on tyr

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2017 $7.99)

The first few Greek democracies were scattered throughout the Peloponnesus. From the beginning, around the third century B.C., these townships and small cities were considered fragile, being constructed from the then new idea of citizenship and shared responsibility, revolving but institutionalized leadership, military duties assigned to responsible males who could be called up to defend the polis, and a limited notion of voting that flowed from ownership of property, clan membership and hierarchical status, a status that usually accrued to wealth and perceived wisdom. The philosophers Aristotle and Plato, as well as the “man in the street”, recognized the inherent instability of democracy. Democracy even in its limited form was, according to both theory and historical experience, subject to degeneration, first to oligarchy (rule of the powerful few), then to plutocracy (rule of the powerful rich), and finally to tyranny (rule of the demagogic Tyrant), the last of these particularly to be dreaded on account of its surround of violence, irrationality (based on arbitrariness) and lawlessness.

There is no reason to think that we in the United States, or indeed, any citizens of any country in the democratized “West”, are not subject to these historical precedents. Timothy Snyder’s new book, more a pamphlet than a political treatise, “On Tyranny” argues from the premise that “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” Snyder, author of the classic “Bloodlands” and “Black Earth”, histories respectively of the nightmare battles and massacres in Belarus, Poland and Ukraine during World War II and the Holocaust, is a rare master of nuanced interpretation and historical detail.

Regarded as a piece of political polemic, “On Tyranny” deserves a place on the shelf with Tom Paine’s highly influential and “best selling” broadside from the American Revolution, “Common Sense”, which in its own time was a rousing attack on the tyranny of the English King George and his Parliamentarians, and a reminder to the American rebels about the danger of tyranny in their own behaviors. Aristotle taught that tyranny rose from inequality, while Plato believed that “demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.” It was thus that our “Founding Fathers” constructed their Constitution (albeit on behalf of white male property holders, some of whom bought and sold human beings) in the form of a system of checks and balances. The Founders used the terms “tyranny” and “liberty” not so much as opposites but as dialectical poles.

In Snyder’s indispensable, beautifully constructed, and persuasively argued book, the twentieth century should be our new American guide to tyranny, much as ancient Greece and Rome was to the Founding Fathers. Fundamental to the twentieth century was globalization and inequality, economic and social facts that gave rise to the great tyrannical movements of Fascism and communism, led by demagogues at first, followed only later by institutionalized states characterized in the case of Fascism by the “will” of one race, and in communism by the “rule of a disciplined socialist party”.

In Snyder’s view, we in the “West”, and we particularly in America who view our history as “exceptional”, are imperiled by two complimentary view of history. On the one hand, we often think that history develops inevitably towards freedom and democracy. On the other, there is a politics of eternity, which looks back toward a “vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, a concern with past greatness free of any real concern with facts.”

Do we want to remain free from tyranny? If so, Snyder suggests twenty lessons from the twentieth century for how to behave in the twentyfirst. From “Do not obey in advance” to “Be wary of paramilitaries”, all the way to “Listen for dangerous words” and “Believe in truth,” these lessons represent rules of the road for “times like these” when tyranny seems imminent. After all, the United States has already become a plutocratic oligarchy and many of its primary democratic underpinnings have been eroded. Interestingly enough, one of Snyder’s rules is “Establish a private life”, something many of us have abandoned. Another is “Defend institutions”, which means newspapers and journalists in general, especially now that each are considered by some as “enemies of the people.”  “On Tyranny” is must reading for all citizens, including children. Fighting for freedom in our current demagogic age won’t be easy.