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On Tyranny is a #1 New York Times bestseller. It is a book that aims to help arm us with an understanding of how to protect ourselves from any leader. Tyrants dismantled 20th-century republics. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin utilized specific tactics to topple democratic institutions. These same threats exist today, and Timothy D. Snyder uses America as an example as a country at risk. America is turning towards authoritarianism. However, Timothy also points out that leaders like Vladimir Putin use similar tactics to Hitler and Stalin. Lies, distortion, and ridicule form the backbone of his leadership. Only a disaster or emergency is needed for Putin to take full control of the nation. Timothy outlines 20 lessons from the 20th century to avoid the reality of modern threats of authoritarianism.
About Timothy D. Snyder
Timothy D. Snyder is a Yale professor who specializes in Central and Eastern European history. He is also a permanent fellow at the institute for human sciences in Vienna. Timothy has now written 11 books. Each of these focuses on European history or the holocaust.
“Americans today are no wiser are no wiser than Europeans who saw their democracies yield to facism, Nazism and communism in the 20th century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” – Timothy D. Snyder
Lesson 1 – Do Not Obey in Advance
The power that is created during authoritarianism is very rarely done through force. Instead, this power is freely given by the public. The public surrenders their rights in advance of repressive regimes being applied. Individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government would want from them. They then start acting in this way. You may not notice this unless you stop and think. Think about it now. Anticipatory obedience will only tell the authorities what they can easily force you to do and how they can take it further. This will only accelerate unfreedom.
Lesson 2 – Defend an Institution
“The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” – Timothy D. Snyder
You have to defend all institutions. You cannot call an institution yours if you do not act on their behalf by protecting their rights. Examples of institutions are the courts or the media. Fundamentally, institutions cannot defend themselves. They have to be defended by the public. Being passive is not defending these institutions and will be preyed upon by people in authority who want to gain greater power. The loss of one institution will also lead to a domino effect. Unless you defend every institution and right, all institutions and rights will be under threat.
Lesson 3 – Recall Professional Ethics
Just practice is critical. However, it becomes even more important in a world where leaders of the state are willing to set a bad example. There is potential for authoritarianism to flourish if a leader feels they can get away with doing anything without being punished. A rule-of-law state will begin to develop if lawyers and judges are not upheld and supported in challenging authority.
Lesson 4 – When Listening to Politicians, Distinguish Certain Words
Certain words being used by those with power are tell-tale signs that a country is at threat of authoritarianism. If the words terrorism and extremism are being thrown around continuously by leaders, this needs to be noticed. Additionally, do not allow for exceptions and be wary of leaders calling states of emergency. Emergencies are breeding grounds for authoritarianism. Those who seek to gain greater power over a nation will highlight emergencies where they do not exist. Think logically and decide if these so-called emergencies are so.
Lesson 5 – Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives
“Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book.” – Timothy D. Snyder
Tied to lesson 4, you must remain calm if an emergency does come. Authoritarians are always looking for events that can worry the nation so they can take control. However, suppose a genuine emergency does happen, such as a terrorist attack. In that case, you must remember that authoritarians will be waiting to pounce. They will have planned how to react to such events to build their power.
Lesson 6 – Be Kind to Our Language
As an individual, you need to think of your own way of speaking. Do not copy others’ phrases or ideas. A homogenous society is easier to control for authoritarians. You can develop your understanding of how language is hugely important in protecting society by reading relevant books such as 1984 by George Orwell and The Rebel by Albert Camus.
Lesson 7 – Stand Out
Someone has to stand out in society. If we all hide and go about our lives, there will be people in power pushing for authoritarianism. It might be difficult to say or do difficult things. However, if society isn’t being made to feel uneasy, then there is no real freedom. If you do things out of the ordinary, this will encourage others to do the same.
Lesson 8 – Believe in Truth
“Post-truth is pre-fascism.” – Timothy D. Snyder
Facts are the cornerstone of society. We should not be abandoning facts; the moment we abandon facts, we abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize the people in power. They can twist the ‘truth’ to meet their needs.
Lesson 9 – Investigate
As well as speaking differently to other people, you should never automatically believe the same things as others. Instead, figure things out for yourself. Be skeptical of things that have little supporting evidence. Spend more time reading long articles than flash news articles that are there only to sell sensationalist stories. Instead of supporting these newspapers, spend your money on supporting real investigative journalism. Some of what is in the papers or on your screen is there to harm you. Do not just take journalism as truth.
Lesson 10 – Practice Corporeal politics
“Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.” – Timothy D. Snyder
The people in power want you to be stuck inside, letting the world pass. They want you to be passive. Don’t be passive; get yourself outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. This will help widen your political understanding and help you be energized politically.
Lesson 11 – Make Eye Contact and Small Talk
“If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.” – Timothy D. Snyder
These are not just polite practices. Plus, they are not only essential for making friends. They are a way to stay in touch with your surroundings and the people you encounter. It is essential to break down unnecessary social barriers so that we can better understand who we can trust and who we cannot. Give your brain a chance to learn more about how untrustworthy people act and how trustworthy people act.
Lesson 12 – Take Responsibility For the Face Of the World
Do not let the evils of the world go right over your head. Hateful things, words, and people should not be ignored. If you see swastikas in somebody’s window, do not look away. Do not get used to these signs of hate and call them out for what they are. Be the one who removes these signs of hate yourself, not erasing them from your mind, but erasing them through action.
Lesson 13 – Hinder the One-Party State
Parties that become one-party states are opportunistic. They notice that there is a historical moment happening, which means they can take full control of a state. These powerful people know how to make it impossible for their political rivals and will ensure they are the only viable option. So, make sure that you are politically active. Encourage differences in views and constructive political debates. Vote in local and state elections.
Lesson 14 – Give regularly to Good Causes, If You Can
“Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.” – Timothy D. Snyder
Charities are the opposite of authoritarian regimes. Charities actively do something good for others, rather than blaming emergencies on external factors. Authoritarians will blame emergencies on marginalized groups of people.
Lesson 15 – Establish a Private Life
You need to make sure that you establish a private life of your own. Rulers who want to gain authority will use private information to push you around. Therefore, you need to be careful about what you keep on your computer and make sure your computer has no malware. Try to have conversations in person more than via emails.
Lesson 16 – Learn From Others in Other Countries
Your friendships abroad need to be maintained. Plus, you should try and create new friendships with people from across the world. There is a general trend worldwide towards leaders who have the potential to develop authoritarian regimes. No country will find a solution by itself, so we must all work together.
Lesson 17 – Watch Out For the Paramilitaries
“When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.” – Timothy D. Snyder
Those with guns will be the individuals who authoritarians will want to form allies. Make sure you are aware of this and take appropriate measures to protect yourself.
Lesson 18 – Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
The evils of the past found people doing heinous things that they previously would have never condoned. Be ready to say no if you are asked to participate in public service for an authoritarian regime. This is especially the case for those who have a gun.
Lesson 19 – Be as Courageous as You Can
“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.” – Timothy D. Snyder
We must be prepared for courageous acts. If we are passive rather than acting with courage, we will be easy targets.
Lesson 20 – Be a Patriot
“The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, ‘although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,’ wrote Orwell, tends to be ‘uninterested in what happens in the real world.’ Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, 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 must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.” – Timothy D. Snyder
Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
We rate this book 4.2/5.
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