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.

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

When Mikhail Gorbachev, the Last Soviet Leader, Starred in a Pizza Hut Commercial (1998)

Mikhail Gorbachev, the 8th and final leader of the Soviet Union, died last month at age 91, a news event that triggered responses ranging from “Who?” to “Wow, was he still alive?” The first response reflects poorly on the teaching of history: journalists reporting on Gorbachev’s death have been obliged to explain his significance to many American readers just a few decades after his name filled U.S. headlines. But it’s also true that Gorbachev left a thoroughly ambiguous legacy that seems to grow only more muddled with time.

As historian Richard Sakwa wrote on the 20th anniversary of the short-lived Soviet empire’s collapse, Gorbachev is remembered in the U.S. — depending on who’s remembering — as either a “magnificent failure” or a “tragic success.” Some former Soviets, especially those more partial to the authoritarianism of a Stalin or Putin, omit any positive descriptions of Gorbachev’s major achievement – to wit, reforming the U.S.S.R. out of existence in the late 1980s with little need, really, for Reagan’s extravagant nuclear posturing.

Putin himself calls the fall of the U.S.S.R. “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the previous century, an assessment shared by many who agree with him on nothing else. At the end of the 80s, however, an emerging generation of Russians had no clear sense of what was happening as their country fell apart. “I was 6 when the Soviet Union broke up,” Anatoly Kurmanaev writes at The New York Times. “I had no idea at the time that the person most responsible for the overwhelming changes transforming my hometown in Siberia was a man called Mikhail Gorbachev. I remember standing in line for bread in the dying days of Communism, but I don’t remember much discussion of his ‘perestroika.'”

Mixed admiration and contempt for Gorbachev trickled down to a younger generation a few years later. “The snatches of conversation I could hear were about people being fed up,” writes Kurmanaev, “not about the man with a distinctive birthmark sitting in the Kremlin…. Ironically, my first distinct, independent memory of Mr. Gorbachev, as perhaps for many of my generation, dates to a 1998 commercial for Pizza Hut,” an ad made by the U.S. fast-food company to celebrate the opening of a restaurant near Red Square, and made by Gorbachev because… well, also ironic, given the ad’s premise… he needed the money.

Written by Tom Darbyshire of ad agency BBDO, the commercial stages a debate between patrons at the restaurant before Gorbachev’s arrival calms things down. “Meant to be tongue-in-cheek,” Maria Luisa Paul writes at The Washington Post, the ad intended to show that “pizza is one of those foods that brings people together and bridges their differences,” says Darbyshire. In yet another irony, Gorbachev himself — who negotiated for a year before agreeing to the spot — refused to eat pizza on camera, allowing his granddaughter the honor instead.

Though he wouldn’t touch the stuff, Gorbachev defended himself against critics, including his own wife, Raisa, by saying “pizza is for everyone. It’s not only consumption. It’s also socializing.” What was the talk at Gorbachev’s local Pizza Hut on the day he popped in with his grandchild to socialize? Why, it was talk of Gorbachev.

“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” one diner alleges.

“Because of him, we have opportunity!” retorts another.

“Because of him, we have political instability,” the first responds.

An older woman breaks the impasse by stating their obvious mutual affinities for pizza, to which all reply, “Hail to Gorbachev!”

Try as they might, not even Pizza Hut could heal the wounds caused by the country’s economic confusion and political instability.

The ad has circulated on social media, and in history classes, before and after Gorbachev’s death as an example of mass media that “still reflects his legacy,” writes Paul. Gorbachev may be largely forgotten — at least in the U.S. — decades after the Pizza Hut ad aired, but it wouldn’t be his last attempt to leave his mark in advertising, as we see in the 2007 Louis Vuitton ad above, featuring a product much less accessible than pizza to the average Russian.

