BOOK REVIEW: An idiot’s guide to tyranny: Some thoughts about Timothy’s Snyder’s ‘On Tyranny’  

“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.” -- Timothy Snyder, from ‘On Tyranny’

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

By Timothy Snyder

2017 Tim Duggan Books, 126 pages, $7.99

In 1969, John Muir wrote a book that democratized car repair for those lucky enough to own a VW. His “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot” was embraced by a generation of compleat idiots who relied on their dog-eared copies and Craftsman wrenches to keep their VW bugs alive as they attempted to remake America. Those, at least, not too stoned on marijuana, and/or residing in another, more vivid acid/magic mushroom-induced reality to make it on time to community meeting at the commune or to the demonstration.

John Muir, I imagine, used “idiots” with affection. An engineer, he had dropped out, let his hair grow long, and transformed himself into a car mechanic in Taos, New Mexico. He empowered a generation to change points and plugs, jack up their bugs to change the oil, and if necessary drop an engine.

Sadly, the sometimes naïve but heartfelt efforts of the 1960s (we did, remember, attempt to levitate the Pentagon in 1967) were overcome by a determined Cointelpro program, the elimination of the Black Panthers, and the violent overreaction to the protests at Kent State and Jackson State. This was the State’s tyrannical answer to the Free Speech Movement, to Martin Luther King’s multiracial Poor People’s Campaign, to the flower bearing hippies and yippies and zippies, and to the growing effectiveness of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

And, of course, the auto industry had its own powerfully effective response to John Muir and his small army of idiot mechanics: they began to make cars that ordinary people couldn’t even understand, let alone successfully fix.

Meanwhile, the equal opportunity corporate sponsors of both the Republican and Democratic Parties presided over decades of increased militarization, endless war, globalization and the transfer of American jobs overseas. Together they directed an alarming shift in income from the middle class to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Not surprisingly, the growing loss of public confidence in our political leadership, the declining standard of living for most working Americans, and a deepening crisis in public education has brought us the election of a President with little of the traditional, and often hypocritical “respect” for democratic institutions like the Judiciary, Congress and the Press.

So let’s mourn the death of the surprisingly speedy and easy to repair ’67 bug, put aside our John Muirs, and acknowledge we live in The Time of Trump. Which brings me to “Tyranny” and Timothy Snyder, who offers us the valuable opportunity to evaluate and find proper responses to the currents threats to democracy. Wasting no time with chitchat, Snyder warns: “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.”

Like Muir, he tries to make what might seem too complicated on the surface a little easier for us, offering “twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today:

  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.”

Let me first acknowledge my appreciation for “On Tyranny” but quickly acknowledge my perhaps unique, possibly unusual contrarian response to what often seems to me like a university lecture. The academic, the historian’s approach to these issues sadly brings out the rebellious student or opposing counsel in me.

So I quickly found myself thinking, maybe just hoping, and often arguing that Americans, already engaged in a nationwide, vigorous campaign of Resist, might be a bit wiser than Snyder imagines when he takes us back again and again to a disastrous European history.


Let’s begin with Snyder’s first admonition: “Do not obey in advance.” He argues that “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” And writes: “The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible … Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets to remove symbols of independent Austria. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement. Nazis who had kept lists of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in the theft.”

Sorry to be so uncooperative so early on but it’s instructive to challenge some of these assumptions: we don’t know the names of all those German Socialists and Communists who were some of the first to fight back against the Nazis but they died resisting, not acquiescing. Then there’s the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and those many who journeyed from all over the world to oppose Franco in Spain.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

It’s helpful to leave Europe for a moment to acknowledge and appreciate that, after receiving those smallpox-infected blankets, most Native Americans withdrew their generous offers of free turkey, and began a persistent — one could say never-ending — resistance to white Colonial authoritarianism. They might have lost battle after battle but it’s hardly fair to consider that acquiescence. And if President Trump had any sense of irony he’d appreciate that they were the first victims of America’s illegal criminal immigration problem.

Anyway, it’s instructive to broaden the scope of these issues. To fully take in the fact that most of the sixty million Africans involuntarily caught up in the international slave trade chose not to indulge in obedience, or accept their chains but waged a constant struggle, including multiple rebellions in the United States beginning in 1739. There were, of course, continual escapes via the Underground Railroad. There’s the undeniable reality that 200,000 blacks desired freedom so much they took the first occasion to join the Union Army and take up arms against the Confederacy.

