by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books 2017)
For twenty days during March and April, I posted my thoughts on all twenty lessons in Timothy Snyder’s little book, one per day, in FaceBook. They are copied below:
Lesson 1: Do not obey in advance. (March 21)
When citizens adapt to authoritarianism without being forced to, they are teaching those in power what they can get away with. Snyder calls this “anticipatory obedience” and considers it “a political tragedy.” He supports his claim with the example of Hitler and Austria, blaming the fate of Austrian Jews on the anticipatory obedience of the Austrian people, who looked the other way when Austrian Nazis captured and mistreated Jews. He also cites psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose research into human behavior showed that people “are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority.” (Milgram’s research was carried out on Americans because he could not get permission to do it in Germany, showing that the Germans did not have a special propensity for evil.)
Lesson 2: Defend institutions. (March 22)
Snyder advises us to defend the institutions that we care about, because if we do not, they will not survive the assault of people bent on their destruction. He gives the example of German Jews who believed that the Nazis would never dare to take away their constitutional rights, shut them up in ghettos, or encourage mob violence against them because European powers did not do such things.
Some of the institutions I hold most dear are the U.S. Constitution, in particular Amendments 1 and 4 (against unreasonable searches and seizures, which has already been eviscerated in the age of mass incarceration) and 13-15 (abolishing slavery and granted citizenship and suffrage to all; and the free media, in particular PBS, NPR (both under financial attack by the Trump administration), the New York Times, and the Washington Post; and the Separation of Powers of our government, set out in the Constitution but under attack at various times in our history, such as during the Nixon Administration and obviously, now when our President disrespects and denigrates judges for doing their jobs and Republican legislators bow and scrape before the president even when he insults them.
I am wondering how best to defend these institutions that make me proud to be an American. What do you think?
Lesson 3: Beware the one-party state. (March 23)
Snyder reminds us that “any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person who is casting the vote.” He means the last free and fair election, where candidates from more than one party have a real shot at winning. We’ve all heard about the “elections” in authoritarian states where voter turnout is 100% and everyone votes for the dictator, because they have to. This could be us, if we are not vigilant. Before this election, it looked like the Republican Party was in a death spiral. On Election Day, the death spiral party turned out to be the Democratic Party, which lost the presidency, the House, and the Senate, and is now in real danger of losing its impact on the Judiciary branch as Trump hurries to fill positions Pres. Obama was prevented from filling (not to mention Supreme Court seats) with conservative Republican judges.
Either way, a viable opposition is a crucial aspect of a true democracy, and we need to make sure our elections are safe from tampering, free and fair. Snyder calls for paper ballots, which “cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.” He warns that the 2018 elections (“assuming they take place”–gave me a chill down my spine) will be a real test of the system we were so proud of and confident about such a short time ago.
This lesson also reminds me that right now, our electoral system is rigged against urban voters (rural states, with their relatively small populations, can influence the Electoral College vote), and with corporations given the same “free speech” right as individuals to donate to political candidates and campaigns (due to the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision), individual voters are finding themselves at a severe disadvantage when they try to oust the GOP from its position of power.
Lesson 4: Take responsibility for the face of the world. (March 24)
What is “the face of the world”? Snyder is talking about symbols here, like a Nazi swastika or a hammer and sickle, which represent tyranny and hate. Snyder explains that symbols become shortcuts to freedom from oppressors, like a business which displays a “Workers of the World, Unite!” sign, hoping to avoid drawing negative attention from the authorities (Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless). Havel suggests that if the businessman refuses to play the game–if all people refuse to play the game–the game cannot exist.
In our Internet age, memes are added to signs and symbols. All of these contribute to negative stereotyping and make oppression possible. Remember the Star of David controversy during the 2016 campaign?
Snyder enjoins us not to look away from, and not to become accustomed to, symbols of hate and otherness. He advises, “Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”
Lesson 5: Remember professional ethics. (March 25)
Hitler could not have committed the atrocities he committed without the cooperation of lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and civil servants who overlooked their professional ethics in order to murder, torture, steal, and enslave. Had these people felt more of an obligation to their peers and their professions, they would not have done the terrible things that they did.
Of course, I always imagine that refusing to cooperate with the Nazis would probably have resulted in imprisonment or death. I have always marveled that doctors, who take an oath to “first, do no harm” could have been convinced to carry out the “ghastly medical experiments”. (I am not forgetting the American doctors in Tuskegee AL
who watched their patients with untreated syphilis die.) Those who did resist were considered traitors to the Reich and treated as such, so it would have taken a great deal of courage to say “No”. I don’t know if I would have the courage to say “No” under these circumstances, and I hope my courage will not be tested.
