Books: On Tyranny

It’s been about 80 years since western democracy was threatened by the wave of fascism that swept across Europe and led to the most devastating military conflict in human history.

For young people today, particularly here in the States, the story of World War II is one we’ve heard so many times that our basic understanding of it seems almost second-nature. The history reads like legend the older it becomes, a cataclysmic event made increasingly (and comfortably) distant by a growing number of years, even as we continue to memorialize it in our monuments, holidays, films and books.

And yet less than half of Americans bother to vote in presidential elections, while the number is even less for mid-term and local elections.  That alone seems enough to argue that appreciation for our democracy seems mostly rhetorical.  

We haven’t faced the blatant attacks to our political and personal freedoms that so many around the world have long endured; and that privileged lack of experience has enabled us in taking democracy for granted.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

-Wendell Phillips

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder explains why democracy requires constant vigilance by its citizenry, how even in a land like America, so famed for it’s checks and balances and its democratic institutions and individual freedoms, a government can still be perfectly vulnerable to the same forces that spread through Europe once upon a time, forces which are beginning to creep up not-so-discreetly again.  

Democracy is precious, and this book is a valuable resource for anyone looking to more deeply understand and remember why, a book we all ought to read and keep on our shelf–to be read and re-read perhaps every Memorial Day. 

Here’s an excerpt from the book we found particularly noteworthy, regarding the above quote.

Thomas Jefferson probably never said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," but other Americans of his era certainly did.  When we think of this saying today, we imagine our own righteous vigilance directed outward, against misguided and hostile others.  We see ourselves as a city on the hill, a stronghold of democracy, looking out for the threats that come abroad.  But the sense of the saying was entirely different: that human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.  The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." He added that "the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten."

-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

Short Story: The Rain

A short story, which recalls a conversation between Jose Anselmo de la Cruz and Jude Moonlight, on the day Hurricane Irma hit the coast of Florida.

The rain was beating down hard. I heard it coming down mercilessly as the wind howled outside. We sat in the garage, in the dark, our faces glowing in dim candlelight. Through the door, back down the hallway I heard whispers, and the sound of someone laughing. Maybe they were still playing cards. I heard another cracking and fizzing sound. Someone opening another can of beer.

It was only three o’clock in the afternoon, but it felt like three in the morning. I think most of us had lost all track of time by now. Except for Anselmo. He sat there in front of me still, looking somewhere past me, over my head, as though listening for the slightest change in weather, communicating with it in some strange way. He sat relaxed in his chair, smoking his pipe.

I was starting to feel a little high, but not too much. Whenever I smoked, I never got too high. I had a feeling Anselmo was the same way.

“Some storm,” he said.

“Yea. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

“How old are you?”

“23.”

“23. Yea, so you weren’t alive for Andrew.”

“No, I missed that one.”

“Feels like just yesterday. That was the year after I arrived. We had an apartment in Kendall then.”

“What happened?”

Anselmo laughed to himself a bit and kept quiet. He smiled and let out a long sigh before speaking again.

“My wife and I hunkered down in the bathroom. Next morning, when we stepped outside the door…well, we found ourselves outside, looking right through where the wall and part of the roof used to be.”

“Oh man.”

“Yea, you’re telling me. That was some scary shit.”

He laughed again.

Welcome to Florida,” he continued. “I’m surprised we even stuck around afterward, not that we really had anywhere else to go.”

“What kept you here?”

“We hadn’t been overly fond of Houston or New Jersey, and my wife’s family had all moved down here too. So after the storm, we just moved in with her sister for a bit until we found another apartment. Besides, what the hell, I’ve been dodging hurricanes my whole life. I remember when I was a boy, we had quite a few. Seemed like every summer we’d have one or two, at least.”

“In Cuba?”

He nodded.

“That’s what you get living in the tropics,” he said. “But still, even in Jersey, we had to deal with one. Hurricane Belle, I think it was called. 1976. I’d been living there for three years.”

“You’ve got a good memory.”

“I give it a lot of exercise.”

“Do you think a lot about Cuba? Your memories there?”

His face darkened a little as his eyes shot down to the floor. For a second, I regretted asking the question.

“Well, sometimes I do, sure. Of course. I think about the mountains. The beaches. I miss the streets. The people. Hell, I miss just about everything but the politics. I miss the feeling of writing and at the same time knowing, or at least thinking it was going to make some kind of difference, outside of me getting thrown in jail.”

“Do you ever think about writing anymore?”

Anselmo was quiet for a long time before he shook his head.

“No. No, I don’t think I…No, I don’t. I don’t think I ever will. Just never really got that desire again.

“Yea.”

