A handbook to the resistance


On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by [Snyder, Timothy]At last weekend's indie book crawl I picked up On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder. Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, is also the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning.

I noticed the book because as an artifact it's a delight. Roughly the size of two packs of playing cards set side by side, it has 126 pages, a Prologue, and 20 chapters, most ranging from 1 to 5 pages. The plain cover has that letter press feel. The typography is gorgeous.


The premise of the book is that history can inform our lives. Snyder's deep knowledge of three periods - the rise of the USSR, the rise of Hitler, and the rise of Putin - provides a playbook for tyranny. It's clear that Snyder believes that our current president - whom he never names - is a sort of pre-tyrannical figure. What should we do about it?

These are the 20 lessons:
  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.
The book is a quick read. But it's compelling and persuasive. As a librarian, I find at least four of the lessons eerily on point for me, namely: defend institutions. We have got to stop worshiping disruption for disruption's sake, and start building institutions that serve people well. Remember professional ethics is the core of my job these days (director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom). Believe in truth and Investigate both speak to the trustworthiness of librarians as honest information providers.

At any rate, this is a modern classic for anyone interested in actually doing something. On Tyranny is available from TimDugganBooks.com, and, of course, your better indie bookstores.

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