Charlie Chaplin’s Final Speech in The Great Dictator: A Statement Against Greed, Hate, Intolerance & Fascism (1940)

The narrow “toothbrush mustache” caught on in the late nineteenth century, first in the United States and soon thereafter across the Atlantic. When Charlie Chaplin put one on for a film in 1914, he became its most famous wearer — at least until Adolf Hitler rose to prominence a couple of decades later. By that point Chaplin had become the most famous comedy star in the world, which may have inspired the Nazi Party leader, a known fan of Chaplin’s work, to adopt the same mustache as a kind of tool of self-advancement. Chaplin himself could hardly have approved of his new doppelgänger, and it troubled him to discover their other shared qualities: their births in April of 1889, their poor childhoods, their love of Wagner.

Still, as an inveterate entertainer, Chaplin grasped the comedic potential of his and Hitler’s parallel iconic status. The result, released in 1940, was The Great Dictator, his first genuine sound film. Chaplin had continued making silent pictures, and refining his signature visual humor, well into the era of “talkies.”

But he could only have done so much to ridicule Hitler, who had come to power in large part through speeches broadcast over the radio, without being able to use his voice as well. Yet he delivers his most memorable lines not in the role of Hitler surrogate Adenoid Hynkel, but that of the unnamed Jewish barber who — through, of course, several absurd turns of events — ends up mistaken for Hynkel and made to address the nation.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor,” says Chaplin-as-the-Barber-as-Hynkel. “That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.” Throughout the three-and-a-half-minute monologue, he speaks against “greed,” “cleverness,” “national barriers,” and “the hate of men”; he advocates for “kindness and gentleness,” “universal brotherhood,” “a world of reason,” and “the love of humanity.” These may not be especially precise terms, but, knowing his public well — much better, indeed, than Hitler ever knew his — Chaplin also knew just when to go broad.

Related content:

How Did Hitler Rise to Power? : New TED-ED Animation Provides a Case Study in How Fascists Get Democratically Elected

When Mahatma Gandhi Met Charlie Chaplin (1931)

Carl Jung Psychoanalyzes Hitler: “He’s the Unconscious of 78 Million Germans.” “Without the German People He’d Be Nothing” (1938)

When Charlie Chaplin Entered a Chaplin Look-Alike Contest & Came in 20th Place

The Famous Downfall Scene Explained: What Really Happened in Hitler’s Bunker at the End?

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


Fascism!: The US Army Publishes a Pamphlet in 1945 Explaining How to Spot Fascism at Home and Abroad

Fascism is a word that’s been used a great deal these last few years,” says the article pictured above (scanned in full here at the Internet Archive). “We come across it in our newspapers, we hear it in our newsreels, it comes up in our bull sessions.” Other than the part about newsreels (today’s equivalent being our social-media feeds, or perhaps the videos put before our eyes by the algorithm), these sentences could well have been published today. Some see the fascist takeover of modern-day democracies as practically imminent, while others argue that the concept itself has no meaning in the twenty-first century. But 78 years ago, when this issue of Army Talk came off the press, fascism was very much a going — and fearsome — concern.

“Beginning in 1943, the War Department published a series of pamphlets for U.S. Army personnel in the European theater of World War II,” writes historian Heather Cox Richardson. The mission of Army Talks, in the publication’s own words, was to help its readers “become better-informed men and women and therefore better soldiers.”

Each issue included a topic for discussion, and on March 25, 1945, that topic was fascism — or, as the headline puts it, “FASCISM!” Under that ideology, defined as “government by the few and for the few,” a small group of political actors achieves “seizure and control of the economic, political, social, and cultural life of the state.” Such ruling classes “permit no civil liberties, no equality before the law. They make their own rules and change them when they choose. If you don’t like it, it’s ‘T.S.'”

