Activism Comics History

Read On Tyranny – Graphic Edition

Read On Tyranny: Graphic Edition

A graphic edition of historian Timothy Snyder’s bestselling book of lessons for surviving and resisting America’s arc toward authoritarianism, featuring the visual storytelling talents of renowned illustrator Nora Krug.

Timothy Snyder’s New York Times bestseller On Tyranny uses the darkest moments in twentieth-century history, from Nazism to Communism, to teach twenty lessons on resisting modern-day authoritarianism. Among the twenty include a warning to be aware of how symbols used today could affect tomorrow; an urgent reminder to research everything for yourself and to the fullest extent; a point to use personalized and individualized speech rather than cliched phrases for the sake of mass appeal; and more.

In this graphic edition, Nora Krug draws from her highly inventive art style in Belonging–at once a graphic memoir, collage-style scrapbook, historical narrative, and trove of memories–to breathe new life, color, and power into Snyder’s riveting historical references, turning a quick-read pocket guide of lessons into a visually striking rumination. In a time of great uncertainty and instability, this edition of On Tyranny emphasizes the importance of being active, conscious, and deliberate participants in resistance.

Chapter one title page from On Tyranny, with an illustration and a few explanatory sentences that regular people tend to give authoritarians what they want without even needing to be asked
Do not obey in advance.

Continuing my education in resistance, I picked up the graphic edition of On Tyranny. I’m not sure how much has changed from the prose edition, but this acknowledges the pandemic and has a lot to say about the previous president and his tactics. We are deeper down the path of totalitarianism than any American who thinks democracy is a foundational value wants to believe. History has shown the final tipping point can happen extremely quickly.

On a meta level, this is the format I want philosophical works: short and graphic. Another graphic non-fiction work I particularly enjoyed this year was Seek You. Using a graphic format forces the author to pare down to the most essential information, and find the simplest, briefest way to explain their point. Well-chosen photographs and graphics illuminate the message, adding emotion, visual evidence, and tangible memory markers for me to tie new ideas to. I’d say mixed success in the design and illustration of this particular work — some readability challenges in the placement of words.

page from graphic version of On Tyranny showing a collage piece of a 'storm trooper' style fighter, face composed of folded paper and black body adorned with skeletal remains of dead clover
For violence to transform not just the atmosphere but also the system, the emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion have to incorporated into the training of armed guards. These first challenge the police and military, then penetrate the police and military, and finally transform the police and military.

Key Notes

Overview of his guidance about staving off tyranny:

  1. Don’t preemptively obey or grant authority to those who wish to suppress, control, and harm
  2. Functional institutions are important
  3. A one-party state is bad news
  4. Don’t put up with symbols of hatred, don’t let them become socially acceptable
  5. Hold professionals to ethical standards
  6. Paramilitaries, especially associated with one political party, are a very fucking bad sign
  7. If you carry a weapon, be thoughtful about when to use it
  8. Don’t conform to social pressures and go along with accepted thinking when they are wrong
  9. Don’t let others put words in your mouth, but find your own way of speaking and writing — keeping a broad range of thinking and expression as part of culture is important
  10. Take responsibility for learning and sharing only the truth
  11. Educate yourself and support quality journalism
  12. Local community and kind gestures to strangers make a difference
  13. Get out in the world and meet people who aren’t like you
  14. Be aware of your privacy and exercise it
  15. Volunteer and donate to good causes, participate in organized group activities
  16. Never say “it couldn’t happen here” and learn from what other countries have dealt with
  17. Words matter, don’t let them be distorted and turned meaningless (like “terrorist”)
  18. “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.”
  19. Real patriots are not nationalists
  20. “Be as courageous as you can.”

When tyrants speak of extremists, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream — as the tyrants themselves are defining that mainstream at that particular moment…extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.

Warning signs for today

These warning signs of authoritarianism read like the playbook for the current right wing movement:

  • Pretending the truth is false, lying and spreading untruths (#alternativefacts #fakenews, Hunter Biden’s emails!!1!)
  • Paramilitary branch acting violently in coordination with a political party (Jan 6 insurrection)
  • Keeping information out of people’s hands (current wave of banning books about queer people)
  • Destroying institutions (breaking trust in the Supreme Court through malicious and inconsistent appointment practices, letting the government close down multiple times, making the Senate effectively useless, not funding things)
  • Suppressing the vote in support of one political party (lying about election fraud, gerrymandering, striking voters from the rolls, removing polling places from opposition districts, intimidating voters, changing rules to discourage opposition members from voting, refusing to admit D.C. and Puerto Rico as states because they lean liberal)
  • Excusing and enabling unethical behavior (bribing people to protect personal records, lying about COVID status before the presidential debate)
  • “Othering” and demeaning others with symbols (claiming that all queer people are pedos)
  • Controlling language and exposure to ideas (“don’t say gay” bill)

The death of truth

“As observers of totalitarianism such as Victor Klemperer noted, truth dies in four modes.

“The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.

“The second mode is shamanistic incantation. As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.

“The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction.

“The final mode is misplaced faith. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant.

We are all publishers

Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some responsibility for the public’s sense of truth.

This is a good point. I try to pay attention to the source of my information to gauge how trustworthy it is, but don’t do a lot of fact-checking myself. I’m not sharing things on social media, but I do save things here. I think most people would not consider themselves publishers when they are posting on their Instagram or Twitter, but disseminating written information, even in 280 characters, is a form of publishing.

I appreciate the challenge the author issues: if you don’t want to pay for journalism, try doing some reporting yourself. Do the research, the fact-checking, the interviews — it’s a lot of work.

Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you.

I would add, in light of QAnon, “and to manipulate you.” Bad actors are real.

Resistance needs diversity

For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends.

This is something for me to think about, because meeting people of any type, let alone different, is much harder to accomplish during the pandemic when I am staying home and avoiding people. I’ve made some new friends online during the pandemic, and have some short friendly interactions with strangers at events, but those aren’t random selections of people like I might encounter out in the world. In online spaces I usually interact with people who are generally similar to me – interested in reading, the internet, and privacy, or productivity minded creative folks – I’d guess generally upper middle class with white collar jobs, and mostly mid twenties to early fifties at a guess. Out in the world is where I interact with people who are pretty different from me.

I’m wondering about how this works online, where a lot of people “find their people.” A big pool like Twitter allows very different people to interact — yet Twitter has become a hostile space where no one remotely different feels comfortable expressing themselves for fear of a violent pile-on and context collapse.

No one has a private life that can survive public exposure by hostile directive.

Is it possible to build a diverse, positive coalition in a space like Twitter? Can long-term, big-scale change motivate and engage as much as a dog-pile crusade of the day? How can you talk with and learn from people who aren’t like you if no one shares what’s different about themselves?

Freedom and privacy

Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.

By exercising your privacy.

We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it.

The choice to be in public depends on the ability to maintain a private sphere of life. We are free only when it is ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen…If we have no control over who reads what and when, we have no ability to act in the present or plan for the future.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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