Read the Resistance, August 2017: On Tyranny
For this month of Read the Resistance, an online book club that highlights written works of and about resistance, we asked award-winning playwright and The New York Times contributor Wajahat Ali to recommend a book that exemplifies resistance to him. His pick? On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.
“So here we are, 241 years since the ‘founding’ of the United States of America,” Wajahat wrote us. “Forty-five democratically-elected presidents have ascended to the White House built by slaves after (mostly) smooth transitions of power. (Although history might put an asterisk and add Russian numerals next to #45, but it’s too soon to tell.)”
The Earth still rotates on its axis as we revolve around the Sun, which feels closer than ever thanks to climate change, which allegedly doesn’t exist, because now science, much like facts, is whatever makes us feel better. A privileged real estate tycoon who made a cameo in Home Alone 2 and starred in his own reality TV show has sworn the same oath taken by Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Obama. Our Commander-in-Chief, who never served because of multiple deferments, who was born with a golden spoon and has orange skin, has recently declared on Twitter that he has “complete power to pardon himself.” If Jefferson tweeted, he’d reply with his famous quote, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” He would even have enough characters left to throw in some emojis and add a GIF.
We live in interesting times. We have a president who sends smiling, well-paid, loyal women and men in suits to say Alternative Facts and decry Fake News, which is actually real news but now includes any reporting that is critical of the president. Newspapers and journalists who do their jobs and ask questions are the enemies of the American people. They are joined by our intelligence agencies, liberals, Muslims, immigrants, “illegal aliens,” SNL, Hamilton the Musical, Meryl Streep, Nordstrom, and proper spelling and grammar.
For many Americans, it’s a brave new world, a slowly evolving nightmare caused by self-inflicted wounds, the biggest one sitting and bleeding daily in the Oval Office. For some, however, this is necessary, a blunt instrument if you will, to Make America Great Again.
But, will it?
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the hottest book of 2017 is academic Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It clocks in at under 150 pages. Not short enough for the president to read, but lean and accessible enough for a diverse audience of Americans—from nasty women to radical Moose Lambs—all concerned and passionate about maintaining the core values and principles of a flawed but pluralistic democracy that is America.
Thankfully, we have experts like Snyder who have studied the past so we can truly understand the terrifying present. In his excellent book, my pick for Read the Resistance, he gives us the necessary tools from history to chart a future that can make America great again—for everybody.
The Use of Language
“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.”—Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
Much of On Tyranny revolves around themes of language and communication—how words are used, abused, and spread from one citizen to the next. Snyder gives us two directives surrounding language: One is to put care into the words we use, and another is to think carefully about how words are used by others.
Many points he brings up are familiar to PEN America’s work: Watch out for fake news; be wary of misused words; always seek the truth. Snyder addresses how those in power manipulate language to their benefit, like speaking in ways that “reject legitimate opposition,” presenting lies as facts, repeating phrases until they start to sound true, speaking in contradictions, and using “the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking.” In her 2017 Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on President Trump’s verbal habits, journalist Masha Gessen identifies other rhetorical strategies in line with Snyder’s commentary on language and power, like President Trump’s ability to flip terms like “fake news” and “safe space” on their heads—”taking words and phrases that deal with power relationships and turning them into their opposite.” Rather than passively accept the phrases coming our way, Snyder implores us to keep vigil over our language—like the team at Merriam Webster, whose section on trending words connects spikes in word lookups to the political/cultural event that inspired them. Finally, Snyder warns us to be wary of alarmist language—the overuse of words like “extremism” and “terrorism”—used to instill fear in citizens that makes us vulnerable to trading freedom for supposed “safety.”
The flip side of this work of analyzing the language of others is to care for our own words. Snyder implores us to seek complexity with our language—to not just repeat the “cliches” that politicians “feed … to television” but to “Think up your own way of speaking.” Snyder asks us to investigate the information that we share to confirm its validity before we pass it on to others—this visual guide for spotting fake news from the IFLA is a good place to start. And beyond what we share online, Snyder tells us that in “the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.” With the words we share and the actions we take in our daily lives, we are voting for the kind of society we’d like to live in.
To summarize: Words matter. We must protect our language from those who would use it to manipulate or misinform us. An informed citizenry means power can be held accountable for the words they’ve spoken—whether their words are recorded, transcribed, or printed out and enlarged from Twitter.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- How might you stage conversations in your own community about the ways language is being used to mislead and divide?
- What are the phrases, words, and manners of speech you use that may be inhibiting civic exchange? What are some verbal starting places to reach someone with opposing views?
- What are some creative actions you might take to counter the co-optation and distortion of words like “fake news,” “safe space,” and “witch hunt”?
Supporting and Broadening Communities
“Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people … ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything.”—Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
Snyder’s discussions of language address how to talk the talk, but Snyder is also very much about walking the walk—pounding the pavement, marching with fellow citizens, and learning how to be in the world with one another. In this way, On Tyranny talks a lot about community: supporting our communities, broadening our communities, and treating our fellow citizens as if we are one larger community.
