“What is a fascist — other than someone you don’t like?”
That’s how the great Jack Reece (1941–1997), my Modern European History professor at the University of Pennsylvania, opened his lecture on Nazism and Fascism.
Nervous tittering rippled through the room. We were veterans of the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and union organizing battles, not to mention the ideological feuds that then as now seemed endemic in the left-of-center. In those days we were gleefully watching the loathed Nixon administration disintegrate under pressure from the Watergate revelations. Who among us hadn’t, probably more than once, dismissed someone whose politics we didn’t like as a fascist?
With help from the class, Professor Reece then wrote on the blackboard some of the characteristics of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany: totalitarian, anti-democratic, nationalistic, authoritarian . . .
Professor Reece’s question remains deeply rooted in my head. In the years since, I’ve occasionally heard the word “fascist” come out of my mouth to describe people I don’t know whose politics I don’t like, but usually I manage to stop myself. “Fascist” binds complex ideas and circumstances up in a deceptively neat package.
Religions and ideologies — the packages — are fascinating, but I’ve long been at least as interested in what goes into the package as in the package inself. From the outside, the packages look monolithic. They have flat sides and clear borders. The people inside the package may cop to the same label, but once you get to know a few of them, they turn out to be a wildly diverse lot.
When we share experiences — tell each other our stories — we nearly always find that we have a lot in common. If we’re put off by the packaging, we rarely get that far.
So in the U.S. we’re well into the 2016 presidential campaign even though the election won’t take place till next November. Words like “fascist” and “socialist,” “liberal” and “conservative,” are being lobbed back and forth like snowballs. Wouldn’t I sometimes love to jump into the fray and, like Professor Reece, ask “What is a fascist / socialist / liberal / conservative — other than someone you don’t like?”
On Facebook the other day I saw a meme — one of those ubiquitous little graphics with pithy or funny quotes on them — that defined “conservative” as fearful, resistant to change, and a few other negative things that I would characterize as more reactionary than conservative. It’s a good bet that this particular meme is being circulated by self-styled liberals and progressives, and it’s an equally good bet that they haven’t thought too hard about what “conservative” actually means, literally or historically.
Many liberals and progressives are also fond of circulating memes paraphrasing the Iroquois counsel to consider the next seven generations when making decisions. A version quoted on Wikipedia includes this sentence: “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
Got news for you, people: This is a conservative approach. It doesn’t fear or resist change, but it doesn’t rush headlong into it either. It’s mindful of potential consequences. It thinks ahead.
Fascist, socialist, liberal, conservative — these words all mean something considerably more important, and more interesting, than “someone you don’t like.” They’re useful shorthand for describing big-picture ideas or one’s own general political perspective, but when applied to other people, they obscure as much as they reveal. They lull us into thinking we know more about someone than we do. They make us complacent. They may even make us smug.
Maybe most important of all, they make it hard to recognize potential allies. In his discussion of Nazism and Fascism, Professor Reece drew a picture on the blackboard: the leader, the Führer, Il Duce, stands on a pedestal in front of row upon row upon row of people, all of whom are entirely focused on him, none of whom are paying any attention to the people on either side. The people are united by their focus on the leader but they have no connection with each other.
It’s a terrifying vision, and an all too plausible one.