In 2017, I broke up with fiction. I did so because I’m sick of the lies.
Thanks to Trumpism, all I read now is truth. This year, I fed myself a diet of journalism, primarily The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, political philosophy, art criticism, and history. I’ll focus here on three books that I found significant.
Historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny began as a Facebook listicle prefaced by this warning: “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.” Snyder’s book refines and develops this list, yielding 20 lessons fleshed out in 20 short chapters. Snyder points to historical examples that demonstrate his chapter titles in action. Each title constitutes a clearly worded political imperative, and if one follows these suggestions, one will be participating in the preservation and strengthening of the American republic. These commandments largely emphasize disobeying tyrannical orders and engaging in IRL politics as opposed to Internet activism. Snyder’s book is not a revolutionary handbook but, rather, a restorative one.
About tyranny, Hannah Arendt wrote, “The rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have tyranny without a tyrant.” Like many Americans, Snyder turned to Arendt’s words and used them to substantiate the advice he gives in his book. I have also refamiliarized myself with Arendt’s work and made it a point to consume as much of it as I have time for. Her work is at times confusing, surprising, and always heterodox. The above quote comes from On Violence, a phenomenological meditation on violence’s negative attributes. Although the text at times becomes uncharacteristically polemical, it proposes interesting observations regarding the relationship between power and violence. Not only are they not the same, she argues, they are opposites. She asserts that violence may only destroy power but may never create it. It is a destructive instrument and not a generative phenomenon.
Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise originated much like Snyder’s book. Nichols wrote a blog post bemoaning American disdain for expertise, linking it to the American tradition of anti-intellectualism and his post, like Snyder’s, went viral. It grew into a book that charts reasons for this disdain, how it manifests, why it’s dangerous, how it threatens our republic, and what both experts and non-experts may do to change this trend. I found myself nodding at page after page because I’m a teacher. I teach economics, civics, and history and since the election of 2016, I have had a difficult time stomaching the following type of person: a well-intentioned American with strong political feelings who lacks competence about how many of our republic’s institutions work. Nichols’s book is a plea, it invites non-experts to exercise humility in the face of professional expertise, and I wholeheartedly cosign this request. While I hope that I will have the strength to be intellectually humble when needed, I admit that humility is tough virtue for me to exercise: I’m as American as the next guy.
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