“Anti-Intellectualism and How Fascism Works”: A Comment

I followed the link from here to IHE’s “Anti-Intellectualism and How Fascism Works,” an interview with Jason Stanley (Yale) who has authored a book entitled How Fascism Works. I’d been thinking of posting a comment, but discovered that the comments thread had been closed by the site administrator. This seems odd, since the interview is less than two days old.

Ninety comments appear. While comments sections do often degenerate into pointless slugfests, except for a very few posts this one did not strike me that way. While there was sustained and sometimes vigorous disagreement, some fundamental issues were being raised. I’ll leave it to readers to ponder why the comment section was closed so soon.

In any event …

Admittedly this was a short interview, and I’d been anticipating something longer, conspicuous in its absence was a clear, concise definition of what the author means by fascism. Why is this important? Not just because it is in his book title, but because of the way the term is thrown around and never defined. How gullible do you have to be to realize that fascist has become one of the big demonizing and weaponized words of the day?

The closest Stanley comes to a definition is this (it is, as we see, a definition not of fascism but of a variety of fascism he calls 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.

I don’t question that this was true of Hitler’s German and Mussolini’s Italy. But a version of this same thing is true of any totalitarian ideology, including those of the left such as Communism, the primary difference being that they “mythologize” about their futures instead of their pasts. They surely “replace truth with myth …”  I hope no one seriously believes universities under Communism presented an “accurate version of history and current reality …”  Surely we recall the Lysenko case.

This aside, in the absence of a definition for its key term, one has to suspect that the subtext is just another attack on President Trump and his supporters. The defense of elites here, however qualified (“Our suspicion of elites and what could be seen as anti-intellectualism can be healthy at times;…”), surely supports this interpretation, since it was anti-elitism that Trump successfully appealed to from the get-go.

Thus we see more of the same: possibly yet another lengthy ad hominem argument, with no real analysis. No analysis, that is, of the whys and hows of a guy with no previous experience in the political arena was able to trounce sixteen Republican competitors and then go on to defeat the Democrats’ and cosmopolitan elites’ anointed candidate. However small the margin in the Electoral College, and whoever won the popular vote, the point is: Trump won. How was that possible? Why did it happen?

Could it be because the mainstream of both political parties has collapsed, has simply lost credibility with the voting public? Could it be, too, that alternative sources of information readily available on increasingly sophisticated Internet platforms were successfully challenging dominant narratives? The latter would explain the cold war against “fake news,” the latest gambit being played out in this war is Alex Jones’s InfoWars being kicked off Facebook and numerous other social media sites. Whatever one thinks of Alex Jones, it is hard to see this as anything other than a move by those who see their current mission as establishing Ministries of Truth.

Returning to the closed comments thread, one comment leaped out at me. The author signs himself only as “Cultural Anthropologist”:

As a Professor Emeritus who has just completed fifty years of teaching at a Ph.D. granting university, I know for sure that the statement “universities…present a more complex and accurate version of history and current reality” is wantonly false. Also false is “Above all, the mission of the university is truth.” The mission of universities today is to advance “social justice,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” (but not of Asians). At least in the social “sciences,” humanities, education, and social work, the mission is to advance a far left wing ideology about society, to undermine the West and Western civilization, to negate liberal rights and protections in favour of statism and identity categories, and to push forward practical methods for implementing “social [in]justice.”

All true. It has been a long time since truth was central to the mission of academia, or education at any level.

But if inculcating herd behavior and obedience to authority are major prerogatives, departures from which are punished with ostracism at best and career destruction at worst, then higher education of the past 40 years or so has been a stunning success!

“Cultural anthropologist,” after all, was immediately attacked by subsequent posters, after all, the first of which accused him (her?) of “spew[ing] … bile.”

Another demanded evidence, making me wonder what cave he (she?) has been living in for going on 30 years now.

Admittedly it’s just a comments thread, but this is the sort of thing I’ve been talking about for a long time, and it’s hardly limited to comments threads.

And perhaps Jason Stanley defines fascism in his book, which I’ve not obtained as I am outside the U.S.; obtaining hardbound books in English in a timely manner where I currently live is possible but extremely expensive, and truth be known, resolving such matters as this is not my highest priority just now.

I’ll conclude by noting … I’ve no idea whether anyone reading this will believe me or not (or will care): the Right is far from getting everything right. I’ve no compunction to defend what the Koch Brothers do, and I’ve certainly no desire to defend the transformation of universities according to the “business model.” It seems to me, however, that this model wouldn’t have been so easy to implement over the years had academia truly had as its mission the discovery and communication of truth during the decades that preceded the current tendencies, much less in the present.



About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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