Clocking in at 128 pages, On Tyranny is the kind of book that you can comfortably digest in an afternoon, but over the course of that afternoon the squishy organ in your head will be treated to a large helping of brain food.
Organised principally around twenty lessons, ranging from Be Kind to Our Language to Defend Institutions, from Take Responsibility for the Face of the World to Beware the One-Party State, Snyder’s book examines history (Germany, Russia, Poland, Spain) alongside what he can see happening in the US (and to a lesser extent in the UK and across Europe) to help those who would see know what to look out for. And what are we looking out? Leaders who react badly to criticism, for thing. Attacks on the judiciary. Use of militias (such as those Trump incorporated to remove anyone who disagreed with him from his rallies).
On Tyranny has come under criticism in some quarters for being light, for not ranging widely enough in its history, but we think that misses the point somewhat. In our humble opinion, the urgency of the need trumps the corresponding demand for volume and gravitas. Imagine, if you will, asking your smartest friend, just what is a person supposed to do when the world seems intent on going to shit? On Tyranny is the response because not only does it give you much in the way of scary things to look out for (or, scarier still, things to recognise as either happened or happening), it also provides you with small, manageable things you can do to restore balance and make the world a better place, albeit through one small gesture or action at a time. In that respect, elements of On Tyranny are not a million miles away from George Saunders’ Congratulations by the way.
What should we be doing? Well, support independent journalism for one thing. Support institutions that mean something to you or that contribute positively to your community. Use the internet less. Read books more. Question anything that provokes you to hate. “Do not obey in advance.” What On Tyranny demonstrates, perhaps more than anything else, is the way in which societies accommodate and by accommodating teach power how to further its abuse. “Stand out, because somebody has to.” “Believe in truth because to abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing it true then all is spectacle and the biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” “Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people.” “Remember that email is skywriting.” “Be alive to the treacherous use of patriotic language.” Perhaps most importantly: “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.”
Any Cop?: You may not agree with everything Snyder has to say (we didn’t) but there is much here that resonates and feels valuable. These are the thoughts we need to be thinking, the questions we need to be asking, the framework within which we need to equip ourselves to view. We’re basically one Reichstag fire away from a state of emergency.