Viruses of a Political Kind
How NOT to review a book
During my sophomore year in high school, we had to give an oral book report in English class. I found one that looked interesting, although its name and author have long since disappeared in the fog of my faulty memory, but I do remember the report I gave. For some reason, I didn’t have time to read the entire book. In fact, I didn’t have time to read the book at all, so I did what I suppose many young people are tempted to do even now. I just read the fly-leaf on the cover and shared what it said as my report. I described the adventures of various explorers as they tried to find a safe passage for shipping through the Canadian /American territories from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean.
When I finished talking, our teacher told me ‘thank you’ and as I started back to my desk—almost as an afterthought she asked me, “Did they ever find it?”
“Find what?” I asked.
“A passage through the northwest.”
“Of course,” I answered, without thinking .
“That’s curious,” the teacher said, “because as far as I know, there isn’tany waterway that connects both of those oceans.”
I’d been found out, caught red-handed in the act of presenting a report on a book I’d never read. I learned a good lesson that day: never talk about something to others unless you’ve really done some honest study on the topic.
Two kinds of viruses on the attack
So, what I’m about to present to you here, my readers, is another book report. But rest assured, I’ve read every word of this book, although I have to confess that the first chapter is hard and takes real study and thought to even begin to conceptualize what it says.
I’m writing this on the 28th day of March in 2020, while my wife and I are secluded in our Florida home during the COVID-19 virus pandemic. That virulent attack is far from over, 43 cases in our county with 2 deaths and many more to come, I suspect. But the fact that such a deadly virus is on the move as I chose to write about this book isn’t a mere coincidence. The book I’ll refer to is about another kind of virus that’s also on the attack, a political virus that’s infected every aspect of life in Russia, Europe and here in the U.S. Like that other pathogen currently on the loose in our land, unless we take action—all of us—not only will people suffer and die, but democracy itself is at risk in these 50states that by definition are supposed to be united.
A work by Timothy Snyder
The book I want you to read is this one: THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM by Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Snyder’s book deals with historical trends that move people and nations toward either of two extreme positions, both of which are clear opposites but result in the same damage, the loss of democracy. He calls these trends the politics of ‘inenvitablity’ and ‘eternity’. A warning: it takes some serious focus to understand those terms. The first posits progress as inevitable, an automatic chain of events that doesn’t require anything from us. The second is cyclical, a political philosophy that seizes on some imaginary time or event in the past when everything was supposedly perfect, and asserts that there’s always an enemy out there that wants to attack and destroy ‘us’, all those who accept what they’re being told by a charismatic leader.
Both positions are equally wrong, according to Snyder, and in 281 pages he documents each of those viewpoints with stunning accuracy. Rather than summarize the entire book, I want to mention here some basic themes that he raises in order to highlight them, not flesh out what he presents so well. The only really adequate way to deal with the material he gathers is to read his book.
One basic theme deals with the two concepts mentioned above: the politics of inenvitablity and eternity. A second but very relevant subject is the history of Russia, the former Soviet Union, and earlier histories of the peoples who inhabited parts of that geographical space long before those current entities appeared on the scene. A third area of study has to do with Ukraine and its tenuous connection to America, Europe and the rest of East Asia. A fourth category of material addresses fascism and communism, while yet another topic is recent U.S. history and how our current situation arose, as well as its connection to the concepts of political theories of inenvitablity and eternity.
The Crux of the matter
The overarching theme of THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM is that we all have a choice to make at this juncture in our history. We can go along, thinking there’s nothing we can do to change direction or outcomes, or we can live historically in the moment, think clearly, seek the truth and not fall for lies and myths and brash appeals to our individual and collective fears. Democracy will only survive if we are vigilant in doing all of this, rather than blindly follow charismatic figures who appeal to our baser natures of prejudice and hatred of the ‘other.’
To Sum up
As I said, this book is heavy lifting and requires real concentration and thought, but its message is undeniably relevant and urgent. I don’t know what I’d do if I were presented with the task of giving an oral book report to a group of people on what Snyder has written in his 2018 work. The summary on the back of my paperback copy is a good start, but the details inside are even more important and demand attention.
Still, if you want a primer or ‘shortcut’ to Snyder’s thoughts, then start with a shorter work of his, what he calls a pamphlet—ON TYRANNY, published in 2017. Each chapter focuses on one of 20 lessons from the 20thcentury that he presents in brief cogent language. That smaller work also uses the terms inenvitablity and eternity, but in ways that are much easier to understand and apply.
So, there it is, my report on the latest book I've read. It doesn’t present us with a northwest passage from shore to shore, but it does offer guidance for travelling through the very troubled social and political waters we find ourselves adrift in at this moment in time. COVID-19 will pass, but unless we all join hands and act quickly, the other virus Snyder mentions will actually kill off our democratic republic instead of just a large percentage of its population.