Lesson 6: Be wary of paramilitaries. (March 26)
In this chapter, Snyder explains that “the quiet business of government” (democratic elections, trials, making and implementing laws and regulations…) can be done only if the government has a monopoly on force. Once non-governmental groups have begun to use violence to achieve their ends, government as we wish it to be cannot function. Snyder lists many World War II and Cold War examples of paramilitary groups that terrorized people (the Romanian Iron Guard, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the German SA and SS) and points out that the U.S. use of mercenaries in warfare and corporate prisons means that in America, the use of force is “already highly privatized”, which should give us pause. He adds that Donald Trump’s unusual use of a personal security force to expel opponents from his rallies during the presidential campaign echoes Hitler’s use of Nazi storm troopers to “clear the halls of Hitler’s opponents during his rallies.”
When “emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion. . . [are] incorporated into the training of armed guards. . . .[, they] first challenge. . ., then penetrate . . ., and finally transform the police and military.”
(I am reminded also of the crackpots who invaded the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Described as “armed militants”, they advocated that federal land be ceded to private ranchers. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupation_of_the_Malheur_National_Wildlife_Refuge) The insistence on “Second Amendment rights” to stockpile and carry around weapons, including those designed for use by the military in warfare, just feeds into this mania for paramilitary activity. I believe that we are not safer when citizens go around armed with deadly weapons; on the contrary, we are much less safe.
The entire text of On Tyranny will be printed on posters to be displayed next week in London: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/23/timothy-snyder-on-tyranny-posters-east-london-entire-text
Lesson 7: Be reflective if you must be armed. (March 27)
This chapter concerns police and military personnel who carry weapons because of their jobs. Snyder urges these people to be ready to say no if asked to do anything “irregular”. Authoritarian regimes routinely use special riot police to prevent citizens from protesting the regime and secret police who spy on, detain, torture, and murder dissenters. These special units depend on regular police and soldiers to carry out their evil missions. Regular police were subordinate to the NKVD during the Soviet Union’s Great Terror of 1937-1938, and the biggest Nazi massacres (33,000 near Kiev, 28,000 near Riga) were carried out by regular German police. Snyder says, “In the rare cases when they refused these orders to murder Jews, policemen were not punished. Some killed from murderous conviction. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out.” In other words, the urge to conform was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Lesson 8: Stand out. (March 29)
In this chapter, Snyder reminds us that in the years leading up to the Second World War, most Europeans and Americans did not actively oppose Hitler and his Nazi movement. Those who did were considered “exceptional, eccentric, or even insane”. Many European nations had right-wing authoritarian governments (Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria). When Hitler annexed Austria and divided up Czechoslovakia in 1938, and invaded Poland in 1939, the great European powers looked on and did nothing to stop him. When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, England was at war with Germany because it had a treaty with Poland, but Snyder points out that Churchill could easily have chosen to accommodate Hitler as Chamberlain had done in 1938. Instead, he chose resistance, helping “the British to define themselves as a proud people who would calmly resist evil.” In so doing, Churchill forced Hitler to change course, attacking the Soviet Union before removing all Western resistance. The USSR became a British ally, and after Pearl Harbor, the US entered the war, thus forming “a grand and irresistible coalition” that won the war–but if Churchill had accommodated Germany in 1940, it would never have happened. Today, we look back on Churchill’s decision to resist as inevitable, but at the time, it was anything but inevitable. “At the time, he had to stand out.”
In addition to the Churchill example, Snyder tells the story of Teresa Prekerowa, a young Polish woman who refused to sit by and watch as Polish Jews were rounded up and forced to live in ghettos. She visited the Warsaw ghetto many times to help Jews (some that she knew, and others she didn’t know), eventually helping one family to escape the ghetto and certain death at Treblinka. Again, she stood out among those who acquiesced to evil.
It takes real courage to stand out and be seen as different, as swimming against the tide. If it comes to that, I hope I will have the courage of Winston Churchill, Teresa Prekerowa, Antonina Zabinska (The Zookeeper’s Wife), Raoul Wallenberg and others.
This lesson reminds me of a short (3 minutes) 2010 TED talk by Derek Sivers, How to start a movement
. It is not necessary to be the first person to stand out; in fact, it is the second person who actually gets the ball rolling.
