Judith Hochman and Rhoda Isaacs are two of the co-founders of the Present History Project. Hochman is a retired teacher and the former dean/director of several continuing education initiatives; Isaacs is a career executive and member of the board of directors for several nonprofits.
Our journey began last March. The previous evening, we sat white-knuckled through a talk by Yale historian Timothy Snyder about his powerful best-selling book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” We were riveted by the idea that the threats leading to totalitarianism in Europe in the past century are eerily (or frighteningly) similar to dangers facing our own democracy today. This isn’t just about one personality. It’s about the seismic shifts underway in many aspects of our society. The opening line of the book — “History does not repeat, but it does instruct” — echoed in our minds.
We both have lived through a lot of history. We have perhaps naively believed that our institutions and our laws were immutable. We are troubled by the trend of short-sighted attacks on institutions for purely political motive. Snyder’s message — “Do not speak of our institutions unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves” — struck us as a fitting call to action in 2017.
So we sat and talked, reflecting on how easily other democracies have failed during our lifetimes. We were born in the late 1930s in Jewish families, and we were intensely aware that if we had not been born in the United States, we might never have been able to marry the men we loved, raise amazing children and grandchildren and pursue flourishing careers. That realization left us in awe of the freedoms we have enjoyed — and perhaps, taken too much for granted.
One of the most powerful messages underlying Snyder’s historical analysis is that sometimes small, everyday decisions taken by regular people — to act, or to do nothing — are incredibly important in preserving and defending freedom. We felt that it was our turn, and that our first step would be to bring the message that inspired us to every member of the U.S. Congress, regardless of party or ideology. In the current environment of intense polarization, we hope that Snyder’s book will provide a different perspective on some of the upheaval we see happening in the United States.
We persuaded two like-minded souls to join us and — during frequent meetings in a local diner — began to raise money to purchase the books. We then set out to organize a small army of volunteers to personally deliver them to their elected officials. By networking with friends and family, we have managed to send copies of the books to 70 of our group’s leaders in 15 different states. The rest are being delivered this week — with three generations of volunteers — in Washington, just before the holiday recess. (This has also inspired the name of our grassroots effort, the Present History Project — which makes presents of history that can help our leaders and future leaders reflect on our modern lives.)
We know not every member of Congress will read “On Tyranny.” Despite our national history of fighting tyranny around the globe, this word has become a polarizing one. But we hope that each copy of the book will find its way to the hands of a member or staffer or intern who is open to learning these lessons of history, and driven to shape the next generation of political discourse in our nation.
Our message to each office is printed on our bookmarks: “Your constituents want you to read this book. Protect our democracy.” Each generation of American leadership has been called on to fight for the rights, values and institutions of democracy, and we believe the current generation must stand to defend this legacy. Otherwise it will be remembered for the silence that so many voters hear in this time of tremendous upheaval.
Snyder writes: “A nationalist will say ‘that it can’t happen here,’ which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.” We will spend our holiday surrounded by family, by the next generations of patriots, knowing that instead of sitting back and feeling powerless, we will have acted on behalf of our country and its institutions. We don’t know if we would have done the same in other eras of history, faced with other challenges. But in this one, we know we are using our good luck and passion to show future generations that the guilt of silence is worse than the failure of well-intentioned effort.