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Fascism

In “Professors as Propagandists” (April), Alexander Riley systematically misrepresents my 2018 book, How Fascism Works. If this were my only objection, I would not be writing this letter. There is a substantial moral and political disagreement brought out by his piece. I would be remiss to let his position on the matter go unengaged.

Riley suggests that I had only begun thinking about the topic of this book in November 2016. But the book is the “trade press” version of my 2015 book with Princeton University Press, How Propaganda Works, a book he never mentions. (It is also based on public essays I had been writing for years.) Riley upbraids me for identifying fascism with an “‘us’ against ‘them’ approach to politics.” This will confuse only those who choose to stop at its subtitle. In the book, fascism is based on an us/them distinction forged on ethno-nationalism (and possibly, I suggest, intermixed or replaced with religious nationalism). It is evident from my analysis that an us/them distinction based on class distinctions is not fascist. The thesis that fascism is based on a friend/enemy distinction rooted in ethno-nationalism is hardly an artifact of liberal progressive fantasy.

There are many other misrepresentations. For example, nowhere do I suggest in the book that only fascists are tempted by fascist politics; indeed, the book is a warning to “honest conservatives.” Instead of addressing these other misrepresentations, I conclude with my reason for writing this letter. Riley’s chief complaint is that I diagnose fascism only when certain populations have the symptom, and he analogizes this to diagnosing cancer only when symptoms occur in tall people. The discussion he is referring to here occurs in chapter 6, “Victimhood.” In it, I discuss one element of fascism, namely, nationalism. The crux of the chapter is to make a distinction between two kinds of victimhood that motivate different kinds of nationalism. The distinction is introduced not with race, as Riley suggests, but with Zionism. I argue that there is an important moral and political distinction between being an Aryan nationalist in Germany in the 1930s and being a Jewish nationalist in Germany in the 1930s. Riley disagrees. Here he does not misrepresent my view. We simply have a bitter disagreement, either about the desire for an Aryan homeland or the desire for a Jewish one.

Jason Stanley
yale university
new haven, connecticut

Alexander Riley responds:

Stanley defines fascism as “ultranationalism of some variety (­ethnic, ­religious, cultural)” (emphasis added). It is not only the “us/them” game engaged in by ­ethno-nationalist whites that he attacks. It’s also that of gender traditionalists—many of whom are neither white nor ­nationalist—who refuse the linguistic perversion that refers to women as “non-transgender women” in accordance with the demands of a small sexual subculture. It’s that of law-abiding citizens in high-crime ­areas—of all races and creeds—who want more intensive policing. It’s that of ­small-town ­residents of all ethnicities and ideologies who prefer their tight-knit communities to the alienation of cities. It’s that of ­patriots of all stripes who think in mythical terms of George ­Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

A key feature of fascist “us/them,” Stanley claims, is that “as the fear of ‘them’ grows, ‘we’ come to represent everything virtuous.” His book is a plea for his own rectitude and for the moral impurity of the many noxious “thems” denounced throughout. My essay alludes to but a handful of the many passages in which he twists a widespread attitude not fully ­compliant with ­progressivism—­failure to be properly worshipful of the mantra “check your privilege,” for ­example—into evidence of openness to “the agenda of white supremacy.”

In ending where he does, Stanley does me the favor of restating my essay’s main point. How Fascism Works offers little more than an embarrassingly crude moral binarism: You are fully with the author, or you are sympathetic to Nazis and antipathetic to their victims. His ­insinuation about my analogy is based on another deliberate misrepresentation of the claims in his book. True, he describes Zionism as a kind of nationalism to be distinguished from fascism, and perhaps even to be championed, but it is not the only example he gives. He includes a range of other favored nationalisms: Indian nationalism under Gandhi, Kenyan Mau Maus, and black nationalism in the U.S.

The last of these presents exactly the racial dimension on which my analogy plays. I should like to hear Stanley’s reasoned argument for the moral superiority of the Nation of Islam’s teachings over the typical Trump voter’s cultural beliefs. He believes an assertion of victimhood does the trick. It is curious, then, that in his presentation of American black nationalism as morally distinguishable from fascist nationalism, he completely ignores the perspective of the families and co-workers of police officers assassinated by groups such as the Black Liberation Army and by the snipers in Baton Rouge, Dallas, and elsewhere who were influenced by the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Formalism

In “Keep It Simple” (April), Edward Feser ignores the main alternative to Platonism in mathematics: formalism. Formalism is, in fact, the only alternative taken seriously by a majority of mathematicians, including those whose specialty lies in the foundations of mathematics.

Formalism makes mathematics a branch of logic by basing it on a set of axioms and then proceeding by classic reasoning to pure ­mathematics: algebra, geometry, topology, ­analysis, and mathematical logic ­itself.

We believe in the existence of numbers, both finite and infinite, not in the strictly Platonic sense, but almost always in the Aristotelian sense of which Feser writes. ­Numbers—whole, rational, ­irrational—­exist in the minds that contemplate them, and the truths of arithmetic and ­algebra and calculus are ­discoverable by any rational mind, in any ­universe.

Our minds, finite though they are, can understand infinity to an astonishing degree. Modern set theory had its birth with Georg ­Cantor’s ­sensational discovery that the number of real numbers is a higher infinity than that of whole numbers (integers). One can list the integers in a sequence where each integer is encountered after finitely many steps, but Cantor showed that there are “too many” real numbers for them to be counted in this way. He also showed how there is a hierarchy of infinitely many infinite numbers, each greater than the ones below it.

Cantor was an intensely religious man, and he believed that the ­infinitude of God is greater than that of any infinite number. I wonder what Feser might have to say about that.

Peter Nyikos
university of south carolina
columbia, south carolina

Photo by Julie Jordan Scott via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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