Snyder (2017). On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Snyder, T. (2017). On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Crown/Archetype.

[“Prologue” (p 9)]

[“1. Do not obey in advance.” (p 17)]

“The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible. … In November 1938, following the Austrian example of March, German Nazis organized the national pogrom known as _Kristallnacht_.” (p 19)

“In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the SS took the initiative to devise the methods of mass killing without orders to do so. They guessed what their superiors wanted and [page break] demonstrated what was possible. It was far more than Hitler had thought.” (p 19-20)

“Milgram told his subjects (some Yale students, some New Haven residents) that they would be applying an electrical shock to other participants in an experiment about learning.” (p 20)

“Milgram grasped that people are remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting. They are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority. ‘I found so much obedience,’ Milgram remembered, ‘that I hardly saw the need for taking the experiment to Germany.'” (p 21)

[“2. Defend institutions.” (p 22)]

“It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.” (p 22)

“Sometimes institutions are deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were, so that they gird the new order rather than resisting it. This is what the Nazis called _Gleichschaltung_.” (p 24)

[“3. Beware the one-party state.” (p 26) …]

“… the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been. … The Russian oligarchy established after the 1990 elections continues to function, and promotes a foreign policy designed to destroy democracy elsewhere.” (p 29)

“The odd American idea that giving money to political [page break] campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens.” (p 29-30)

“Much needs to be done to fix the gerrymandered system so that each citizen has one equal vote, and so that each vote can be simply counted by a fellow citizen. We need paper ballots, because they [page break] cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.” (p 30-31)

[“4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.” (p 32) …]

“The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.” (p 32)

“A neighbor portrayed as a pig is someone whose land you can take. But those who followed the symbolic logic became victims in their turn.” (p 33)

[Quoting Vaclav Havel …]

“‘… the greengrocer declares his loyalty in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.'” (p 37)

[“5. Remember professional ethics.” (p 38) …]

“Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as ‘just following orders.’ If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable.” (p 41)

[“6. Be wary of paramilitaries.” (p 42)]

[“7. Be reflective if you must be armed.” (p 47)]

[“8. Stand out.” (p 51)]

“Without telling her family, and at great risk to herself, Teresa chose to enter the Warsaw ghetto a dozen times in late 1940, bringing food and medicine to Jews she knew and Jews she did not. By [page break] the end of the year she had persuaded her brother’s friend to escape the ghetto. In 1942 Teresa helped the girl’s parents and brother to escape. That summer in the Warsaw ghetto, the Germans carried out what they called the ‘Great Action,’ deporting some 265,040 Jews to the death factory at Treblinka to be murdered and killing another 10,380 Jews in the ghetto itself. Teresa saved a family from certain death.” (p 57-58)

“When, much later, she was asked to speak about her own life, she called her actions normal. From our perspective, her actions seem exceptional. She stood out.” (p 58)

[“9. Be kind to our language.” (p 59) …]

“Television purports to challenge political language by conveying images, but the succession from one frame to another can hinder a sense of resolution. Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is ‘breaking’ until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean.” (p 60)

“The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that [page break] elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.” (p 60-61)

“More than half a century ago, the classic novels of totalitarianism warned of the domination of screens, the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought. In Ray Bradbury’s _Fahrenheit 451_, published in 1953, firemen find and burn books while most citizens watch interactive television. In George Orwell’s _1984_, published in 1949, books are banned and television is two-way, allowing the government to observe citizens at all times. In _1984_, the language of visual media is highly constrained, to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future. One of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official dictionary.” (p 61)

“Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this — but we still can.” (p 62)

[“10. Believe in truth.” (p 65) …]

“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.” (p 66)

“Fascists 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, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts.” (p 71)

[“11 . Investigate.” (p 72) …]

