Life & Culture

Jewniversity: Jason Stanley

How do you spot a fascist? This Yale professor has a guide in the latest of David Edmonds' series on Jewish academics


Is it reasonable to label some of today’s authoritarian movements as “fascist” — an ideology most associated with regimes in the first half of the 20th century?

Doesn’t it seem, well, a bit provocative?

For good reason, there’s a reluctance to throw around the F-word. Given the horrors perpetrated by 20th-century fascism, many of us are wary of cheapening its use.

But Yale professor Jason Stanley wants to call out fascism when he sees it. And to help us diagnose when the F-word is and isn’t appropriate, he’s written, How Fascism Works, a book which has now been translated into a dozen languages.

The book is divided into ten chapters — each representing a key tactic of fascism in its bid to acquire and maintain power. Some of these will come as no surprise to any student with a nodding acquaintance of history — the use of propaganda, the brazen lying, the focus on law-and-order, the idea of purity and especially racial purity.

The book also has fascinating sections on how fascism conjures up an image of a halcyon past (and promises the country a return to glory), how it posits the victimhood of the “decent” majority while blaming immigrants and minorities for all societal problems and how it attempts to undermine institutions that act as a check on power — the press, the judiciary, opposition parties, civil society. That the traditional fascist tactic of attacking “elites” and “experts” in universities and the civil service appears to have become mainstream in British political discourse should probably give us all pause.

There are some pillars of fascism identified by Professor Stanley that have been more overlooked by others. They include the way fascists raise and exploit the threat of sexual violence — the Ku Klux Klan was obsessed with black sexuality, while more recently the German neo-fascist AfD raised the spectre of hordes of sexually incontinent Middle East refugees. Then there’s the romanticism of the countryside and the fear of the liberal, degenerate city. Both before and after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis and Austro-Fascists were able to tap into, and then amplify, the widespread suspicion that Vienna was the Devil’s playground.

Among contemporary figures linked to fascist ideology, Jason Stanley cites the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, and the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, “the tropical Trump,”; he covers, too, the Hindu Nationalist BJP in India and developments in Putin’s Russia. Not to be forgoten, of course, are substantial Far-Right parties in many countries — Germany, France, even Sweden (so often caricatured as a social-democratic utopia).

The book might not have garnered as much attention as it has, had it not been for the current occupant of the White House. Stanley labels Trump’s tactics “fascist”, but never goes as far as calling Trump himself a fascist. He calls his movement fascist, while Trump himself “is more like a fascist wanna-be”, operating within a (still) democratic government.

“My family background has saddled me with difficult emotional baggage”, Jason Stanley notes in How Fascism Works, “But it also, crucially, prepared me to write this book”.

His mother was born in Eastern Poland and spent her first few years living off potato peelings in a Siberian labour camp. She was repatriated aged five, with her mother, and reunited with her father. After Professor Stanley’s grandfather was set upon and nearly killed by antisemitic hoodlums in 1948, the family left Warsaw, emigrating to the US.

His father fled Germany in 1939, aged five, with his grandmother Ilse. She sounds an extraordinary woman. For two years, from 1936, she disguised herself as a Nazi social worker so that she could help rescue hundreds of people from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Back in Berlin, she struggled to convince her Jewish friends and neighbours about the reality of Camp conditions. Ilse’s father was the main cantor and one of the founders of Belsize Square Synagogue.

Jason Stanley himself had a comfortable middle-class upbringing in upper state New York – his father an academic, his mother a court stenographer. He’s raising his kids in Jewish traditions. How Fascism Works is the product of his family background and his sense of solidarity with those facing discrimination. “To me, my Judaism means an obligation to pay attention to equality and the rights of minority groups.”

I suspect that book sales will suffer if the “fascist wanna-be” is booted out in November. If so, I suspect Jason Stanley won’t mind.


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