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Speakeasy: A manual on how to keep calm and push on

A survivor’s manual in an increasingly totalitarian world.

A year before Penguin published Yuval Noah Harari’s celebrated 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, it brought out Yale Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder’s book with an intriguingly similar title: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The book has enjoyed surprisingly little attention in the subcontinent (outside the obvious circles), possibly because it explicitly concerns America’s descent into tyranny. Technically, it’s not our business. But Snyder asks American readers to look beyond their borders and read the foreign news, because events in the US are part of a pattern of political change the world over. Following US politics from afar, watching nerveless legislatures and a charismatic maximum leader in search of apotheosis, is just as educational.

Harari’s book was a primer on the possible, while Snyder’s is a slim, 128-page instruction manual for surviving the unthinkable. It is of more immediate interest in a world where the unspeakable is becoming commonplace and the inclination to speak out correspondingly rarer. It includes an eject button: “Make sure that you and your family have passports.”

But the rest of the book suggests ways of seeing and acting before that extremity is reached. The 20 chapter heads are all admonitions: “Be a Patriot” (and not a nationalist), “Believe in Truth”, “Investigate”, and the sobering, “Be Calm when the Unthinkable Arrives”. In a region where whole nations are living in an uneasy calm, unable to rule out the advent of the unimaginable, it is surprising that Snyder’s slimmest volume ever was not more widely read or discussed.

In the US, Snyder is now speaking about his latest book, The Road to Unfreedom, which explores one of the human weaknesses that gives tyranny a fighting chance for power: what he calls the “politics of inevitability”. In brief, he explained in an event at the independent bookstore Politics and Prose in Washington (available on YouTube), it depends on two conflicting notions. Surprisingly, the human mind can harbour them at the same time, without bursting like a rotten egg. The first notion is that history is cyclical, and, therefore, no matter how low we have fallen, we can return to some prelapsarian golden age (Make America Great Again, and practically all of identity politics).

The other fallacy is that history is progressive, and therefore deterministic, and, therefore, we can sit back and watch it just flow past like a great river, confident that it will reach the sea. In the 20th century, the most widely accepted universal rule was that capitalism would make democracy inevitable. But the disaster of 2008 and the yawning gulf between the rich and the poor deflated confidence, and a decade later, the world is still in search of a better model. Just as 30 years ago, India searched for an alternative to socialism and discovered a form of capitalism. Not a whole lot of market freedom, but lots of blue jeans for everyone. Quite the opposite of the demand of George Fernandes, who finally found his freedom this week: “Computer chips, not potato chips.”

Interestingly, the idea that history is a goal-oriented force is being deflated by its most popular adherent since Hegel and Marx. Francis Fukuyama, who proposed in 1989 that the human race had achieved its final form of government in liberal democracy, and was therefore within striking distance of the end of history, has just published Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). It’s not about Europe between the wars, but primarily about events in present-day America. Which are the comedy version of what’s happening in many nations, most of which were built on the idea of progress.

Snyder’s little instruction manual is applicable to all of them. Simple instructions like, “Beware the one-party state” would be applicable in any nation where a single party seeks to crowd out the others. Whether the foremost party is communist, centrist or fascist, the outcome is the same. In the last case, though, the symptoms of the malady appear much faster. Or take this nostrum: “Defend institutions… choose an institution you care about — a court, a newspaper, a law, a labour union — and take its side.”

Indians have been ardent subscribers to the peculiar belief that institutions would always be left standing, would defend the founding principles of the state and would thereby protect society against radical change. But institutions are only as durable as the will of the people constituting them. In the recent past, only universities have consistently stood up for their independence. As for the other great institutions, the landscape is littered with ruins which are fit to be handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India, which can put up a little blue board outside to protect them from graffiti vandals, and sell admission tickets to tourists, like they do at Fatehpur Sikri and the Qutab Minar, both of which were once fine institutions. Even if Snyder writes exclusively about America, readers elsewhere will find his manual locally applicable, no matter where they are. The rising sales of Orwell’s 1984 since 2017 suggests that Winston Smiths everywhere are seeing signs of totalitarianism.

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Speakeasy: Keep Calm and Push On’

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