“In 1971, contemplating the lies told in the United States about the Vietnam War, the political theorist Hannah Arendt took comfort in the inherent power of facts to overcome falsehoods in a free society: ‘Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality.’ The part about computers is no longer true. In the 2016 presidential election, the two-dimensional world of the internet was more important than the three-dimensional world of human contact. … [page break] … (And yes, there is a conspiracy that you can find online: It is the one to keep you online, looking for conspiracies.)” (p 74-75)

“We can learn these things on various media. When we learn them from a screen, however, we tend to be drawn in by the logic of spectacle. When we learn of one scandal, it whets our appetite for the next. [page break] Once we subliminally accept that we are watching a reality show rather than thinking about real life, no image can actually hurt the president politically.” (p 75-76)

“But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money. Before you deride the ‘mainstream media,’ note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult. So try for yourself to write a proper article, involving work in the real world: traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying [page break] everything, writing and revising drafts, all on a tight and unforgiving schedule.” (p 76-77)

[“12. Make eye contact and small talk.” (p 81)]

[“13. Practice corporeal politics.” (p 83) …]

“Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.” (p 84)

“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.” (p 86)

[“14. Establish a private life.” (p 87) …]

“We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it. … Whoever can pierce your privacy can humiliate you and disrupt your relationships at will. No one (except perhaps a tyrant) has a private life that can survive public exposure by hostile directive.” (p 88)

“Our appetite for the secret, thought Arendt, is dangerously political. Totalitarianism removes the difference between private and public not just to make individuals unfree …” (p 89)

[“15. Contribute to good causes.” (p 92) …]

“When Americans think of freedom, we usually imagine a contest between a lone individual and a powerful government. We tend to conclude that the individual should be empowered and the government kept at bay. This is all well and good. But one element of freedom is the choice of associates, and one defense of freedom is the activity of groups to sustain their members.” (p 93)

“Sharing in an undertaking [page break] teaches us that we can trust people beyond a narrow circle of friends and families, and helps us to recognize authorities from whom we can learn. The capacity for trust and learning can make life seem less chaotic and mysterious, and democratic politics more plausible and attractive.” (p 93-94)

[“16. Learn from peers in other countries.” (p 95) …]

“To Ukrainians, Americans seemed comically slow to react to the obvious threats of cyberwar and fake news. When Russian propaganda made Ukraine a target in 2013, young Ukrainian journalists and others reacted immediately, decisively, and sometimes humorously with campaigns to expose disinformation.” (p 96)

[“17. Listen for dangerous words.” (p 99) …]

“_Extremism_ certainly sounds bad, and governments often try to make it sound worse by using the word _terrorism_ in the same sentence. But the word has little meaning. There is no doctrine called _extremism_.” (p 101)

[“18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” (p 103) …]

“James Madison nicely made the point that tyranny arises ‘on some favorable emergency.’ After the Reichstag fire, Hannah Arendt wrote that ‘I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.'” (p 110)

[“19. Be a patriot.” (p 111)]

[“20. Be as courageous as you can.” (p 115) …]

“The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the _politics of inevitability_, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. After communism in eastern Europe came to an end in 1989–91, we imbibed the myth of an ‘end of history.’ In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.” (p 118)

“The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. So long as there was a contest between communist and capitalist systems, and so long as the memory of fascism and Nazism was alive, Americans had to pay some attention to history and preserve the concepts that allowed them to imagine alternative futures. Yet once we accepted the politics of inevitability, we assumed that history was no longer relevant.” (p 119)

“Other critics spoke of the need for _disruption_, borrowing a term from the analysis of technological innovations. … The man who runs [page break] naked across a football field certainly disrupts, but he does not change the rules of the game. The whole notion of disruption is adolescent: It assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up.” (p 120-121)

“When exactly was the ‘again’ in the president’s slogan ‘Make America great again’? Hint: It is the same ‘again’ that we find in ‘Never again.'” (p 123)

Selected References

  • Havel, V. (1985). The power of the powerless. International Journal of Politics, 15(3/4), 23–96.
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