Yale University’s Levin Professor of History Timothy Snyder has written a manifesto for democracy titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). This little volume (128 pages, 6” x 4.5”) packs a wallop. Although he never names anyone as his focal tyrant wannabe, the reader knows that this book is a call for individual action to prevent the inevitable consequence of inaction in the face of power grabbing.
As one action that I will take in response to his words, I have summarized his 20 admonitions for those of you who do not relish reading. That said, I strongly urge you 1) to read this little book, and 2) to find your own way of preventing tyranny. Together, we can.
The bolded introductory statements are Professor Snyder’s wording. The defining examples are my wording, including a couple of his examples.
- Do not obey in advance. “Anticipatory obedience” occurs when eager followers desirous of pleasing the leader initiate acts they imagine the leader would encourage, as in the SS killings in 1938 Germany before being commanded to do so.
- Defend institutions. Advocate for organizations that are important to you: EPA, NEA…
- Beware the one-party state. Fight for the integrity of the electoral process—stand up against efforts to gerrymander districts. Hurrah for yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling against two gerrymandered districts in my home state of North Carolina!
- Take responsibility for the face of the world. Czechs wanting nothing to do with Communism posted signs such as “Workers of the world, unite!” thinking authorities would leave them alone, assuming they were of a Communist leaning. Didn’t work. Remove or otherwise eliminate signs or symbols of hate or intolerance.
- Remember professional ethnics. Professional associations can make stronger statements than can individuals—while it may be difficult for one lawyer or one doctor to resist a malevolent force, they may appeal to their colleagues to provide ethical force in large numbers. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, one woman couldn’t stop war, but when all women threatened their men with abstinence, war was rethought!
- Be wary of paramilitaries. In a democracy, only the acknowledged governments (local, state, federal) have the right to police.
- Be reflective if you must be armed. If you must carry a firearm, maintain the personal authority to say “No!” to its use as a tool of unjust oppression.
- Stand out. Without Winston Churchill’s emergence, England may well have languished. He stood out, and up, to Hitler. Similarly, Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Sally Yates have stood out/up/alone.
- Be kind to our language. Tyrants repeat misused words until followers reify them. Resist by keeping your public language fresh and accurate. “The American people” is not the same thing as “my fan base.” Read great novels for ideas on how to speak truth to power.
- Believe in truth. No declamation without verification. Insist on knowing sources. Demand verifiable evidence. Check with the fact checkers. Protect the fact checkers. E. O. Wilson in Consilience posits that it is not politics and religion that divides us, but rather cultures that do not respect evidence.
- Investigate. Develop a nose for sniffing out fake news. Turn a deaf ear to blatant misstatements (“My program is the best possible that could ever be conceived.”) and correct them when and where possible. Before passing along a suspect, outlandish tidbit that stretches reason, check it out on snopes.com. Inform yourself—don’t shy away from reading a longer article when you suspect it has helpful information. Be one of the (hopefully increasing) well-informed electorate. Don’t just follow sources that confirm your biases. Conservatives must watch channels other than Fox News, and Liberals must watch other channels than MSNBC. I intentionally follow Al Jazeera on my iPhone. And the BBC. Look beyond your backyard/border.
- Make eye contact and small talk. It is easy to look friends in the eye and chat them up. It typically takes more effort to look strangers in the eye—particular those different from us—and make friendly small talk. Catching the eye of a potentially downtrodden person—or even someone who is visually different than you—and chatting briefly with them will make their day (better) and leave them less fearful.
- Practice corporeal politics. Get your bod and brain out into the world and make friends and connections beyond your private circle. On the other hand…
- Establish a private life. Protect your privacy and that of others by securing your computer and supporting organizations that advocate for human rights.
- Contribute to good causes. Support two or more organizations that advocate for a civil society—dollars add up, so don’t hold back because you could only make a small contribution! Think of autopay of a dollar a month to your good cause(s) as an inoculation against tyranny. When a million others join you, we have budgeted for tyranny prevention.
- Learn from peers in other countries. Keep your passport active, maintain relations around the world, and establish new ones. In the worst case, you may need a new home.
- Listen for dangerous words. Tyrants are extremists who are under the illusion that they are mainstream—that everyone values their agenda, and they use alarming words to cajole the masses into huddling into their fold: “so-and-so is a liar, so don’t listen to them—listen only to me,” “these are extreme times, so embrace my extreme methods,” “terrorists threaten our democracy, so bear with me as I suspend your liberty to stamp them out,” “emergency conditions require extraordinary responses powers,” “such-and-such is a total failure, so you must embrace my replacement for it,” “circumstances require that we make exceptions to the law,” or “Deutschland über alles.” Prefer “America and Germany and all their co-inhabitants of Mother Earth and the Cosmos.”
- Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Founding father James Madison identified emergencies as the primary hotbed for tyrants—authoritarians emerge to manage terrorism and exact the price of personal freedoms in return. Their mantra: “I’ll keep you safe if you do all that I say.”
- Be a patriot. Pay your taxes. Support our military. Vote. Volunteer. Support our news organizations. Decry bad leaders at home and around the world. Support the values that our country espouses—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
- Be as courageous as you can. Be prepared to be demeaned, to be fired, to be imprisoned, or even to die, by insisting on the rule of law and the separation of powers.