Final Response: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny, asks us to reflect on a lot of the issues we have discussed over the course of the semester. I think that there is an overlying message in this small book, which addresses issues from the necessary defence of democratic institutions to fake news. Overall what this book is asking people to do is to think, and to think critically at that.

This book highlights the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum. It asks people to be aware of historical precedents and to question the things going on around them. For example, the tenth thing Snyder asks is that people “Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” I think this request is a very logical one considering the barrage of ‘fake news’ and accusatory stories in today’s media. Facts are important because they prevent people from taking power who will likely abuse it. We have seen this over the course of the semester, as people spread misinformation that helps them create a sense of an Other.

Snyder’s book is clearly a reaction to the recent election in the United States. I think what he does in the book is important in light of this, because he puts the onus back on individuals. By asking average citizens to think about these things, it is possible to prevent the rising of dictators and authoritarian governments. As we have seen, these regimes require extensive manpower, so if people don’t buy in it will be harder for them to succeed.

In conclusion, this book was an appropriate way to tie up everything we have discussed this semester because it asks us to reflect on how these issues have unfolded over the course of the 20thcentury. It also asks us to look back and consider the actions we can take in the future to prevent history from repeating itself again.

Final Response: On Tyranny

After Trump was elected, Timothy Snyder tweeted that “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” It turned out to be a quote from the prologue of his book On Tyranny.

As a math and political science student, I had not taken a history class since high school. It never felt like an important subject. It was just something you memorized for the exam and then forgot the day after. But, this class has helped me realize how wrong I was and On Tyranny is the perfect conclusion to the message. Not only is knowledge of history essential but knowledge is only half the battle, actions are required.

Snyder also helps you focus your actions. While he wrote his book for an American audience, and Canada does not face the same threats to our institutions, his suggestions can help us keep it that way. Lesson 12 stuck with me most as it seems so simple. It also reinforced how weak societies can be when people don’t trust each other, and I believe that political divisions have eaten into that trust too much for comfort over the past few years.

However, I still found a few criticisms. Snyder’s lessons lacked consistency in the level of difficulty and complexity. For example, as mentioned before lesson 12 is a simple as smiling and making small talk. Yet, lesson 6 discusses the intricacies of paramilitary groups and such. He also does not give a suggestion of how to deal with these groups. He just states that you should be worried when they become the military and police, which appeared a bit obvious to me.

But on the whole, it is worrisome that a historian felt the need to write this book, but it is comforting that at least some people have been paying attention to the democracies of the world while I wasn’t. Let us hope we never need to use these lessons other than discussion in history class.

On Tyranny: Power, politics, and people

There’s an old adage that says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most people take that statement to mean that leaders with absolute power inevitably become corrupt, which historically has tended towards being true.

But what if what that statement really means is that anything in the presence of absolute power will become absolutely corrupt? In this case, the people who are under the authority of totalitarian leaders are destined to became corrupt simply by association?

I am not arguing that every person who has ever been under the influence of an authoritarian leader is inwardly or outwardly a corrupt and evil person, simply that an authoritarian environment can breed corrupt displays of power even among average people.

In On Tyranny Timothy Snyder comments on the experiments done by Stanley Milgram, and the idea that under the influence of an authority figure people will do almost anything, even things they know to be morally wrong.

I think that Snyder in his book and history in general show us a lot of examples of people just needing to be given the opportunity in order for them to do evil things. Think of the French police (even the French people for that matter) during the Holocaust, think of all of the military personnel  in the South American Dirty Wars who tortured, raped, and killed innocent people, think of the white supremacists who have been rearing their ugly skinheads since Trump’s election. All that any of these people needed was a nudge in order to do evil things. They weren’t coaxed or cajoled. They openly and often enthusiastically chose to participate.

I don’t think that “evil” authoritarian governments can be blamed for all the bad that happens during their reign. Because without the complicity of at least some of the people, without what Snyder refers to as obeying in advance, their power would hardly exist at all. They are simply giving people an opportunity to express something that deep down they’ve been wanting to for a while, whether that’s a desire to please or something more sinister.

On Tyranny from the people

An important message to be taken from “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder is how much power the people have. I find what is often missed, but has been a theme of the course, is how much the people are involved in Authortaism. Firstly the people themselves are often the ones who put the leader of the regime in power and help in many ways to build up their power. The way to combat these regimes is then also through the people which are the guide “On Tyranny” is giving- Snyder’s opinion on how to do this.

It is interesting to consider how much Authoritarian leaders do at the beginning of their reign to please the people before they turn to their more radical agenda. For example, they play on the grievances of the people saying how much they would like to fix things before actually making them worse in many cases to attain their political goals. It is possible that educating people will never be quite enough to eradicate such types of governments because people will become desperate enough to elect them (ie. economic poverty).