You can jump ahead in time to the unionization of coal miners and auto workers and their willingness to strike, and sometimes die, rather than acquiesce to the greed and cruelty of the authoritarian owners.

More recently, Ché and Fidel chose armed resistance over obedience, went into the mountains of Cuba with a few brothers and sisters and defeated the vicious American-supported despot, Batista. Or the Sandinistas who headed to their own Nicaraguan mountains and vanquished the vicious American-supported despot, Somoza. Maybe the story is more complicated than an acquiescent Europe ready and willing to cede to Hitler.

But Snyder, it seems, isn’t willing to so quickly accept my attempts at a modest optimism. His Number 2, “Defend an Institution,” somehow leads us back to the precipice. Snyder tells us to defend “a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union.” And before we have much of a chance to think about this, he plunges us back to the Reich, and the Jews who didn’t quite defend those institutions well enough, quoting from a Jewish newspaper in 1933: “We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check … and they clearly do not want to go down that road. When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends towards ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting one’s earlier oppositional posture.”

Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist, humanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War.

Snyder reminds us: “Such was the view of many reasonable people in 1933, just as it is the view of many reasonable people now. 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.”

Things get murkier if you believe that many people voted for Donald Trump precisely because they felt many of those very institutions had repeatedly failed them. You may wince at the phrase “Crooked Hillary,” and surely many who chanted it were sadly conflating her desire to keep her emails away from a free Press and Freedom of Information Act request with some imagined grand larceny. Or who accepted the alt-right notion that she caused the Benghazi disaster. But, and bear with me, it was the strong belief of many that she was the repeated recipient of $225,000 an hour speeches mainly as a reward for her steadfast allegiance to corporate America. Legal, but morally suspect, and to many a deep betrayal of the progressive agenda. And so there was the sense that she wouldn’t/couldn’t be their President because she had no understanding of the lives they lived or real empathy for their struggles. Considered them “deplorable.” Yes, ironic many times over, because Trump couldn’t be their President either, and in fact would betray them even more, but for many the election of 2016 became a choice between two undesirables. One familiar; the other a distinct gamble.

That said, there might be a better case to make for protecting and keeping these institutions alive, long enough to remake and reinvigorate them. My own 30-year struggle to get the Environmental Protection Agency to thoroughly clean the Housatonic River has led me to believe I’d rather have an imperfect EPA than none at all.

About Number 3, “Beware the one-party state,” Snyder notes: “The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens. We believe that we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like the present: when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of statehouses …

“Much needs to be done to fix the gerrymandered system so that each citizen has one equal vote, and so that each vote can be simply counted by a fellow citizen. We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted. This sort of work can be done at the local and state levels. We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions. So there is much to do in the meantime.”

By the way, as early as 2001 a Gallup Poll found “By a margin of 76 percent to 19 percent, Americans favor ‘new federal laws limiting the amount of money that any individual or group can contribute to the national political parties.’ ” So there is an apparent gap between ordinary Americans and their Supreme Court and I doubt most Americans believe giving millions to politicians is an act of speaking freely.

Paper ballots would help but until money is driven from the process we will be governed by those who raise millions from the million/billionaires and the corporations, not ordinary voters. Check out where our own Congressman gets his money. Only proportional representation and true campaign financing reform will bring us closer to representative government. In the meantime, it seems to me as if we have a two-party version of a one-party state. Yes, in the Time Of Trump, with a kind of mad, nonsensical, always inappropriate non-governing governing it’s easy to forget the sometimes uneasy but still strong convergence of the interests of the funders of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. They have given us Iraq, the consistently meager response to the climate crisis, and the inexorable transfer of wealth to the 1 percent.

Let me quickly summarize several of Snyder’s other lessons. “Number 4: Take responsibility for the face of the world.” A poetic way of saying symbols and slogans count. But so does the First Amendment. And Snyder’s example of the Czech grocer who put a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window is especially problematic to me. Because this just might be a case where one’s man’s example of surrender and acquiescence could be just the greengrocer’s expression of heart-felt belief in proletarian solidarity or an act of sly irony or both.

I’m all for Number 5 and remembering professional ethics, so let’s hear it for the Press and much of the Judiciary for doing just that these days.

