It has become a cliché to quote George Santayana's dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is unfortunate - if not tragic - to hear history as an important part of school curricula spurned. Worse yet, as author and Yale historian Timothy Snyder tells us in his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), democracy is in danger if we do not take historical lessons to heart.
"The Founding Fathers," writes Snyder, "tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from the experience."
On Tyranny is a short book but is one which the reader should reread again and again. Snyder packs a lot of warning into his words, words that need to seep in for us to become fully awake to our clear and present danger. There are twenty chapters, or "lessons," each of which is titled with a maxim: "Do not obey in advance." "Take responsibility for the face of the world." "Believe in truth." "Listen for dangerous words." And, perhaps the most chilling, "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives." Each chapter is introduced with a few remarks about how to put that chapter's maxim into action.
We must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century, Snyder admonishes us. We must not take democracy for granted, or fall victim to naïve optimism that because democracy is so important, it is not vulnerable. Wake up, says Snyder. The wolves are at the door.
It would be impractical to comment on every one of Snyder's lessons, so allow me to select one as an illustration: "Investigate." Snyder encourages us all to investigate. "The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant." And truth? Snyder does not mince words: "Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself." What is our responsibility as citizens? "Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some private responsibility for the public's sense of truth." Snyder says to verify information ourselves, and carefully choose trustworthy journalists.
Snyder's message is loud and clear: we must defend democracy, we must do it now, and there are ways to accomplish that. I can't imagine how anyone could not take this to heart.