Sitting here next to my computer right now are two, small paperbound books.
One of them is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Yale University historian Timothy Snyder.
The other is the screenplay from the movie Jojo Rabbit, written and directed by Taika Waititi and based on the novel Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens.
At first, these two slim volumes may seem an odd combination. But one is a warning of encroaching dictatorship written by an academic, the other, “an anti-hate satire” in which Adolph Hitler is the imaginary pal of Jojo Betzler, a ten-year-old boy who’s a devoted little Nazi.
So maybe not so odd a combination after all, especially in light of every American day’s further descent into anti-democratic madness. Because, as Timothy Egan of The New York Times wrote last month, “The Trump presidency has shown just how many ostensibly good people will do nothing, and how evil, when given a free rein at the top, trickles down.”
A copy of On Tyranny was given to me three years ago when it first was published. I know I’m late to the party but I’ve just gotten around to reading it. The book rightfully is a best seller. As others have said, it’s the kind of work that should be carried with you everywhere, along with your pocket copy of the US Constitution.
Meanwhile, last Sunday, Jojo Rabbit won the Oscar for best-adapted screenplay and has received a number of other prizes, including the award from my own union, the Writers Guild of America.
Some are put off by the idea of a comedy about the last days of the Third Reich and won’t even go see it, falsely prejudging what it’s about. True, you may have to get beyond the first five or ten minutes to grasp its own insane, remarkable genius but once you’re there you’ll see this movie for what it is – a curious and potent mix reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. It attacks the brutal effects of totalitarianism with wit, absurdity and pathos.
A few have attacked the film as superficial and even hurled allegations of anti-Semitism. Others have criticized it for the sympathetic portrayal of some of the German characters – including Jojo’s mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson. But these characters ARE in fact sympathetic, weary and worn to the nub, facing the rapidly approaching collapse of the Reich with simultaneous dread and relief. Rosie works with the underground resistance and hides a teenage Jewish woman in the attic of her home.
Jojo’s interactions with that young woman, Elsa, are the source of the anti-Semitism charges because in the course of discovering Elsa’s decency and humanity, he expresses but then is forced to shed the hateful stereotypes burned into his impressionable brain by Nazi propaganda.
“I’d like you to draw a picture of where Jews live,” he tells Elsa. “A typical hive; where you all sleep, eat, and where the Queen Jew lays the eggs.”
To which Elsa succinctly replies, “You really are an idiot.”
In his mouthing of these tropes and having each ridiculed and batted down by Elsa, who’s strong and vivacious, with a mind light years ahead of Jojo’s, the absurdity of the boy’s bigotry strikes home. That’s a message coming not a moment too soon these days, as the hatred that rules from the top in our country spurs crimes of bigotry and ethnic bullying that rhyme all too well with atrocities of the past.
On Thursday, a team from The Washington Post reported, “Since Trump's rise to the nation’s highest office, his inflammatory language — often condemned as racist and xenophobic — has seeped into schools across America. Many bullies now target other children differently than they used to, with kids as young as 6 mimicking the president’s insults and the cruel way he delivers them.”
The simplicity of the Jojo Rabbit script belies the depth of its humor and insight into the ignorance, self-deception and hatred that can infect a nation. In fact, it dovetails neatly with Timothy Snyder’s warnings in On Tyranny.
“Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism in the twentieth century,” he writes. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”
In 126 quick pages, Snyder cites historical instance after instance when the citizens and leaders of democracies failed to heed the warning signs and yielded to bullies’ demands. One mistake “is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” Another: “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual – and thus the collapse of any political system that depends on individualism.”
Among Snyder’s suggestions, vote in state and local elections. Read books (his recommendations include Orwell, Camus, Hannah Arendt, the Bible and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Subsidize investigative journalism with paid media subscriptions. Donate to charities and human rights organizations. Get a passport, travel to other countries, engage and learn. Don’t conform, stand out: “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”
We live in perilous times. As a week passes in which the attorney general steps up the politicization of the Justice Department and Trump resumes his quid pro quo habits by threatening and trying to extort the governor of New York, as we sink deeper into a revenge-driven despotism that brings the unimaginable closer, standing out, speaking up and pushing back are paramount. Snyder writes, “We lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.”
Do not be numbed to the hourly hammering of outrages. Without opposition, it could become even worse, to the point that Snyder starkly concludes, “Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
There is a moment in Jojo Rabbit when Jojo and Rosie walk by a public gallows. Several bodies hang from it.
“What did they do?” Jojo asks.
Rosie replies: “What they could.”