On Tyranny

Recommendation: This week of all weeks, it seems necessary. To paraphrase Snyder, human nature is such that democracy must be endlessly defended from those within who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.

Where to read: In front of the TV after starring in horror at the attempted coup in the US

Read with: A notebook or a highlighter

In brief: Written in the wake of, and in response to, Trump’s election, this is a thought-provoking set of suggestions about how to defend democracy and resist tyrannical politicians seeking to undermine our institutions. In putting this together, Snyder draws on his expertise as an Eastern Europeanist and historian of the 1930s and 40s, looking for warning signs and hints of what might have counteracted the slide into tyranny and disaster.


“History does not repeat, but it does instruct…

History can familiarise, and it can warn. Today, we are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But when the political order seems imperilled, our advantage is that we can learn from their experience to resist the advance of tyranny.

Now is a good time to do so.”

The book itself is quite brief and the explanations of each of the below principles are punchy and fairly easily comprehensible. In short, however:

  1. Do not obey in advance: do not adjust your behaviour ahead of time to mollify or fall into line with what a dictatorial regime may ask of you in the future, for example, by censoring yourself even before free speech is directly restricted.
  2. Defend institutions: whether it be the free press, or the independence of the courts, or a parliamentary democracy which may not have served you well (cf. Black voters in Georgia), the institutions of democracy and the rule of law and accountability must be protected by people both inside and outside them. If Trump demonstrated nothing else, it is that the existence of an institution alone is not sufficient protection.
  3. Beware the one-party state: oppose gerrymandering, attempts to cut off funding for other parties and intimidation – in short, anything which makes it easier for the party in power to accrue more power and more difficult for other parties to win elections.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world: symbols have power, as does our willingness to wear them or display them – if the public sphere is covered with signs of loyalty, resistance becomes unthinkable (eg. the Saudi Arabian regime’s attempts to control public discourse and perceptions of public support on Twitter by employing pro-regime troll armies).
  5. Remember professional ethics: the lawyers who knowingly assisted the Trump campaign bring unmeritorious lawsuits, journalists who push a Big Lie and civil servants who enact undemocratic policies are all in breach of their professional ethics, and all assist in the spread of tyranny.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries: this seems self-evident but it is worth pointing out that one of the basic functions of the state is to hold a monopoly on violence for the protection of all (imperfect though it too often is in wielding that power). The Brownshirts and the SS were paramilitary Nazi organisations, the members of which were often veterans, who intimidated political opponents (see lesson 3) and who were eventually merged into state institutions, solidifying the one-party state. There are an alarmingly large number of military or police personnel involved in white supremacy and alt-right (as the actions of some officers during the Capitol siege demonstrated), in part as the result of a deliberate attempt to recruit them for their expertise. There are also militia across the United States, many with a distinctly alt-right eschatological bent. This has and will continue to lead to domestic terrorism and insurrection. It is also one of many reasons to oppose any winding back of gun laws in Australia.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed: police and the armed forces may be asked to act against the people they (at least in theory) serve. The use of military force against BLM protestors and the plainclothes thugs hauling protestors into unmarked vehicles were totalitarian hallmarks. Abuse of student protestors in Australia, while not at the same level, is a bad sign.
  8. Stand out: because someone has to.
  9. Be kind to our language: ‘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.’ One point Snyder makes is that reading, particularly novels, enlivens our abilities to empathise with others and to manage ambiguity – discomfort with ambiguity and complexity are traits linked to increased tolerance or desire for authoritarianism.
  10. Believe in truth: ‘You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.’ Truth dies in four modes – open hostility to verifiable and observable reality (blatantly lying), endless repetition (“Crooked Hillary”, “Back in the Black” etc), magical thinking/the embrace of contradiction (we can have tax cuts for the rich and also a surplus and also social services) and misplaced faith (“I alone can solve it”).
  11. Investigate: Cough up for that Guardian or NYT subscription, read investigative journalism rather than Facebook, take responsibility for materials you share and be aware that some material on the internet is intended to mislead and harm.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk: Ben Sasse is an ass but he’s not entirely wrong about the virtues of knowing your neighbours and interacting with people outside your immediate circle.
  13. Practice corporeal politics: get off Facebook and put yourself into the public square, whether that is at a protest or a strike or through an organisation.
  14. Establish a private life: totalitarianism implies not only control over the public sphere but also over the private one.
  15. Contribute to good causes: these do not have to be political causes, but assist others in doing good and assert your own and others’ right to free association.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries: this point is made with the fallacy of American exceptionalism in mind but it’s applicable generally.
  17. Listen for dangerous words: words like “exception” and “emergency” speak of dangerous intentions – to suspend the rule of law, to give themselves new powers, to declare states of emergency.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives: the Reichstag fire provided the pretext for the suspension of civil liberties, 9/11 resulted in the Patriot Act, the Tampa Affair to draconian anti-immigrant measures. In each case, people were convinced to accept a little less freedom, a little more monitoring or a little more degradation of public morals in the name of security.
  19. Be a patriot: a patriot asks their nation to live up to its highest ideals and the better angels of its nature. They do not blindly extol the usually imagined the virtues of the nation.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Snyder did a fair amount of press for this, including the below video of Bill Maher totally failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation and a more comprehensive talk at Politics and Prose:

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