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On Tyranny

Book Notes

I bought this book on a whim while visiting a newly opened journal / papergoods / travel lifestyle shop in Los Angeles a couple weeks back. The book was small, with the blurb, "The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, no 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 their experience." Yes, okay, I'm interested, keep going.

Turns out, the whole book was one big smack upside the head, complete with actionable items to do to help stem the tide of tyranny currently rising in our country. While reading the book, I wanted to highlight every passage, share all of the lessons with everyone, buy a million copies and send them out to everyone I come in contact with in all aspects of life. It is a fast read, 128 pages, so even people who don't read much or fall asleep while reading (read: many of my relatives) can finish it.

The book reminds us that we are not special. Democracy has fallen many times in the last century, and we have the advantage of historical perspective to see what happened. We aren't coming into this blind, we can see what is happening. We can stop it. Others have, we aren't too late.

So, yeah, I strongly recommend this book, it is incredibly worth reading. Let me buy you a copy, ebook or physical, I don't care which. I want you to read this book.

The twenty lessons:


1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You've already done this, haven't you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don't protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of "terrorism" and "extremism." Be alive to the fatal notions of "exception" and "emergency." Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don't fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don't use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps "The Power of the Powerless" by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.
Page 73

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.
Page 73

We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it.
Page 88

Words written in one situation make sense only in that context. The very act of removing them from their historical moment and dropping them in another is an act of falsification.
Page 89

In the twentieth century, all the major enemies of freedom were hostile to non-governmental organizations, charities, and the like.
Page 94

Today’s authoritarians (in India, Turkey, Russia) are also highly allergic to the idea of free associations and non-governmental organizations.
Page 94

To Ukrainians, Americans seemed comically slow to react to the obvious threats of cyberwar and fake news. When Russian propaganda made Ukraine a target in 2013, young Ukrainian journalists and others reacted immediately, decisively, and sometimes humorously with campaigns to expose disinformation.
Page 96

The most intelligent of the Nazis, the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, explained in clear language the essence of fascist governance. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.
Page 100

People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.
Page 100

Similarly, it is none too difficult to imagine choices that increase both freedom and safety, like leaving an abusive relationship or emigrating from a fascist state. It is the government’s job to increase both freedom and security.
Page 101

When the American president and his national security adviser speak of fighting terrorism alongside Russia, what they are proposing to the American people is terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy.
Page 109

Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.
Page 110

A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.
Page 114

A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.
Page 114

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
Page 119

Eerily, when judges said that a parliamentary vote was required for Brexit, a British tabloid called them “enemies of the people”—a Stalinist term from the show trials of the 1930s.
Page 122

In his 2016 campaign, the American president used the slogan “America First,” which is the name of a committee that sought to prevent the United States from opposing Nazi Germany.
Page 123

The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems.
Page 123

itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom.
Page 125

History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something.
Page 125

One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it.
Page 126

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