Resistance Literature: On Tyranny

by Bob Schwartz

I didn’t realize there was a genre called “resistance literature” before I saw this blurb for the just-released On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Professor Timothy Snyder:

“Easily the most compelling volume among the early resistance literature. . . . A slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and feels only slightly less vital. . . . Clarifying and unnerving. . . . A memorable work that is grounded in history yet imbued with the fierce urgency of what now.” —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post

On Tyranny is worth reading: it is short (128 pages), learned, wise, and inexpensive ($2.99), from a scholar who is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Here are the twenty lessons covered:

  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.

Here is the close of the Epilogue:

The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. So long as there was a contest between communist and capitalist systems, and so long as the memory of fascism and Nazism was alive, Americans had to pay some attention to history and preserve the concepts that allowed them to imagine alternative futures. Yet once we accepted the politics of inevitability, we assumed that history was no longer relevant. If everything in the past is governed by a known tendency, then there is no need to learn the details.

The acceptance of inevitability stilted the way we talked about politics in the twenty-first century. It stifled policy debate and tended to generate party systems where one political party defended the status quo, while the other proposed total negation. We learned to say that there was “no alternative” to the basic order of things, a sensibility that the Lithuanian political theorist Leonidas Donskis called “liquid evil.” Once inevitability was taken for granted, criticism indeed became slippery. What appeared to be critical analysis often assumed that the status quo could not actually change, and thereby indirectly reinforced it.

Some spoke critically of neoliberalism, the sense that the idea of the free market has somehow crowded out all others. This was true enough, but the very use of the word was usually a kowtow before an unchangeable hegemony. Other critics spoke of the need for disruption, borrowing a term from the analysis of technological innovations. When applied to politics, it again carries the implication that nothing can really change, that the chaos that excites us will eventually be absorbed by a self-regulating system. The man who runs naked across a football field certainly disrupts, but he does not change the rules of the game. The whole notion of disruption is adolescent: It assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up.

But there are no adults. We own this mess.

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