Timothy Snyder Ties Freedom to Health in ‘Our Malady’

September 11, 2020

“Health and history” is how Timothy Snyder describes the focal point of his latest book, “Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary” (Crown). Struggling to recover from a about of appendicitis and its complications, he suffered from “a sense that nothing works and nothing can be done.” But he quickly realized that much more than his own recovery was at stake.

“Our public malady,” he writes, borrowing a phrase from James Madison, “is physical illness and the political evil that surrounds it.”

Snyder is one of America’s leading public intellectuals, articulate and deeply well informed. He is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is the author of 15 books, including “ Bloodlands,” which accomplishes nothing less than wholly reframing the history of World War II, the Holocaust and Soviet terror. His work has recognized with the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, the Literature Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Medal and the award of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee.

Along with his groundbreaking works of scholarship, Snyder also has penned what are best described as chapbooks — short and compact volumes whose modest size belie their impact and importance. Such is the case with Snyder. “On Tyranny,” published shortly after the 2016 presidential election, was a call to action in response to what he (and many others) perceive as a historic crisis in American democracy. Two of his readers were so stirred by what he had to say that they purchased 535 copies and sent one to every member of Congress.

“Our Malady” is his second such book. The global pandemic, rather than presidential politics, provoked him to pick up his pen again while convalescing from his illness. “It was easy to grasp that freedom and health were connected when my will could not move my body, or when my body was attached to bags and tubes,” he explains. His hospital journals, “stained by saline, alcohol and blood,” were more than the jottings of a working historian; rather, they were filled with “the powerful emotions that rescued me when I was near death.”

What kept Snyder alive — and what makes “Our Malady” such a compelling book to read and ponder — is precisely the same potent emotion that Dylan Thomas conjured when he famously urged his father to “rage against the dying of the light” in his single best-remembered poem. Snyder, too, responded to the prospect of death with pure rage. 

Bearing his torch aloft, Timothy Snyder leads us into a crisis even deeper and more dreadful than our politics. “Far too many Americans are too close to death every month, every moment,” he declares. 

“I have felt nothing cleaner and more intense than rage amidst deathly illness,” Snyder reveals. “It came to me in the hospital at night, giving me a torch that ignited amidst kinds of darkness I hadn’t known before.” 

Bearing his torch aloft, Snyder now leads us into a crisis even deeper and more dreadful than our politics. “Far too many Americans are too close to death every month, every moment,” he declares. “Although we have been promised ever longer lives, life expectancy in our country has flatlined, with no meaningful change in half a decade.”

Facts are the stock-in-trade of historians, if not politicians, and Snyder confronts us with hard data, much of it unexpected and unsettling. The death rate of newborn babies among African Americans is higher than the infant death rate in Albania, Kazakhstan, China “and about seventy other countries.” American public health in general “does worse than Belarus, the most Soviet of the post-Soviet states,” and some 40 other countries. The longstanding gap between America and other countries only increased in 2020, “since no democracy mishandled the coronavirus pandemic as we have done.” Americans suffer and die for lots of other reasons: “pollution deaths, opioid deaths, prison deaths, suicides, newborn deaths, and now mass graves for the elderly [are] all too familiar.”

Like James Joyce, history is a nightmare from which Snyder cannot awake. “Much of my thirties and forties I spent reading first-person accounts of the Holocaust and other German crimes, Stalinist mass shootings and famine, ethnic cleansings, and other atrocities,” he recalls. At the worst moments of his own illness, “[m]y whole life did not rush before my eyes”; rather, “[i]t was … that my ability to suppress memories dissolved” and “[t]he memories of my adulthood were less about what befell me and more about what I learned from others.” 

From these waking nightmares, Snyder came to the realization that the mass murders he studied as a historian and the “deliberate deprivation of health” are “related harms.” As he moves from memories of his own illness to the world in which we all live, Snyder sees an overarching irony: “America helped to establish health care as a human right around the world,” he points out. “Why then is health care not seen as such in the United States? Should we accept that citizens of other democracies enjoy a right that we are denied, and live longer and healthier lives than we do?”

Snyder is a relentless truth-teller. “A quick way to rub the romance from the Revolutionary War is to learn how the wounded were treated.” The abhorrence of “socialized medicine” can be seen as a conscious choice: “We have commercial medicine from cradle to grave because that is what we have chosen,” he argues. “There are better ways.” And he places the blame for the botching of the greatest public health emergency in a century squarely on the federal government: “Americans were denied the basic knowledge they needed to make decisions on their own, or to press their government to take action.”

“The truth takes work,” he writes. “It would have taken just a bit of effort, and just a bit of courage, to admit that there was a problem, and to organize tests and tracing. Since these were lacking, a hundred and fifty thousand Americans died needlessly.” 

“On Tyranny” was explicitly about the threat to freedom in America in the age of Donald Trump. “Our Malady” makes the argument that “[i]f our federal government and our commercial medicine make us unhealthy, they are making us unfree.” In that sense, these two books are companion volumes, and they call on us to wake up and pay attention before it is too late.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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