Book review: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

posted by Jeff | Sunday, July 30, 2017, 9:51 PM | comments: 0

After seeing the author on a late night show, I bought Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny as a Kindle book for all of four bucks. It's a really short read. The book uses history to draw parallels between the election of Donald Trump (without ever referring to him by name) to the crumble of other democracies in the last century. The biggest example is of course the story of Nazi Germany, but also the rise of Putin and undermining of western cooperation in France and the UK.

I like the idea of using history to define potentially harmful politics, because it is fairly objective. History is history. If you put aside the fascism and nationalism of the current administration, the book is a concise history of how people were complacent enough to give up liberties and install evil regimes. I find that kind of thing interesting, because they don't cover that in high school history, for sure. I've always wondered how Hitler could become a thing.

The point of the book is that complacency and non-participation in government allows bad people to seize power and destroy democracy, and the historical record shows why. That said, there's a risk in drawing parallels between Nazism and Trumpism (if that's a thing) for a few reasons. For one, I think that most everyone alive is disconnected from history, so the comparisons may feel like hyperbole. Also, given the general disregard for truth, you probably can't change any minds that don't care about reality. Still, the techniques for fascists to seize power are pretty easy to identify throughout history, and we are in fact seeing those techniques being used today. It's not fantasy.

I think Snyder makes great points about what we, culturally, are getting wrong, and how to be responsible and patriotic citizens. He seems a bit down on the Internet as a wasteland of propaganda, but I think he disregards the opportunity that it also makes available. No sooner does he make that point that he says people only get out of politics and learning what they put in to it. So if all you do is read without regard to what's real, you haven't invested anything. You've taken the lazy way out. That hardly seems like a phenomenon exclusive to the Internet.

It's a quick read, and it's $4, and I liked it simply for the historical context. The caution of complacency, that "this can't happen in America," is a worthy story. I'm sure some people will look at it as lefty propaganda, but again, history is history, whether you believe it or not.

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