söndag 9 juli 2017

Required reading: Timothy Snyder

President Trump's encouragement of violence against media he perceives as oppositional, which took place on Twitter last week, is just one of his many many steps on the slippery slope towards authoritarianism and fascism. These steps by him and his administration urgently need to be resisted. I know of no better guide to such resistance than the American historian Timothy Snyder's marvelous little book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.1 The book contains exactly what the title says, thus drawing heavily on experiences from the twentieth century. It is generally considered bad manners to compare contemporary phenomena to counterparts in Nazi Germany, but I dont't think this particular code of polite behavior should be carried too far, as there are important parallels to be drawn between, e.g., Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler - parallels that we need to understand. Snyder does not shy away from this. His book is organized in the following twenty concrete lessons.
    1. Do not obey in advance.
    2. Defend institutions.
    3. Beware the one-party state.
    4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
    5. Remember professional ethics.
    6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
    7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
    8. Stand out.
    9. Be kind to our language.
    10. Believe in truth.
    11. Investigate.
    12. Make eye contact and small talk.
    13. Practice corporeal politics.
    14. Establish a private life.
    15. Contribute to good causes.
    16. Learn from peers in other countries.
    17. Listen for dangerous words.
    18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
    19. Be a patriot.
    20. Be as corageous as you can.
Each lesson begins with three to five sentences summarizing its take-home message, such as the following in Lesson 1:
    Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about 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.
Then follows just a few pages elaborating and giving historical examples, and then on to the next lesson. The entire book is just 126 sparsely typeset pages, and can easily be read in an hour or two, but deserves to be read again and - for someone who's a slow learner like myself - yet again. I warmly recommend it - no, I insist you should read it. Doing so and learning Snyder's lessons is, at the current moment, most urgent for Americans, but Europeans (and others) should do the same, because we are not immune to the development that is currently most visible in the United States. One day in the not-so-distant future, we may plausibly see a Marine Le Pen as president of France, and a Geert Wilders and a Jimmie Åkesson as prime ministers of the Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. Hungary is already there, and Poland is well on its way. When a government with an authoritarian inclination comes into power, we are in a better position to resist it the more prepared we are, and reading Snyder is one of the best ways to prepare.

I also recommend the May 29 episode of Sam Harris' podcast, where Harris interviews Snyder about the book. Some 26 minutes into the episode, Snyder emphasizes the pivotal role of Lesson 1:
    [This lesson] is number 1 for a bunch of reasons. [...] It is at the core of what historians understand about authoritarian regime changes: Nazi Germany in particular but also in general. Namely, that at the very beginning, whether it's the takeover in Germany itself or it's the Anschluss in Austria, [...] authoritarian leaders require consent. This is a really important thought, because when we think of authoritarians, we then think of villains and then we think of super-villains, then we think of super-powers, we imagine these guys in uniforms who can stride across the stage of history and do whatever they want. And maybe towards the end, something like that is true, but at the beginning it's not. At the beginning, interestingly, people will in a sense have more power than they do normally, because they have the power to resist. The problem is that we don't usually realize that. [...] We tend to [...] look for the new true north and align [our compasses] with that. We follow along; we drift. Most of the time that's appropriate, but sometimes it's an absolute disaster.
See Lesson 1 in Snyder's book for a scholarly historical perspective on this, and for the remaining 19 lessons. If you are at all literate, if you care at all for liberal democracy, and if you can spare just a few bucks, then you have no excuse for not getting the book. Order it now. And then read it. Just do it.


1) Also very much reading is Snyder's 2012 book with Tony Judt: Thinking the Twentieth Century. More than once in the last couple of years, I've found myself wishing that Tony Judt were still around to help us navigate these difficult times. Alas, he isn't, but Timothy Snyder is among his best replacements.

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