Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this Halloween (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.
That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.
Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.
The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:
“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”
Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.
“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”
Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.
In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.
Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.
“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”
Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.
“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”
Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.
“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.
And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:
“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”