On Tyranny is a short collection of lessons learned from the study of
authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century. It was written in 2017 by
Timothy Snyder, a professor of European history. In 2021, it was re-released as
a graphic novel, and that’s the version I borrowed from the library.
The illustrations and photos certainly fit the mood: uniformly creepy and
occasionally disturbing. Unfortunately, they’re also over-emphasized at times,
intruding on the text in pages with more inventive layouts. While they enhance
Snyder’s words, I couldn’t help but wonder if less would have been more.
The words and pictures have an emotion impact that is calm but not soothing.
The tone is disturbed but not panicked, and it accommodates a historian’s dry
irony. The effect might be familiar if you’ve ever had to visit a medical
emergency room. Snyder writes with the reserved confidence of a doctor who is
explaining how they’re going to help. They’re treating your trauma as routinely
as possible, but they still acknowledge that your collarbone is awfully loud,
for a collarbone.
I’d wouldn’t call On Tyranny hopeful, though. Giving advice (in this case,
advice for averting autocracy) is fundamentally optimistic. But although Snyder
makes a strong case for the effectiveness of his twenty lessons, he’s in no way
confident about the future of American democracy. He doesn’t argue that we’re
doomed (a conceit he dubs “the politics of eternity”), nor does he suggest that
things will work out in the end (“the politics of inevitability”). His thesis,
channeling Sarah Connor, is that
people make their own fate, even when they refuse their agency.
Rather than speaking in terms of optimism and pessimism, it’s more accurate to
say that On Tyranny is empowering. That stance resonates with me today
because I am an American who has been reading the news. For one: it’s dire, and
I wouldn’t be convinced by anyone (accredited historian or otherwise) who
claimed that everything’s going to be alright. More importantly, though: I’m
fed up with the dominant practice of journalistic hand-wringing. Snyder’s
practical advice for individuals pick up where so many reporters call it quits.
Again, he’s not promising his readers that they can save the world, but his
words help convert anxiety into determination.
Despite all that praise, I can’t yet say whether Snyder was successful. That
really depends on if/how I change my behavior. Will I take any of Snyder’s
suggestions? Or will I find a way to internalize the confidence without doing
the work? I’m ready to recommend On Tyranny even before that, though, because
there’s value in the asking.