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A how-to guide for opposing totalitarianism: A review of ‘On Tyranny’

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The Book: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

The Gist: Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, presents twenty brief and practical lessons on how we can avoid tyranny in the future by learning from the totalitarianism of the twentieth century.

The Quote: ”It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.” (p. 22)

The Good: The brevity of the book (its only 130 small pages) helps to keep the focus on an important message about the dangers of political authoritarianism.

The Blah: Although he never mentions Trump by name, Snyder spends an inordinate amount of time using the current president as an example of the dangers he is warning us about. This weighs down a timeless message by tying it too closely to current partisan conflicts.

The Verdict: We are not even two decades into the new century and yet Americans are already forgetting the atrocities of the twentieth century. More than one-in-four Americans (26 percent) have never been taught about communism in any education or professional setting. Only half of our fellow citizens can identify Cuba as a communist country, and 41 percent of Americans do not consider North Korea communist. It’s probably not surprising then that more than half of millennials (52 percent) say they would prefer to live in a socialist (46 percent) or communist (6 percent) country than a capitalist (40 percent) one.

For those who’ve forgotten or who never knew, Snyder provides a reminder of the wreckage totalitarian regimes imposed on mankind, and offers helpful lessons in how America can avoid such a fate in the future. While he is not friendly to the political right (did I mention he’s a professor at Yale?), Snyder harkens back to an era when Americans recognized that opposing totalitarianism was a bipartisan affair. His lessons—such as “Do not obey in advance,” “Remember professional ethics,” “Be reflective if you must be armed”—are the type of practical political wisdom that should be embraced by everyone.

“History does not repeat,” says Snyder, “but it does instruct.” Indeed, recent history has much to teach us if we’ll only listen. We can begin by heeding the instruction of this little book to ensure the lessons of the previous century are remembered before it’s too late.

The Recommendation: If they can get past Snyder’s animosity toward Trump (and the people who elected him), those on the political right will find much they can appreciate. The lessons will be of particular value, though, for progressives, who likely won’t hear such anti-totalitarian warnings anywhere else. Highly recommended as a book old conservatives can give to young liberals to develop a starting point for political engagement and agreement.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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