Monday, November 6, 2017

On Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (2017)

I would have picked this up ages ago had I not conflated it in my head with the almost-700-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But no, this one is only 128 tiny little pages. (Seriously, it's only about 6 inches tall.) Something or someone  recently in the political we-must-do-something-sphere mentioned it and I looked it up again and, realizing my mistake, picked up a copy at work and read it in about 2 short sittings.

Each section begins with one of the 20 lessons, and then a few pages talking about the part of history from which we learned this lesson and how it can be applied today. For instance, lesson 8 is "Stand out" with the explanation, "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." This lesson is followed by examples about how in Nazi Germany (which, as you can imagine, is frequently mentioned in this book) most people went along with Hitler's agenda, but it is those who did not who we now remember. Snyder tells the story of a woman named Teresa who snuck into Warsaw ghettos at great risk to herself to bring food and medicine to Jews, both those she knew and those she did not, ultimately helping one family escape and saving their lives.

Other lessons include "defend institutions," "remember professional ethics," "be kinder to our language," "believe in truth," "make eye contact and small talk," "contribute to good causes," "be a patriot," "be as courageous as you can," and several others, all of which are worth carefully considering and applying to your real life. Some are more obvious acts of political resistance, while others are more about taking part in society in smaller, but still important ways. Like the one about making eye contact and small talk is about building relationships, even superficial ones, so that when real oppression arrives people don't just all instinctively fear each other. Snyder says that in fascist Italy in the 20s or Nazi Germany in the 30s, simple smiles and handshakes were viewed with greater significance.

This book was obviously published in response to the current administration in the United States though, interestingly, Snyder never mentions the president by name. Some of the lessons are ones we hopefully won't have to think about, but if we do we'll all be well served by remembering and abiding by them. As I mentioned, I read it very quickly - it's extremely simple and clear and may make it onto my extremely short list of books that everyone should read. I sort of want to buy myself a copy and carry it around with me at all times, right next to my pocket Constitution.

No comments: