Does the history of tyranny apply to the United States? Certainly, the early Americans who spoke of “eternal vigilance” would have thought so…
In the “age of Trump” and political populism, we are all looking for answers. A thousand books are taking over bookshelves, bursting with possible answers. My shelf has now mutated into something that resembles the political thriller section of a bookstore.
Timothy D. Snyder’s little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, finds itself, perhaps, overshadowed by a tidal wave of academic and speculative titles released this year. I’ve been perusing through them as I take a break from my science fiction escapades.
Trump and the new radicalized right has left a mark on our language and memory.
Trump has shifted the energy and momentum of our political dialogues.
Maybe we are less trustworthy in the word of our friends, family, and opponents than we have ever been. At least in the political moment that is defining the twenty-first century. (How many times has this young century been redefined? How many ages fit into this tiny slice of geological history?)
As I scour political forums, blogs, and musings on Facebook, I have noticed hundreds of would-be political commentators wonder how to participate in these heated conversations. How do I become politically engaged? How do I start my own blog on politics? How do I become well-read enough to begin digesting this “age” of political turmoil?
As someone who spends most of their evenings and mornings reading, let me say that politics is always hard to digest. No literary solution dampens the burn on the way down, preventing your stomach from nasty, corrosive indigestion. It burns even more on its way back up.
But to answer all these questions at once: On Tyranny is a good place to start reading about politics. Especially, if you are looking for an “objective,” bi-partisan, centered, tame, modest, and non-radicalized account of the current political climate, which is changing must faster, heating much quicker than any political commentator can keep up with.
Consider, then, Snyder’s twenty lessons a short and pithy field guide to burgeoning authoritarianism across the globe. (Hint: Trump is one of many scoundrels, playing and praying on the fears and hopes of millions. Brazil. Brexit. India. France. To name a few.)
When Americans think of freedom, we usualy 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…
Snyder probably won’t wow anybody with an overture of political and economic history or a genealogy of political theory. Yet, in these tumultuous times, in a theatre that has made a dangerous habit of going off script, there is little to no time to revisit these histories in crystal-clear detail.
So, On Tyranny is a tiny book, but that doesn’t mean it sacrificed its authority for the sake of brevity.
As well, there is nothing revolutionary in On Tyranny. In fact, I wager, it isn’t trying to be revolutionary. It isn’t seeking to reinvent the political landscape. Instead, quite modestly, it gives twenty very simple points of critiquing populism.
Don’t fret because this slim book is applicable to the populism of the left and the right.
I feel that is a necessary plug. It isn’t good enough in this day and age to righteously claim that the problem is right-wingers. We must all be politically vigilant, holding any leader “in power” (what a tragedy of language that betrays the basic tenants of democracy—the power is in the people) accountable.
Then, my only criticism of Snyder’s book is that it holds too closely to Trump. It draws too many loose comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis. There are certainly parallels, but too much is at stake for reassuring platitudes as well as fearful ones.
Perhaps, also, the connection is too pessimistic for my taste and is quite ignorant of the dire system of inequality, abuse, and exploitation that has been nurtured by both the “left” and the “right” since, well, forever.
Yes, these twenty brief lessons are instructive and insightful. But we need more to thwart the rise of authoritarianism and its shady other-half, populism.