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

Texas School Board Bans Illustrated Edition of The Diary of Anne Frank

According to a recent survey conducted by the Texas State Teachers Association, 70% of surveyed teachers said they were seriously thinking about leaving the teaching profession. “Lingering stress from the pandemic is a factor, but it isn’t the only one. Inadequate pay, political attacks on educators and the failure of state leaders to protect the health and safety of students and school employees also have combined to drive down the morale of teachers to the lowest level in recent memory and endanger our public school system,” TSTA President Ovidia Molina said.

We recently saw how Texas’ educational system has become a vast political minefield, with conservative legislators attempting to ban 800+ books from school libraries–primarily because the books make students feel “uncomfortable.” This week, the Keller Independent School District in Fort Worth, Texas decided to cancel an acclaimed illustrated adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, echoing the recent decision by a Tennessee School board to ban Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel on the Holocaust. The ban of The Diary of Anne Frank was triggered by a parent complaint, which the right-leaning school board decided to honor. Why would thinking people want to opt out of teaching in the Texas educational system? It’s not hard to imagine.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

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When Christopher Hitchens Vigilantly Defended Salman Rushdie After the Fatwah: “It Was a Matter of Everything I Hated Versus Everything I Loved”

I have often been asked if Christopher defended me because he was my close friend. The truth is that he became my close friend because he wanted to defend me. –Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie remains in critical condition after suffering multiple stab wounds while on stage in New York, a shocking occurrence but not quite surprising given that the author has lived with a death sentence over his head since 1989. (You can read the history of that controversy here.) The nation of Iran has denied any responsibility for the attack on the author, but it’s probably safe to assume that his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses has something to do with it, over thirty years after the fact.

“Even before the fatwa,” Steven Erlanger writes in The New York Times“the book was banned in a number of countries, including India, Bangladesh, Sudan and Sri Lanka.” Protests of the novel resulted in several deaths and attacks on booksellers. Rushdie had not set out to enrage much of the Islamic world, but neither had he any interest in appeasing its conservative leaders. Always outspoken, and a ferocious critic of British Empire as well as Islamic theocracy, his career since the fatwa has demonstrated a commitment to freeing the literary arts from the dictates of church and state.

On the subject of imperialism, Rushdie and the late Christopher Hitchens came to disagree after the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq and Hitchens’ “U-turn across the political highway to join forces with the war-makers of George W. Bush’s administration,” Rushdie writes in a Vanity Fair appreciation for Hitchens‘ after the latter’s death. But his book God is Not Great “carried Hitch away from the American right and back toward his natural, liberal, ungodly constituency”; a collection of people who see the free expression of ideas as a far preferable condition to the existence of theocratic death squads.

Wherever he fell at any given time on the political spectrum, Hitchens never gave up his defense of Rushdie, one in which, as he wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, he was completely committed from the start:

It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship– 

Hitchens was gravely disappointed in liberal writers like Arthur Miller who refused to publicly support Rushdie out of fear, as he says in the television interview at the top of the post. The ambivalent response of many on the left struck him as gross political cowardice and hypocrisy. He went on the attack, arguing roundly on popular shows like Question Time (below, with his brother Peter, Baroness Williams, and recently deposed prime minister Boris Johnson).

Hitchens “saw that the attack on The Satanic Verses was not an isolated occurrence,” Rushdie writes, “that across the Muslim world, writers and journalists and artists were being accused of the same crimes — blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, and their modern-day associates, ‘insult’ and ‘offense.'” Rushdie had meant no offense, he writes, “I had not chosen the battle.” But it seems to have chosen him:

It was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humorlessness, philistinism, and the new offense culture of the age). Then I read Christopher using exactly the same everything-he-loved-versus-everything-he-hated trope, and felt… understood.

If the fatwa against Rushdie made him infamous, it did not make him universally beloved, even among his fellow writers, but he always had a fierce ally in Hitchens. Let’s hope Rushdie can pick up the fight for free expression once again when he recovers from this brutal stabbing.

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

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

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” influential German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin introduced the term “aura” to describe an authentic experience of art. Aura relates to the physical proximity between objects and their viewers. Its loss, Benjamin argued, was a distinctly 20th-century phenomenon caused by mass media’s imposition of distance between object and viewer, though it appears to bring art closer through a simulation of intimacy.

