As works of history, your books before On Tyranny were meant to teach, but left readers to draw their own conclusions about where to go from there. You didn’t have to enter the political fray. What compelled you to do so now?
How we think about 9 November 2016 has to do with what happened on that day, but also with everything we have experienced in our lives up to that day. The election of Donald Trump forced me to consider what I thought I understood about history in light of what had just happened. I had spent years learning languages, reading documents, and studying historiography to try to understand how mass killing was possible in the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. Because that is where my mind was, it was always obvious to me that “it can happen.”
To have become the person who could write these books, I also had to have certain kinds of experiences. I had to have teachers from eastern and central Europe, people who experienced Communism and Nazism and who took for granted that at some moments the scholar has to be the activist. That’s the tradition of intellectuals in eastern Europe. A teacher is someone from whom we learn, someone like us, part of the same community, as a sharer of thoughts. And so it was also obvious to me that “it can happen to people like us.” I love my country, but I am not an American exceptionalist; I don’t see any particular reason to believe that we would behave better or worse in the kinds of circumstances that I have studied—or which, in the case of new authoritarianisms of the twenty-first century, I have seen for myself. Being a historian of modern eastern Europe means having students from the region, people whose lives have not at all followed the story that we were all given after 1989, namely that the market would bring democracy and democracy would bring happiness. As they have come of age, they have seen democracy and freedom recede, and some of them have done something about it. I have tried to learn from them, and much of what I have learned from them is in the book. Because I also live in a world where many of the processes that we now see in the United States had advanced further, it was clear to me that “it can happen to people like us and it is happening already.”
During 2016 I wrote articles about Donald Trump that seemed radical at the time but which by now are more or less common sense. I wasn’t wise enough to believe that he would win, but I did immediately see his victory as a historic moment, in the sense of a moment where individual actions would begin to matter intensely. The advantage that history gives us is that we can recognize the patterns: the way he used language, his behavior at rallies, and his assault on truth all resonated for me because of what I work on and what I think about. And history actually buys us time: if we can recognize these patterns quickly, we can actually do something when action still matters. I was convinced that Americans would tend to react in two ways: that nothing is actually happening, and therefore nothing needs to be done; or that something was actually happening that is totally new, and therefore we have no basis to act. These were, in fact, very common reactions late last year and early this year. I wanted us to get through that before those reactions became part of a process that doomed us to authoritarianism. And so I wrote the 20 lessons a few days after the election, and the book in December of last year.
On Tyranny is structured as a set of 20 lessons. In reading them I was struck by how similar they seemed to be to the Quaker tradition of offering “advices” in place of a formal creed. How do you feel your background as a Friend and familiarity with the advice-and-query format influenced your writing?
I don’t think that this was a particular influence, although there is a certain resemblance. In the book, I am not offering a particular idea of a political system, although in what I criticize here and there readers can get an idea of where I think injustice lies. I am rather preparing for an emergency in which what we have must be sustained, so that possibilities for something better can be preserved. The resemblance to Quaker thought might be at a deeper level: the call to do something that is felt internally and ethically, though without complete certainty—which is always impossible—about the entire structure of a situation. History is among other things a factory of excuses: we never understand everything about our moment, and we can always use some uncertainty as a reason not to act. But in so doing, we are not evading history but changing it in a certain way. Choosing to act from a kind of intuition or moral instinct is something that I associate with my own education as a Quaker. Others might see this differently, of course. Beyond that, a deep moral logic of the book is that ethically motivated individual action can have disproportionate influence. In the book the authorities for this kind of argument are east Europeans coming from different traditions, such as Vaclav Havel. But you can see a resemblance among individuals from different traditions who have been motivated by ethics.
We’re starting this interview days after neo-Nazi groups marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, in a rally where white supremacists committed violent and deadly attacks against peaceful counter-protesters. What was subtext at the dawn of the Trump administration is now more overt. Are Friends’ responsibilities heightened now? Are we especially positioned to join the fight against tyranny in a specific way?
I am in no position to advise Friends generally. I would rather remain in the mode of saying what I have learned from Friends. My own conviction, which applies to everyone and not just to Friends, is that we face not just a series of outrages (we do face that, of course) but a regime change in which each outrage is a kind of symptom. This means that our own actions have to be actions and not reactions. It is important to react, and I react all the time, but what is more important is to have regular forms of action that allow us to make a difference all the time. This is important politically, but it is also important psychologically, because otherwise each outrage can be demoralizing.
The book started as a Facebook post that went viral, being viewed by millions of people online. Part of what resonated with people was the specificity of the lessons. For example, two of them are “Do not obey in advance” and “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” Specificity makes them easy to apply. I contrast that with Quaker testimonies (statements of strongly held belief) that leave those of us who believe in them with less guidance about what to do. Should Friends be more specific about what we are called to do in this moment, today?
I might put that in a slightly different way. A testimony can be an action as well as a thought. Now is certainly a good time to experiment with new ways of acting in accordance with testimonies. The technical part of On Tyranny is the provision of simple, practical actions. But each of these comes with a political and moral rationale. In the book there are 20 lessons, and some will make more sense than others to certain people at certain times. Not long after I published the lessons, I got an email from someone who said he was following 19 of them, which made me laugh. Nineteen is pretty much impossible. What I hear all the time, and which cheers me to no end, is that activists are finding three or four of them particularly helpful, and following those three or four.
Although some Quakers were among the earliest modern abolitionists, it took the Religious Society of Friends decades to arrive at a firm corporate stance against slavery. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, a time frame measured in decades may as well be measured in eons, yet Friends processes of discernment still grind slow. Would you advise Friends to act with more urgency? How?
I actually think that you are referring to a strength of Friends, which is the ability to imagine a different world from the one in which we live. I grew up around people whose sense of politics I sometimes found utopian, but by whom I was nevertheless impressed. It takes some vision of a different world to imagine how we might get from here to there. My gifts, if I have them, might be a little different. On Tyranny is not a book about a better country or a better planet, but rather a book about how to stop things from getting much worse very quickly. Because of who I am and what I do, the book draws mainly from knowledge of how a country and a planet can be much worse. But it also draws from a conviction that each of us can convert these visions—be they positive or be they negative—into meaningful present action.