a growing body of resistance literature. It’s grounded in an understanding that others have experienced what we see in America today. We now have a leader who claims that he alone can solve big problems, denounces the free press, attacks the independence of the judiciary and blurs the distinction between facts and lies. He dominates our news, our public discourse, even our entertainment venues.

It would be easy to retreat into weary conformity and accept the degradation of our public life. But that is exactly what Snyder warns us not to do. Stand out and break the spell of the status quo, urges one of his chapters. Another asserts the importance of entering the public square and connecting with others who protest.  A third highlights professional ethics and other safeguards that can help to stop the drift toward authoritarianism.

You might ask if the situation in the United States today really merits comparison to that of Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, or of the Soviet Union and then Eastern Europe after the Second World War?

Snyder writes:

We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience

The political and the personal

This blog has emphasized holistic well-being and positive psychology. Its foundation is an approach that acknowledges body, mind and spirit as integrated parts of the whole person and that promotes thriving rather than merely existing. I believe these principles are relevant to this moment in our public life. They can’t be divorced from the social and political environment in which we live.

Just as we cannot thrive in isolation, we cannot disregard the welfare of our friends and neighbors. That includes those who may be different, less privileged or more easily targeted. Consider the impact of recent developments on immigrants, women and minimum wage workers, for example. Ponder the impact of policy reversals on environmental protection, access to health care and voting rights. There is a relationship between the quality of one’s own life and that of others. This is a good time to reflect on how interdependent we all are.

Snyder writes about what historical knowledge can do for us in our daily struggles.

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. … 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.

I do not have to do everything, but as a free individual, I can do something.

This book is the beginning of a conversation, not the last word. By identifying the warning signs and noting the linkage between what happened before and what is happening now, it points us to smarter responses and greater awareness.

One Comment:

  1. Thanks for reading. What do you think? Have you encountered new books that can help to navigate the current political moment?

Comments are closed