This essay first appeared in The Badger, Year 6, Volume 6, Issue 1 (4/4/20). Thanks to The Badger for permission to reprint.
“Words create worlds.” These are the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, here is the full quote, remembered by his daughter, Susannah Heschel:
“Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness — or evil — into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds he used to tell me when I was a child. They must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn. The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Remembering the Past & Learning from History
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)
Are we witnessing a rise of fascism and totalitarianism? Many say we are, and it is worth looking at what these words mean and if they apply to our current situation, which Rebecca Solnit calls a linguistic crisis.
Are we justified in using such a strong word as “fascism” for the language and ideas that are being tossed about under the guise of a resurgent nationalism? The Director of the McMaster Centre for Research in the Public Interest, Henry Giroux, believes so.
“I have no apologies whatsoever for using the word fascist politics. And I think that people who are afraid to do that become complicit with the very politics they condemn. Because if you can’t learn from history, then it seems to me that you end up in the dark,” (Henry Giroux).
In this next installment of the Words Create Worlds series, we will turn to the work of two authors who warn us against a global movement into fascism. Both authors have familial roots in the persecution of the Jewish people during the holocaust and the Soviet take over of Eastern Europe after World War II. We will first discuss former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning. Then we will turn to Yale professor, Jason Stanley’s book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. I do not intend this to be polemical, partisan politics, but rather to objectively document the current resurgence of fascistic rhetoric, in the United States and globally, in light of the history of fascism in the 20th Century.
Fascism: A Warning
Former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright published her book by this name in 2018. She starts with describing her family’s experience with fascism, escaping to London in 1939 from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, only to have to flee in 1948 from the communists, this time to the USA. The family lost numerous members to the Holocaust.
Albright sees a worldwide movement of leaders “intentionally undermining the institutions and democratic principles that have held the world together,” (xvii). She has chapters focusing on the rise of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Stalin in the Soviet Union, Putin in Russia, Erdoğan in Turkey, Milošević in the former Yugoslavia, Chávez in Venezuela, Orbán in Hungary, Kaczyński in Poland, the Supreme Leaders in North Korea, and Trump in the USA. She defines a fascist as “someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals that he or she might have,” (245-246).
Albright includes Trump in this group of leaders leaning into fascism as “we have not had a chief executive in the modern era whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals,” (5). She points out that he has “systematically degraded political discourse in the United States, shown an astonishing disregard for facts, libeled his predecessors, threatened to ‘lock up’ political rivals, referred to mainstream journalists as ‘the enemy of the American people,’ spread falsehoods about the integrity of the US electoral process, touted mindlessly nationalistic economic and trade policies, vilified immigrants and the countries from which they come, and nurtured a paranoid bigotry toward the followers of one of the world’s foremost religions,” (5).
Albright notes that, in 2016, “fascism” was the most searched for word in the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, except for the word “surreal,” showing a popular interest in understanding the meanings of these words. She describes the history of the word fascism, going back to Mussolini’s revival of the Roman consul’s emblem, the fasces, a “bundle of elm rods coupled with an ax,” (19-20). Mussolini is also credited with coining the term, “drain the swamp” (drenare la palude) by firing 35,000 civil servants (20). Albright traces the history of the words, “America First,” back to Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee of 1940, which included “Nazi sympathizers” to resist entry into World War II (216). One of the things we are looking at in this column is how words create worlds and to echo and mimic the words of a fascist is to risk recreating a fascist state. She quotes George Orwell’s one-word description of a Fascist, a “bully,” (209). We can look to see if the current president of the United States qualifies as a bully – does he call people names, does he push people around and try to intimidate them and always get his way?
The question is whether what we are seeing in the United States, which seems to resonate on larger geopolitical trends, deserves to be called fascism. Albright states that “Trump is the first antidemocratic president in modern U.S. history,” and that on “too many days, beginning in the early hours, he flaunts his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues, and America itself. If transplanted to a country with fewer democratic safeguards, he would audition for dictator, because that is where his instincts lead,” (246). She writes that leaders around the world “observe, learn from, and mimic one another,” and that they see “where their peers are heading, what they can get away with, and how they can augment and perpetuate their power,” (246). She describes how this happened historically in the Twentieth Century and she fears that history is repeating itself and that “the herd is moving in a Fascist direction,” (246). Albright is issuing a warning, as her book’s subtitle states, she feels that in the US, we “are not there yet, but these feel like signposts on the road back to an era when Fascism found nourishment and individual tragedies were multiplied millions-fold,” (224).
Albright’s Antidotes to Fascism
Albright mentions a few antidotes to fascism, such as “caring about others” and “the proposition that we are all created equal” which neutralizes the “self-centered moral numbness that allows Fascism to thrive,” (66). She also says that we need to develop world views that see similarities, rather than us and them, that we need “a way of looking at the world that recognizes the humanity that we share with one another, and the interests that nations have in common,” (187). This is similar to the idea of “spiritual democracy” that Joseph Rael and I develop in our forthcoming book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality.
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
Jason Stanley is a Yale professor and author of the book, How Propaganda Works and his recent How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Stanley was born in the US, but his parents fled Europe as Jewish refugees. His father lived through Kristallnacht in Germany and his mother, from Eastern Poland, was in a Siberian labor camp during the war.
Stanley also speaks of the history of the America First movement (“the public face of pro-fascist sentiment”) and its roots in anti-immigration policy. He defines fascism as “ultranationalism of some variety,” with the nation “represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf,” (xiv). As does Albright, he sees the United States in a dangerous moment. A hallmark of fascist politics “comes from the particular way in which it dehumanizes segments of the population,” which leads to limiting “the capacity for empathy among other citizens, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, from repression of freedom, mass imprisonment, and expulsion to, in extreme cases, mass extermination,” (xv). He points out that dehumanization can exist without overt fascism, but that “it should concern all Americans that as a candidate and as president, Donald Trump has publicly and explicitly insulted immigrant groups,” (xv).
Dehumanization is the process of treating a person as a thing, as something less than human. I have written about this process in medical and health care settings in my book, Re-humanizing Medicine. Dehumanization can spread like an epidemic. Psychoanalyst, Robert Stoller, has written that the act of dehumanizing another “dehumanizes the dehumanizer,” (Stoller, 32). The dehumanized individual has lost touch with what it means to be human and thus treats others as objects rather than as people. This recalls Martin Buber’s distinction between the I-Thou and the I-It relationships. The I-It relationship is a dehumanized relationship, it is profane and materialistic, treating human beings as raw material. The I-Thou relationship, on the other hand, sacralizes and spiritualizes the relationship between two human beings, it is a subject-subject relationship. The reason that fascism is a spiritual as well as political issue is because fascism despiritualizes human beings and the world. Just as I called for Re-humanizing Medicine, we need a Re-humanizing Politics, and a Re-spiritualizing Politics after the resurgence of fascist rhetoric and action. Two of the antidotes that I describe in Re-humanizing Medicine are developing a personal counter-curriculum of re-humanization (an action plan to reinvest in one’s being fully human: body, emotions, mind, heart, creativity, intuition, and spirituality), and to join the compassion revolution – a global movement of bringing heart back into health care. We could use these processes in our current geopolitical climate.
Stanley’s 10 Common Features of Fascism:
- Political invocation of a mythic past – e.g. “Make America Great Again”
- Propaganda – to distort reality and create alternate narratives and “realities” of control
- Anti-intellectualism – “the liberal New York Times,” casting free speech and scholarship as liberal agendas
- Unreality – “fake news” and “alternative facts,” creating a state news organ
- Hierarchy – us/them, the deserving and the undeserving
- Victimhood – seeing oneself as a victim can lead to victimizing others before they victimize you
- Law and order – warn about dangerous “others” and the need to control and contain “them”
- Sexual anxiety – fears of racial purity and appeal to need for “strong men” for protection
- Sodom and Gomorrah – decadent “coastal elites”
- Arbeit Macht Frei – This German phrase, meaning “work will set you free” was inscribed over the entrance to the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz
Stanley’s book follows chapters on each of these different topics, but he reminds us that:
“The most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. It aims to separate a population into an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’” (xvi).
The antidote to fascism can also be found in the poison of it. Stanley writes that the “suffering of strangers can solidify the structure of fascism,” but that “it can also trigger empathy once another lens is clicked into place,” (xix).
This is the much-needed compassion revolution. I often find myself musing about what would happen if all these politicians who are spreading hatred and division simply asked themselves before they spoke, “Am I speaking from the heart and out of love?” Stanley sees the root power of fascism in the separation of people into us and them. Many spiritual practices cultivate the opposite of us and them, seeking states of peace, unity, and interconnection. For example, the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen and Loving Kindness focus on breaking down the barriers between self and other. Hindu Kashmiri Shaivism seeks the understanding and experience that all is Śiva, that we are all God, and that there is no “us and them.” In our forthcoming book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and I discuss the concept of Spiritual Democracy, of cultivating different ways that we can move from self and other, to brother and sister, and even further to the non-dual point where we are all one. Through exploring different pathways of initiation we come to the conclusion that the spiritual path leads to a state of oneness and from this state of oneness, one feels a responsibility for all life. After seeking initiation, comes finding & receiving wisdom, and this wisdom comes with the responsibility to return to the world and to find ways of giving compassion and wisdom to others.
In the next installment of Words Create Worlds we will be, “The Fight for Humanity – or should we say – Working for Humanity.” Throughout 2019 I was writing these Words Create Worlds essays that appeared in The Badger. In working with Joseph Rael, writing our next book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”
 “‘Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It.’ Really?” Nicholas Clairmont, Big Think, 7/31/13, https://bigthink.com/the-proverbial-skeptic/those-who-do-not-learn-history-doomed-to-repeat-it-really
 Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018, pg 4.
 “Henry Giroux: Will Trump’s Deliberate Racist Rhetoric Lead Us to Fascism?” Interview with Marc Steiner, Big Think, 7/18/19. https://truthout.org/video/trumps-racist-rhetoric-is-deliberate-will-it-lead-us-to-fascism/
 Robert Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 32.
 Robert Audi ed., ‘Martin Buber,’ The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 104.
 These are the chapters from, Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House, 2018. I have provided my own brief elaborations after the topic headings of Stanley’s chapters. For a quick review of Stanley’s 10 elements of fascism, which also comments on the rise of Hindutva in India, see “The ten indicators of fascist politics,” Kanishk Tharoor, The Hindu Business Line, 5/17/19, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/talk/the-ten-indicators-of-fascism/article27158525.ece
 David Kopacz and Joseph Rael. Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality. Seattle & Marvel: Condor & Eagle Press, 2020.
 Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.