The PEN Ten: An Interview with Jason Stanley, Author of How Fascism Works
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week PEN America’s Public Programs Manager Lily Philpott, speaks to Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, published this year by Random House. See Jason in conversation with author and historian Timothy Snyder and professor and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb at PEN Presents: On Fascism on October 10 at the New School.
1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
My identity has a direct influence on the topics that I find urgent. My father and mother are both refugees from European anti-Semitism; my father fled Berlin with his mother in late July 1939, and my mother lived through the war, and came to the United States from Warsaw in 1948 when my grandfather was beaten almost to death by anti-Semites. My father became a sociology professor, whose background as a refugee from Hitler informed his work, first on anti-colonialism, and then on rhetoric, democracy, and education. It is because of this background that I started noticing patterns in our public culture that led me out of the academic rock under which I was living. My first piece for the New York Times, in 2011, was on birtherism; I followed it a couple of months later with a piece on Fox News. I have been fairly consistently writing on propaganda since that time, including an academic monograph. Early on in the primary season, in October 2015, I wrote one of the first New York Times Op-Eds on Mr. Trump, before he was taken as seriously as he should have been. I channel my family’s stories into trying to explain the dangers we face. I have used my father’s stories about his childhood in Berlin to shed light upon what Muslim children and children of immigrants must be feeling now. My grandmother Ilse Stanley wrote a memoir of 1930s Berlin, which I have used in my writings to illuminate the current attacks on immigrants. And I have used my experience as the child of two parents who have, in different ways, lived through facets of the Holocaust, to clarify our moral commitments in the face of the kind of ultra-nationalism we are seeing today.
2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
Truth is one of the core ideals of my discipline. In my writing, I don’t as much try to navigate it as attempt to faithfully adhere to it. Truth is not sufficient for social justice, but it is necessary. Without a clear understanding of our own history, we are susceptible to fascist myth.
“Truth is one of the core ideals of my discipline. In my writing, I don’t as much try to navigate it as attempt to faithfully adhere to it.”
3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
All philosophy is footnotes to Plato. Responding to fascism is a case in point; Plato wrote The Republic to respond to the challenge of Thrasymachus, who argues that the only true value is power. The Republic has helped me to understand the relatively permanent nature of democratic crisis, in the face of human susceptibility to fascist rhetoric.
4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
I have two young children. I am resisting sleep right now. My writing is most definitely involved in that act of resistance.
More seriously, my involvement with organizations such as the Prison Policy Initiative, on whose Board of Directors I serve, and my writing on mass incarceration, minimal as they are, are probably the most important direction of what I can regard as acts of resistance. All the proceeds of my 2015 book How Propaganda Works go to that organization. Addressing mass incarceration is one of the most important social justice issues facing Americans today. More than an act of resistance itself, my latest book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, is about identifying fascist politics and understanding its power so that it might be resisted effectively. Understanding the meanings, history, and rhetorical patterns behind fascism are crucial to challenging politicians that would take advantage of them.
5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
Capitalism is a serious threat to free expression; most people work in private workplaces, where free expression is a fantasy; workers can be fired for capricious reasons, for saying the wrong things at the wrong times that may bring a company bad publicity. But we are I suspect stuck with the tension between democratic ideals and economic reality, at least for some time. Keeping our economic system as a constant, I see the largest threat to free expression to be the exploitation of its ideals in the service of attacking free speech. The court cases in Citizens United and Janus come to mind, in which ideals of free expression are used to give additional weight and power to the voices of powerful business interests, and crush the voices of workers.
6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
In July 2014, I wrote a piece in the New York Times critiquing Michigan’s Emergency Manager Act as deeply anti-democratic—decrying the cynicism of using “financial emergencies” to put an end to democratic practices. At the time, outside of citizen activists and journalists in Michigan, few understood the dangers of the Emergency Manager Act, which seemed to many outside Michigan to be a boringly technocratic piece of legislation. The piece was published in July, 2014—in April of that year, the city of Flint, under the direction of Emergency Management, shifted from using water from the Great Lakes to water from the Flint River. In this and subsequent work, my goal was to amplify the vital work of local Michigan activists and journalists to help draw attention to an emergency situation that much of the country is overlooking at their peril. And here, I don’t just mean Flint, but the entire political situation in Michigan, particularly surrounding the Great Lakes—I mean, why are there so many water emergencies in the state with the world’s greatest supply of fresh water? After having written this comparatively early piece, I set aside a lot of my duties to research and write about it extensively for an academic public policy journal. What is happening in Michigan is fascism with a technocratic smile. What made this work daring is that the players involved in the Emergency Manager situation in Michigan have since gone national—from members of the DeVos family involved in the Michigan charter school disaster to law firms such as Jones Day, which were involved in the Detroit situation.
