by Joan Harvey
Somewhere on an island with sun and shade, in the midst of peace, security and happiness, I would in the end be indifferent to whether I was or was not Jewish. But here and now I cannot be anything else. Nor do I want to be. —Mihail Sebastian
Fascism is what happens when people try to ignore the complications. —Yuval Harari
These days, even in the somewhat remote hills where I dwell, near a very liberal, and mostly white town, one thinks often about the possibility of living soon in an authoritarian state. And this possibility becomes impossible to separate from the idea of identity—who is most at risk? Probably not me. But certainly many immigrants are already or could be in danger, whether Mexican or Muslim. Identity, as in the quote from Mihail Sebastian above, becomes an issue when it is forced on one. And, tangled up with identity is the difficult issue of identity politics, which is driving the right in a negative way, and splitting the left.
In his book The People vs Democracy, Yascha Mounk quotes sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield: “In most social interactions whites get to be seen as individuals. Racial minorities, by contrast, become aware from a young age that people will often judge them as members of their group, and treat them in accordance with the (usually negative) stereotypes attached to that group.” (Mounk, 2018, p. 202) Perhaps that is why one book keeps leaping to mind during these times, Mihail Sebastian’s Journal: 1935-1944, though it was written in very different circumstances. Radu Ioanid in his introduction writes: “One of Sebastian’s fundamental choices was to consider himself a Romanian rather than a Jew, a natural decision for one whose spirit and intellectual production belonged to Romanian culture. He soon discovered with surprise and pain that this was an illusion: both his intellectual benefactor and his friends ultimately rejected him only because he was Jewish.” (Sebastian, 2000, p. xii)
When the entries in this journal begin, Sebastian is in his late twenties. His life is full of literary feuds, theater going, agonies over his work, women chasing him and women he chases, and his passion for music, music, music. There are Mozart sonatas on the radio, plans to go skiing, lovely descriptions of his “amatory sufferings,” intelligent reading of Proust. He often meets and dines and parties with friends. But as the Germans pick up steam, the anti-Semites in Romania are emboldened; because he is Jewish he’s no longer allowed to practice law, the plays he writes are not produced, he loses his job with the Writer’s Association, he has no money to pay the rent and soon he’s not allowed to live in his apartment anyhow.
He’s called up for military service on and off. Things get worse and worse. Thousands of Jews are hauled off and killed. Sebastian describes the course of the War from news he gets on the radio and in newspapers; his clear-eyed perceptions seem to be those of someone much older than a man in his late twenties and early thirties. And his closest friends, the intellectuals and writers of Bucharest, embrace the anti-Semitic Iron Guard, until eventually conversation with them is no longer possible.
One of Sebastian’s closest friends was Mircea Eliade. Sebastian, who clearly loved him, reports conversation after conversation in which Eliade expressed anti-Semitic views, for example, a ballet Eliade found “disgusting because of its ‘Jewish spirit.’” (Sebastian, 2000, p. 119). In 1937 Eliade wrote a long piece “reproaching the authorities for their tolerance toward the Jews.” (Sebastian, 2000, p.xiv). Even so, Sebastian tried to keep Eliade and other anti-Semitic intellectuals as friends until it became impossible. He was generous and continued to try to see Eliade as misguided and mistaken, and he also attempted to understand him: “nor would I forget his explanation for joining the Guard with such passion: ‘I have always believed in the primacy of the spirit.’ He’s neither a charlatan nor a madman. He’s just naive. But there are such catastrophic forms of naiveté.” (Sebastian, 2000, p. 114)
Our time is clearly very different. The situation was infinitely worse for Sebastian, who was Jewish in an extremely anti-Semitic Romania. Nor did Romania have the democratic history we have in America. The intellectuals that made up his circle were almost all supportive of the authoritarian nationalist anti-Semitic Iron Guard, whereas here, almost all intellectuals, including many on the right, including those such as David Frum and William Kristol (whom I believe helped lead us into this mess), have come out against Trump and his desire to destroy our institutions. Though there is always Jordan Peterson.
