Fascism is alive and well in the United States, at least as an epithet. The Third Reich provides the one set of historical analogies everybody will recognize. No more damning evidence about the state of American cultural literacy can be given.
Regardless of who is in office, protesters will wave photographs of the president with the nostril-wide mustache inked in. And whenever a city council or state legislature considers a ban on public smoking, the most unlikely people start complaining about the Gestapo. (First they came for the snuff-dippers, and I did not speak out, for I was not a snuff-dipper….) That seems indicative less of ignorance than of a low threshold for frustration. If there is one thing we can all agree on about totalitarianism, it’s the inconvenience.
The tendency has grown worse over the past dozen years. That, like everything else, can probably be blamed on the Internet, though no doubt some of the responsibility belongs to the History Channel, where Poland is invaded at least twice a day. After a while, fatigue sets in. But then you read about something like the Golden Dawn in Greece -- a rapidly growing party using a streamlined swastika as its emblem – and the word “fascist” ceases to be a free-floating signifier of vituperation. It begins to mean something again. But what?
Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies published its first, semiannual issue in October. While not particularly focused on recent developments in the streets, they echo in it even so. The tendency I’ve just complained about – the stretching a concept so thin that it seems to have almost no substance -- has its parallel in the scholarship on fascism. And so does its return to a more substantial form.
St. Augustine said he knew what time was until someone asked him to explain it. Then the trouble started. A similarly perplexed feeling comes over someone reading historiographical efforts to get a handle on fascism.
It’s easy enough to start out with definition by ostension – that is, by pointing to the movements and regimes of Mussolini and of Hitler. And all the more so, given that the Italian leader not only coined the term fascism but wrote an encyclopedia entry on it, or at least signed one. But for all the inspiration Hitler and his early supporters took from Mussolini’s rise to power, Nazi doctrine grew out of its own distinct set of German influences. Racism -- and in particular anti-Semitism of a special variety, bolstered by pseudoscience – played a role in Hitler’s worldview strikingly absent from Mussolini’s doctrine.
And that doctrine itself had a paradoxical aspect. On the one hand, it was, so to speak, nationalism on steroids – deeply hostile to internationalism, especially of the Marxist variety. (In the late ‘10s and early '20s, Germany and Italy alike experienced long revolutionary crises, with left-wing parties making serious bids for power.) At the same time, fascist organizations sprang up all over Europe and in North and South America, with a few also appearing in Asia. Some adherents thought of fascism as a “universal” movement: a new stage of society, of which the Italians, and the later the Germans, were setting the example. In 1934, fascist delegates gathered in Switzerland for a world congress, although the effort soon foundered on ideological differences.
So even the fascists themselves couldn’t agree on how to understand their movement. Nor could historians and political scientists studying them after the defeat of the “classical” fascist regimes. A familiar dichotomy between “lumpers” and “splitters” played itself out, with the former emphasizing common elements among the fascist organizations (authoritarianism, nationalism, leader-worship, tendency to wear uniforms) and interpreting the movement as the product of larger forces (social anomie, economic crisis, resistance to modernization, etc.)
A good précis of the splitters’ response to lumper theorizing appeared in an article by Gilbert Allardyce in The American Historical Review in 1979. Focusing just on Nazism and Italian fascism, he stressed that “one arose in the most advanced industrial nation in Western Europe; the other, in a country still largely underdeveloped. Getting both into any uniform theory is hard enough, but getting both into the same stage of modernization is impossible. Interpretations that make sense in the case of one regime often make no sense in the case of the other.”
At least one historian took the next logical step. Italy was fascist under Mussolini. Fascism involved the dictatorial push of a largely preindustrial society into the age of mechanical reproduction. That wasn’t necessary in Germany. Therefore, Hitler was not a fascist. Likely it would be possible to disprove this syllogism with a Venn diagram or two; but in any event, it feels wrong somehow.
Much of the academic literature on the Italian and German regimes – and just about all of the popular history – goes about its business without getting too bogged down in the “generic fascism” problem. The devil is truly in the details. But the new journal Fascism takes the possibility of a generic concept of the movement as its point of departure, and in ways that seem worth watching.
The field of “comparative fascist studies” as pursued in the journal takes its bearings from Richard Griffin’s understanding of fascism as an ideology defined by a core of “palingenetic ultranationalism” which manifests itself in specific kinds of populist mobilization and charismatic leadership. Griffen, a professor of modern history at Oxford Brookes University, in Britain, first presented this argument in The Nature of Fascism (1991).
Now, before saying another word, I want to point out that calling fascism “palingenetic” is in not in any way meant as a slur on the beloved former governor of Alaska, vice presidential candidate, and reality television star. Palingenesis means “regeneration, rebirth, revival, resuscitation,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “In philosophy and natural science, formerly applied spec[ifically] to the (supposed) regeneration of living organisms from ashes or putrefying matter, to the preformation theory of Charles Bonnet (1720–93), and to the persistence of the soul (metempsychosis) or (in Schopenhauer) of the will from one generation to another.” Let’s be perfectly clear about that. I don’t want any trouble.
