I sampled a new podcast this week, The Art of Charm. The episode I listened to fascinated me, and although the guest was certainly charming, his subject matter was anything but. What’s a discussion of tyrrany doing on a podcast about charm? I don’t know, but I’m glad I heard it.
Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, specializes in 20th Century Russian and Eastern European history. So he knows a lot about how societies descend into totalitarianism. He said,
“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
To help that learning process along, he’s written a book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s priced to sell—under $4 as an e-book, under $7 in print—and if the book is half as informative as his conversation on the podcast, we need to get it into the hands of as many people as possible. In fact, just stop reading right this minute and listen to the podcast. It’ll take less than an hour of your time, and it might save your life. Or our country. Or both.
Snyder not only believes the slide toward authoritarianism has already begun in this country, he’s actually surprised democracy didn’t devolve sooner. He says the Founders expected the Republic would be challenged much sooner. While we’ve been lucky to escape authoritarianism in the past, our luck seems to have run out.
“We have people in the executive branch now who are indifferent and hostile, in fact, to democracy and the rule of law.” — Timothy Snyder
Snyder argues that we are on a steady path away from political life as we knew it. If you doubt that, see Vice.com’s “Trump Tracker” offers a running list of events and behaviors that defy the norms of political and social discourse. It’s a sobering, and head-scratching, read. The president’s bewildering behavior is one thing, but how can a third of the country—and nearly 100% of the Republicans in Congress—not care that Normal is shrinking to a speck in the country’s rearview mirror?
Can we do anything to stop the slide into tyrrany?
Yes, Snyder says. But we must act quickly. Get engaged politically—turn off your Netflix binge-watch and learn about the issues. Don’t just accept what the authorities say. Make up your own minds. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
And learn about the smaller acts you can take to stave off an authoritarian mindset. Talk to someone who’s not like you. Snyder says Jews in Germany in the 1930s wrote about their neighbors who stopped talking to them, people who used to be friendly and now crossed the street. Don’t let the authorities sow mistrust of any group—as they have started to do with people from Muslim-majority countries.
When you see a swastika—and I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase, but swastika graffiti is becoming more prevalent every day—wash it off, or paint over it. Don’t let signs of hatred become normal.
And don’t “obey in advance.” Don’t make decisions based on what you believe the authorities want, or might want in the future. Hold fast to your values.
The window for positive change is closing fast. Resistance has to hit in the early months, before an authoritarian regime has had time to consolidate its power. After that window closes…I don’t even want to think about it.