There is always the interesting question that comes up when thinking about an Authoritarian regime that has come to power and the people’s role in that case. If they are complicit by doing nothing about it because they don’t want to face the consequences of not supporting or if only doing what they were told is not really there fault because the consequence of doing otherwise (ie. protesting against the regime) often means severe punishment or death. However, one must know that if nobody supports a regime then it no longer has power but if they are silently complicit then it has power even over them. The tricky thing then is knowing there are really enough of you who would protest against the Authoritarian regime to make a difference and that is possibly where most people take the safer option.

Snyder’s Tyrant A-Z

My first impression after reading Tim Snyder’s book on Tyranny was that Tyranny does not arise out of the actions of one person seeking power. It is a collective effort of the aspiring tyrant and the people of that country. Conversely, there is thus so much that an individual can do to stop their country from descending into Tyranny: stand out, speak out, see the bigger picture. Although one person alone seems insignificant, a whole country committed to these ideas would make a difference. Snyder accentuates that we are the ones that can ensure our own freedom by limiting our use of the internet (ensuring our private lives are private), by reading books, by recognising untruthfulness- the list goes on.

Point 18 is something that really struck me: that totalitarian leaders use awful events to consolidate power in their country. People become scared of a exterior force, and unite under one person to ensure its eradication. This is a basic human extinct. Putin has done this in Russia- he has made himself indispensable to the Russian people by victimising Russia against the West. Trump could reactively do this in America. It would not be surprising. Snyder is right that in the current climate we must be measured in our response. If we are erratic, we could reignite the Cold War or even start a nuclear war.

One criticism of the book is that Snyder makes it seem easy; if people would have known these 20 things in the 1930s, hitler would not have come to power and started WW2. Everyone who reads his book will be well aware of the importance of each of his points. However, in practise, it is more difficult that he lets on. Our human nature gets in the way. Fear gets in the way. For example, point 8 asks people to stand out. I agree with what he is saying, but most people who stood out in Stalin’s Russia or against the Nazi party probably ended up dead.

Snyder’s book was effective in clearly pointing out the tyrannical features of Trump’s presidency and his election campaign. I think he is right about many of the points: that we need to uphold a multi-party system and preserve our institutions to save democracy and that recognise Trump is using tactics used by Hitler (particularly) to consolidate power (firing colleagues who did not agree with him is effectively salami tactics) . I realised from Snyder’s book that one of the main things that differed Trump was the fact that he has no military backing. He does not have the full support of the FBI- who recently subpoena’ed his lawyer to find out more about Stormi Daniels and the role of Russia in the 2016 election. This makes it far more difficult for him to go down the same route as tyrants such as Hitler. But he has mobilised people not previously interested in politics through his use of simplistic and repetitive vocabulary.

Snyder is right to draw these 20 factors to our attention. It gives us a chance to avoid the repetition or the utilisation of history to destroy our democracy as it did in Europe in the 20th century numerous times.

Final Response: On Tyranny This

My reading of “On Tyranny” made me see this short novel as almost a culmination of the things we learned this semester, in particular his 9th suggestion regarding language. This course is heavily focused on helping us develop the blog form of writing, which in the modern age can have a large impact on the conception of democracy.

Snyder tells his readers to “think up their own ways of thinking”, which is a hallmark of democracy and what we know as freedom of speech. In the modern age, blogs such as this one are vital in broadcasting our opinions when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to listen.

This can be controversial as well though, because blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and more can also be drowned out as informal or irrelevant. Due to the openness of social media everyone having a voice means that those with legitimate arguments can be drowned out or ignored due to the actions of those who de-legitimize blogs as a platform.

Language is historically what makes or breaks people in power. Hitler was known for how well-spoken and careful he was with his words. Trump is known for not being as well-spoken but uses language that will rally his demographic of followers. How we use language determines how we are remembered.

So in our modern age, what is the value in a personal opinion? If our voice gets lost in the masses, why should we try to be heard?

In my opinion what this book and this class has helped me develop the most is the value in making your voice heard. You might get lost, but you can never know if it will be you who starts a change. Democracy is not perfect, but the most valuable part of it is the ability to have a voice and not be just a face in the crowd.


Final Reaction: “On Tyranny”

I had picked up a copy of “On Tyranny” before the semester had started because Timothy Snyder had been making his rounds on various media platforms–Bill Maher’s show in particular. However, it was when Snyder had made an appearance on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast that I had decided to go out and grab a copy of my own. Despite its size, this concise little book held quite a bit of intellectual heft. In particular, my favorite section involves messages about “subsidizing” journalism and spending time with long-form journalism:

“9.  Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.”

In an age where any moron with access to the internet and Photoshop can take information and transform it to the point where the Earth can appear flat or that the skies are streaked with chemtrails, seeking out and supporting news media outlets that have a track record of impeccable journalism is of great importance. Moreover, finding journalists that are dedicated to the telling of truth in the same way that suicide bombers are dedicated to their religion is important. This makes me miss figures of the media like Christopher Hitchens, somebody whom you could trust to provide accurate media coverage, sans propaganda. (Douglas Murray might be one of the few candidates for taking Hitch’s place). That being said, there are more than a few outlets that are deserving of subsidization from the public–The New Yorker is a particular favorite of mine along with Foreign Affairs, Vanity Fair, The Spectator, all of whom provide excellent long-form journalism pieces.

