Tyranny and its Discontents

We hold these truths to be self-evident …

So says the Declaration of Independence, whose signers took note of a long slate of truths, including the laws of nature and nature’s God, the proposition that all are created equal, and the right to pursue happiness and oppose tyranny.

The Founders couldn’t imagine the new nation without these ideas. They provided spiritual glue in dangerous times. The Declaration’s framers couldn’t afford the luxury of indulging in “post-truth” polarization.

Now comes another Independence Day, which finds many of us dazed, despondent yet ever dazzled by daily presidential theatrics, the hypnotics of new media, and the distortion of our laws and regulations by the big money.

Such things always existed. But they’re elbowing their way deeper into public square and inner consciousness, taking up space that previously reserved for private life and public goals.

Spiritual values were always part of the republic’s checks and balances. But that role is harder to identify now as we witness a transfer of national energy and creativity to reality-show exhibitionism and unapologetic power politics.

A short book from last year, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, looks at recent history and sees our democracy under real threat. We’re awash in news notifications, addictive despair and distrust, all the while shrugging off inconvenient facts that undergird a functional society.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” Snyder writes. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”

In the last century, Hitler and Stalin grabbed power by destroying institutions and endlessly lying and sloganeering. Real patriotism, Snyder says, “wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.”

His 20 lessons for a renewed citizenry:

  • Do not obey in advance (don’t sign the loyalty oath).
  • Make eye contact and small talk.
  • Defend institutions.
  • Beware the one-party state.
  • Learn from peers in other countries.
  • Establish a private life. (Try to separate yourself from the internet.)
  • Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  • Be wary of paramilitaries.
  • Be reflective if you must be armed.
  • Be kind to our language.
  • Remember professional ethics.
  • Stand out.
  • Investigate.
  • Practice corporeal politics. (“Make new friends and march with them.”)
  • Contribute to good causes.
  • Listen for dangerous words.
  • Be a patriot.
  • Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  • Be as courageous as you can.
  • Believe in truth.

The book does not address belief in God. But gospel faith is consistent with his arguments. Places of worship and personal conscience must challenge dark national mythologizing and should strengthen civil society.

Rejecting a religious establishment, the Founders endorsed the free exercise of religion. By an ingenious math, this spiritual pluralism has, up to now, helped maintain a balance of sanity in the national soul – a balance that keeps the US from sliding off into a tyranny that worships violence, repeats self-pitying lies and disdains obvious truth.

Snyder hopes readers will take as self-evident an urgent truth of our moment: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”