On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century, is  Housum Professor of History at Yale University. At the simplest, this timely book draws parallels between the Trump administration and the Third Reich.

In the prologue, Snyder reminds us that history does not repeat but that it does instruct, that it can familiarise and it can warn. He mentions that the western tradition considers history when the political order seems in peril, and that European history shows that democracies can fall and ethics can collapse. He reminds us how fascism and communism both were responses to globalisation, and why recent developments are a good reminder for us that we are not any wiser now than people were back then.

Eschewing moral panic, Snyder has managed to write a book that is deceptively simple in stating the profound lessons from twentieth century history, which are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

As I read through the book, its broader applicability to some other well-known democracies, not just the USA, became clearer. As a person of Indian origin, I have watched the current administration campaign its way to power, where with a weak opposition, the world’s largest democracy is, at the moment, a de facto single party state. Language has been corrupted with terms such as anti-national, “libtard”, “sickular” (“sick” and “secular” twisted together) are bandied about with ease to attack those, who raise legitimate concerns about the changing face of India. These mass attacks are often technology-enabled and bot-led, so difficult to counter. Further, I live in the UK and had watched with increasing concern the Brexit campaign infested with lies. The legacy of that campaign persisted after the win, labelling upset remain-voters “remoaners”, attacked with glib comments such as “your side lost, get over it!”. Having become PM as a side outcome of the Brexit vote, Mrs May also eagerly abused language, labelling globalists “citizens of nowhere” and mouthing meaningless tautologies, such as “Brexit is Brexit”. As I write this review on the weekend of 17/18 June 2017, she is seeing plenty of corporeal politics in the form of protests at Downing Street asking her to resign.

Point no 14 — establish a private life — made me a tad uncomfortable. The way I read it, I interpret Snyder’s point to mean “don’t have anything over which you can be held to ransom”. This is a tricky endeavour. After all nearly all of us have near and dear ones, and can be forced into uncomfortable situations because of them. I was also reminded of the time when I was a graduate student of management. We had a guest speaker, TN Seshan, who is known to have been one of the most incorruptible and straight shooting Election Commissioners India has had. After nearly 25 years, one of his remarks sticks in my memory. He said not having children liberated him to live fully and fearlessly to his ideals. It is hard to have a life without a chink in the armour that a tyrannical despot and his or her minions would not be able to exploit.

One point that Snyder does not make — and perhaps it is not important enough — is that “leaders” emerging through such shenanigans remain insecure and sore winners, with easily hurt and fragile egos. This means that these leaders rarely submit themselves to public engagement or criticism, preferring either to become sound byte dispensing bots such as Mrs May or to continue attacks real or imagined adversaries as Mr Trump does on Twitter. May be that was not a lesson in history. But it is a pertinent characteristic that can be useful.

I feel the list of lessons in the book also provides an interesting framework with which to examine technological monopolies such as Facebook and Google, and the influence they may have on shaping the political discourse, about which plenty has been written since the last Presidential elections in the USA.

In the epilogue to this excellent book, titled “History And Liberty”, Snyder warns us to watch for the politics of inevitability i.e. the idea that history could only move in one direction — towards liberal democracies, and the politics of eternity, which glorifies the past with scant regard for facts. Recent developments in the USA — and I add India and the UK — give weight to his argument that this belief in the politics of inevitability is a self-induced form of intellectual coma, which stifles debate and discussion. On the other hand, the politics of eternity has fostered nationalist politicians who sell the seductive vision of a past that never existed and prevent us from thinking about possible futures and ways to self-correct.

I read the book in one sitting, with a single cafetière of coffee by my side. It is a riveting read, which is not something one could normally say about books on history and politics.

In a subsequent conversation with a journalist friend, we agreed that these points ought to be on a poster of some kind, and everyone needs to have it up where it can be seen daily.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: This book ought to be read in full. By everyone. Especially in the current political climate. Why? Because, to quote Marshall Berman, American Marxist humanist philosopher, “Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.” 

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