The essay makes for potent reading today. Mass media — which for Benjamin meant radio, photography, and film — turns us all into potential actors, critics, experts, he wrote, and takes art out of the realm of the sacred and into the realm of the spectacle. Yet it retains the pretense of ritual. We make offerings to cults of personality, expanded in our time to include influencers and revered and reviled billionaires and political figures who joust in the headlines like professional wrestlers, led around by the chief of all heels. As Benjamin writes:

The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star,  fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity.

Benjamin’s focus on the medium as not only expressive but constitutive of meaning has made his essay a staple on communications and media theory course syllabi, next to the work of Marshall McLuhan. Many readings tend to leave aside the politics of its epilogue, likely since “his remedy,” writes Michael Jay — “the politicization of art by Communism — was forgotten by all but his most militant Marxist interpreters,” and hardly seemed like much of a remedy during the Cold War, when Benjamin became more widely available in translation.

Benjamin’s own idiosyncratic politics aside, his essay anticipates a crisis of authorship and authority currently surfacing in the investigation of a failed coup that includes Twitter replies as key evidence — and in the use of social media more generally as a dominant form of political spectacle.

With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers—at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.

Benjamin’s analysis of conventional film, especially, leads him to conclude that its reception required so little of viewers that they easily become distracted. Everyone’s a critic, but “at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.” Passive consumption and habitual distraction does not make for considered, informed opinion or a healthy sense of proportion.

What Benjamin referred to (in translation) as mechanical reproducibility we might now just call The Internet (and the coteries of “things” it haunts poltergeist-like). Later theorists influenced by Benjamin foresaw our age of digital reproducibility doing away with the need for authentic objects, and real people, altogether. Benjamin himself might characterize a medium that can fully detach from the physical world and the material conditions of its users — a medium in which everyone gets a column, public photo gallery, and video production studio — as ideally suited to the aims of fascism.

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

The logical result of turning politics into spectacle for the sake of preserving inequality, writes Benjamin, is the romanticization of war and slaughter, glorified plainly in the Italian Futurist manifesto of Filippo Marinetti and the literary work of Nazi intellectuals like Ernst Junger. Benjamin ends the essay with a discussion of how fascism aestheticizes politics to one end: the annihilation of aura by more permanent means.

Under the rise of fascism in Europe, Benjamin saw that human “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.” Those who participate in this spectacle seek mass violence “to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology.” Distracted and desensitized, they seek, that is, to compensate for profound disembodiment and the loss of meaningful, authentic experience.

You can read Benjamin’s essay here, or find it in this collected volume.

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

Why You Should Read The Handmaid’s Tale: A Timely Animated Introduction

Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.

Margaret Atwood

There is no need to explain why Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has gone from reading like a warning of the near-future to an allegory of the present after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Atwood’s story revolves around the fictional Republic of Gilead, which takes over the U.S. after a fertility crisis decimates the population. Overnight, the fundamentalist Christian theocracy divides women into two broad classes – Handmaids: chattel who perform the labor of forced birth through forced conception; and the infertile who prop up the patriarchal ruling class as wives, overseers, or slave labor in the polluted “colonies.”

It’s a bleak tale, a story far less about heroism than the TV series based on the book would have viewers–who haven’t read it–believe. (The 5th season, slated for this July, seems to have been delayed until September without explanation.) Why should we read The Handmaid’s Tale? Because it is not only a work of dystopian futurism, but also a narrativized account of what has already happened to women around the world throughout history to the present. The novel is a prism through which to view the ways women have been oppressed through reproductive slavery without the sci-fi scenario of a precipitous loss of human fertility.