Fascists come to power, the text explains, in times of hardship, during which they promise “everything to everyone”: land to the farmers, jobs to the workers, customers and profits to the small businessmen, elimination of small businessmen to the industrialists, and so on. When this regime “under which everything not prohibited is compulsory” inevitably fails to deliver a perfect society, things turn violent, both in the country’s internal struggles and in its conflicts with other powers. To many Americans at the time of World War II, this might seem like a wholly foreign disorder, liable to afflict only such distant lands as Italy, Japan, and Germany. But a notional American fascism would look and feel familiar, working “under the guise of ‘super-patriotism’ and ‘super-Americanism.’ Fascist leaders are neither stupid nor naïve. They know that they must hand out a line that ‘sells.'”

That someone’s always trying to sell you something in politics — and even more so in American politics — is as true in 2023 as it was in 1945. Though whoever assumed back then that “it couldn’t happen here” presumably figured that the United States was too wealthy a society for fascist temptations to gain a foothold. But even the most favorable economic fortunes can reverse, and “lots of things can happen inside of people when they are unemployed or hungry. They become frightened, angry, desperate, confused. Many, in their misery, seek to find somebody to blame. They look for a scapegoat as a way out. Fascism is always ready to provide one.” And not only fascism: political opportunists of every stripe know full well the power to be drawn from “the insecure and unemployed” looking for someone on who “to pin the blame for their misfortune” — and how easy it is to do so when no one else has a more appealing vision of the future to offer.

You can see a scan of the original document here, and read the text here.

Related content:

How to Spot a Communist Using Literary Criticism: A 1955 Manual from the U.S. Military

Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

The Story of Fascism: Rick Steves’ Documentary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Century

Walter Benjamin Explains How Fascism Uses Mass Media to Turn Politics Into Spectacle (1935)

Sinclair Lewis’ Chilling Play, It Can’t Happen Here: A Read-Through by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Hunter S. Thompson Gets in a Gunfight with His Neighbor & Dispenses Political Wisdom: “In a Democracy, You Have to Be a Player”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Martin Amis (RIP) Explains Why American Populism Is a Con

In the later decades of his 50-year-long career as a novelist, the late Martin Amis had a reputation as something of a controversialist. This made more sense in his native England than in the America to which he later relocated, and whose largely non-literary provocateurs tend to an aggressive plainspokenness bordering on — and more recently, driving well into the territory of — vulgarity. “Intellectual snobbery has been much neglected,” says Amis in the Big Think interview clip above. His plea is for “more care about how people express themselves and more reverence, not for people of high social standing, but for people of decent education and training.”

This against populism, which “relies on a sentimental and very old-fashioned view that the uneducated population knows better, in its instincts, than the over-refined elite, that leads to anti-intellectualism, which is self-destructive for everyone”: the lionization, in other words, of the kind of figure given to declarations like “I go with my gut.”

In every other land, as Amis sees it, “brain has won over gut, but in America it still splits the nation.” It would be one thing if the viscera-trusting rabble-rousers actually worked to further the interests of the common man, but in every real-world scenario it turns out to be quite another. “It’s an act, populism. It’s always an act.”

An admirer of American democracy, Amis acknowledged the right to free speech as a vital element of that system. “You’ve got it or you haven’t,” he says in the clip just above, “and every diminution of freedom of speech diminishes everyone, and lessens the currency of freedom of speech.” But he also lays down a caveat: “The controversial statement has to be earned. It can’t just be tossed off. You have to be able to back it up.” He even describes himself as “a fan of political correctness” — of not “the outer fringe P.C., but raising the standards about what can be said.” This process comes with its own challenges, and “you have to sort of work round it a bit.” But since greater restrictions demand, and reward, more skillful subtlety, an adept writer will always be of two minds about free speech. It will surely be a while before we see another writer quite as adept as Martin Amis.

Related content:

Martin Amis Explains His Method for Writing Great Sentences

Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

Martin Amis Explains How to Use a Thesaurus to Actually Improve Your Writing

Norman Mailer & Martin Amis, No Strangers to Controversy, Talk in 1991

P. J. O’Rourke (RIP) Explains Why You Can Never Win Over Your Political Adversaries by Mocking Them

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How The Parthenon Marbles Ended Up In The British Museum

Last month, we delved into a proposal to use digital technology to clone the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Marbles currently housed in the British Museum.

The hope is that such uncanny facsimiles might finally convince museum Trustees and the British government to return the originals to Athens.

