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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Ted Snyder (2017) (read in 2019)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This book was recommended to me by an ordinarily more-reliable friend, but I don’t hold it against zim. I was relieved to receive a “your library loan is about to end” message about my E-Book because, as I was reading the book, I realized with dread that I couldn’t remember whether I’d found it in the library or whether I’d actually purchased it (it’s a short book, so probably doesn’t cost very much).

The blurbs and description of this book are very misleading. It is about Trump. That is not, at first, obvious. Trump is never mentioned by name. Instead, Snyder refers to him as “the president” in what I can only assume is a bid to seem clever, but ends up being a gambit that fools no-one reading the book right now. In ten or twenty years time, however, absolutely no-one is going to know what the actual fuck Snyder is talking about.

The book is a confusing mish-mash even when read this close to publication. It will not stand the test of time. Snyder’s 20 rules are quite a stretch—many of them are nearly direct reformulations of other rules. They sound different superficially, but are more like a horoscope in that regard.

As I read the book, I thought Snyder was a self-educated 20-something or 70-something. I discovered after completing the book that he’s a highly ranked professor at the Yale School of Management. It’s ridiculous how poorly written and poorly thought-through this book is. He knows his market, though, it’s a best-seller.


“Because enough people in both cases voluntarily extended their services to the new leaders, Nazis and communists alike realized that they could move quickly toward a full regime change.”
Page 18

There were also rich rewards. They anticipated getting the jump on others.

“No doubt the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been.”
Page 29

Just BOOM, unquestioned and blanket allegations that Russia has no democracy—just declares 30 years of elections as unfair with no justification. That’s fucking bold, coming from an American.

“The Russian oligarchy established after the 1990 elections continues to function, and promotes a foreign policy designed to destroy democracy elsewhere.”
Page 29

That’s another bold claim for an American. Didn’t he just write something about vigilance inward rather than outward? But let’s broadside the Russians for some cheap and easy points, raw meat to his target audience.

“The peasants who had more land or livestock than others were the first to lose what they had. A neighbor portrayed as a pig is someone whose land you can take.”
Page 33

That’s another drastic oversimplification. The “peasants” whereof he speaks were like American agri-business “farmers” today. They were mostly the vestiges of nobility, hanging on to vast, inherited lands. How do you impose a more just distribution without taking away from those who unjustly hold lands? This is only a huge problem if you sympathize with elites with unearned wealth. Which, spoiler alert, Snyder seems to do.

“Millions of people in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia died horrible and humiliating deaths”
Page 34

Humiliating is an odd adjective to use here. It insinuates much while explaining nothing. It’s a dog whistle.

“Even the history of lapel pins is far from innocent.”
Page 35

Again, no mention America’s own obsession with ensuring that every single politician has a flag on his or her lapel.

“If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.”
Page 40

But they did resist, no? Then those initial resisters were quickly culled and they were left with the more pliant and morally bankrupt dregs. In typical fashion, we forget all about the anonymous initial resisters and build our own history, own story—one that fits our preconceptions.

“This was a convenient way for Germans to remember the Holocaust, since they could claim that few of them had known exactly what had happened behind those gates.”
Page 49

Fuck this guy for calling how Germans recall the war “convenient”. Americans have no idea how to recall a war. They never do. Americans are largely deliberately amnesiac and therefore amorally unapologetic about any of the damage and suffering they cause in the world. Germany’s culture apologizes to this day for crimes that its forbears committed. American will, in the words of GHW Bush, “never apologize”. They don’t even acknowledge it, agonizing endlessly about a handful of dead soldiers and whether or not America “lost” a war—or how to exit an ongoing war while saving face. Apologizing for dead civilians doesn’t even make the list. Fuck this guy.

“But even these trials were a kind of minimization of the scale of the crime. Not the SS commanders alone, but essentially all of the thousands of men who served under their command were murderers.”
Page 50

This is literally the reverse of how American military justice works. At least German higher-ups were punished for their war crimes. American higher-ups are rewarded with book deals and roam free, garnering massive speaking fees and morning-show interview spots.

“In summer 1939 the Soviet Union allied with Nazi Germany and the Red Army joined the Wehrmacht in the invasion of Poland. The Polish government chose to fight, activating agreements that brought Great Britain and France into the war. Germany, supplied with food and fuel by the Soviet Union, invaded and quickly occupied Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and even France in the spring of 1940. The remainder of the British expeditionary force was evacuated from the”
Page 53

Is that true? I can’t take anything this guy writes on faith anymore.

“From our perspective, her actions seem exceptional. She stood out.”
Page 58

These pat and flat descriptions remind me of the superficiality of Gladwell.

“(the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president”
Page 60
“What is the point here? Also, why not write Trump? Is this book only for today? In twenty years it will be very confusing.”
Page 60
“In 1984, the language of visual media is highly constrained, to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future. One of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating”
Page 61

Look, this book’s heart is obviously in the right place. But it focuses on Trump as if the trend here had just begin. He’s not a historian (edit: Holy shit, he’s a tenured chair of the history department at Yale University.)

“If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you.”
Page 47

Some concepts are unassailable in America, no matter where you stand on the publicly acceptable political spectrum.