“For one thing, when I arrived in New Jersey, I barely spoke any English. I learned quickly enough, but by the time I had, I was already keeping busy with other things. My family for one thing. My day job, another. Just blending in, I guess. I got real deep into history. American history. I’ve always believed the most patriotic thing a person can do is study the history of their country. It’s the best way to throughly understand it’s character. You can better assess the present and more intelligently influence it’s future.”

“I’ve always liked history.”

“Yea?”

“Yea, I mean, I never really thought of it the way you just put it, or really thought twice at all about why I even liked it, though what you said makes a whole lot of sense.”

Anselmo smiled. “What part of history do you enjoy?”

“The revolutionary generation I think. You know, from 1776 to the first years after the drafting of the constitution.”

“Sure.”

“I’m not exactly sure why…”

“You know, when I think about the founding of this…republic,” he said. “I see a group of highly flawed, yet intelligent men with a vision. They’re so close it, they can touch it. They hold it right in their hands, you know what I mean? Like some raw orb born right out of the soil, strikingly beautiful for having lived so long in the earth and the mud. But it’s hot. It’s way too hot for them to handle, so they hurl it across a vast wilderness.

“Anyway, I think we, as in subsequent generations, we’ve been looking for it ever since, forgetting a little bit more each day what it even looked like, but we add our own experiences to it as a way of filling in the gaps, for better or worse. Though, in the back of our mind, we know we’ll never quite get there in the end.

“But that doesn’t matter. I think as long as we remember where we come from—enough to hold it close and study it, talk about it, shake hands with it, write and sing about it even—and we do it with a lens wide enough to cover our sins as well as our triumphs…then we’ll survive. But I think remembrance is key. Without that, we’re truly lost. We might as well be swinging in the dark.”

I shuffled in my chair. It was all a little hard to believe. I was thinking about the rioting in the streets I’d witnessed just days before.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of violence lately that doesn’t leave me feeling so optimistic.”

“Yea those clips I saw on the news were pretty disturbing.”

“I’ve had mixed feelings about whether it was all necessary.”

“I see.”

“What do you think?”

“Well…I’ve got mixed feelings on riots, or at least revolutions in general, but I favor them if they’re carried out effectively.”

“Seems like a sensible view.”

“–Though easier said than done.”

“–Even if that revolution is carried out violently?”

Anselmo seemed to think long and hard about the question before speaking again.

“I don’t celebrate violence as a means of action and I never will, for the mere reason that we so often feel it’s even necessary in order to be heard, and create the world we want to see. That, in and of itself is a tragedy.

“However, while I don’t celebrate violence, I do accept why people resort to it as a course of action; and I can’t altogether disagree with its usefulness in calling attention to the problems in our society.

“Now, with respect to recent events…let’s say a business owner’s store gets destroyed by people rioting in the streets. He or she has every right to be angry and resentful. I don’t judge them for it. Yet at the same time, I cannot judge the people who destroyed it either. Their anger is real and is the result of being overlooked and unheard.

“Now, in a situation like this, I think both sides are essentially right. But it’s always been difficult for us to accept that sort of complication. We are used to viewing things in a binary way. We’ve always been more comfortable with black and white. One side being right, and one side being wrong. It’s less messy for us that way. Easier to understand.

“Of course, that’s never been the nature of reality. Some thing’s cannot be labeled so neatly. In situations like these, then, it’s less a question of who is right and who is wrong, and more a question of addressing the root causes of why the whole thing happened to begin with.

“Until the root, systemic causes are addressed, we cannot expect peace.”

“Right,” I said. “But in this case, that root cause is racism.”

“You bet. Something intimately tied to the history of this country.”

“I saw a storefront owner get his whole shop destroyed. I knew him. He seemed like a good guy–”

“I’m sure he was. But that really is a basic universal truth seen in action, isn’t it? Right before our eyes. The truth being that we cannot isolate ourselves any longer from racism and hate. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person. If you’re a good person, you’re still vulnerable. The problems of the world will still, sooner or later, come crashing through your window. It’s a testament to the fact that racism is not merely their problem, that is, the problem of any one community. In fact, it’s never been their problem. It’s our problem, one that all of us need to finally own.”

“Ok, so let’s say we own it. Then what do we do?”

“We destroy it.”

“How?”

“By standing up for it’s opposite, and by facing the people who need to be faced. Not online, but by actually facing them. By talking to them, and communicating the truth of our cause in whichever way will most effectively convince them.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“If necessary, we must be ready to defend ourselves and those who need more immediate defending. But never stop trying to speak up, to stand up for the right thing. Communicate always with compassion and basic respect. Violence, ultimately, is a failure of communication.”

“Yea well…sometimes communication just fails.”

“Yes, sometimes it does. But we’ve always had a hand in it’s failure, most specifically when good people do nothing.”

“Yea. I guess that’s pretty true.”

“Yea. It is. So do something. Now.”