Higher Education Needs Antifascism Now

There is no neutrality with respect to the resurgent populist authoritarianism one sees in this country and in so many others, Michael S. Roth argues.

June 29, 2020
 
 
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Historian and author Ibram X. Kendi has powerfully argued that it is not enough to be “race neutral” in the United States. It is not enough to say “I am not a racist” and to hope for a position of neutrality. “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle,” Kendi writes. “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’” Trying to ignore race contributes to white supremacy. Antiracism is necessary for combating it.

The same goes for fascism. There is no neutrality with respect to the resurgent populist authoritarianism one sees in this country and in so many others. It is not enough even to say one is for freedom, or for greater equality, or for peace and justice -- for if those things are the case, one must now step up as an antifascist. This is particularly true in higher education.

Fascism has taken different forms in various times and places, but it consistently has certain core ingredients. It promises the return to a mythic greatness and an escape from the corrupt, weak and feminized present. It creates an enemy or a scapegoat whose elimination or domination will allow for those true, full members of society to thrive. And it attacks ideas, science and education in the name of a deeper, pure belonging.

The philosopher Jason Stanley has recently described these aspects of fascism as the “politics of us and them.” Decades ago, Italian novelist and theorist Umberto Eco underscored that for the fascists reasoned inquiry is seen as an enterprise for the weak -- for losers -- while philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that fascism “relies on a total substitution of lies for truth.” For the fascist, disagreement is treason, and fascist politicians attempt to co-opt law enforcement and the military for their political purposes. Sound familiar?

The appearance of fascist politics in the United States is not exactly new, but what is new is the alignment of this politics with the force of the federal government. For those of us who work at colleges and universities, this raises the stakes in our efforts to provide students with the tools of intellectual critique and creative practice. Many faculty members will want to continue “their own work” because it seems to have little to do with contemporary political issues. While not supporting what they might see as a populist authoritarianism, even nascent fascism, they may not think politics directly relevant to their teaching and research in mathematics, microeconomics, neuroscience or Victorian literature. These folks would rightly reject being themselves labeled “fascist,” but they might see no reason to take a stand and become antifascists.

Same goes for university administrators, especially presidents, like me. College presidents are supposed to be nonpartisan, and they generally agree that it is vital for the educational enterprise that campuses should accommodate a wide range of political views and encourage meaningful conversation among groups with different values and ideas. But it has never been enough to simply declare one’s campus a marketplace of ideas in which truth wins out. One must work actively to ensure intellectual diversity and robust discussion about enduring questions. Given the strong tilt of professors to one side of the political spectrum on many campuses, faculty leaders and administrators should proactively encourage the study of serious issues related to the themes from libertarian, religious and conservative traditions. The defense of freedom of speech or of intellectual meritocracy alone does not do the job. We need to curate broad conversations so as to create greater intellectual diversity, and some people in higher education have started to do so.

Today intellectual diversity is threatened by forces much more sinister than the leftist musings of tenured humanists, and so today, we administrators and professors must become antifascists. Supporting free inquiry and expression in the abstract is all well and good, but when peaceful protesters are being beaten and gassed, we need to do more. Being open to people of different backgrounds is certainly a virtue, but when the forces of order are encouraged to dominate the streets, we must become sanctuaries for those targeted by the state because of their race or ethnicity. We must call out and reject appeals for the violent suppression of dissent, and we must interrupt the appropriation of religious traditions to legitimate a regime that persecutes others in order to animate its political base and hide its own corruption. We must defend free inquiry and scientific institutions from their abuse by political hacks fueled by myths of macho violence. To try today to stand apart from these issues, to take the posture of the apolitical, is today to take the posture of complicity, whether that be in relation to racism or violent authoritarianism.

We can resist the anti-intellectual, tyrannical tendencies of the moment in many ways -- without embracing the so-called Antifa movement, itself sometimes a bastion of intolerance. Some of us will take to the streets to protest against racist state violence; others will mobilize people to participate in local, state and national elections. In stepping up forthrightly as an antifascist, the student who is upset by growing economic inequality can stand together with the business leader concerned for the welfare of employees and customers; with the science professor appalled by the dismissal of facts; with the abused member of a scapegoated community; with the conservative distressed by the undermining of the Constitution; with the worshipper insulted by the use of religion for political purposes; with the law-abiding citizen disturbed by the threat to the rule of law; with the veteran made anxious by the misuse of the military; with the university president defending the integrity of the educational enterprise.

All these and many more can step up as antifascists while maintaining a commitment to listening to people with whom they might disagree. Such listening is a skill we cannot do without if we are to practice democracy. The alternative is to resign ourselves to currying favor with those who would dominate through violence and exclusion.

There will be those who disagree, thinking university presidents and professors should do their best to avoid the political fray. I certainly have sympathy with scholars and students who just want to study in peace. But just as now is the time to fight racism in our institutions, now the time has come to defend our very right to study, to critique and to create in peace. The time has come to become antifascists -- while we still have the freedom to do so.

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