7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
In January 2014, I coauthored a piece on mass incarceration with the great political scientist, Vesla Weaver. We make some excellent points in the piece, but I was responsible for laying down the philosophical background, and to my subsequent horror, I only cited white philosophers, as if the topic had not been thoroughly discussed for the last 150 years in the Black American philosophical tradition. I was rightly called out by Tommy Curry and John Drabinski. My course of action was to admit my mistake, and to turn my attention to this enormous, intellectually stunning body of work that I had hitherto mostly ignored (though thanks to my father, I had some early background). It turned out to be the best intellectual decision of my life. I found in that work the best discussions of the topics I was thinking about, propaganda, ideology, fascism, epistemic injustice, and more, ones that exceeded in quality that of any other tradition with which I was familiar, including the Frankfurt school. My 2015 book How Propaganda Works and How Fascism Works are squarely based on texts written by Black American philosophers, as is an ever greater proportion of my teaching. When people say that universities have African-American Studies because of identity politics, I have to just laugh. Nothing is more ridiculously ignorant than a comment like that. Just as I can’t imagine thinking about injustice without the tools that Plato and Rousseau have given us, so I can’t imagine thinking about injustice without the tools Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, Alain Locke, and other American philosophers have given us.
8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
Mostly shun. Social media has become a hunting ground for far right media outlets, who prey on the fact that social media tends to represent us at our over-tired, annoyed worst. I remain on Twitter, but carefully.
9. You have been a philosophy professor at Yale since 2013. Can you tell us a little about how your scholarship or approach to teaching may have changed in the past couple of years, particularly in light of recent events and student protests on the Yale campus?
In September 2015, some philosophy students came to me with the complaint that they hadn’t seen any Black authors on the syllabi in our department (there were a couple of courses with some Black authors, but it was the very rare exception). They also openly wondered why the kinds of concerns that Black Lives Matter was bringing to the fore were difficult to see from the perspective of the kind of education that Yale Philosophy was providing. Their concerns matched the critique that Patricia Hill Collins gives of elite education in the United States in Chapter 11 of her book, Black Feminist Thought, where she writes that elite education presents the interests of white males as universal interests. Given my recent recognition of the depth and richness of the contributions of Black philosophers, particularly on topics about injustice, propaganda, and ideology, these concerns seemed utterly valid. My relation to the 2015 student movement was thus synergistic; the concerns they were raising were ones that I had come to share. I was hoping to teach courses that centered the works that were guiding my research, most of which were written by Black philosophers, but was legitimately afraid of institutional, departmental, and disciplinary resistance, which posed real barriers to freedom of scholarship and teaching. The students helped me to overcome these barriers. I realized that I would have an audience among the Yale student body for a course on propaganda and ideology, using American anti-Black racism as a core example—and employing the rich tradition written by Black philosophers upon which I based my research. And I began to have hope that the interest those students showed would help my field recognize the value of traditions that have been unfairly overlooked.
10. If you could require the current administration to read any book, what would it be?
This question presupposes, I think, that the shortcomings of the current administration, such as they are, are due to ignorance rather than deliberate intention. I’m skeptical of that presupposition. So, I’m not sure there are any books of history, or, for example, philosophical investigations of totalitarianism, that I would recommend. But I’m filled with suggestions about books for the rest of us to read—if you haven’t yet read W.E.B. Du Bois’s masterwork, Black Reconstruction, I recommend you do so immediately. Black Reconstruction and Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism are the two works I have found most essential to my reflections on fascism. Of work that has been published much more recently, Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny is deeply relevant for thinking through this political moment. I have been helped in my thinking about the specifically U.S. context by Elizabeth Hinton’s magisterial 2016 book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. My co-discussant Timothy Snyder’s last two books, On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom are important in thinking about the overall global context.