When I read Sebastian’s account of Eliade and his mysticism, Peterson came to mind, and when I read Pankaj Mishra’s piece on Peterson in the New York Review of Books https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism/ I found that Mishra, who is far more qualified than I, also mentioned Eliade in his excoriation of Peterson. “Peterson’s own lineage among these healers of modern man’s soul can be traced through his repeatedly invoked influences: not only Carl Jung, but also Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion.” (Alexander Dugin, an extremely influential philosopher in modern day Russia, also comes from a similar mystical lineage and was influenced by Julius Evola, who was also an early influence and lifelong friend of Eliade.)
To get a better sense of Peterson, I watched a few of his YouTubes. He’s good at saying awful things, then distracting from them and softening them so he won’t be called out. On gay marriage, for example, he says, really the only way to raise a healthy child is in a nuclear family with a heterosexual mother and father. And, to prove my point, rats like to wrestle. But, gay people, good luck to you. Or, really I would have voted for Clinton, but identity politics are so extremely repugnant that actually I would have voted for Trump. Oh, and I hate white nationalism.
Sam Harris, who considers himself a liberal, also despises identity politics, so much so that he won’t have anyone on his show who will speak in favor of it (with the exception of Ezra Klein whom Harris accused of acting in bad faith). Harris tours with Peterson, and probably makes a lot of money doing so. And, of course, there is a way in which identity politics has gone too far. Yascha Mounk, after pointing out how identity is foisted on one, goes on, quite reasonably, to show the divisiveness and anti-democratic results of the extremes in the debate over cultural appropriation: “either we accept the mutual influence of different cultures as an indispensable (and indeed desirable) element of any diverse society—or we will defend against it, erecting separate spheres for each cultural and ethnic group.” (Mounk, 2018, p. 205)
There is a vast difference between Mounk’s reasonable critique of identity politics and Peterson’s preference of Trump because he finds identity politics “repugnant.” Mounk is able to hold both sides and their complications, whereas Peterson sides with the authoritarian. Of course there has been objection to calling Peterson’s ideology fascistic and as Mishra says: “Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.”
Until Trump, fascism wasn’t a word in the press every day. The best piece I’ve read on fascism was written in 1995 by Umberto Eco in the New York Review of Books. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/ Eco was a child under Mussolini, and very familiar with the subject. He goes into depth about why the word “fascism” is used so frequently: “Why was an expression like fascist pig used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits? Why didn’t they say:. . . Quisling pig, Nazi pig?” Why did fascism become a word that could be used for different totalitarian movements, he asks. It is, he says, because fascism is fuzzy totalitarianism. It has many forms. “Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one of more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist.” He goes on to list a number of features that are typical of what he calls Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism. “These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
These elements and values, summed up by Annalisa Merelli https://qz.com/847040/the-key-difference-between-populism-and-fascism/ , include:
- the cult of tradition and the past, of action over thought, of machismo
- the fear of difference
- the appeal to a frustrated middle class
- the obsession with international conspiracies
- an exaggeration of the power of enemies
- the demonization of “rotten” parliamentary governments
- the use of simple, impoverished language
- the glorification of the people as a monolith holding common views.
How many of these do we recognize in our current administration and the GOP?
In addition to issues of identity and misplaced traditionalism (and again I want to emphasize that our times are nothing like his), I was struck with one main similarity to our situation, which was how Sebastian, with a very keen understanding of what was happening, was able only to watch helplessly as things got worse and worse. Today we have the feeling of watching what Bill Maher and others have called a “slow coup.” Sean Carroll and Yascha Mounk talk about the idea of a phase transition. The system seems stable, but then one small increase has much bigger systemic implications, and things are suddenly very different. These days we’re unable to do anything as the courts are packed with right-wing judges, as students are saddled with more debt, as American-born Latinos are denied passports, as ICE separates mothers from children, as women are called dogs by the President and religious leaders kiss his hand. We’re unable to do anything about police beating up the skinny Antifa kids, or the criminal neglect of Puerto Rico after the storm, or the ongoing attacks on black people. It does seem as if we are moving toward a position of increasing state violence. We watch as the free press is threatened. We watch as scientists, government workers, ambassadors lose their jobs.
