Review: On Tyranny
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.