Supporting our own communities can come in the form of supporting institutions and causes that we care about: “institutions help to preserve decency…choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.” Tyranny comes about when citizens assume that institutions are infallible, but in fact, Snyder reminds us, institutions cannot survive without our support.
Snyder also encourages us to broaden our communities beyond those who only think like us. This idea hearkens back to a recent panel discussion involving Public Theater Director Oskar Eustis and WNYC’s Rebecca Carroll: “We did a great job of defending ourselves to our community,” said Eustis, director of a controversial production of Julius Caesar that sparked partisan outrage. “I don’t think we’ve figured out yet how to amplify that…beyond our community.” Carroll provided the answer: with art. “Art is how we talk and reach one another and change things and create revolutions.” Art bridges divides to expand communities—communities that can work together in the name of resistance.
Resistance movements thrive when citizens become allies—allies for racial justice, for the rights of LGTBQ communities, for immigrant communities—and when various activist groups unite, like when #BlackLivesMatter activists joined the #NoDAPL protests. Snyder tells us these communities should also go beyond our fellow U.S. citizens—as when U.S. novelist Robert Stone declared “Today, we are all Salman Rushdie” at a demonstration in support of Rushdie after a fatwa was issued against him—and that we should also engage with citizens across our borders. Snyder goes so far as to say that every citizen should have a passport—an arguably privileged stance, but which makes his emphasis on gaining a larger perspective clear.
Finally, Snyder asks us to not only support those that we know, but to be kind to those that we do not. In fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, a “smile, a handshake or a word of greeting … took on great significance.” Snyder argues that making small talk and eye contact are our responsibilities as citizens; that we must “affirm everyone,” because we “might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States.” Affirming everyone is resisting tyrants’ attempts to separate us and to pit us against one another.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- What are some specific causes you can support through service or showing up? How can you leverage and account for your subject position?
- Considering your material resources, your voice, your power to critique, and the communities you belong to, what are some different ways you might support a particular institution?
- What could you build into your daily routine to be in community with new individuals?
Taking Risks and Standing Alone
“Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom.”—Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
While resistance movements require strengthened communities, they also, from time to time, require individuals who are willing to do what’s difficult and speak out against what others have conformed to. But refusing to accept incremental changes that are not in the best interest of democracy is not always easy or natural, especially if you’re hard-pressed to find examples of resistance from others. To illustrate this, Snyder cites a parable from Václav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless”: A greengrocer puts a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window to placate the authorities and avoid any trouble. But when “everyone else follows the same logic, the public sphere is covered with signs of loyalty, and resistance becomes unthinkable.” By doing what is easy and avoiding any trouble, we inadvertently clear the pathway for authoritarians to seize even more power.
Luckily for us, there are countless examples in history of individuals who have taken risks and been willing to stand tall as the faces of resistance: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and many more. More recently, we’ve seen Mark Baumer, a writer and activist who walked alone, barefoot, across the country to raise awareness about climate change and water crises. (Tragically, he was killed by an S.U.V. while undertaking this walk.) We’ve seen Malala Yousafzai dare to criticize the Taliban and to fight for her right to an education. We’ve seen Liu Xiaobo and his fellow dissidents challenge oppressive regimes and hold their ground even in the face of imprisonment, illness, and imminent death.
These individuals who refuse to go along with what they are told alert to others that resistance is possible. “The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow,” Snyder writes. Whether it’s an open letter and subsequent protests that spark important conversations on artistic freedom and representation, or writers like Grace Paley who inspire others with their activism, the butterfly effect of one courageous individual can bring about the kinds of disruption that are essential to change.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- Have there been moments or circumstances in your life where fear has kept you silent? What might you take from those experiences to help raise your voice—or to help others raise theirs—in the future?
- Who are the inspiring risk-takers in your own life and community? What could you do to make that work more visible and protected?
- What are some local-level issues you might become an advocate for? What are the resources or platforms you would need to mobilize?
About Wajahat Ali
Wajahat Ali is the award-winning playwright of The Domestic Crusaders, one of the first major plays about the American Muslim experience. Ali is the lead author and researcher of the seminal report on Islamophobia in America entitled “Fear Inc.: Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” published by Center for American Progress in August 2011. Foreign Policy magazine praised the report as “a remarkable piece of investigative work, showing how a small set of right-wing foundations and individuals have bankrolled the most vocal Islamophobes in contemporary U.S. politics.” Ali is a frequent consultant on social entrepreneurship, Islam and Muslim-Americans issues, and post-9/11 Muslim-American identity and politics.
About Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder is an author, historian, and the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. His books include Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Stalin and Europe: Terror, War, Domination—for which he was co-editor—and the 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which won him the Hannah Arendt prize for political thought. Snyder is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.