By Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books. 128 pp. $7.19
Out of boredom, a shepherd boy, calls to the adults in his village to tell them that a wolf is chasing his flock of sheep. When the villagers arrive to help the boy, they find no wolf, because the wolf was an invention of the child’s mind. This process repeats until, finally, the boy “cries wolf” at the sight of an actual wolf, and, fed up with his lies, the village does not respond.
We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf, and, since the election of Donald Trump, the accusation of “crying wolf” has been consistently levied at liberals and “the media” (that amorphous monolithic blob that includes all media outlets, until they decide otherwise) after every article or essay decrying the creep of Fascism in the United States.
To be fair, it is possible to become fatigued, and in that fatigue, defeatist regarding the current administration. I wrote in a previous piece that “the panic surrounding Trump is entirely justified, but the leveling of distinction between his transgressions (treating an offensive statement the same as a dangerous cabinet appointment) is counterproductive in a number of ways.” First and foremost, treating each outrage as equally dangerous can lead us to believe that the worst has already occurred – tired of constant vigilance, of constant horror, we can become unable to recognize the real terror when it passes.
This is the possibility implied by many who, we might say, “cry wolf” on “crying wolf,” and there is certainly some truth contained in that charge, but there is a difference between the kind of leveling that I was referring to and to illuminating the warning signs of oncoming fascism. To better explain, let’s offer an alternative version of the parable: the boy cries wolf, and though no wolf is present, the village, reminded of the possibility of wolves after so many years of safety, becomes watchful and even cleans off their old traps. When the wolf finally does appear, the village, instead of ignoring the boy, is well prepared to deal with the danger.
It is a more optimistic reading, and one with an entirely different lesson than the fable’s original intent, but it is maybe the more accurate analogy for our current situation, and it is in this light that Timothy Snyder’s new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” demands to be read. The book is based on twenty pithy tips that Snyder posted on his Facebook page back in November. Essentially, “On Tyranny” is simply an expanded explanation of each tip, an appeal, as Snyder writes in the book’s intro, “to consider history when our political order seems imperiled.”
Timothy Snyder, best known for his World War Two and Holocaust histories (“Bloodlands,” and “Black Earth,” both of which garnered critical acclaim as well as pointed criticism – Tablet Magazine published a scathing article on the discussion of “Polish Zionism” in “Black Earth”), has been writing about tyranny for quite some time. In addition to his books, Snyder has written numerous articles imploring us to see the fascism and the accompanying tyranny lurking behind every corner, his article in The Guardian, “Hitler’s World May Not Be So Far Away,” being the starkest warning. That is, until “On Tyranny.”
The book, along with similar pieces (like Masha Gessen’s essay “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” published in the New York Review of Books), has dual, somewhat contradictory intentions. First, it seeks to act as a guide for behavior under a tyrannical regime, and second (and here is where our alternative version of the boy who cried wolf comes into play), it seeks to alert us to the signs of coming tyranny so that we can avoid using the book in the first capacity altogether.
It is in this second capacity that Snyder’s book finds its best usage. The history upon which Snyder relies to guide his warnings is, unsurprisingly, the history of the Soviet Union and the history of the Third Reich – the two 20th century tyrannical regimes par excellence (we could add Chairman Mao’s in China and Kim Il Sung’s in North Korea). The lessons we are supposed to draw from the history of these regimes range from obvious to surprising.
In the camp of the obvious we might include tips like “Beware the one-party state” or “Be wary of paramilitaries.” Yet, even in the obvious tips (a one-party state is less a warning that tyranny is around the corner than a sign that it’s arrived), Snyder’s pithy histories can prove instructive. Yes, clearly paramilitaries are dangerous for Democracy, but it is worth remembering just what a paramilitary is, and that the SA and SS first began as Hitler’s personal enforcers. The diffuse, ridiculous threat of armed militias (that insane American tradition – one which largely intersects with the incoherent anarchism promoted by Steve Bannon), with their don’t tread on me flags and masturbatory “Red Dawn” fantasies might seem remote, but as Snyder warns, if these groups are absorbed into the Trumpian fold, or simply allowed to expand and act with impunity, then democracy will suffer. “It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government,” he writes, “when agencies beyond the state also have access to violence.”
The surprising tips in Snyder’s book are the most banal – but it is their very banality that makes them so easy to forget, and that much more important, i.e. “Make eye contact and small talk.” These basic rules of civil etiquette can take on an outsized importance in a world where basic rules have been flipped on their heads. Quite simply, affirming these simple gestures of respect can not only help buoy the spirits of those who feel threatened, but can also foster a general atmosphere of solidarity – a nod of acknowledgement on the street is still an acknowledgement, and small talk, in a time of heightened pressure and danger, isn’t always so small.
It is worth noting that, although he constantly refers to the statements and actions of President Trump, Snyder never once mentions his name (though he does, sparingly, use the phrase “our president”). This omission is one of the strongest features of the book. By omitting Trump’s name entirely, Snyder forces us to make a double move – to read each tip abstracted from Trump, and then to reapply it to his regime. This reading-then-application drives the reality of Snyder’s fears home much more strongly than if he had simply said - “this is Trump’s America, here’s why.” The tips take on a timelessness, and thus, an authority. And that timelessness helps us to situate Trump in a historical context, rendering him both more and less dangerous, and avoiding defeatism of apocalyptic thinking (we know what happened in Stalin’s Russia, but we also know that it passed).
Finally, it is also worth noting the book’s use as an object. As a small, pocket sized list, with a fashionably minimal cover, the book has the potential to become a symbol. It seems to have been written and designed to carry around, to return to and check against one’s reality. The insights in “On Tyranny” are not particularly original or profound, but they need not be either in order to accomplish their goal (indeed, a higher level of sophistication would be antithetical to the success of the book). It is in the book’s simplicity that its success and importance lies. Its mass appeal, both as written text and aesthetic object, is what enables Snyder’s short guide to potentially influence everyday behavior. Its very smallness, both in scope and size, makes the book easier to internalize, easier to carry around as a sort of talisman. Imagine: you’ve read the book on the subway and stuffed it in your jacket pocket as you leave. A week later, you’re back on the train reading the news of Trump’s new travel ban and the madness of the wire tapping charges against former president Obama. As you step out into the cold, you stuff your hands into your pocket, only to feel Snyder’s book. You think about the travel ban, the incompetent attempts at political conspiracy, and remember Snyder’s lessons. You feel frightened, angry, ashamed, but also, prepared.