Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, recently wrote a short book detailing the threat of tyranny facing Americans (and the world) today. Snyder gives twenty important lessons we must learn from history if we are to avoid tyranny. History does not repeat, says Professor Snyder, but it does instruct.
What follows is a summary of Snyder’s Twenty Lessons. I have expanded the text on the points I found most thought-provoking.
- Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
- Defend institutions.
- Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.
- Take responsibility for the face of the world. The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourselves and set an example for others to do so.
- Remember professional ethics.
- Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.
- Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.
- Stand out.
- Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.
- Believe in truth. 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.
- Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which comes from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.
- Make eye contact and small talk.
- Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
- Establish a private life.
- Contribute to good causes.
- Learn from peers in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself.
- Listen for dangerous words. Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
- Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attacks comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suppression of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
- Be a patriot. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
- Be as courageous as you can.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century can be read in one sitting. You can purchase the book here. Buying the book through the provided link will provide a few shekels for this site. Thank you!