On Tyranny

It is difficult to keep up with the political controversies in our country and abroad. Just when you think that it cannot get worse, or more bizarre, it does. There are, of course, many issues raised by these controversies archivists and other records professionals must ponder for their work and careers. The political environment’s transformation is affecting much of what we have assumed to be part of the archival mission in a democratic society, mainly because our democratic traditions and forms are fundamentally threatened. To understand these threats, I recommend a reading of Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).

Snyder, a historian of the Holocaust and European history, in his brief book gives us a poignant cautionary tale about American politics. You can read it in one sitting, although I found myself having to put it down in order to reflect on what he is saying. There is a lot of powerful stuff in its pages. Drawing on historical events, he reminds us why history is important and because of its importance why it is being neglected, twisted, and rewritten by contemporary politicians and commentators.

There is much in this book that should resonate with archivists, if they bother to read it. Snyder urges us to “remember professional ethics,” with this chilling assessment: “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor” (p. 38). He adds, “If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable” (p. 41). In other words, if we think we should not be involved politically, recognizing that in our case records are political creations and exists within a political context, then we risk the possibilities of becoming irrelevant or, worse yet, pawns in the process of undermining democratic governance.

Snyder urges us to “stand out,” not just to follow along in the pack. This has proved to be difficult for many archivists and their allies. Some say we must be quiet and objective, so that we do not draw attention to ourselves instead of our records. However, this presents the very real risk of undermining our mission to preserve the documentary materials that allow us to understand the past and, hence, the present. We need to understand that our mission is to preserve documents for this purpose not to preserve our profession or jobs.

This historian also urges to be more reflective by getting off of the Internet and reading books. In my years as an academic, I have seen my students, fortunately not all of them, spend more and more time on social media and less and less time in reading and reflecting about serious texts.

Snyder also urges us to “believe in truth,” something that is not particularly popular these days, even among some archivists. He writes, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is not basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle” (p. 65). Snyder makes an argument that “post-truth is pre-fascism” (p. 71), and his book is an exploration of why fascism can happen here. We know that there were archivists in fascist societies, happily plying their trade and serving the state. I believe that the archival mission is about serving a greater public good, but this takes conviction and courage. It means that a code of ethics is not about archivists being law abiding but about knowing when the high road is breaking the law in order to preserve important documentation, such as what we have seen some doing with evidence about global warming. A true ethics code must now incorporate into it a statement about resistance.

Throughout this brief tome, Snyder discusses the importance of knowing the past, arguing that a decreasing knowledge of history is a major factor in why so-called populist movements have taken hold and way politicians and pundits present lies as truth without hesitation or shame. Acknowledging the importance of the past and truth ought to make archivists happy. Indeed, a new element of the archival mission ought to be the role of societal fact-checkers. We present the documentary record in order to provide the materials for legitimate understanding of our history. At the very beginning of this book, Snyder states, “History does not repeat, but it does instruct” (p. 9). That instruction is not possible without archivists working to preserve the records. And, in order to do this, archivists will need to work in more courageous and sometimes controversial ways. That message is about the best I can pass on to the next generation of archivists. Snyder notes that “protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets” (p. 84). See you there.


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