Twenty lessons for avoiding tyranny

Timothy Snyder, a professor of history and expert on the tyrannies of 20th century Europe, has written a short book on 20 lessons for avoiding tyranny. He begins with the point that it’s all too easy for democracies to collapse into tyranny. The Greek philosophers knew the problem well. Twentieth century Europe provides many examples. Turkey and Russia are  textbook cases today.

The founding fathers of the US, painfully familiar with the tyranny of the British king, tried to create a constitution that would keep tyranny at bay. As Snyder writes, “The logic of the system they devised was to mitigate the consequences of our real imperfections, not to celebrate our imaginary perfection.” The US system is now being tested as never before, and Snyder has written this important book as a response to Trump. Americans may think it impossible for their democracy to implode, but Snyder, along with Eastern Europeans who know it well, recognise the signs of impending tyranny.

I read the book in one go, always a satisfying thing to do, on a plane from the UK to Bangladesh. We in Britain, like many Americans, may think that we are safe from tyranny, but we are not. People have compared Theresa May to a dictator in a light-hearted way, but she likes to make decisions with just a tiny group. Jeremy Corbyn has spoken up for left-wing tyrants like Castro and Chavez.

And in Bangladesh democracy has already collapsed.

The lessons

  1. Do not obey in advance

In some ways this is the hardest lesson to grasp, but Snyder uses the historical example of Austria doing what Hitler wanted even before he asked. He quotes too the famous experiments of Sydney Milgram in which he showed how ordinary people would torture people (actually actors) to the point of death simply because told to do so.

  1. Defend institutions

Snyder recommends choosing an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labour union—and take its side. The point is to be active.

  1. Beware the one-party state

I think Scotland as well as Bangladesh.

  1. Take responsibility for the face of the world

“The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow.” Take down the swastikas.

  1. Remember professional ethics

Lawyers led the way in Hitler’s Germany, doctors conducted appalling experiments. The South African Medical Journal went along with the apartheid state.

  1. Be wary of paramilitaries.

Think of the Trump supporters expelling opponents violently from Trump meetings.

  1. Be reflective if you must be armed

This is a warning directed to those who carry guns to protect us. Increasing numbers of policemen in Britain carry guns. Did the policemen who shot dead the three men who attacked people in London on Saturday night do the right thing? Would it not have been better to take them alive and submit them to justice?

  1. Stand out

“It is to follow along. It can feel strange to say something different.” Snyder uses the example of Churchill standing out against Hitler when most countries gave way to him—and many people in Britain thought appeasement the best policy. It’s hard to stand out. Most of us don’t.

  1. Be kind to our language

“Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking. Read books. Politicians in our times feed their clichés to television, where even those who wish to disagree repeat them.” Strong and stable. Hard working people. Global Britain. Extremists. Snyder provides a reading list that includes not only 1984 but also Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the Bible. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Snyder advises “any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others.”

  1. Believe in truth

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actualy the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual—and thus the collapse of any political system that depends on individualism.” Snyder quotes Victor Klemperer’s analysis from the Nazis of how truth dies. I’m going to write a separate blog on that. Snyder is scornful of the idea that there is anything new in “post-truth”: it’s all in Orwell, he argues, and “post truth is pre-fascism.”

  1. Investigate

“Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidise investigative journalism. Take responsibility for what you communicate to others.”

  1. Make eye contact and small talk

“Break down social barriers and understand whom you should and should not trust.” I think of how I know so few leavers. Should I even use the word leaver?

  1. Practice corporeal politics

“Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.”

  1. Establish a private life

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen. Remember that email is skywriting.” Be very wary of the internet. This lesson worried me. I’m careless with privacy controls. I probably share too much, write too many blogs, Tweet too much.

  1. Contribute to good causes

Support civil society. I contribute monthly to several charities, but should I include something like Amnesty International?

  1. Learn from peers in other countries

Snyder worries that so few Americans have passports. Eastern Europeans recognise the signs of tyranny that Americans do not.

  1. Listen for dangerous words

“Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. 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, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.” The attacks in Manchester and London are horrible, but they are not exceptional.

  1. 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.”

  1. Be a patriot

“Nationalism has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical. A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.” A patriot thinks of the generations to come.

  1. Be as courageous as you can

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

I might add a 21st lesson: read Snyder’s book. It will take you little more than an hour.




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