Anti-Intellectualism and ‘How Fascism Works’

Author discusses his new book on trends in politics in the U.S. and elsewhere.

August 15, 2018
 

A country that is not fascist may still experience fascist politics. And those politics are based on efforts to divide society and demonize groups. That is a major theme of How Fascism Works (Penguin Random House), by Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Stanley identifies 10 "pillars" of fascist politics, among them "the mythic past," propaganda and appeals to the heartland. One of the pillars is anti-intellectualism. Stanley discussed that pillar in the following email interview, which has been edited.

Q: Anti-intellectualism has been present throughout much of American history. How is the kind of anti-intellectualism linked to fascist ideas different? Or is it the same?

A: Our suspicion of elites and what could be seen as anti-intellectualism can be healthy at times; we can see the American philosophical traditions of pragmatism and empiricism in this light, which can in fact serve as counterweights to the grandiose myths of fascist politics. But even this version has proven to be a weakness, one that makes us more susceptible to being manipulated politically. We have seen this play out in the case of climate change, where essentially apolitical scientists were successfully demonized as ideologues. We also have a history of what I think of as more classically fascist anti-intellectualism.

Fascist anti-intellectualism sets the traditions of the chosen nation, its dominant group, above all other traditions. It represents more complex narratives as corrupting and dangerous. It prizes mythologizing about the nation’s past, and erasing any of its problematic features (as we see all too often in histories of the Confederacy and the Reconstruction period, or of the treatment in history books of our indigenous communities). It seeks to replace truth with myth, transforming education systems into methods of glorifying the ideologies and heritage of the members of the traditional ruling class. In fascist politics, universities, which present a more complex and accurate version of history and current reality, are attacked for being places where dominant traditions or practices are critiqued. Fascist ideology centers loyalty to power rather than truth. In fascist thinking, the university is simply another tool to legitimate various illiberal hierarchies connected to historically dominant traditions.

Q: You mention David Horowitz and his various books and websites that offer names of professors for criticism as liberal, something also supported by Turning Point USA. Why are such lists a sign of a dangerous kind of anti-intellectualism?

A: Above all, the mission of the university is truth. Fascist ideology, by contrast, traffics in myth; for example, the myth of the cultural or ethnic superiority of certain groups, the myth of patriarchy, various historical myths about the nation’s past, and the erasure of any sins done in the name of the dominant national ideologies. Fascist politics requires the demonization of certain groups that are the enemies, which of course requires spreading simplifications and falsehoods about them (for example, in the U.S. today, those of the Muslim faith).

The organizations you mention specifically target academics who deviate from the myths that support American far-right ideology. They try to intimidate into silence scholars whose work reveals the complexities and contradictions of capitalism; they target gender studies scholars, scholars of Islam and the Middle East, and those for example in African American studies and indigenous studies whose work threatens the rosy picture of the past they wish our education systems to present as objects of veneration. By harshly attacking those who seek to show the truth in its full complexity, the organizations you mention undermine the search for truth. This is the essence of anti-intellectualism; it is an attack on truth.

Q: Historically, many professors who have been targets have been either real or imagined Marxists. Today many of the targets in the United States are scholars of race or gender. What is the significance of that shift?

A: In illiberal far-right ideology, equality is rejected, and hierarchy is embraced in its stead. Liberalism (and Marxism) in contrast each have some notion of equality as an ideal. So those whose work criticizes failures of equality are targets of reactionary illiberalism, whether that failure is systematic economic inequality, racial inequality or gender inequality. The goal is to delegitimize those who call attention to unjust inequalities along any dimension. Fascist ideology specifically focuses on hierarchies of race and gender, and so increased attacks that focus on those who defend equality along these dimensions are a particularly worrisome sign.

Q: You note attacks on scholars in Hungary, Russia and elsewhere. Do you see similarities between those attacks and those against scholars in the United States?

A: Yes, as I emphasize in my book, we are seeing very similar attacks on universities in the United States as we have seen in Eastern Europe, where universities such as Central European University and the European University of St. Petersburg have been attacked specifically for spreading liberalism -- a charge we are familiar with in the United States. As I document, harsh attacks on gender studies are a common feature of attacks on universities in both Eastern Europe and in the United States.

Q: Do you believe we are in a period in which fascist ideas pose a danger to the values of academe?

A: There is an unprecedented tidal wave of money directed at universities to help promote unfettered free market capitalism -- that remains, I think, the greatest danger to the autonomy of the university in the United States today. But there is also a worldwide nationalist attack on liberalism, which includes attacks on universities with a global, cosmopolitan ethos. I’m concerned about their convergence. Fascist politics are often useful tools for business elites, who are often not committed to the ideology behind them, but may find them useful as strategically useful weapons (think for example of the way that powerful elites in the United States have used racist appeals to attack government programs such as the Affordable Care Act).

My concern is that we could see a consensus forming that universities should be solely for job skills training, together with “Great Books” programs that glorify the various values of the ruling class -- from European identity to unfettered free market capitalism. We also cannot forget our history, that professors with voices critical of dominant ideologies have long been targets. Even David Bohm, one of the greatest physicists who ever lived, lost his position at Princeton University during the Red Scare, robbing the United States of a substantive connection to his legacy. It is far from impossible that those days will return. If universities are to retain their values, it will be key for university administrators to hold the line, specifically to protect controversial faculty members -- of whatever ideological stripe -- who challenge the status quo.

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