In Griffin’s usage, the term carries overtones of both regeneration-from-putrefaction and a sort of reincarnation. A fascist movement seeks a rebirth of the nation’s soul by overcoming its degeneration. It promises not merely a return to “the good old days” but an extreme, and usually violent, new beginning. The national revival comes through “a ‘populist’ drive towards mobilizing the energies of all those considered authentic members of the national community,” with the charismatic aura of the leader and “the pervasive use of theatrical and ritual elements in politics.” Xenophobia and genocidal racism are typical elements but not, as such, absolutely necessary. The main thing is that there be “groups identified with physical and moral decadence,” whose ejection from the nation would be a step towards its rebirth.
It is not so much a theory of fascism as a decent set of fingerprints. Griffin’s description doesn’t explain the movement’s origin or viability in any given country, but it identifies what they shared. That is significant on more than just typological grounds. The program of “comparative fascist studies” as it emerges from Griffin’s keynote essay in the first issue of Fascism, confirmed by the articles following it, includes research into how organizations in various countries influenced one another in the years between Il Duce’s march on Rome in 1922 and the Fuhrer’s suicide in 1945 – and since then, as well. For while the effort to create a “universal fascist” movement collapsed during the Great Depression, the project itself carries on. After a dozen years and more of incredibly trivializing and dumb references to fascism, the rolling economic crisis may yet give it some bite.
A final note. I picked up Fascism at the table of its publisher, Brill, during a conference last month. But it’s also available online, in full, as an open-access journal. The first issue is now available; the next comes out in April.
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I am a product of my times. Born at the end of the “gee whiz” Eisenhower years; raised in the idealism of the 1960s; lulled into political boredom in the 1980s and disaffected with political conversations ever since. Middle age has allowed me to let politics become the background noise murmuring away on NPR. This ended when I saw how quickly the unemployment numbers issued two weeks ago by the Bureau of Labor Statistics became a political football. We are once again plunged into that world where the apparatus of the federal government that collects and reports data is challenged for political purposes. Wasn’t it just this spring when the American Community Survey was branded as too invasive and threatened with extinction? For some, the current flap over the unemployment rate might be another interesting election story, but for me this is now a deeply emotional issue. For many people, the core of democracy is the freedom to act --- for me, it is the freedom to know.
The federal government of the United States since its inception has been in the business of collecting data. The original purpose of the decennial Census is well-known -- to supply the population counts necessary to ensure political representation is allocated fairly. To me, the marriage of politics to data at the birth of the nation is not a sign that data can be corrupted by political influence but rather that our political forebears understood that the key to good government is information.
The American statistical system, which includes the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grew from these exalted beginnings to be among the most admired in the world. The federal government collects data to inform both policy and science. Knowledge about the government and its citizenry has long been recognized as the key to democracy. The stigmata of tyranny is an unwillingness to collect or share data. The U.S. has surpassed other democracies by declaring data collected by the government to be a free good and by providing open access to microdata (that is de-identified individual records) for almost 50 years. Governments as modern as those of France and Japan have only recently begun to provide minimal access to microdata. The difference between reading aggregate statistics tabulated by the government and having access to the raw data used to create those tabulations is like the difference between looking at a painting of a mountain and actually climbing that mountain. Having your hands in the raw material allows you to discover important and controversial things regardless of your political affiliation.
The scientific, political, and economic engine created by federal data collection is enormous. Others have eloquently recounted the spillover into marketing, store locating, oil and gas exploration, to say nothing of what we have learned about family formation, poverty, residential segregation, income inequality and all the other social issues that dog American society. Conservatives suggest that the free market can generate alternatives to the data collection done by the government. These alternatives are called Google and Facebook.
Data-gathering enterprises such these are on the other end of the continuum from the supposedly invasive partisan data collected by the federal government. Google and Facebook monitor your daily activities and require you to opt out of monitoring, not in. They sell data but do not share. They do not ask if you have a toilet but rather passively track where you bought it, what kind it is, who uses it, and who hates you for having it. Transparent, free, democratic access to data collected under scientific protocols that can be reviewed and replicated using techniques that must pass the rigorous scrutiny of human subjects review is asked to make way for unregulated black box methods to collect data that can only be purchased and only by selected individuals. This feels like a step back from democracy -- not a step forward.
Regardless of your generation or your politics, if you value the right to know as the highest form of liberty, I urge you to go to your closet and find your tie-dyed T-shirt. Tie back your hair, put on your sneakers, and find your bullhorn. While there have always been challenges to federal data collection activities, the threatened loss of the American Community Survey, which in itself replaced the much maligned Census long form, and the unsubstantiated claims of bias in the monthly unemployment numbers suggests that the political heat is once again turned up. The cause of liberty requires knowledge and to generate knowledge we need data. Man the barricades in defense of the American statistical system. And bring data.
Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.
Everyone applauds the idea of critical thinking, and liberal arts colleges often make their ability to teach critical thinking a key selling point. But no one seems to define what they mean by that term.
As I prepared for the start of classes this fall, I tried to pinpoint the critical thinking skills I really want my students to learn. And as I listened to public debates on everything from tax policy to Obamacare, five essential thinking skills seemed to be missing, again and again. So, based on our dysfunctional national dialogue, here are the "core competencies" I hope to instill in my students:
1. The ability to think empirically, not theoretically. By this I mean the habit of constantly checking one's views against evidence from the real world, and the courage to change positions if better explanations come along. I have great admiration for scholars like Richard Muller, the University of California physicist and global warming skeptic, whose work was heavily funded by the conservative Koch brothers. When new, more comprehensive data from his own research team provided convincing evidence of global temperature increases, Muller changed his mind, and later sounded the alarm about carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, however, much of our public debate on many issues seems to be a clash of theoretical world views, with neither side willing to dispassionately examine the evidence or modify their views. In Congress, the individuals most willing to change their minds – the moderates – have been systematically driven out by more extreme candidates who are dedicated to holding fast to their predetermined positions, regardless of subsequent facts.
2. The ability to think in terms of multiple, rather than single, causes. When you drop a book, it will fall on the floor -- a single-cause event. But most of the interesting things in the world have multiple causes; educational success, for example, is affected by a student's aptitude, but also by the educational achievements of the student's parents, the quality of the school he or she attends, and the attitudes and intelligence of the other students in that school. In such cases, simple comparisons become unreliable guides to action, because the effects of intervening variables haven't been screened out. So, for example, judging a president by Reagan's famous question – "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" – implicitly assumes that presidential actions are the only variable affecting the economy. This is, of course, nonsense – our globalized economy is affected by a huge variety of factors, including exchange rates, oil prices, the fate of the European Union, the strength of the Chinese economy, and so on. In these situations, we need higher-order analysis that adjusts for these external factors to gauge the true effect of a policy.
3. The ability to think in terms of the sizes of things, rather than only in terms of their direction. Our debates are largely magnitude-free, but decisions in a world with constrained resources always demand a sense of the sizes of various effects. For example, President Obama contends that investments in education and infrastructure are crucial to the nation’s future growth. And it makes intuitive sense that better-educated workers would be more productive, and that repaired highways could transport goods to market more quickly and at lower cost. But Republicans are dead-set against new taxes to pay for these investments. In such a polarized situation, the only way to finance these programs would be to borrow money, and these days much of the government’s borrowed funds are supplied by overseas investors from places like China and Japan. The interest payments on government bonds, then, are a real hindrance to economic growth. The wisdom of these investments, therefore, depends critically on the magnitude of the two effects. How big are the payoffs from investments in education and infrastructure? How much of our debt is owned by foreigners, and what interest rate will we have to pay to them? These kinds of debates cannot be solved by looking only at the direction of anticipated effects, because without quantification, we have no basis for comparison of those effects. In politics and policy, size matters.
4. The ability to think like foxes, not hedgehogs. In his seminal book, Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock followed Isaiah Berlin in distinguishing between hedgehogs, who know one big thing and apply that understanding to everything around them, and foxes, who know many small things and pragmatically apply a "grab bag" of knowledge to make modest predictions about the world. In his study of hundreds of foreign policy experts over 20 years, Tetlock showed that foxes outperform hedgehogs in making predictions, and hence tend to make better decisions. But our current political climate favors hedgehogs, because they tend to be more confident, forceful, and predictable in their views. Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate can be seen as an attempt by a fox (Romney) to capture some of the allure and excitement surrounding a hedgehog (Ryan).
5. The ability to understand one's own biases. An expanding literature in psychology and behavioral economics suggests that we are full of unconscious biases, and a failure to understand these biases contributes to poor decision-making. Perhaps the most common and dangerous of these is confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out information in accordance with our previous views and ignore or dismiss information contrary to those views. This undermines our ability to weigh the evidence in an evenhanded manner. Our media culture reinforces this problem, as liberals have their MSNBC, The Nation, The New York Times and think tanks like the Center for American Progress, while conservatives have their Fox News, the National Review, The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. In the current world, no one need bear the inconvenience of contrary information.
In general, our public debates are textbook examples of non-critical thinking. But these five traits can provide a foundation for a more enlightened dialogue in the future. And students with these skills will think about their world in a deeper, more constructive way.
Paul Gary Wyckoff is professor of government and director of the Public Policy Program at Hamilton College.