Lesson 9: Be kind to our language. (March 30)
Snyder advises us not to let others select the words that we use, and he cautions us that if we substitute images and screens for books, we will not have the words that we need to make sense of the world we live in. “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media,” he warns, “we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading.” He recommends “any good novel” and proposes several, and he includes a reading list of books about history and politics as well. Finally, he recommends that Christians read the Bible (“the foundational book”), reminding the reader about the camel and the rich man; what will happen to “whosoever shall exalt himself”; and what the truth shall make him who knows it.
Snyder also draws parallels between the way Hitler used language and the way Donald Trump uses it. Donald Trump’s use of language has been variously compared to that of a third-grader (Jack Shafer, Politico
), a fourth-grader (John Prager, Addicting Info
), less than a sixth-grader (Justin Wm. Moyer, The Washington Post
), and a middle-schooler (Word Counter
). Of course, what they are analyzing is Trump’s spoken language, not his reading level. Most people (if not all) use simpler language when they speak than when they write, or than what they are capable of reading. But what seems apparent is that to a lot of people, a president who speaks with the vocabulary and syntax of a child is more appealing than one who speaks like a lawyer (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama). America has a history of despising intellectuals,to our shame.
I am nevertheless reminded of The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess
(by Leonard Shlain), in which the triumph of books over images results in the loss of women’s rights and prestige within a society. I must confess that the opposite seems to be happening here.
Lesson 10: Believe in truth. (March 31)
“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.”
Snyder cites Victor Klemperer, author of The Language of the Third Reich: The attack on truth takes four forms: (1) open hostility to reality (think: how often Trump’s statements are outright lies); (2) shamanistic incantation, such as the repeating of nicknames and other phrases over and over (think: Lock her up! Crooked Hillary; Little Marco); (3) magical thinking (think: universal healthcare plus tax cuts for all); and (4) misplaced faith (think: “I alone can solve these problems”).
Snyder says that what we are witnessing today (“post-truth”) is nothing new. George Orwell called it “doublethink”. Klemperer and Ionesco would recognize it as “the fascist attitude to truth”. Like the Trumpists of today, the fascists of the 20th century “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. . . 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. Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Lesson 11: Investigate. (April 2)
Snyder urges us to educate ourselves about the issues. It’s easy these days to believe what we see and hear from our chosen sources of information (people, media, websites). We assume that they are telling us the truth and that the people/media/websites on the other side are lying. I get a slew of emails every day from progressive organizations with subject headings like “Trump destroyed!”, so I know they aren’t all being truthful (it’s just wishful thinking, and of course they are trying to get my attention).
Snyder says we need to read more in-depth books and articles and “take responsibility for what [we] communicate to others.” He thinks we should spend less time on the “two-dimensional” internet and more time reading or listening to serious thinkers and writers who can help us to gain insight into what is happening. Reading about issues is different from watching them unfold on a screen, ever ready for the next scandal to take over because “actual journalism . . . is edgy and difficult”, requiring as it does “traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and rewriting drafts. . . . The work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.” As with plumbing and auto repair, Snyder reminds us, we get what we pay for, and we should not expect to get information for free; he advocates subscribing to print media as a form of subsidy. (I am happy to say I am a subscriber to The Washington Post and a supporter of public TV and radio.) When we have identified trustworthy sources, he says, we can share what we learn from them. But we need to verify in order to “avoid doing violence to the minds of unseen others on the internet.”
So researching with Google may be easy, but we have to remember to verify what we find. All sources of information are not created equal.
Lesson 12: Make eye contact and small talk. (April 3)
This is the shortest lesson so far: one page. Snyder says that looking people in the eye and acknowledging their humanity is one way that we (and they) can figure out who can be trusted. In the cultures of denunciation that existed in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and other places in the 20th century, survival meant having people you could trust. Ordinary gestures of friendship, such as a handshake or a smile, become very important in such cultures, and if we reach out in a friendly way to everyone we encounter, we will be acting to lesson the fear and alienation felt by at least some of those people.
In our country today, there are many who are feeling threatened: immigrants (the undocumented, green card holders, and citizens alike) and those who look like immigrants to white supremacists; gays, lesbians, and transgender, bisexual and queer people; African Americans and other people whose skin is darker than Northern Europeans’; atheists and agnostics; Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. . . . The list goes on.
This is something easy to add to our daily routines. A smile, a kind word, a handshake when appropriate, a brief conversation about the weather or whatever, is all it takes to present yourself as a fellow human being who is not out to do harm to anyone.
