Live Well, Do Good

On Tyranny: Learning Lessons from History

Brandon Sun, October 16, 2017 – David McConkey

Lesson No. 1: “Do not obey in advance.”

If that sounds ominous, it should. This is the start of a remarkable new book, “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century.” Historian Timothy Snyder was so alarmed by the election of Donald Trump that he wrote this short volume warning his fellow citizens.

Study the history of dictatorships in Europe, the author advises, to see what could happen here today. If we can learn lessons from the past, we may prevent the worst from occurring.

Professor Snyder teaches at Yale University. He also studied and taught for years in Europe. His specialty is researching fascist and communist regimes and the Holocaust.

Authoritarian regimes, Snyder informs us, often begin with an election. Citizens do not realize that they are voting freely for the last time. Snyder notes the election of Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1932; of the communists in Czechoslovakia in 1946; and of the (still-in-power) oligarchy in Russia in 1990. Snyder wonders: will Americans regard as a similar turning point the presidential election of 2016?

Snyder makes a chilling observation about the response of some of the German people in the early days of Hitler’s government. Individuals began to harass and even kill Jews – before they were told to do so. Ordinary folks anticipated Nazi directives and carried them out – more quickly and more thoroughly than Hitler thought possible.

Hence the author’s first lesson about not obeying in advance. Otherwise, we risk “teaching power what it can do.”
“History does not repeat,” Snyder writes, “but it does instruct.” And one instruction is to not take the future for granted. The smooth continuance of democracy is not guaranteed.

But, hold on: isn’t the professor being paranoid? Isn’t it ridiculous to fear the end of American democracy? Maybe. But Snyder’s message is sound: we should not be complacent. Instead, we should be resilient. The more engaged the citizenry, the less chance that a Trump is elected in the first place. Should a Trump emerge, the less chance that an authoritarian regime is established.

The theme of the lessons is that we create a civil society by our everyday actions. Some recommendations I might have expected, like Lesson No. 2: “Defend institutions.” Some I found surprising, like Lesson No. 12: “Make eye contact and small talk.”
On Tyranny Snyder cautions us about the impact of TV and the internet. When we get information from a screen, he says, “we tend to be drawn in by the logic of spectacle. When we learn of one scandal, it whets our appetite for the next.” Trump becomes impervious to political harm “once we subliminally accept that we are watching a reality show rather than thinking about real life.” 

Snyder reminds us of the benefit of deeper thinking that comes from reading books and newspapers. “We need print journalists, so that stories can develop on the page and in our minds.”

Altogether, the lessons paint a picture of a thoughtful, involved and inspired citizenship. These are good practices for anybody, anytime, anywhere. Even if the worry about Trump is exaggerated; even if Canada’s democracy is secure. Like Lesson No. 5: “Remember professional ethics.” Or Lesson No. 15: “Contribute to good causes.”

I recommend “On Tyranny”: for its historical explanations, meaningful insights, and useful examples. Professor Snyder has given us a readable, accessible resource. The book costs $7; it is available at the Brandon Public Library. “On Tyranny” would be excellent for individuals, book clubs and classrooms.

As well, I suggest listening to the one-hour conversation with Snyder and the philosopher Sam Harris on the latter’s podcast. You can download it for free at: (The conversation starts at the four-minute mark.)

We now find ourselves in the dark and frightening Trump era. That such a president could be elected by American voters shows how uncertain the future can be. We can prepare ourselves by learning lessons from history: we never know what might be asked of us.

Lesson No. 20: “Be as courageous as you can.”

* * * 

See also:

On Tyranny . . . on

The Road To Tyranny: A Conversation with Timothy Snyder

Deepening Our Thinking in the Internet Age: Ten Tips

We Must Resist the Trump Culture – Here's How

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