While we were treating it as a historical curiosity, the noxious blend of contemporary fascist politics began creeping its way into the political discourse in the US and around the world.
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There’s nothing quite like living through a moment. Try explaining it or documenting it, describing it or representing it, and somehow the very visceral reality of experiencing a time or era can never be conveyed. Take, for example, life before smartphones. To someone who has never lived without the devices, it is nearly impossible to express the convenience or frustration of public pay phones, the skill of navigating the world with paper maps and a willingness to ask for directions, the sense of isolation that came with long drives or extended travel, the importance of handwriting or printing in getting contact information down just right, or the thousand other details of existing without a supercomputer in your pocket. The march of time and technology has made even the past of our own lives a foreign country.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that the loss of that direct experience can reshape everything from the clothes we wear to the language we use to the politics we practice. Wipe away the details from an era, and it becomes an abstraction, an aesthetic, a vibe. Forget that people lived inside the daily reality of the space between breakthroughs and catastrophes, and similarly lose the knowledge that those events were the product of circumstance, effort, and time. Even the most sacred vows we take weaken when age diminishes the details of why we swore them.
It is a promise that was supposed to bind the world through the post-war order, built from not only the profane monstrosities of the Holocaust, but from the brutal supremacy of fascism in its manifest forms. Never again let our government haul away our neighbors like so much cargo. Never again let our governments tell us what to read and say and wear and want, defining every individual as the state and the state as the supreme identity of every individual. Never again let the promises of a glorious and unblemished future be built on the sordid violence against millions in the present. Never again let fascism rule us.
Yet here we are, replicating around the world the ideology we collectively rejected nearly 80 years ago. Right-wing parties are ascendant in Europe, as mass immigration fueled by war and climate refugees challenges the national identities that made broad social insurance (largely a postwar development) an assumption of modern life. Argentina recently elected a self-declared “anarcho-capitalist” whose early policy offerings are closer to a militarized police state with loosened restrictions on guns and a ban on abortion, and its neighbor, Brazil, is still dealing with the repercussions of the attempted coup staged at the beginning of this year. That’s only a sampling of the governments that are under authoritarian or reactionary leadership engaged in crushing dissent and forcing nationalist policy.
In the United States, the situation is equally dire. At the state and local level, governments enforce policies of extreme intrusion into daily life, promote nationalist rhetoric, and attempt to limit, dismiss, or outright ban political opposition to their efforts. The likely nominee of one of the two major parties has been floating a trial balloon of taking over as dictator, while under criminal indictment for, among other things, stealing and disseminating national intelligence secrets and illegally coordinating an effort to undermine state elections to serve his goal of overthrowing the legitimately elected government.
Fascism isn’t an ancient relic or an outdated term; it has returned as a living, breathing process transforming and weaponizing the state against its people. While we were treating it as a historical curiosity, the noxious blend of fascist politics—itself an amorphous and ranged concept—began creeping back into our political discourse. First, at the borders of acceptable discussion, where it had been relegated for decades, and then inwards as younger and younger populations adopted it, seeing the legacy of fascism as largely abstract and newly ensnared by its supposed novelty. Shorn of nuance, specificity, texture, and remembrance, fascism could once again cast itself as merely one viewpoint out of many. And when it began to proliferate the same cruelty and hatred and reactionary violence that must manifest from its nature, there was almost no one to warn us what we had embraced.
The generation that watched the ideology grasp and mutate and unfold its horrors the first time around no longer remains to explain what fascism was and how it worked. They had lived not only the historical moments we have been taught to remember—Hitler’s election as chancellor, Mussolini’s march on Rome, the concession of the Sudetenland, the pillaging of Nanking—but the space before and after, the slow degradation of openness and possibility, the transformation of personal insecurities into a world-swallowing hatred, the laughter and joys of the ones who would not survive. Without the fine detail of tragedy and endurance, subsequent generations could only truly understand fascism as a set of ghost stories, tales of unthinkable evil told to scare us in the dark. And so we never realized it could walk up in open daylight with a suit and tie and promise us an infinite tomorrow if only we would embrace the nostalgia of the best past we never had.
The survivors of that past would have scoffed at such a notion—and did, while they were here. Having seen the true cost of the promises and paid for them with an infinite well of grief and trauma, the generation that grew up under fascism enough to recognize it warded our societies against it for decades. While the world after the war would have backlash and rage, denial and cruelty, invocations, evocations, and salutes, there were always those whose memories were enough to challenge fascism’s attempts at resurgence. They knew what we could not, because they lived it.
In this moment of dark reawakening, it is for us to learn from what was lost. If the past is a foreign country, memory is its travelogue: our guidance to find what is worth keeping. It’s the space in between the moments we remember where we’ll find the ways to prevent a repetition of the history we were allowed to forget.
“We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again,” writes Umberto Eco, survivor of fascist Italy. “Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: ‘I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.’ Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”
And now, that task is ours.
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