A few weeks ago I went to a rally against Kavanaugh in Denver. It was a hot day, and a few hundred people waved signs, most of the protesters huddled to the side in the shade. A wide variety of speakers of many races and sizes and sexual orientations spoke. It was moving and at the same time felt pointless. That week I also called my Senator to complain about his wishy-washy stance on Kavanaugh, and that too felt pointless. Even with all the Dems opposing him, Kavanaugh will probably end up on the Supreme Court for life (though as I write this the attempted rape charges have come out). I wrote a few postcards to urge Democrats to vote. I went to a fundraiser for the Democratic candidate for Colorado Secretary of State. I went around a pleasant neighborhood and knocked on doors for our gubernatorial candidate. This too felt somewhat futile. Of the more than 50 doors I knocked on, perhaps two hadn’t quite made up their minds and might at least pay more attention to the idea of voting.
All of this took maybe 8 hours over the course of several weeks. I am very aware that I’m not doing enough. I’m also aware that, unfortunately, I’m doing more than most around me. I’m a member of several Facebook resistance groups, some of whose members work tirelessly to try to preserve some healthcare, some sane environmental policy, some civil rights. And, while the thousands of phone calls have so far made very little difference to the ongoing destruction of our democracy, it’s hard for me to imagine what life would be like without this solidarity, this sharing of anxiety, this agreement that we’re in a dire situation. Whether or not these activities are actually useful, I am encouraged by the fact that there is a “resistance,” and by something Umberto Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, said in the piece mentioned above: “There are people who are wondering if the Resistance had a real military impact on the course of the war. For my generation this question is irrelevant: we immediately understood the moral and psychological meaning of the Resistance.” Of course the resistance he speaks of was one in which people put their bodies and lives on the line, rather than an attempt to get uninterested people to vote.
Chantal Mouffe, quoted by Adam Phillips, tells us that: “Modern democracy’s specificity lies in the recognition and legitimation of conflict and the refusal to suppress it by imposing an authoritarian order. . . a democratic society acknowledges the pluralism of values.” (Phillips, 2013, p. 209) “Violence,” Phillips says “can be the attempt to make disagreement disappear.” (Phillips, 2013, p. 215) We’re all aware of our current President’s desire to shut down all media that doesn’t agree with him. And it is also worth looking at where we are able to tolerate conflict in ourselves. I support and feel the need for Black Lives Matter, and at the same time, with Mounk, feel that exaggerated fears of cultural appropriation and the idea that one ethnic group cannot have any understanding of the other are essentially wrong. I’ve tried to reconcile these and many other conflicting ideas in myself. But, finally, I’ve come to realize that all I can do is to give space to both sides, try to learn more, and adjust accordingly.
Mihail Sebastian was a model of someone able to love his anti-Semitic friends as humans, but he had no choice but to see the wrongness of their views. It was their rigidity of thought that eventually made friendship impossible. For them, Jews were bad. Period. It didn’t matter to them that a wonderful man who’d been their close friend would probably lose his life. As it happened Sebastian survived the war but was killed almost immediately after when he was hit by a truck in downtown Bucharest. None of us knows our fate. And by eliminating Jews (most of those who remained after the War emigrated), Romania no longer has that “problem,” although even with so few, many Romanians say they’d prefer none.
In America we can still take heart in our free press, in the exchange of ideas, in our wonderful wild comedians, in the intelligent analysis and resistance of our intellectuals, in our history of accepting immigrants and, at least in our cities, in having much richer lives through getting to know all kinds of others. Like all of us, I have hope we will survive this current disaster without turning into a fascist state. So far, our liberal institutions have held through the terrible times our country has been through in the past. But clearly we no longer have the luxury of taking democratic ideas for granted.
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Mounk, Yascha (2018). The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger and How to Save It. Cambridge, MA: Harvard. University Press
Phillips, Adam (2013). One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Sebastian, Mihail (2000). Journal, 1935-1944. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.