Sunday, March 5, 2017

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

This is a short, quick book to read, perhaps 30-45 minutes of your time. And at only $2.99 (on Kindle) you can't afford not to buy it. For those who found his list of 20 points elsewhere on the web for free, don't let that suffice. The book adds commentary to his list, and it's worth the small cost.

For those of you not acquainted with Snyder, he's a historian of Eastern Europe and has written extensively on the turmoil--the killing fields--of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. He knows whereof he speaks.

I will offer you a couple of his thoughts from his concluding remarks. In addressing what he terms "the politics of inevitability," he notes

Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. After communism in eastern Europe came to an end in 1989–91, we imbibed the myth of an “end of history.” In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Kindle Locations 765-769). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. 
But he then addresses the converse attitude, what he calls "the politics of eternity." About this attitude, he states
In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate? 
Id. at 810-815.
In contrast to both of these attitudes, he places history (an encomium with which I could not agree more):
Both of these positions, inevitability and eternity, are antihistorical. The only thing that stands between them is history itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz thought that such a notion of responsibility worked against loneliness and indifference. History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.
Id. at 822-827 
In his peroration, he exhorts young people especially (although it applies to all of us)
One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. 
This is not the end, but a beginning. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” Thus Hamlet. Yet he concludes: “Nay, come, let’s go together.” 
Id. at 830-834
Buy this book and read it! 

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