Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick it up. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.

What Price Louisville?

Plane takes off over pedestrian at Gravelly Point

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
― Timothy SnyderOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Shocking, even for travelers accustomed to the routine discomforts and indignities of flying these days – a man being beaten and dragged from a plane for refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked flight.

Around him, passengers filmed and cried but did not move. After all, they had to get home to Louisville. Raise your voice or get out of your seat and you could be the one on the floor, bloodied and humiliated.

After the video surfaced, the United CEO responded with the kind of corporate-speak that is sadly typical, a masterwork of weasel words designed to avoid responsibility:

As Esquire pointed out, the statements are just as bad as the injury, faulting the passengers for their failure to pre-volunteer for tribute, like the Hunger Games on a plane.

Since they refused to leave their seats, a “volunteer” had to be selected. If that sounds Orwellian, it is because it is:

“This work was strictly voluntary, but any animal who absented himself from it would have his rations reduced by half.”
― George OrwellAnimal Farm

American life has become so degraded that this type of hard-edged mistreatment of customers has become something to be celebrated. Just a couple weeks ago, the United CEO was honored for his work as a communicator:

But let’s go back to the passengers in the plane. Delayed, anxious to get home after a long day, watching this violent drama play out in front of them and their iPhones.

They sat there. No one moved. Some yelled, some filmed, but no one got up from their seats as the police beat and bloodied a man at the behest of United Airlines.

I’m sure I would’ve just sat there, too. The airport experience systematically strips you of your rights and dignity. After enduring long lines and groping from poorly-trained government agents, you’re willing to put up with anything just to feel your plane lift off from the runway and into the blue sky. That includes doing nothing as one of your fellow citizens is violently re-accommodated.

We all want to get home to Louisville. We stay in our seats, lest we receive the same treatment meted out to the unfortunate “volunteer.”

What price Louisville?

Americans must ask themselves this question in the coming days, forced to make a choice between submitting to the kind of routine mistreatment that has become common in American life or deciding to resist.