During our trip to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Timothy Snyder and Nora Krug’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The book is part history book, as the “lessons from the twentieth century” indicates, a part guide to how to work to preserve democracy when confronted with fascism or totalitarianism. Multiple things stand out to me with this book; however, today I want to focus on lesson nine, “Be kind to our language.”
This lesson stands out because it makes me, in many ways, think about myself. Snyder’s introduction to this section contains a few main points. He writes that we need to “[a]void pronouncing the phrases everyone else does.” Instead, we must construct our “own way of speaking,” even if that construction is to help us understand what everyone else is saying. Here, I think about the “soundbite” news cycle we have and the aimless chants of political rallies. These things, with their lightening speed, move in and out of our field of view, and we react to them one way or another.
To highlight this fast-moving speed, Krug depicts multiple men wrestling in a ring. They are entangled with one another, and we cannot determine, at times, where one man ends and another begins. Visually, we see a jumbled mass, indistinguishable as individuals and presented as one big entity. Snyder writes, “Politicians in our times feed their clichés to television, where even those who wish to disagree repeat the,. Television reports to challenge political language by conveying images, but the succession from one frame to another can hinder a sense of resolution.” Instead of “resolution,” we get quick-hitting sound with images, and when something new breaks into the cycle, we move on to the next thing.
As we watch this, or scroll through it on our screens, we was some sort of resolution. A woman, with a belt around her waist and hands behind her back, watches the men wrestling in the ring. She stands there, gazing on at the mass of humanity, and the her depiction looks, sort of, as if she is confined and transfixed to the space. Having her hands behind her back creates this feeling, and Snyder’s words add to this feeling. He writes, “The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli.” We don’t necessarily become numb, but we do lose the ability to fully articulate our thoughts and feelings about the events and words on the screen. We become transfixed.
How do we counter this trance and inability to articulate our feelings and thoughts. Snyder concludes the opening by encouraging us “to separate yourself from the internet,” and he concludes by imploring us to “[r]ead books.” This final two word exhortation means a lot, and it stands as one of the most important things we can do to combat threats to democracy. Reading takes times. It takes work. We must sit with a text and mull it over, sometimes retracing our steps as we discover what the author(s) wants us to know. Unlike television news and soundbites, we must engage, actively, with a book. We interact with it because we become an active participant, in communication with the text and its author(s).
Books provide us with things that the two-dimensional world encompassed with the screen cannot, notably what we see on screen (in most cases) appears in “the absence of a a larger framework.” Time does not exist, in the news cycle specifically, for that larger framework to enter into the picture. Instead, we get phrases and snippets, devoid of the larger historical, cultural, or other frameworks needed to fully understand what we encounter. Books provide that larger framework, taking time to expand the information where we can engage with it and linger with it. Reading presents us with more concepts than we can encounter in a short news segment or even in a two-hour documentary.
I think about my own reading here, especially when it comes to thinking about specific topics and ideas. I picked up On Tyranny for a myriad of reasons, and my reading influenced why I chose to purchase it and read it. Over the past couple of years, I have read extensively on various topics, but there are a few that I have focused on, and my reading has shown me ways that these topics overlap, even if the author(s) do not specifically mention other topics with the texts.
For example, I have been diving in to World War II history, notably the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. I have done this, in part, because I want to examine the connections between Nazi Germany and the United States. The frameworks I have obtained by reading about fascism, in particular, have provided me with insight and provided me with a framework and language to explore the ways that Christian nationalism exhibits clear signs of fascism. It has provided me with a framework to understand our current moment as it truly is, a moment where we face fascism and other totalitarian impulses that seek to overturn democracy. It has provided me with a framework and understanding of how individuals obscure history so that their audience does not see the rise of fascism or merely chooses to ignore it altogether.
On the final two pages on lesson nine, Snyder lists countless books and articles that enliven “our ability to thing about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others” and books that inform On Tyranny as a whole. Krug’s two page spread here highlights the importance of books and the ways that we engage with them. At the top left, we see a man engaged with a screen, losing himself in it. He appears, as the others individuals earlier in the lesson do, entranced and lost. Looking at the bottom right, we see someone’s hand resting on the page, actively interacting with the book itself. While we only see the person’s hand, we see the engagement with the text. The hand becomes us, because as we read, if we have a hard copy of book, we actively hold it, placing our hands on the bottom corners of the book to keep it steady. The hand causes us to actively think about the ways we encounter a book and the importance of reading as an active practice.
Now, this does not mean that all things we encounter on screen are bad or that all books are good. We must know how to engage, critically, with the world around us, specifically by investigating what we see, hear, and experience. Snyder and Krug detail this in lesson eleven, and I will pick up here in the next post. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.