Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s weeknight host for news, has been named best TV anchor for interviews in today’s world of hourly commentary.
Recently, former Rhodes Scholar Maddow sat across the desk from Timothy Snyder, who has a doctorate in history and teaches at Yale University. He has written a library shelf of books.
As Rachel Maddow recited his accomplishments, Dr. Snyder was taking notes. His latest book is small enough to tuck away on a subway ride. He christened it with a formidable title: “On Tyranny: Twenty lessons From the Twentieth Century.”
Tyranny is not a word we throw around with abandon, but before we get to the body of the book, there is an inscription: “In Politics Being Deceived Is No Excuse.” Dr. Snyder does not suffer fools gladly.
The Founding Fathers were not smoking clay pipes and dipping quill pens from boredom. Their warning against tyranny was short, not open to debate. “Tyranny: The bending of the law by a group of individuals for their personal beliefs.” Think slavery, communism, the persecution of Jews.
Dr. Snyder looks back at history and warns against accepting obedience as a role to fade into the crowd. Jews in Austria were captured by local Austrian Nazis in 1938. Nazis took away Jewish properties with no consequence. Fear kept local merchants from protests. They submitted to roles of disrespected Austrians and wore shirts, identifying them as outcasts, those whose identities were defined by yellow stars, sewn on their sleeves.
Austrian Nazis, meanwhile, adopted the swastika as the symbol of their power. In less than a year, a Central Office for Jewish Emigration had been established by German Nazis who took over Austria with little opposition.
No institution stepped in to stem their power. “Institutions do not protect themselves,” Dr. Snyder writes. “It is up to us to defend those defending the public — a court, a newspaper, a law.”
“Germany became a one-party state and German Jews followed Nazi leaders’ decrees, hoping to be spared. They were not.”
As we read about the tyrannous onslaught of a people who wanted to live in peace, we are reminded ambitions are often tethered to personal gain. One way to push back against a creeping and insidious power grab is to choose a path beyond ambition and deafness to reality. Vote so free speech will include an equal voice for every American.
Beware of symbols of loyalty or disrespect, Dr. Snyder reminds us. Working to elect a Democrat or Republican to a leadership role is a citizenry involved, but characterizing a candidate as unfit because of race or religion is dangerous judgment. A future for the Jewish merchant turned to dust because there was a yellow star stitched on his shirt.
Dr. Snyder writes of May 1940 when Winston Churchill became prime minister of England. Great Britain was on her own. Germany had invaded Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and France.
Adolf Hitler expected England to avoid the conflict, but Churchill stood his ground after German planes bombed London. He called it a time when it was “equally good to live or die.” Churchill’s was the voice defining the English people as proud and determined as they resisted an evil dictator.
Standing against tyranny does not always fall to strong leaders like Churchill. There are countless stories of everyday heroes during the war, those who saved innocent Jews in Warsaw by hiding them in basements and attics.
Still, over two hundred thousand Jews in Poland were deported to death camps and never seen again.
Professor Snyder reminds us we must remain on guard against any softening of history lest we fall into the trap of hearing a politician or leader recast what was true. We must not forget the pattern of blind faith in a dictator, the seduction of being a follower in a crowd, chanting insults and demeaning another candidate. If we join in, we are no longer free thinkers.
Rather than name-calling, we need political campaigns based on solutions to real problems. ”The time is out of joint,” Professor Snyder quotes from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “Was (Hamlet) born to set it right?”
“Nay,” Hamlet decides. “Come, let’s go together.”