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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century Paperback – February 28, 2017
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A Washington Post Notable Book
"We are rapidly ripening for fascism. This American writer leaves us with no illusions about ourselves." —Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
"Timothy Snyder reasons with unparalleled clarity, throwing the past and future into sharp relief. He has written the rare kind of book that can be read in one sitting but will keep you coming back to help regain your bearings. Put a copy in your pocket and one on your bedside table, and it will help you keep going for the next four years or however long it takes." —Masha Gessen
"Please read this book. So smart, so timely." —George Saunders
“Easily the most compelling volume among the early resistance literature. . . . A slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and feels only slightly less vital. . . . Clarifying and unnerving. . . . A memorable work that is grounded in history yet imbued with the fierce urgency of what now.” —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
“Snyder knows this subject cold. . . . It is impossible to read aphorisms like ‘post-truth is pre-fascism’ and not feel a small chill about the current state of the Republic. . . . Approach this short book the same you would a medical pamphlet warning about an infectious disease. Read it carefully and be on the lookout for symptoms.” —Daniel W. Drezner, The New York Times Book Review
"As Timothy Snyder explains in his fine and frightening On Tyranny, a minority party now has near-total power and is therefore understandably frightened of awakening the actual will of the people." —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
“Snyder is superbly positioned to bring historical thinking to bear on the current political scene. . . . These unpretentious words remind us that political resistance isn’t a matter of action-movie heroics, but starts from a willingness to break from social expectations.” —Jeet Heer, The New Republic
“The perfect clear-eyed antidote to Trump’s deliberate philistinism. . . . These 128 pages are a brief primer in every important thing we might have learned from the history of the last century, and all that we appear to have forgotten.” —Tim Adams, The Guardian
“On Tyranny demands to be read.” —The Forward
“The manifesto we need. . . . Snyder detects dangerous trends in American politics that may be less visible to most citizens who cannot believe that our country, with its system of checks and balances, could succumb to illiberalism or authoritarianism.” —Darryl Holter, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Bracing. . . . On Tyranny is a call to action. . . . A brisk read packed with lucid prose.” —Vox
About the Author
Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
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For those of you not acquainted with Snyder, he's a historian of Eastern Europe and has written extensively on the turmoil--the killing fields--of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. He knows whereof he speaks.
I will offer you a couple of his thoughts from his concluding remarks. In addressing what he terms "the politics of inevitability," he notes
Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. 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.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Kindle Locations 765-769). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.
But he then addresses the converse attitude, what he calls "the politics of eternity." About this attitude, he states
In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate?
Id. at 810-815
In contrast to both of these attitudes, he places history (an encomium with which I could not agree more):
Both of these positions, inevitability and eternity, are antihistorical. The only thing that stands between them is history itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz thought that such a notion of responsibility worked against loneliness and indifference. History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.
Id. at 822-827
In his peroration, he exhorts young people especially (although it applies to all of us)
One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some.
This is not the end, but a beginning. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” Thus Hamlet. Yet he concludes: “Nay, come, let’s go together.”
Id. at 830-834
Buy this book and read it!
Prof. Snyder knows a lot more about how tyranny takes hold and uses chance opportunity to impose itself than he can tell in a thousand or ten thousand pages. Reading his work, you can tell that the years of close reading have affected his core. Furthermore, he is very active in the contemporary eastern European culture, where recent years have not been kind to Liberal Democracy.
Now, suddenly, authoritarian intolerance and anti-democratic forces are openly and aggressively imposing themselves here in the US. Clearly, he is compelled to share cautionary lessons for Enlightenment-loving, Constitution-embracing, and liberal democratic citizens of his own country… and that would be us. We, who are so unprepared to face our threat, who are traumatized and ill-equipped to recognize and react to repression have ask ourselves: “what is to be done, how can we endure this, maintain our self-respect, and resist?”
In “On Tyranny”, prof. Snyder has distilled the life lessons of those countless courageous people who faced tyranny and he implies how countless more have shriveled and looked away from the horror they felt coming. This book will aide you to surf your fear and panic well enough to dispassionately lay out how authoritarian politics can modify your behavior and how to be mindful in resisting these changes. Lesson number 1 is about how a person caves into tyranny: “…individuals think ahead 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.”
Fortunately, the other 19 lessons truly instruct and remind the reader about options to resist letting tyranny dominate your life. I will leave those lessons for you when you read the book.
Prof. Snyder’s epilogue offers brilliant insight into the fallacies that predominate in our contemporary culture that brought us to this crisis.
This is a very serious book and needs to be read a few times and shared with as many people as you can reach. It’s an inexpensive book and I recommend buying several copies and handing them out to people who need to read it. It’s a small investment for your survival as a member of a civilized and compassionate society.
The prime message of this book is that Tyranny is something that happens gradually, often without citizens seeing the larger picture at any given point in time, and he uses many examples in the lead up of World War II and the history of the Soviet Union to support this point. Although I believe this was written before the election of Donald Trump, it is particularly prescient and relevant now.
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Perhaps just me, but not what I was looking for.