Book Report: On Tyranny

On-Tyranny“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.” (On Tyranny)

Title: On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Author: Timothy Snyder

Publisher: Tim Duggan Books

Publication Date: 2017

Origin: I’ve no idea… On Tyranny is the type of book I’d learn about watching The Daily Show, but I haven’t watched the show in a while. So…maybe it crossed my path on Twitter?

Summary: On Tyranny is a remarkably concise treatise that presents 20 lessons from the twentieth century, specifically related to the rise and fall of democracies and the threat of authoritarianism.

Each lesson consists of a short statement (e.g., Do not obey in advance) accompanied by explanatory and supporting/illustrative historical context.

My Take: Upon finishing, I felt compelled to tweet:

…and since then, I’ve recommended the book to a number of folks. I really did find it powerful, frightening, and instructive, and there isn’t a wasted word – it’s tremendously succinct and efficient, so you can zip through it in one session.

You know how you hear about people carrying around a copy of the US Constitution? Well, maybe we should all start carrying around a copy of On Tyranny.

Read This Book If: Just read this damn book.

Notes and Quotes:

“The history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.”

  • p10, uh oh (from the introduction): “The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.”
  • p28, from Beware the one-party state: “A party emboldened by a favorable election result or motivated by ideology, or both, might change the system from within.”
  • p29: “Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”
  • p32, from Take responsibility for the face of the world: “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.”
  • p33: “Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do.”

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do.”

  • p35: “You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them.”
  • p51, from Stand out: “The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”

“The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”

  • p55: “Churchill did what others had not done. Rather than concede in advance, he forced Hitler to change his plans.”
  • p59, from Be kind to our language: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”
  • p60: “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. The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that 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.”
  • p62: “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.”
  • p62-63 provide a handy list of recommended reading
  • p65, from Believe in truth: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”

  • p66-68 explain how “Truth dies in four modes”: open hostility to verifiable reality; shamanistic incantation and endless repetition; magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction; and misplaced faith. With open eyes, we see that all four modes are active in today’s United States.
  • p73, from Investigate: “Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference… The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.”
  • p76: “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.”

“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.”

  • p90, from Establish a private life: “When we take active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order.”
  • p100, from Listen for dangerous words: “The most intelligent of the Nazis, the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, explained in clear language the essence of fascist governance. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, an then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.”

“A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, an then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.”

  • p103, from Be calm when the unthinkable arrives: “Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack 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 suspension 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.”
  • p110: “For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.”

“For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions.”

  • p114 , from Be a patriot: “Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. A nationalist will say that ‘it can’t happen here,’ which is the first step towards disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.”
  • p115, from Be as courageous as you can: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

  • p123, from the Epilogue: “In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures.”
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Posted in Books, Leadership

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