“It is as if a farmer said he were taking an egg from the henhouse, boiling it whole and serving it to his wife, and also poaching it and serving it to his children, and then returning it to the hen unbroken, and then watching as the chick hatches.”
Page 67

The writing style is one of fake gravitas. Reminds of the train wreck that was the Alchemist. Catchy and trite and calorie-free.

“loved slogans that resonated like a new religion,”
Page 71

Ironic much? This book is 20 such things.

“Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media.”
Page 72

No no, just media is OK, too. Print media like the New York Times? Or the Washington Post? Two establishment mouthpieces. This guy is an unquestioning fool, a patsy for the ruling elite. As professor at Yale, he kind of is the ruling elite.

“(some of which come from abroad).”
Page 72

Oh for fucks sake. Here comes the Russia train again.

“During his campaign, the president claimed on a Russian propaganda outlet that American “media has been unbelievably dishonest.””
Page 73

Which fucking outlet was that? Are you literally allergic to any details?

“In 1971, contemplating the lies told in the United States about the Vietnam War, the political theorist Hannah Arendt took comfort in the inherent power of facts to overcome falsehoods in a free society: “Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality.” The part about computers is no longer true.”
Page 74

Even then it was already true, even without computers. We never heard about the Vietnam war in school. 100% suppression.

“Within the two-dimensional internet world, new collectivities have arisen, invisible by the light of day—tribes with distinct worldviews, beholden to manipulations”
Page 74

Thesaurus much? By “collectivities”, you mean “groups” and by “beholden”, you mean “ripe”. These aren’t even ivory-tower synonyms—they’re just wrong.

“If we found a video of the president performing Cossack dances while Vladimir Putin claps, we would probably just demand the same thing with the president wearing a bear suit and holding rubles in his mouth.”
Page 76

He does not see the irony that he accepts Russian evil as axiomatic.

“We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free. If we did not pay for plumbing or auto repair, we would not expect to drink water or drive cars. Why then should we form our political judgment on the basis of zero investment? We get what we pay for.”
Page 77

Fair point.

“Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people.”
Page 83

Like orgies? Or Trump rallies?

“During the campaign of 2016, we took a step toward totalitarianism without even noticing by accepting as normal the violation of electronic privacy.”
Page 88

WTF: surveillance did not start then. This is rewriting history. Snowden came years earlier. The Russian influence is a chimera.

“The timed email bombs of the 2016 presidential campaign were also a powerful form of disinformation.”
Page 88

Is he talking about Podesta and Clinton? No idea…what are “email bombs”?

“As we learned from these email bombs, this mechanism works even when what is revealed is of no interest.”
Page 90

This book has not aged well. Even after only two years. I have no idea what he’s talking about and he’s not bothered to explain it at all.

“When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order. To be sure, we might feel that we are doing nothing more than going along with everyone else. This is true—and it is what Arendt described as the devolution of a society into a “mob.” We can try to solve this problem individually, by securing our own computers; we can also try to solve it collectively, by supporting, for example, organizations that are concerned with human rights.”
Page 90

This paragraph is a crazed mishmash, a kitchen sink/horoscope/shotgun of advice.

“[…] that one of our former presidents called “a thousand points of light.””
Page 93

It was George Bush Sr. You are not being mysterious or generalized by omitting president’s names.

“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. Russia deployed many of the same techniques against Ukraine that it later used against the United States—while invading Ukraine.”
Page 96

This is nearly an outright fabrication.

“This should give us pause.”
Page 97

This book feels liked it was written with superficial research and no experience and no wisdom. The author is either a 25-year–old or a 70-year–old who never paid attention to anything in his life. It feels like a term paper, right down to the “filler” content to pad out the already pathetic length of the book. (Edit: again, holy shit, he’s a tenured chair of the history department at Yale University.)

“Vladimir Putin not only came to power in an incident that strikingly resembled the Reichstag fire, he then used a series of terror attacks—real, questionable, and fake—to remove obstacles to total power in Russia and to assault democratic neighbors.”
Page 105

What the fuck are you talking about? This is all unverifiable and irrefutable because there is no detail. The Putin-and-Russia-are-evil trope is taken on religious faith. He’s writing only for the faithful, and he’s so deep into it that he doesn’t see the need to provide any substantiation for those of who’ve not yet drunk the Kool-Aid.

“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

He completely ignores America already having done this, and on a much grander scale. E.g. the Iraq war. It wasn’t that long ago. It can be argued that it’s still kind of ongoing (soldiers are still stationed there).

“What is patriotism? Let us begin with what patriotism is not. It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. It is not patriotic to discriminate against active-duty members of the armed forces in one’s companies, or to campaign to keep disabled veterans away from one’s property. It is not patriotic to compare one’s search for sexual partners in New York with the military service in Vietnam that one has dodged.”
Page 112

Again: what madness is this? Old man yells at cloud.

“Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation.”
Page 121

He’s still not seeing the irony, nor has any of his editors seen fit to point it out to him. They are almost certainly all similarly indoctrinated.

“How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate?”
Page 124

This from the guy who spent half of a miniscule book railing against foreign devils.