Snyder is quite right to “Be wary of paramilitaries.” And he writes about Number 6, “If only the government can legitimately use force, and this use is constrained by law, then the forms of politics that we take for granted become possible.” He reminds us of the recent campaign and the President’s appeal to mob violence: “As a candidate, the president ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies, but also encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions. A protestor would first be greeted with boos, then with frenetic cries of ‘USA,’ and then be forced to leave the rally. At one campaign rally the candidate said, ‘There’s a remnant left over. Maybe get the remnant out. Get the remnant out.’ The crowd, taking its cue, then tried to root out other people who might be dissenters, all the while crying ‘USA.’ The candidate interjected: ‘Isn’t this more fun than a regular boring rally? To me, it’s fun.’ This kind of mob violence was meant to transform the political atmosphere, and it did.”

Again, let’s take this opportunity expand our view. Because as people of color will tell you, the greater threat comes not from paramilitaries, but those elements of our government’s own police and the Courts and juries who protect them. There are grave and persistent differences between the way the law is enforced in many jurisdictions. And because of this there are significant numbers of Americans who find it necessary to insist “Black Lives Matter.” According to a 2015 UK Guardian article: “An analysis of public records, local news reports and Guardian reporting found that 32 percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25 percent of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15 percent of white people killed.”

Number 7 declares “Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.” Again, Snyder takes us back to the Reich and the Soviet occupation. But these days my mind is on St. Louis and the acquittal of a white policeman who shot Anthony Lamar Smith to death, a particularly gross violation of duty. The New York Times reports: “At the trial in August, prosecutors described Mr. Stockley as an out-of-control officer who chased Mr. Smith for three miles at speeds of more than 80 miles an hour, shot him without provocation and then planted a .38-caliber revolver in Mr. Smith’s car. The shooting was premeditated, prosecutors argued, pointing to a recording device inside the police car that had captured Mr. Stockley saying to his partner, not long before the shooting: “Going to kill this person,” he said using an expletive, “don’t you know it.”

So let’s all ask: where are the honorable white police of St. Louis and why aren’t they willing to step out from behind the blue line? Who know in their hearts that their fellow officer went from enforcing the law to breaking it?

Number 8 offers some practical advice for them, for all of us: “Stand Out. Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”

This to me is the heart of the never-ending struggle against tyranny. Sadly, too much of the history we tell each other, the news that’s reported revolves around the powers-that-be. The networks spend hours each day on Trump, scant minutes on the Americans of all colors, creeds, genders who are fighting for decent health care for all. Do you know the names of any of those brave souls who with their wheelchairs blocked the halls of Congress as their Senators and Representatives tried to wrest healthcare from millions? But I bet you know the name of Paul Manafort, who never hesitated to take millions to serve the interests of foreign puppeteers.

I’m a writer and a filmmaker so I’m not sure what to say about Snyder’s Number 9 “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the Internet. Read books.” I’ve seen too much really good television these last few years to join the anti-TV rant. Snyder tells us: “Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else … To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.”

From my point of view some of the most cogent, often brave portrayals of our past, present and perhaps future challenges comes from the good writing and fine ensemble acting seen on the screen.

Number 10 suggests: “Believe in truth.” To Snyder, the historian, this makes all the sense in the world: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights. You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”

But like most artists, I’m in a constant struggle to embrace, acknowledge and effectively express multiple, often conflicting truths. I choose to confront tyranny and criticize power with my heart and soul as well as my mind. I am old enough to have made so many mistakes. Old enough to have fooled myself and others with a bagful of false truths. Each time able and willing to present a compelling series of so-called facts and to my mind, quite convincing truths.

Many thanks to Timothy Snyder for sending us down this road, and for reminding me how much I miss John Muir. How much we could use “The Idiot’s Guide to Tyranny” and how much I wish taking apart Tyranny was as easy as changing the sparkplugs in my ‘67 bug. I’ll leave the rest of Snyder to you. But I will avail myself of the advice of Number 13: “For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends. Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”

I’m used to protesting in the street and I’ll continue to RESIST in any and every way I can.



Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Snyder

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Black Americans killed by police twice as likely to be unarmed as white people

Former St. Louis Officer, Jason Stockley, Acquitted in Shooting of Black Driver