As Atwood has explained, “when I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time.” Some of the worst offenses were not well-known. “Female genital mutilation was taking place,” says Atwood, “but if I had put it in 1985 [when the novel was written] probably people wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. They do now.” But we can still choose to overlook the information. “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance,” Atwood says in the novel, “you have to work at it.” The quote opens the 2018 TED-Ed lesson by Naomi Mercer above on Atwood’s book, walking us through its sources in history.

The Handmaid’s Tale, the lesson points out, is an example of “Speculative Fiction,” a form of writing concerned with “possible futures.” This theme unites both utopian and dystopian novels. Atwood’s books trade in the latter, but any reader of the genre will tell you how quickly a more perfect fictional union becomes a nightmare. The Canadian writer has offered this literary inevitability as an explanation for the multiple crises of American democracy:

The real reason people expect so much of America in modern times is that it set out to be a utopia. That didn’t last very long. Nathaniel Hawthorne nailed it when he said the first thing they did when they got to America was build a scaffold and a prison.

What Atwood doesn’t mention, as many critics have pointed out, are the slave pens and auction houses, or the fact that Gilead closely resembles the slave-holding American South in its theocratic patriarchal Christian hierarchy and ultimate control of women’s bodies. And yet, the novel completely sidesteps race by having the Republic of Gilead ship all of the country’s Black people to the Midwest (presumably for forced labor). They are never heard from again by the reader.

This tactic has seemed irresponsible to many critics, as has the show’s sidestepping through colorblind casting, and the wearing of red cloaks and white bonnets in imitation of the book and show as a means of protest. “When we rely too heavily on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,‘ which ignores the presence of race and racism,” says activist Alicia Sanchez Gill, “it really dehumanizes and dismisses our collective experiences of reproductive trauma.” Atwood’s “possible future” pillages slavery’s past and conveniently gets rid of its descendants.

The trauma Gill references includes rape and forced birth, as well as the forced sterilizations of the eugenics movement, carried out with the imprimatur of the Supreme Court (and continuing in recent cases). Kelli Midgley, who founded Handmaids Army DC, offers one explanation for using The Handmaid’s Tale as a protest symbol. Though she agrees to leave the costumes at home if asked by organizers, she says “we are trying to reach a broader audience for people who need this message. We don’t need to tell Black women that their rights are endangered. They always have been.”

Maybe a new message after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is that an assault on anyone’s rights threatens everyone. Or as Atwood wrote in a Canadian Globe and Mail op-ed in 2018, “depriving women of contraceptive information, reproductive rights, a living wage, and prenatal and maternal care – as some states in the US want to do – is practically a death sentence, and is a contravention of basic human rights. But Gilead, being totalitarian, does not respect universal human rights.”

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

Mama Cass and John Denver Sing a Lovely Duet of “Leaving On a Jet Plane” (1972)

My issue is that it’s all very well to sit back and complain but when it’s your country you have a responsibility. – Cass Elliot

What could be more heavenly than Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas and singer-songwriter John Denver harmonizing on Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” a tune many conceived of as a protest to the Vietnam War, owing largely to folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary‘s cover version.

Maybe some voter registration added to the mix?

Before breaking into their duet on the late night TV musical variety show The Midnight Special, Denver invited Mama Cass to share a few words on her efforts to get out the vote in a presidential election year:

I’ve been traveling around the country for the past year or so, talking on a lot of college campuses and trying to find out exactly what people are thinking, and the thing that’s impressed me the most is, there is still in this country, believe it or not, after all the talk, a tremendous amount of apathy on the part of people who maybe don’t like the way things are going and maybe want to change it, but don’t do anything about it, y’know?

It was August 19, 1972. The war in Vietnam and the upcoming contest between President Richard Nixon and his Democratic challenger George McGovern were the top stories. June’s Watergate break in was a mounting concern.

Earlier in the day, the New York Times reported that “Senator George McGovern expects (South Vietnamese) President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and his “cohorts” to flee Saigon into exile and a Communist-dominated coalition to take control of South Vietnam if Mr. McGovern is elected President of the United States on Nov. 7.”

