On September 27th, 2018, Jason Stanley gave a lecture entitled “Propaganda and Anti-Intellectualism” at Miami University. Stanley’s lecture centered around the contents of his most recent book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
Quoting the philosopher Hannah Arendt, Stanley defined fascism as “an utter contempt for reality as such.” Stanley explained that fascist politics are politics of strength, power, and masculinity. Fascist politicians embody the idea of “I can get away with what I want, I can do what I want, and I can protect you,” Stanley said. This, he believes, is the kind of fascism that America faces today.
Stanley discussed nine out of the ten elements of fascist politics he identifies in How Fascism Works. The first element, the mythic past, aims to connect itself with purity, patriarchy, and a sense of loss — the idea that in the past, America was pure, “men were men,” and the loss of this purity should make us as Americans angry.
In propaganda, the second element, Stanley said this framework is reversed. For example, he said, all fascists run anti-corruption campaigns. The third element of fascist politics is law and order, but Stanley said that judiciaries is always corrupted. Within fascist politics, an attack on the mainstream press, the fourth element, is an inversion of meaning. Similarly, in the fifth element of anti-intellectualism, truth is attacked and replaced by a preferred narrative. Stanley said that unreality, the sixth element, revolves around conspiracy theories, which erode public discourse and smash reality. Hierarchy, the seventh element, is the claim that one group is better than another group, with the goal of giving people the sense that their group is best. Stanley then explained that within victimhood, the eighth element, the traditionally dominant group feels incredibly victimized. Finally, the ninth element, “Sodom and Gomorrah,” refers to the idea that cities are dens of iniquity (sinfulness and decadence in the cities). Fascism is focused in rural areas, so cities are connected with the hated “out” group.
In a post-lecture interview, the Geoffrion Undergraduate Fellows asked Stanley to respond to eight different questions related to the program’s theme of “Truth and Lies.” Below is a condensed version of Stanley’s responses to these questions:
How do you define truth?
There is no unproblematic definition of truth, Stanley said. He doesn’t think that you can define what a “chair” is, so he doesn’t think that it’s possible to define what “truth” is.
How do you define lies?
The definition of a lie is a much-contested issue, Stanley said. However, he believes it’s easier to give a definition like, “A lie is an assertion that’s packaged as if it’s knowledge. The speaker believes it’s false but is intentionally packaging it so that the audience thinks it’s true.”
What is the difference between fact and truth?
Stanley based his answer on the premise that there is a world of difference between fact and truth. American citizens’ access to the truth, he said, is currently hampered by widespread distrust in institutions and authorities. Therefore, Stanley said, citizens have to be much more epistemically responsible. If history and other countries are a guide, he warned, the truth will become ever more difficult to discern.
Who, or what, is responsible for distinguishing between truth and lies? As a country, do we have the proper mechanisms to do this?
Stanley said that we do have the proper mechanisms as a country to distinguish between truth and lies, as well as not to report on obvious lies. Furthermore, Stanley said, the media is partially responsible for distinguishing between truth and lies, and as a result, they should not give airtime to claims that aren’t true or talk about how there are two sides to an issue, like many do for climate change. Stanley described this tactic as a “classic fascist trap.”
Is it the American media’s job to label claims that are not supported with concrete facts as lies in non-editorial contexts?
Stanley reiterated the idea that those in the media should label lies as lies. He also said that treating objectivity as reporting all sides of an issue destroys the truth. A second way to destroy truth, Stanley continued, is to open up the media space to every view, no matter how bizarre.
How has “truth” changed on a global level throughout history? How has it changed for you personally as you’ve grown?
Stanley believes the rise of modern technology makes fascist politics more effective. Referencing Arendt, Stanley said that we know from history that the way the news works under authoritarianism is spectacle. The news cycle under totalitarianism moves very quickly, and people get addicted to it. By enabling the spread of this spectacle, the internet destroys privacy, Stanley said, a problematic notion given that liberalism requires a private-public distinction. On a personal level, Stanley said that he can’t define truth, but he can say what it’s not. Truth is not the midpoint of all the views people have; very often, the truth can be the view that no one has.
Name 3 texts that you would recommend for people who want to learn more about “Truth and Lies” (texts could include books, but also film, TV, music, etc).
Stanley suggested W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction as “essential” reading. He also recommended Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, Kate Mann’s Down Girl, and Angela Davis’ Women Race and Class, among others.
What was the last lie you told?
Stanley answered that he often finds himself telling lies to his children like, “Everything’s fine. You are safe.”