Lesson 13: Practice corporeal politics. (April 4)
“Nothing is real that does not end on the streets.” Snyder is saying that it is not enough to sign online petitions, to rant on social media, even to donate to the right causes. We have to get off our butts and march! He recommends going to unfamiliar places and making new friends. (I am happy to say I have been following this advice! I have demonstrated at the White House, visited senatorial offices, and huddled with neighbors I had never met despite living in this neighborhood for over 30 years. I’m looking forward to more marches, meetings, huddles, and new friends in the coming months and years.)
Snyder’s example for this lesson is the Solidarity movement in Poland (1980-81). People from different walks of life and of different political persuasions came together to support striking workers. Although it took almost a decade, in the end the free labor union that they created was responsible for the elections of 1989, which Snyder calls “the beginning of the end of communism in Poland, eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union”.
More recently, we can reflect on the demonstrations of the Arab Spring, most of which did not achieve their desired ends; the worst possible outcome, the civil war in Syria, continues to shock us daily with new stories and images of atrocities visited upon the Syrian people by their so-called government and its allies. Only today, there was a horrific chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, reminding us that in many countries, political protests are met with cruelty and violence on the part of the state. At least in America, we have not yet reached this point. So we must march, and we must protest, because we can. While we can.
Snyder ends the lesson with an enigmatic paragraph, which perhaps someone can help me understand: he writes, “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.” Is he warning us that once we have lost our privacy, we can no longer choose to take to the streets? Or simply that once Big Brother (Google, Facebook, the FBI, the NSA…) is watching us, we are no longer free? In which case, how does that relate to today’s lesson?
Lesson 14: Establish a private life. (April 5)
In this lesson, Snyder takes on the slippage of personal privacy that we have come to accept along with the conveniences of the Internet. He reminds us of how strategically released “bombs” of hacked emails distracted both the media and the public from the real issues of the 2016 campaign. Although we should know that emailed communications are inherently not private, we should also acknowledge that the “theft, discussion, or publication” of someone’s emails “destroys a basic foundation of our rights. . . . Whoever can pierce your privacy can humiliate you and disrupt your relationships at will.” We are all vulnerable to this, yet we are drawn to the exposure of others’ secrets like bees to nectar. And the belief in conspiracies that is engendered by the exposure of communications that were meant to be private (and were written at another time and in another situation) works to distort political reality even when the emails reveal nothing incriminating (think: John Podesta’s emails). Snyder writes, “When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order”; we become part of the “mob”.
To avoid demolishing our political order, and to protect what little privacy we have left, Snyder suggests regular deletion of malware from your computer; using the internet less and communicating face-to-face more; resolving any legal problems in your past;and supporting human rights organizations. “Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.”
Lesson 15: Contribute to good causes. (April 6)
In this lesson, we learn that being able to choose those we associate with is a key element of freedom that is curtailed in totalitarian societies, which prefer to use charities and NGOs as instruments to control the people. Dictators are suspicious of people who gather in groups, despite their benign goals.
Snyder encourages us to support not only political organizations but any organization which engages in work that we enjoy or want to see accomplished. He calls this “a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good”.
Every day, my email inbox is crammed with thirty or more emails imploring me to “chip in” $1 or $3 or $5 to this or that cause or campaign. Obviously, I can’t donate every time I am asked, and I don’t always feel comfortable with the methods of online payment. I’ve started a Google sheet to keep track of my contributions (which I don’t itemize on my taxes because up until now, I never gave enough to make it worthwhile) so that I won’t inadvertently give twice. And I’m considering just donating to the DNC, DCCC, and DSCC, rather than to the campaigns of individual politicians, in the hope that these political committees will send my dollars where they can do the most good. I’d welcome your input on whether you think this is a good strategy.
Lesson 16: Learn from peers in other countries. (April 7)
Snyder recounts how the Russians tried to influence the Ukrainian election with fake news, and how Ukrainians immediately recognized what was happened and fought back, unlike us Americans, who thought it couldn’t happen here (until it did). Snyder urges us to travel and observe what is happening abroad and to make and maintain relationships with people from other countries, because they have much to teach us, if we are only open to learning from them.
I am thinking of my Venezuelan friends, Evelyn Izquierdo and Miguel Mendoza, who warned that Americans should act before it was too late–before a tyrant came to power. We can learn from the Venezuelan experience, even as we hope that our institutions are stronger than theirs and will save us from their fate. (See also Lesson Two: Defend institutions.)