Cass Elliot, a McGovern supporter, had become much more vocal about her political activism following the 1968 break up of The Mamas & The Papas, as in this interview with Rolling Stone:

I think everybody who has a brain should get involved in politics.  Working within. Not criticizing it from the outside.  Become an active participant, no matter how feeble you think the effort is.  I saw in the Democratic Convention in Chicago that there were more people interested in what I was interested in than I believed possible.  It made me want to work.  It made me feel my opinion and ideas were not futile, that there would be room in an organized movement of politics for me to voice myself. 

She remained diplomatic on the Midnight Special, telling viewers that “I don’t think it’s so important who you vote for, you vote for who you believe in, but the important thing is to vote,” though it’s hard to imagine that anyone tuning in from home would mistake her for a Nixon gal.

Earlier in the year she had ushered at the Four For McGovern fundraising concert at the LA Forum, was in the audience at Madison Square Warren Beatty’s Together for McGovern concert Garden, and attended a party Americans Abroad for McGovern held in London.

Shortly after the election (SPOILER: Her man lost), during an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, above, she intimated that she might be open to a career shift:

 I think I would like to be a Senator or something in twenty years.  I don’t think I really know enough yet. I’m just 30 now and I wouldn’t even be eligible to run for office for another five years.  But I have a lot of feelings about things.  I know the way I would like to see things for this country and in my travels, when I talk to people, everybody wants pretty much the same thing:  peace, enough jobs, no poverty and good education.  And I’ve learned a lot.  It’s funny.  So many people in show business go into politics, and I used to say ‘What the heck do they know about it?’  But when you travel around, you really do get to feel–not to be cliche–the pulse of the country and what people want.  I’m concerned and it’s not good to be unconcerned and just sit there.

Listening to her discuss Watergate during her final visit to The Mike Douglas Show, shortly before her 1974 death, really makes us wish she was still here with us.

What we wouldn’t give to hear this outspoken political observer’s take on the situation our country now finds itself in, especially with another five decades of experience under her belt.

Perhaps there’s an alternate universe in which Cass Elliot is President.

If you haven’t yet registered to vote, now would be a great time to do so. It may not be too late to participate in your state’s primary elections. You know that’s what Cass would have wanted.

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

Machiavelli’s The Prince Explained in an Illustrated Film

Niccolò Machiavelli lived in a time before the internet, before radio and television, before drones and weapons of mass destruction. Thus one naturally questions the relevance of his political theories to the twenty-first century. Yet in discussions about the dynamics of power, no name has endured as long as Machiavelli’s. His reputation as a theorist rests mostly on his 1532 treatise Il Principe, or The Prince, in which he pioneered a way of analyzing power as it was actually wielded, not as people would have liked it to be. How, he asked, does a ruler — a prince — attain his position in a state, and even more importantly, how does he maintain it?

You can hear Machiavelli’s answers to these questions explained, and see them illustrated, in the 43-minute video above. It breaks The Prince down into seven parts summarizing as many of the book’s main points, including “Do not be neutral,” “Destroy, do not would,” and “Be feared.”

These commandments would seem to align with Machiavelli’s popular image as an apologist, even an advocate, for brutal and repressive forms of rule. But his enterprise has less to do with offering advice than with describing how real figures of power, princes and otherwise, had amassed and retained that power.

The video comes from Eudaimonia, a Youtube channel that has also featured similarly animated exegeses of Stoicism and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Its creator makes these ancient sources of knowledge accessible with not just his cartoonish illustrations, but also his inclusion of illuminating examples from more recent history. In the case of The Prince, these come from eras like the Russian Revolution, World War II, and even our own time of instant global communication, attention-hungry media, and a seemingly weak political class. In much of the world, we live in a time much less nasty and brutish than Machiavelli’s. But looking at the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of our own leaders, we have to admit that the principles of The Prince may not have gone out of effect.

To delve deeper into the world of Machiavelli, you can watch a BBC documentary on the Renaissance political theorist below.

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6 Political Theorists Introduced in Animated “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

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.


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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.