In an age where conservatives (not only the child-like billionaire would-be autocrats that they seem to levitate toward) decry everything as fake news, we should impress on those who wish to have the privilege of reporting the daily news the importance of their jobs. Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press, if anything, are two of the most important characteristics of a democracy.

Final Response: On Tyranny

In my opinion, On Tyranny is the Buzzfeed ‘listicle’ for the politically engaged. Timothy Snyder’s book, which includes 20 succinct chapters, discuss and understand tyrannical rule.

The book, which clearly takes place in an American context. He uses language like “our President” far to often to say otherwise. Yet, in the context of this course, there is this a broad definition of of the behaviour under the spectrum of fascism.

While there are 20 chapters, there are several key themes that he highlights. The first is institutions. He wants people to understand that the ideas of tyranny take place within democratic societies. Rulers will use these built up institutions to consolidate power. Therefore, when it comes to political institutions like elections, one has to be wary about one-state parties and electoral rigging.

The second key theme is information. Media plays a major role in keeping the government accountable to the people. Therefore, it is important to watch for hateful language, slogans and propaganda. Also, it is important to educate yourself on the facts and not take information for gospel. In an era of the 24-hour news cycle, false news stories are easier to create and spread.

Finally, is to treat everyone with kindness. As we have discovered in this course, tyrannical regimes use inferiority complexes and the friend-enemy distinction to gain power. In Chapter 12, he encourages making eye contact and small talk, as a way of connecting with those around you , even in the most basic way, in order to break down social barriers and create trust.

In conclusion, Snyder states that history does not repeat, but it does instruct. These ideas that he presents encapsulates these historic principles of fascist, tyrannical regimes, and makes their elements transparent to all forms of tyranny. This way, we as a society are able to detect them and address them in all of its form.

On Tyranny: Final Reflection

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder is very clearly a book written in the wake of the Trump election, Brexit and other worrying events by a historian with experience studying fascist/authoritarian governments. Even without being able to gain that information easily, the book is a combination of useful advice to prevent and survive fascist governments and a look back at influences in societies that allowed this to happen.

He primarily uses the experiences of other survivors of fascist governments to provide examples of effective resistance. There are twenty main pieces of advice, most of which get a few pages of elaboration, but several main themes emerge, especially towards the end of the book.

Snyder stresses that complacency has oftentimes been a major component of fascist states. The first piece of advice warns against ‘pre-emptive obedience’. If citizens allow or ignore the first steps fascist states take towards undermining democracy or dehumanizing their enemies, it has emboldened them to be able to continue down that path. In the later parts of the book, he turns this more to the idea of ‘exceptionalism’ within American society. To believe that fascism will be held back by American institutions and that there is no way that similar corruptions would happen within the American electoral system is disregarding history. While this was not discussed in the book, his examples of how an ‘emergency’ gives an opportunity for a fascist state to implement anti-democratic measures reminded me of the Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While the Bush administration did not perpetuate this attack and did comply with election results, they were allowed to implement state actions that disregarded both American and international laws, while massively increasing government invasion into the privacy of citizens.

This theory of complacency aiding fascism culminates in his critique of views of society and history. After the end of the Cold War, according to Snyder, ideas about ‘the end of history’ emerged and created a narrative that history always progressed to a positive end. This idea has been disproven by the continued conflict of world politics, therefore giving space for fascists to push the idea of history as cyclical to support their aims.

Overall, this is an ideas-heavy book and therefore hard to sum up. These were just a few of the ideas that I felt were most present and therefore worth exploring.

Sweeper: When Authoritarian Rythmes with Convenience

For this week, our discussion returned to Europe to discuss how populism and authoritarianism have begun to rise again in some Eastern European states. We discussed several reasons for this, such as the states choosing to undertake “decommunization” instead of seeking real justice for the crimes committed.

However, the reason that stunned me the most was how some in the population were nostalgic of being ruled by an authoritarian. The dancing bear metaphor profoundly stuck with me. It reminded me just how fragile democracies can be because of how fragile people are. Poles are only willing to believe that Poles were not involved in the Holocaust willingly because they do not want to think that their ancestors were evil. So they elect the government that disavows Polish involvement in two horrendous massacres of Jews. It’s convenient to say that they had nothing to do with it.

There lies my fear. It is convenient for people who lived under authoritarians in the past and were not prosecuted for wanting that life back. They fear change, and so they flock to the politicians who promise that everything will return to normal. So, it is convenient to overlook the anti-semitism if it is a means to return to a better time. The only question is can this occur to countries with legacies of democracy?