Be as courageous as you can.
Lesson Twenty, from On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Dr. Timothy Snyder
First, I want to again thank all of you who have sent emails and notes of support for my taking on this task. It has meant a lot to me, since this has been emotionally draining for me, and I know it’s not been the happiest place for you, either.
And now, Snyder’s final lesson. He has but one sentence in this chapter:
If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.
And that’s it.
There is really nothing else to say, except to point out what must, by now, be obvious: this is no joke. This is not dark dystopian fantasy or left-wing intellectual hype. This is not paranoia.
Every single lesson is unfolding before our eyes, and the final lesson challenges us to, as our so many of our ancestors have done, prepare to give our lives for the cause of liberty if necessary.
He then goes on to write an impassioned treatise in the epilogue about our sorry state of education, specifically in which a couple of generations are proving woefully ignorant of history.
It’s a powerful condemnation of what happens when we allow ourselves to slide into what he calls the “politics of inevitability.” This is where, following the dramas of WW2 and the fading of the Cold War, we believe that we are moving without effort towards expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity.
He warns that this is a “teleology: a narration of time that leads toward a certain, usually desirable goal.” It is no different from the teleology of communism, which offered the promise of an inevitable utopia.
“When that story was shattered a quarter century ago,” he warns, “we drew the wrong conclusion. Rather than rejecting teleologies, we imagined our own story [in opposition to communism] was true…The politics of inevitability is a self-induced coma.”
In the rude awakening that sooner or later must arrive, the grave danger is that we will grab what is packaged as the solution to our disenchantment: the politics of eternity.
When we discover that the auto-pilot towards our happily-ever-after stasis has crashed, the politics of eternity offers a nostalgic longing for a past that never actually happened. “Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast, misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood…National populists are eternity politicians.”
He then goes on to cite the Nazi and Soviet use of eternity politics, both of which were dangled before nations full of real grief and bitter upheaval; the advocates of Brexit (longing for an imaginary Britain in the height of its Empire); and of course our own Occupant.
As many of us have wondered, when exactly was the “again” in Make America Great Again? And for whom was it so great? And most ominously, who is responsible for robbing us of this proud, supposed birthright?
In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. 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.
And this is where I believe there is a very important point. As long as America spins up a narrative of Biden vs. Trump as a battle between Good and Evil, we are setting ourselves up for prolonged mischief.
The virtue of any candidate absolutely must be tied to a coherent naming and discussion of strategies for the complicated challenges which are threatening to swamp us.
No, it’s not sexy. Sorting through policy is not superhero cartoons, and usually a bit short on spectacle and drama. It’s complex, and requires a substantial attention span, in order to take a long view and process subtlety. But this is the only sane way forward. (It has been a glaring fact that, despite being asked over and over, The Occupant has not once offered a policy or a plan, not even an outline.)
Snyder concludes this powerful final section of his book with:
One thing is certain. If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some.
This is not the end, but a beginning.
Together, let us make it so.
To review all of the previous lessons, here are the links:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays, Lesson One: Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Two: Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Three: Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Four: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Five: Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Six: Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 10: Believe in Truth
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 11: Investigate
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 13: Practice Corporeal Politics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 14: Establish a Private Life
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 15: Contribute to Good Causes
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 16: Learn from Peers in Other Countries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 17: Listen for Dangerous Words
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 18: Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 19: Be a Patriot