Books: “On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” says Yale historian Timothy Snyder in the prologue to his recent book, On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. 

As the Founding Fathers debated our Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew.  Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire.  As they knew, Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.  In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny.  They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.  Much of the succeeding political debate in the United States has concerned the problem of tyranny within American society: over slaves and women, for example.

It is thus a primary American tradition to consider history when our political order seems imperiled.  If we worry today that the American experiment is threatened by tyranny, we can follow the example of the Founding Fathers and contemplate the history of other democracies  and republics.  The good news is that we can draw upon more recent and relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome.  The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.  Since the American colonies declared their independence from a British monarchy that the Founders deemed “tyrannical,” European history has seen three major democratic moments: after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989.  Many of the democracies founded at these junctures failed, in circumstances that in some important respects resemble our own.

History can familiarize, and it can warn.  In the late nineteenth century, just as in the late twentieth century, the expansion of global trade generated expectations of progress. In the early twentieth century, as in the early twenty-first, these hopes were challenged by new visions of mass politics in which a leader or a party claimed to directly represent the will of the people.  European democracies collapsed into right-wing authoritarianism and fascism in the 1920s and ’30s.  The communist Soviet Union, established in 1922, extended its model into Europe in the 1940s.  The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.  It would serve us well today to understand why.

Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them.  Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people.  They put a face on globalization, arguing that its complex challenges were the result of a conspiracy against the nation.  Fascists ruled for a decade or two, leaving behind an intact intellectual legacy that grows more relevant by the day.  Communists ruled for longer, for nearly seven decades in the Soviet Union, and more than four decades in much of eastern Europe.  They proposed rule by a disciplined party elite with a monopoly on reason that would guide society toward a certain future according to supposedly fixed laws of history.

We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats.  This is a misguided reflex.  In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it.  Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century.  Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.  Now is a good time to do so.

Snyder’s twenty lessons – each well documented with facts and examples from recent history – are

  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 courageous as you can.

This book presents twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today” ( 9-13).

picture-164-1357245356

Timothy Snyder, author & historian

https://www.amazon.com/TYRANNY-Timothy-Snyder-Lessons-Twentieth/dp/B071Z2L5TZ/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_img

On Tyranny, a concise, important, well-researched book, can help us learn from the horrors of the past.  Please read it.

Aloha, Renée

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Tags: ,

About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

3 responses to “Books: “On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century””

  1. Rosita says :

    Tyranny isn’t leading us to nowhere, it’s just destroying us. Governors and ppl in general should read this book, so they will learn with errors of past, and, hopefully , not repeat it again 😉

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Rosita: We are headed in the wrong direction, I agree. I’ve just added the list of Snyder’s twenty lessons to this blog posting. See what you think. Aloha, Renée

      • Rosita says :

        I TOTALLY AGREE !!!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 It’s an article all citizens and politicians in world can – and should! – read, just to be aware of 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: