“Words create worlds,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Riemen
The Words Create Worlds series of essays was inspired by Rabbi Heschel’s warning of the way certain words led to the Holocaust, Riemen’s To Fight Against this Age, and Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names. I felt compelled as a health professional to speak up about fascism, based on the warning flags of the current US presidency and other world movements. In my youth, I was fascinated with World War II, later as a professional I became interested in trauma and the role of the trauma therapist as a moral agent – not just a neutral technician, but a human being who takes a moral stand against human rights abuses, what Robert Jay Lifton calls a “witnessing professional.” As I have watched this regime unfold over the past four years, my early uneasiness has gradually turned to alarm. As physicians, we need to remember our higher calling to function as witnessing professionals for the health of society.
I think it is time for the Doctor to make the diagnosis: fascism, the prognosis: serious.
Fascism is a sickness, an illness, a disorder. It spreads through false-fixed beliefs (delusions), scapegoating (projection), and its continuous stream of lies creates unreality (impaired reality testing). Fascism infects the individual, but it spreads through the community. As a doctor, I am trained to diagnosis and treat sickness. As a doctor, I am trained to attend to individual health as well as public health. Some would say that doctors need to shut up and “stay in their lanes.”, However, as someone who has read Nietzsche, has read Robert Jay Lifton, Jason Stanley, Timothy Snyder, Rebecca Solnit, Madeleine Albright, and Rob Riemen – I have learned from history and I have studied epidemiology – people staying in their lane and just following orders leads down a deadly road.
It is Time to Call it Fascism
Could it really be happening again? Right here in the USA? The erosion of democracy and the growth of fascism and totalitarianism. I think it is time we started calling it anti-democracy and fascism. Umair Haque thinks so, see his article “What Does it Take to Fight Authoritarianism? The One Thing Americans Still Won’t Do,” in which he writes:
“I don’t blame Americans for not getting why they have to say fascism. It’s a complex and subtle set of thoughts to understand, this responsibility.
And yet if I say ‘not calling racism or sexism racism or sexism is legitimising it,’ you get it instantly. Get exactly that logic for fascism and authoritarianism now. That moral, social, and personal responsibility.”
The Leader spews a continuous stream of “false statements,” otherwise known as lies, propaganda – to confuse and disorient opposition and to mobilize a base of followers into a false-fixed state of loyalty and unreality. There are so many lies that the footnotes start to eclipse the text. During his presidency, the president of the United States had made more than 20,000 “false statements,” which we should just start calling lies and propaganda because there is a method behind the madness – the method of the fascist playbook.
It sounds like a constant stream of gibberish, (just try to read this two hour speech), it makes no logical sense, but it appeals to biases and emotions. It is propaganda: “othering” and demonizing of groups of people: Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, and women, “Antifa,” “radical leftists,” “anarchists.” Every event is amplified and weaponized to create divisiveness. He casts doubt on the institution of elections and hints that he will not honor the results or submit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.
To Fight Against This Age
Let us turn to Rob Riemen’s To Fight Against the Age: On Fascism and Humanism (2018). Riemen is the Founder, President, and CEO of the Nexus Institute, “a leading international center for intellectual reflection to inspire the Western cultural and philosophical debate,” and is the editor of the journal Nexus.
I picked up Riemen’s book, by chance, when I was traveling for work and was in Charleston, West Virginia. I found it at a nice little bookstore, Taylor Books. I bought it on impulse and then was fascinated by it and finished it on the flight home. The book consists of two essays, “The Eternal Return of Fascism,” (originally published in 2010) and “The Return of Europa.” In keeping with the theme of Words Creating Worlds, Riemen writes that “to be able to understand something,” you have to “call it by its proper name,” specifically, “populism…will not provide any meaningful understanding,” (18). Even more specifically:
“The use of the term populist is only one more way to cultivate the denial that the ghost of fascism is haunting societies again and to deny the fact that liberal democracies have turned into their opposite: mass democracies deprived of the spirit of democracy,” (19).
Fascism Rests on Dehumanizing Others
I have personally been concerned with the objectification and dehumanization that happens in medical education and medical practice (see Kopacz, Re-humanizing Medicine – 2014). The antidote to dehumanization is quite simple in theory: re-humanization. The more difficult questions are: What is a human being? How is the soul of the human being lost? How is the soul of the human being regained? Riemen reaches a conclusion similar to mine about the limitations of numbers and the scientific method and the need for the humanities and a whole person philosophy.
“Science and technology will never be able to provide us with a complete understanding of the human being with his instincts and desires, virtues and values, mind and spirit…The humanities and the arts” provide “the only knowledge that could provide a true understanding of the human heart,” and that “the real requirements of a democratic civilization [are] the wisdom of poetry and literature, philosophy and theology, the arts and history,” (19-20).
How does fascism return to civilized democracies? Germany, itself was a democracy, Hitler was elected and then gradually did away with democratic institutions, consolidating power. Riemen puts it bluntly, “the main reason fascism can return so easily in mass democracies: ignorance,” (21). The ignorance of history. The ignorance of social psychology. The ignorance of power and fascism. If we don’t call it by its true name, as Riemen and Solnit both implore us, we will have no chance of confronting and stopping it.
Riemen takes his title of his book, To Fight Against this Age from Nietzsche, whom he paraphrases, “we should not accept the blind power of the actual and that instead of conforming to the whole noisy sham-culture of our age, we have to be fighters against this age…It is now upon us to fight against a zeitgeist that destroys the spirit of the democratic civilization,” (27).
The Plague of Fascism
Riemen writes about Camus’ allegory of fascism, The Plague, commenting on the “fascist bacillus,” he tells us that if “we want to put up a good fight, we first have to admit that it has become active in our social body and call it by its name: fascism,” (34). We must diagnose the problem before we can treat it correctly.
Riemen’s book was published in 2018. Now we have the strange juxtaposition of an actual pandemic being used as a fascist tool for promoting divisiveness and effecting the first purge of this regime, 200,000+ dead in the United States as of late September – 25% of the global deaths for 4% of the global population, at least we are “great” at something. Even stranger, now we have a president who is actually infected with a virus he is hell-bent on spreading to others.
Riemen, following Nietzsche’s critique, sees a problem with European and Western culture – that we have lost spiritual values. “With the loss of spiritual values,” he writes, “not only did morals disappear but so did culture in the original meaning of the word: cultura animi, the ‘cultivation of the soul,’” (38). We have become the barbarians. Barbarian originally meant “unintelligible speech,” again, just try reading through this transcript.
This “cultivation of the soul” and the recognition of our common humanity is what humanism is founded upon. Fascism is the opposite of humanism – it is about the degradation of the soul, it is about exaggerating the differences between human beings into a false and superficial sense of sameness rather than seeing “out of many, one,” e pluribus unum.
Writing in the mid-1930s, Menno ter Braak noted that fascist movements were focused on “stimulating aggression and anger.” Riemen summarizes that a fascist movement:
“was not actually interested in finding solutions, had no ideas of its own, and did not want to solve social problems, because injustice was necessary for maintaining an atmosphere of vilification and hatred,” (51).
Lousy at Democracy, Super-Good at Fascism
If we look at the current US presidency, we might be tempted to call it incompetent – and from a perspective of democracy it would be right to do so. However, if we view the current president through the lens of fascism – he is hypercompetent. He is lousy at democracy, but he is super-good at fascist.
Menno ter Braak focused on the use of “social resentment vented on a scapegoat who was blamed for everything: the Jew.” Riemen further summarizes ter Braak’s view:
“At the same time, this movement considered itself to be the eternal victim of the ‘left’ or the ‘elite’ and harbored a deep aversion to intellectuals, cosmopolitans, and anyone who was different…[with a] continuous use of slogans and empty rhetoric…it was reactionary,” (52).
Fascism is Semi-civilization and Promotes the Cult of Resentment
Fascism is “semi-civilization” and promotes “the cult of resentment.” These are the rules that the current US president is very good at, he consults the fascist playbook at every turn and fascism is winning and democracy is losing.
How did fascism gain hold in European democracies? By using those democracies against themselves. Both Hitler and Mussolini were voted into power. Riemen writes that both the liberals and the conservatives caved in to fascism because they thought they could gain something from it. It is the classic devil’s bargain of “the end justifies the means.” This is based, or maybe we should say de-based, on the idea that getting power or money (the ultimate materialist focus) is more important than human values, civility, decency, or humanity.
“The liberals no longer defended the freedom principle of European humanism but became interested only in the freedom of the markets: that is to say, As long as we can earn money,” (56).
We see this today – somehow the stock market in the US seems to give permission for fascism, as long as we can earn money.
“The conservatives were unprepared to unscrupulously exchange the protection of spiritual values for the preservation of their own power, under the veils of ‘tradition’ and ‘social order,’” (56).
We see this today, the conservatives going along with the president, even when it seems to violate their own principles, as long as they can preserve power and social order. This is the definition of fascism: power and order become more important than principles, ideals, more important than human beings.
After World War II, after Mussolini and Hitler were defeated, some still worried that we had not learned the lessons of history. Riemen reminds of that both Albert Camus and Thomas Mann, both Nobel Prize winners, warned of the return of fascism.
“Camus and Mann…as early as 1947…stated that fascism was a political phenomenon that had not disappeared at the end of the war and that we could now describe as the politicization of the mentality of the rancorous mass-man. It is a form of politics used by demagogues whose only motive is to enforce and extend their own power, to which end they will exploit resentment, designate scapegoats, incite hatred, hide intellectual vacuity beneath raucous slogans and insults, and elevate political opportunism into an art form with their populism,” (60).
A Realm Where Words are Separated from their Meanings
Riemen warns us, as early as 2010, that “this is a new outbreak of the plague,” (60). But just as you cannot treat a disease you cannot name and diagnose, you cannot appropriately respond to a movement if you cannot call it by its true name – fascism. We, in the US, were sick, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, we were in the throes of a revival of an old illness – the pandemic of fascism. We entered into a realm where “words were separated from their meanings and reduced to slogans,” (61).
Again and again, throughout this essay, Riemen reminds us that the cure to fascism is the medicine of our human unity and spiritual/moral values. This is not about religion – many of the most vocal followers of the president are “religious” people who are more interested in power than in human goodness.
“Our true identity is determined not by nationality, origin, language, belief, income, race, or any way in which people differ from one another, but precisely by what unites us and makes the unity of [hu]mankind possible: universal spiritual values that shape human dignity and that every… [one]…can adopt,” (67).
“Anyone who really wants to be a humanist rejects every form of fanaticism and learns the courtesy of the heart and the art of conversation, dialogue,” (68).
What is needed is not a political solution, but a human solution. We need to remember our original instructions and the principles and tenets of spiritual democracy. While fascism is a political movement based in materialism (money and power), its cure is a spiritual movement based in humanism (soul and spirit).
Continuous Lies as Politics
Riemen describes the Party for Freedom (PVV, Partij voor de Vrijeheid) in his native Netherlands in words that sound like the current US president’s playbook. Fascism is not creative, it is not novel, it is really just the same damn thing, over and over again – the basest aspects of our material nature. It is the propagation of dehumanization through dehumanization. The PPV offers
“the shameless opposite of the Judeo-Christian and humanist traditions: vulgar materialism, oppressive nationalism, xenophobia, ammunition for resentment, a deep aversion to the arts and the exercise of spiritual values, a suffocating spiritual bigotry, a fierce resistance to the European spirit, and continuous lies as politics,” (68-69).
Doctors Against Fascism
The way you learn how to diagnose something in medical school is by seeing case after case after case – until it becomes automatic, at the first signs or symptoms, you see the incipient signs of a more serious illness. This is why we need Doctors Against Fascism – witnessing professionals to diagnose and warn us that the fascist bacillus is starting to dehumanize our population and make it vulnerable to fulminant fascism. In the USA, there has been a growing concern about the signs and symptoms of fascism since 2016. Riemen has been seeing it in Europe since at least 2010 and we see it spreading all over the globe – a pandemic of fascism in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Philippines, England, Brazil, India, and the United States of America.
The Doctor is in and has bad news for you – the prognosis of our nation’s health is serious. We are infected with fascism – it has taken hold in the minds of many of our citizens and it is spreading through our institutions. Words Create Worlds and we are surrounded by continuous lies as politics.
This essay seems to have found a natural ending-point here. I will pick up with the rest of the review of Rob Riemen’s book, To Fight Against This Age: Fascism and Humanism, in the next installment of Words Create Worlds. Perhaps I will develop this theme of Doctors Against Fascism more.
This series, Words Create Worlds, grows out of my work with Joseph Rael on peace. In Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility that grows out 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 can 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.”
 Rob Riemen, To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
 Robert Jay Lifton, “Foreword to the First Edition: Our Witness to Malignant Normality,” in Bandy Lee (ed) The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2019.
 “Doctors Revolt After N.R.A. Tells Them to ‘Stay in Their Lane’ on Gun Policy,” Matthew Haag, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2018. The original criticism was in a Tweet from the NRA, “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.” https://twitter.com/NRA/status/1060256567914909702.
 “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me by My Pronouns: At ‘woke’ medical schools, curricula are increasingly focused on social justice rather than treating illness,” Stanley Goldfarb, Wall Street Journal, 9/12/19.
 Richard Huelsenbeck, German-American psychiatrist and Dada-ist who was investigated by the Nazis and forbidden to write, once said, “We are psychiatrists; we are Germans; we have read Nietzsche; we know that to gaze too long at monsters is to risk becoming one―that’s what we get paid for!” (Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, p. 211). Marcus’ book traces the spirit of protest from punk rock back to earlier art movements that were cultural and political critiques of the times.
 Umair Haque, “What Does it Take to Fight Authoritarianism? The One Thing Americans Still Won’t Do.” Eudamoinia & Co, Sept 25, 2020, https://eand.co/what-does-it-take-to-fight-authoritarianism-the-one-thing-americans-still-wont-do-676dfb86794b
 Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, Meg Kelly, “President Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims.” The Washington Post, July 13, 2020 at 12:00 a.m. PDT
 Albert Camus, The Plague, New York: Vintage International, 1991.
 Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.