Today, we’ll take a closer look at just how these treasures of antiquity, known to many as the Elgin marbles, wound up so far afield.

The most obvious culprit is Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who initiated the takeover while serving as Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1798-1803.

Prior to setting sail for this posting, he hatched a plan to assemble a documentary team who would sketch and create plaster molds of the Parthenon marbles for the eventual edification of artists and architects back home. Better yet, he’d get the British government to pay for it.

The British government, eying the massive price tag of such a proposal, passed.

So Elgin used some of his heiress wife’s fortune to finance the project himself, hiring landscape painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri – described by Lord Byron as “an Italian painter of the first eminence” –  to oversee a team of draftsmen, sculptors, and architects.

As The Nerdwriter‘s Evan Puschak notes above, political alliances and expansionist ambition greased Lord Elgin’s wheels, as the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain found common cause in their hatred of Napoleon.

British efforts to expel occupying French forces from Egypt generated good will sufficient to secure the requisite firman, a legal document without which Lusieri and the team would not have been given access to the Acropolis.

The original firman has never surfaced, and the accuracy of what survives – an English translation of an Italian translation – casts Elgin’s acquisition of the marbles in a very dubious light.

Some scholars and legal experts have asserted that the document in question is a mere administrative letter, since it apparently lacked the signature of Sultan Selim III, which would have given it the contractual heft of a firman.

In addition to giving the team entry to Acropolis grounds to sketch and make plaster casts, erect scaffolding and expose foundations by digging, the letter allowed for the removal of such sculptures or inscriptions as would not interfere with the work or walls of the Acropolis.

This implies that the team was to limit itself to windfall apples, the result of the heavy damage the Acropolis sustained during a 1687 mortar attack by Venetian forces.

Some of the dislodged marble had been harvested for building materials or souvenirs, but plenty of goodies remained on the ground for Elgin and company to cart off.

In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, Hellenist author Bruce Clark details how Elgin’s personal assistant, clergyman Philip Hunt, leveraged Britain’s support of the Ottoman Empire and anti-France position to blur these boundaries:

Seeing how highly the Ottomans valued their alliance with the British, Hunt spotted an opportunity for a further, decisive extension of the Acropolis project. With a nod from the sultan’s representative in Athens—who at the time would have been scared to deny a Briton anything—Hunt set about removing the sculptures that still adorned the upper reaches of the Parthenon. This went much further than anyone had imagined possible a few weeks earlier. On July 31, the first of the high-standing sculptures was hauled down, inaugurating a program of systematic stripping, with scores of locals working under Lusieri’s enthusiastic supervision.

Lusieri, whose admirer Lord Byron became a furious critic of Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles, ended his days believing that his commitment to Lord Elgin ultimately cost him an illustrious career as a watercolorist.

He also conceded that the team had been “obliged to be a little barbarous”, a gross understatement when one considers their vandalism of the Parthenon during the ten years it took them to make off with half of its surviving treasures – 21 figures from East and West pediments, 15 metope panels, and 246 feet of what had been a continuous narrative frieze.

Clark notes that although Elgin succeeded in relocating them to British soil, he “derived little personal happiness from his antiquarian acquisitions.”

After numerous logistical headaches involved in their transport, he found himself begging the British government to take them off his hands when an acrimonious divorce landed him in financial straits.

This time the British government agreed, acquiring the lot for £35,000 – less than half of what Lord Elgin claimed to have shelled out for the operation.

The so-called Elgin Marbles became part of the British Museum’s collection in 1816, five years before the Greek War of Independence‘s start.

They have been on continual display ever since.

The 21st-century has witnessed a number of world class museums rethinking the provenance of their most storied artifacts. In many cases, they have elected to return them to their land of origin.

Greece has long called for the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum to be permanently repatriated to Athens, but thusfar museum Trustees have refused.

In their opinion, it’s complicated.

