How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
I’m burdened by an unusually retentive memory best defined by what it is not.
I am not one of those Marilu Henner-like people who can recall the events of any calendar day they’ve lived through. Nor do I have a purely eidetic memory, although it’s close.
My memory presents a burden because the emotions associated with what I’m recalling arrive in the package. The odd pauses in my speaking occur not because, as many hope or fear, I’ve had an aneurysm burst, but because I’m experiencing an unexpected or unwelcome emotion.
As with so many things in my life, books offer a respite. If I’ve read it, I can remember it without any emotional baggage. I can pick up the edition I read decades ago and locate what I recall, navigating instantly to the desired nugget. For years I avoided rereading because there was no point: I could remember what I’d read in the first place.
While this proved extremely useful academically, it feels like cheating. I didn’t learn how to do this. It just happens. I can appear smarter than I am because I’m spouting something esoteric that I remember and find related to our conversation. I know it’s just a parlor trick.
Luckily, technology has leveled the playing field. Remembering what I’ve read on-screen is proving tougher for me than when I read physical books. Take the present volume. Evidently, I finished reading it months ago. At least that’s what the Books app tells me.
There are even passages highlighted throughout to confirm my passing by–passages that are just the sort of thing that would have stuck in my mind if I’d read a physical book. Discovering them, with absolutely no recall of the first go-around, leaves me wondering whether I process backlit words differently or if everyone experiences this sort of thing.
Jason Stanley is not going to help us suss that out. Stanley occupies a chair in the Philosophy (upper case ‘p,’ please) department at Yale where he writes and teaches on the philosophy of language. What he aims to help us understand is how political rhetoric can function in the service of an unpalatable political program. The good professor has studied both linguistics and philosophy. So, he’s well qualified to tease apart the interplay between politics and language, but the social science guy in me wishes there was more political science.
Allow me to deal with my objections first. I’ll start with that last word in the title and I’ll stipulate that I am not current in the literature. I can remember when the rage was to replace the term ‘totalitarian governments’ with ‘the corporate state.’ While that generated plenty of silliness on both the left and the right both those terms had utility, in part, because they were not terribly ideological.
By contrast, fascism seems to be presented almost always as a problem of the political right. I’m not certain the good professor has offered his preferred term for similar behaviors indulged in by those on the left. But I’m pretty sure that the alignments in behaviors overwhelm any purported differences in political programs.
What the most committed on the left and the right desperately desire is to satisfy their adolescent urge to act and enact whatever course they believe is necessary for the good of the whole. I say this with the certainty of someone who was a raging jackass in his youth. Compromise is learned, adult behavior; only children arrogating what they believe are the mystical powers of adulthood find such behavior shameful.
Is this book even worth reading, then? Well, yes, especially if your mind isn’t fully made up. I really think we ought to be very cautious when we use particular terms. Accusing people of fascist thinking and actions and using examples from Nazi Germany‘s history to demonstrate that strikes a judgmental tone. There’s a good reason the reductio ad Hitlerum is a logical fallacy.
But then there’s this to consider. Here’s Stanley:
“The most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. It aims to separate a population into “us” and “them.” (p. 68)
Fascist politicians justify their ideas by … creating a mythic past to support their vision for the present … twisting the language of ideals through propaganda and anti-intellectualism.” (p. 69)
Now the President of a leading conservative think tank.
“You can never really divorce a set of ideas and principles from the people in which it grew up. America is an idea, but it’s not just that. It’s the people who settled it, founded it, and made it flourish.”
“… if Claremont thinks real Americanism is a belief in the principles of the American founding, we have to acknowledge that a good portion of our fellow citizens don’t agree with our principles and conclusions about what politics is for. If we differ on those fundamental things, we’re really two Americas.” Ryan Williams of The Claremont Institute interviewed in The Atlantic.
I invite you to read the entire interview linked above and decide for yourself whether Mr, Ryan sounds like William F. Buckley, let alone Edmund Burke. Or go
to The Bulwark and read Laura K. Field’s extended look at the Institute’s evolution over the last half-decade. Yes, both writers have a bias, but it’s apparent and you can judge for yourself how the Institute appears. In short, I’d say something is not quite correct on the American right.
My own politics are a muddled mess. My brain leans libertarian, my heart is more Christian Democrat liberal. I grew up under Rockefeller Republicans, so I’ve never understood the cowboy variant that emerged with Goldwater and rode into town with Reagan. But whatever my disagreements with the folks who agreed with them, those were small beer compared to today.
Words should not, I repeat, be thrown around. I hesitate to label people Nazis, with all that entails. I think the furthest left elements have their own totalitarian issues. But only one group can utilize the advantages of party machinery to change the landscape of a nation’s political system.
That may be fascist. It reeks of being authoritarian. And for me, it just ain’t American.
Read Dr. Stanley, pay attention for a few days and decide for yourself.