Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder

Had I not misread an email notice you’d be reading something else right now.

Leave aside the preconceptions buried in that sentence, though, and turn your attention to this latest instance of what I’m thinking of calling instant publishing.

If that brings to mind the freeze-dried crystals that a college friend ate by the tablespoonful to ward off the effects of one too many ‘bevies,’ well, it should, because  this bite-sized book has the same ersatz quality to it.

Dr. Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University. His areas of expertise are Eastern Europe in the 20th century and the Holocaust. I’ve at least one of his longer volumes in the queue.

His official biography, you’ll note if you click on his name just above, declares him a public intellectual, a type I thought we had in short supply.  I also thought that role required a more coherent, perhaps more uniform, society to function in (not to mention external validation–one’s professional biography is hardly an unbiased source). Lionel Trilling was a public intellectual; it was also the 1950s.

Not that any of that matters, because we have before us the present volume, a 126-page meditation on lessons from the recent past that can inform our present. I suppose it’s poor form to complain of finding a professor engaged in a didactic exercise, but the 20 lessons contained herein owe as much to McGuffey as to modern European history.

The first thing I thought of when the reference librarian brought me the Snyder volume from the 3-hour reserve shelf. Roughly the same size, though Snyder’s is longer.

I am not, it should be noted, reflexively opposed to moral instruction. I’m not even opposed to Snyder’s prescriptions (which is what his 20 lessons really are).  Most of them are sensible enough for my mother to have made and Mom was the gold standard for sensible moral living.  It’s not the arguments but the presentation that irks.

I’d bet good money that the Ivy-tinged imprimatur will ensure uncritical acceptance of this book. And I find that strange, since I’d argue that one of the lessons of the 20th century ought to be to question much and obey little, especially if the project at hand is creating and maintaining a robust democracy.

Lo and behold, our author tells us it is: ” It is thus a primary American tradition to consider history when our political order seems imperiled.” (p. 10, but the text begins on page 9, so it really is right from the start) As someone who believes, with good reason, that Americans may be the most ahistorical people on earth, I  find that hard to accept as a proposition let alone a tradition.

The Founders may have been normative in the 18th century, but in the 21st they’re known, if at all, as the inspiration for a Broadway rap musical.  I don’t see The Spirit of the Laws flying off the shelves or Gibbon atop the bestseller lists. So maybe it’s a tradition honored in the breach.

Snyder’s book lacks the nifty art but shares an approach to margins. I remember practicing the squat in the upper right hand corner endlessly as a child.

It’s rarely a good sign when I find fault this early in a book and it’s a fault, I think, of the publishing model.  I can hear the rationalization now: One of America’s foremost scholars of totalitarianism pens a guide to what each of us can do to forestall such a development here at home.

Price it attractively (it’s only $7.99) and you’ll be doing a public service; the college library had 5 copies, which is about the price of one thick tome these days. As a feel-good project for all involved it’s a tidy, trouble-free package. Really, though, when has such a thing ever existed?

The primary trouble with the book is the age-old problem of the man with the hammer. The good Doctor is a historian of totalitarian regimes, it would be odd to find him speaking of cultural anthropology or structural functionalist sociology and he doesn’t. Yet that leaves him with a weak tool: the reductio ad Nazium.

Everywhere the good professor looks he sees parallels with the rise of 20th century statist tyranny. I agree when he says history instructs. I agree that we’ve seen many failures of newly democratized states. I just don’t agree that all roads inevitably lead to the corporate state, which isn’t so much said as suggested.

For me, states lie on a continuum from authoritarian to electoral democracies. Look at Freedom House‘s map of freedom and you’ll quickly note that the free areas align completely with electoral democracies. By and large, these nations are rooted in Western political and cultural antecedents.

Despite one Tweety American who loves a parade, we’ve yet to see this sort of thing in the West in quite a long time.

Leave aside arguments of bias, colonialism and hegemony for a moment and consider that. Yes, Nazis came to power exploiting the openness of democracy in the same way theocrats might in a democratic Islamic state. And far too many people went along to get along. Still, the tyrannies collapsed from pressure without (war) and within (insurrection). Though the professor celebrates the latter, he also seems to find it somewhat anomalous.

To be human, I think, is to always live in a perilous moment. We lessen that peril when we find ways to get things done. Frances Fox Piven, in a lecture earlier this year, said, “People work together, often for very long periods of time.” That’s a pretty good definition of retail and transactional politics, the practices that have a bad name among folks who would sweep out everything and everyone who disagrees with them regardless of whether their perspective draws from the Left or Right.

So there is power in being alert. There is power in maintaining the forms and norms of civil society. There is power in educating oneself and others, talking and, especially, listening. It is understandably chilling to see the figure atop one’s government smashing norms that do not suit his whim.

The path to undoing that damage will be long and arduous. Honest people can and should be able to disagree on what the proper role of government is. And we ought to be able to do that without demonizing each other.

Such a trip, as Laozi and Glinda taught us, begins with a first step. Stop by a book store or library and read the chapter headings for this book. Even if I don’t agree with the analysis, I know a good map when I see one.


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