Is it though? Lord Elgin’s ultimate motivations might have been, and Bruce Clark, in a brilliant ninja move, suggests that the return could be viewed as a positive stripping away, atonement by way of getting back to basics:

Suppose that among his mixture of motives—personal aggrandizement, rivalry with the French and so on—the welfare of the sculptures actually had been Elgin’s primary concern. How could that purpose best be served today? Perhaps by placing the Acropolis sculptures in a place where they would be extremely safe, extremely well conserved and superbly displayed for the enjoyment of all? The Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 at the foot of the Parthenon, is an ideal candidate; it was built with the goal of eventually housing all of the surviving elements of the Parthenon frieze…. If the earl really cared about the marbles, and if he were with us today, he would want to see them in Athens now.

Related Content 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Restores the Original Colors to Ancient Statues

Robots Are Carving Replicas of the Parthenon Marbles: Could They Help the Real Ancient Sculptures Return to Greece?

John Oliver’s Show on World-Class Art Museums & Their Looted Art: Watch It Free Online

Take a Virtual Reality Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Recent Decades All Feel Culturally the Same, and Why Mark Fisher Thought Capitalism Was to Blame

The nineteen-seventies had its own distinctive aesthetics, questionable though that period’s styles have often looked to subsequent generations. So, in stark, jagged, neon contrast, did the eighties. Those of us who came of age in the nineties have, in recent years, come to appreciate that look and feel of what then surrounded us, which seemed both bland and exaggerated at the time. But around the turn of the millennium, something fundamental seems to have changed. The brief “Y2K” era may now officially be retro, but how different was the style of the two-thousands from that of the subsequent decade, or indeed one after that — the one in which we find ourselves right now?

To put the question more bluntly, why don’t decades feel culturally distinct anymore? “The dimension of the future has disappeared,” British theorist Mark Fisher once said in a lecture. “We’re marooned, we’re trapped in the twentieth century, still.”

To be in the twenty-first century is nothing more than “to have twentieth-century culture on high-definition screens.” Though Fisher died five years ago, his observations have only become more relevant to our cultural condition. We’re still experiencing what he called “the slow cancellation of the future,” a phenomenon explained in the Epoch Philosophy video at the top of the post.

“The way we experience artistic time periods is dying as we speak,” explains the video’s narrator. “In our current state of this new postmodern social existence that we see in the West, historicity is gone. The way we interact and experience time is starting to fade away into a confused jumbled mess of aesthetic chaos.” The culprit, in Fisher’s view? The triumph of capitalism, and more so the “capitalist realism” that closes off the possibility of even imagining alternative social and economic orders. “During the age of social democracy, Britain funded art programs and film centers,” resulting in “experimental classics” and “extremely artistic British TV.” These and other mechanisms maintained a “sublime value around art” that protected it from “the whims of the market.”

Today we have only “a hyper-commodified sphere of art, where the primary goal is now making a profit — not necessarily out of pure love of profit, but the realization that your ability to be an artist will die without tangible sales.” Hence the “recycling of old art” in forms as various as “music, TV, film, and even video games.” This absence of the truly new, to Fisher’s mind, implied the death of the very idea of the future, of improvement on or at least a break from the present. No matter our political views — or our ability to digest Fisher’s use of Derridean terms like “hauntology” — we’ve all felt the truth of this in our cultural lives. As technology marches on, we indulge ever more deeply in nostalgia, pastiche, and retro-futurism. Perhaps we can break out of this cycle, but Fisher, safe to say, was not optimistic.

Related content:

How Previous Decades Predicted the Future: The 21st Century as Imagined in the 1900s, 1950s, 1980s, and Other Eras

An Animated Introduction to Theodor Adorno & His Critique of Modern Capitalism

Stephen Hawking Wonders Whether Capitalism or Artificial Intelligence Will Doom the Human Race

How the Soviets Imagined in 1960 What the World Would Look in 2017: A Gallery of Retro-Futuristic Drawings

The Crisis of Capitalism Animated

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Banksy Spray Paints Murals in War-Torn Ukraine

We may not know for sure the identity of Banksy, the English street artist famous for his social-commentary graffiti murals inspired and integrated with their surroundings. But given his apparent interests, we might have suspected him to turn up in Ukraine sooner or later. Recently posted by Banksy himself, the video above shows him at work in the region of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, each of which makes a visual comment on this year’s Russian invasion and the fortitude Ukraine’s people have shown against it. “As is typical of Banksy’s work,” writes The Art Newspaper‘s Torey Akers, “the artist’s edits combine a satirist’s edge for winking commentary with a sincere investment in political solidarity.”’s Jacquelyne Germain describes a few of Banksy’s new works in Ukraine, beginning with two in the nearly abandoned town of Borodyanka. “Painted on the side of a crumbling building,” one piece “depicts a gymnast doing a handstand on a pile of rubble.”