Lesson 17: Listen for dangerous words. (April 8)
Snyder focuses on the words ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’, ’emergency’, and ‘exception’ in this lesson. These are words which tyrants use to convince free people to exchange their liberty for what they believe is security. He points out that we need not sacrifice liberty in order to be safe, and that “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.” He reminds us that the government’s responsibility is to increase both freedom and security. Voting for a fascist is like entering an abusive relationship, where we agree to sacrifice both freedom and safety. But we can choose to leave the relationship, and we can choose to leave the country (if another country will admit us).
For a tyrant, an ‘extremist’ is just someone outside the mainstream. This language permits the tyrant to persecute the person that disagrees with him. In truth, it is tyranny that is actually extremism.
Snyder also warns us against “the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary” (“Make America great again”?).
Lesson 18: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. (April 9)
For me, this lesson is the most shocking of the 18 lessons I have read so far; this is because it explains certain historical events (the Reichstag fire of 1933, the terrorist attack on a Moscow theater in 2002, the siege of a Russian school in 2004) in a way that I have never heard before. He also includes events I was totally unaware of, like the takeover of a French TV station by Russian hackers pretending to be ISIS in 2015 and the false accusation of the rape of a Russian girl living in Germany by Muslim refugees in 2016. (I should verify these events before posting, I know! Lesson 11, Investigate: “Take responsibility for what you communicate to others.”)
Modern tyrants are terror managers, he says, and terror management is “the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy.”
The essence of this lesson is to protect our institutions even in times of terror and grief. Do not let a would-be tyrant destroy our system of checks and balances or take away our fundamental rights in the name of “homeland security”. Courage, he says, “does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing the resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.
I feel in my gut that this is the most essential lesson of all, and it must be promulgated now, before it is needed–because when “the unthinkable arrives”, it will be too late.
Lesson 19: Be a patriot. (April 10)
This lesson consists mainly of a long diatribe about what does NOT constitute patriotism: essentially, things that Donald Trump stands accused of doing (e.g., not paying his taxes, admiring foreign dictators, asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails…). Snyder calls Trump a nationalist, not a patriot. Nationalists obsess about power, winning, losing, and taking revenge but are uninterested in actual events. Their only truth is the resentment that they feel. Patriots, on the other hand, love their country and want to continually make it better. Their values are universal, and they are concerned with reality. “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.” Snyder calls on us to be role models for future generations.
I love my country, but there are many things about it that I do not love or even like, and there are things we have done as a country that I feel very ashamed of. Still, there is much to love and be proud of, and as Snyder says, a true patriot is always striving to make his/her nation better. Thanks to Donald Trump, I am receiving a crash course in activism and good citizenship this year. I hope I will continue to raise my voice against what is wrong and for what is right and good.
Lesson 20: be as courageous as you can. (April 11)
There is no lesson in this lesson, only one sentence: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
This is followed by an Epilogue, in which Snyder considers how we have arrived at a point where a book such as this seems necessary after Americans had come to believe that our democracy was so secure that we need not execute the responsibilities of citizens (how many of us are too busy to inform ourselves or to vote!). “We lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.”
The Politics of Inevitability: At the end of the Cold War, when the Communists’ teleology of “an inevitable socialist utopia” came crashing down, we continued to believe in our own teleology of “expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity.” We thought we were different, special, and right; after all, we had won. We believed that our vision of the future was inevitable. This belief resulted in a cessation of debate and a binary system in which one side defended the status quo while the other totally negated it, calling for “disruption”. This concept “assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up. But there are no adults. We own this mess.” Snyder calls this “A naive and flawed sort of democratic republic” and compares it to being comatose.
The Politics of Eternity: National populists practice the politics of eternity. They are nostalgic for moments in a misunderstood or misconstrued past. They imagine enemies that attacked the nation’s purity. Today’s national populists yearn for the decade of the 1930s, when Fascism was on the rise and democracies had failed or were struggling. The British who wanted the U.K. to leave the E.U. forget that the U.K. was not just an independent U.K. before the European Union; it had an empire. Similarly, France “has never existed without either an empire or a European project.” Fantasizing about a mythical past means we cannot contemplate what might actually happen in the future. Politics “becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems.” Trump is quoted as saying that “when the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster” will solve our problems. (I do not remember this quote, but according to Snopes.com, he said this back in 2014. ) Snyder calls this “a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy” and compares it to being hypnotized.
Snyder suggests that the study of history allows us to understand and evaluate what is happening–“to be responsible. . . for something.” He puts his faith in young people, who must begin to make history or the “politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it.” But in order to make history, they will need to learn about history.