In another, “a young boy flips an older man onto his back in a judo match. Some speculate that the older man is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is known to be a judo enthusiast.” (Banksy has developed a distinctive sensibility in his decades of public art, but subtlety isn’t its foremost element.) His images put up elsewhere “juxtapose wartime imagery with snapshots of civilian life: in one, children ride a metal tank trap as a seesaw,” and in another “a woman in her dressing gown wears a gas mask.”

The conflict in Ukraine now approaches its tenth month, with no clear signs of an end to the violence. Civilian life can’t go on, yet must go on, and it comes as no surprise that Banksy would find something to draw upon in that harrowing and contradictory state of affairs. Nor could it have been lost on him what contextual power the shambolic urban environments of Borodyanka, Hostomel, and Horenka — towns literally torn apart by war — could grant even murals humorously spray-painted upon its surfaces.

At the end of the video, Akers notes, “a heated local man points to an image the artist painted on a graffitied wall so that a pre-existing tag of a penis became a warhead atop an armored truck and declares, ‘For this, I would kick out all his teeth and break his legs.'” Even in a war zone, everybody’s a critic.

Related content:

The Making of Modern Ukraine: A Free Online Course from Yale Professor Timothy Snyder

Banksy’s Great British Spraycation: The Artist Spray Paints England’s Favorite Summer-Holiday Destinations

Banksy Debuts His COVID-19 Art Project: Good to See That He Has TP at Home

The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross & Banksy: Watch Banksy Paint a Mural on the Jail That Once Housed Oscar Wilde

Banksy Paints a Grim Holiday Mural: Season’s Greetings to All

How Ukraine’s Works of Art Are Being Saved in Wartime — Using the Lessons of World War II

Why Russia Invaded Ukraine: A Useful Primer

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Internet Archive Launches Democracy’s Library, a Free Online Library of 500,000 Documents Supporting Democracy

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So said Winston Churchill, perhaps not suspecting how frequently the remark would be quoted in the decades thereafter. Time and experience continue to reveal to us democracy’s liabilities, but also — at least in certain societies — the nature of its surprising staying power. Since well before Churchill’s time, democracy and its workings have been objects of fascination the world over. So have its central questions, not least the one of just how to maintain the “informed citizenry” on which its operation supposedly depends.

The Internet Archive has just launched its own kind of answer in the form of Democracy’s Library. “A free, open, online compendium of government research and publications from around the world,” the site offers citizens a way to “leverage useful research, learn about the workings of their government, hold officials accountable, and be more informed voters.”

Collected from a variety of governmental bodies like the United States’ National Agricultural LibraryForeign Broadcast Information Service, and National Institute of Standards and Technology Research Library — as well as Statistics Canada and Public Accounts of Canada — its materials were ostensibly produced for the public, but haven’t always been easy to find. It total, there are more than 500,000 documents in the collection.

“Governments have created an abundance of information and put it in the public domain, but it turns out the public can’t easily access it,” says Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. He gives one of the series of talks that comprise “Building Democracy’s Library,” the launch celebration that took place last week and that you can still watch in the video above. Its proceedings go into quite a bit of detail about the efforts of acquisition and organization that went into this project, as well as the nature of its mission. For this isn’t just an effort to document democracy, but to strengthen it by making the information it produces available as conveniently as possible to as many citizens as possible. And no matter the country of which you count yourself a citizen, you can start browsing Democracy’s Library here.

Related content:

Historian Timothy Snyder Presents 20 Lessons for Defending Democracy Against Tyranny in a New Video Series

Why Socrates Hated Democracies: An Animated Case for Why Self-Government Requires Wisdom & Education

Hannah Arendt Explains Why Democracies Need to Safeguard the Free Press & Truth … to Defend Themselves Against Dictators and Their Lies

Does Democracy Demand the Tolerance of the Intolerant? Karl Popper’s Paradox

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Historian Timothy Snyder Presents 20 Lessons for Defending Democracy Against Tyranny in a New Video Series

Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder has sounded alarm bells about autocracy and fascism for several years now, in both his scholarly and popular books about Russian and German history. Whether you’ve followed his warnings or just started paying attention, it’s not too late to get caught up on the lessons he brings from his rigorous studies of 20th century totalitarianism. To make his relevant points more accessible, Snyder has distilled them over the years, aiming at the widest popular audience.

First, he published On Tyranny in 2017, drawing 20 lessons about unfreedom from the lives of those under the Nazi, Soviet, and other fascist and totalitarian regimes. Without arguing that history repeats, exactly, Snyder noted similarities and differences to past events, and adapted general principles to the geopolitics of the early 21st century. These lessons get reiterated and distilled even further in an edition of the best-selling On Tyranny illustrated by artist Nora Krug.

Published in 2021 and reflecting four years of Trumpism, the illustrated edition continues what we might call Snyder’s Chomskyan commitment to public intellectualism. Trump may be out of power, but the threats to democracy are wired in — in one judicial action after another, and in states like North Carolina, where an illegal, racially-gerrymandered state legislature has held power for years, and now seeks to nullify federal elections at state level, with many other states threatening to follow suit.

This kind of political secessionism imposes the permanent will of a minority on a rapidly changing nation, ensuring that history never catches up with the elites, a category that includes leaders on both sides of the euphemistic “aisle.” For increasing numbers of Americans, political divisions are more aptly characterized by barricades, prison walls, or indivisible codes of silence(ing), repression, and complicity. Snyder meets this time of creeping (loping?) fascism  with a YouTube series in which he speaks directly to the camera.

He isn’t giving up on more people paying attention to the bigger picture, and he’s never given up on effective responses to 21st century tyranny. Voting alone has never been enough, and it could be rendered meaningless in the near future. The lessons — “Do not obey in advance”; “Defend institutions”; “Beware the one-party state” — may be familiar to us now, or they may not. But if they bear repeating, it’s worth hearing them from Snyder himself, who closes some of the distance between the intellectual and the public by stepping away from print altogether — a medium perhaps unsuited to the malleable demands of the online present.

How does the media affect, or become, Snyder’s message, especially when it’s effectively one-sidedly televisual, the medium of the 20th century of fascism par excellence? Snyder does not address these theoretical questions, except indirectly by way of a generic book talk aesthetic complete with rumpled shirt, rustling lapel mic, and requisite background shelves of books you’ll find yourself trying to identify as you learn to “be wary of paramilitaries.”

Being wary is one thing, but to what does Snyder’s hyper vigilance add up without the power to make change where we are? Ah, but in asking such a question, maybe we find we are already in the trap, obeying in advance by assuming powerlessness and freely giving up control. It’s our job as individuals to apply the relevant lessons where we can in our own lives, and to read (or watch) Snyder critically, in relation to other trustworthy voices within, and far outside of, Ivy League academic departments.

We do not lack the information we need to understand our moment through a historical lens. But we often lack the knowledge to make sense of things at world-historical scale. Historians like Snyder can bridge the gap, and it’s good to take advantage of the freely-offered professional experience of skilled readers, researchers, and educators. In this instance, Snyder’s approach seems well-tailored to counter innumerable presentations that trivialize WWII history into overfamiliarity and perverse spectacle… or what another anti-fascist public intellectual, Walter Benjamin, identified as the aestheticization of politics — fascism-by-passive-consumerism that leads us down the path to horrors we’d never contemplate outright….

Watch all 20 lessons above, or find them here.

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky Explains the Best Way for Ordinary People to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunting

20 Lessons from the 20th Century About How to Defend Democracy from Authoritarianism, According to Yale Historian Timothy Snyder

A Beautifully Illustrated Edition of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, the Bestselling Book by Historian Timothy Snyder

The Making of Modern Ukraine: A Free Online Course from Yale Professor Timothy Snyder

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.