Defining Terms

By: Andreea Gustin

The sources we explored this week set the foundation for some key terms which will follow us throughout the rest of our course. Given my basic understanding of fascism and populism, this week’s readings provided greater insight into some of the complex terms and concepts associated with these ideologies.

In recent years following the Trump presidency and all that came with it, many of us have seen the word “fascism” come up in regards to the American political climate. The article, “What We Don’t Understand About Fascism” by Victoria De Grazia, effectively showcased how contemporary events relate to the challenges and tragedies of the historic past. She argues that the problem facing America is not fascism itself, but rather a “crisis of a kind that historic fascism invented itself to address, in the most awful ways”. This week we also read the works of Moyn and Gordon’s which both aim to contextualize fascism and populism. Similar to De Grazia, both Moyn and Gordon discuss the use of comparisons of the past to contemporary situations, although their works point out some issues with comparing modern events to the past.  

This reading made me reflect on the fact that many of us attempt to understand modern issues by applying the lens of the past. They say history repeats itself, however, there needs to be greater understanding of how these ideologies change and how the meaning of these concepts develops over time. Today we can see ideologies like fascism and populism being used as labels to modern issues, however, modern issues can differ from those of the past and can lead to new consequences not outlined by history.

The Dangers and Advantages of Comparison

In The Trouble with Comparisons, Moyn acknowledges the need for comparison between states and political systems but emphasizes the need for the careful and meticulous distinction between pertinent similarities and differences.  In my opinion, the most valuable element of the article is when Moyn points out how “without acknowledging differences, comparison is partisan”.  This one quote summarizes how easily political parties, factions, and individuals can subjectively manipulate comparisons to further their own agenda, one of the problems facing political systems in 2020.  While I agree with Maier and Nolte that comparisons between Nazi Germany and the US and other modern authoritarian states are thrown around far too frequently by people that fail to understand the specifics of the terms, the actions of the American populace, particularly those who zealously support Trump are cause for concern.  While these comparisons are disingenuous and overused, and while Republican leaders are spurned by different motivations and ideologies, the conduct of Trump supporters and other populist movements in countries like the US and Brazil and do eerily resemble the conduct of individuals in early and mid-20th century authoritarian countries. 

While Moyn’s article was concerned with the dangers of comparisons between political systems, specifically fascism and authoritarianism, Gordon’s article relates to the comparison of historical events, past and present.  Of all Gordon’s points, the one I found most insightful was the discussion of the special historical status the Holocaust has inherited as the “timeless signifier of absolute evil.”  One can acknowledge the horrors of other 20th century genocides such as those in Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia as Gordon does while still recognizing the historical importance of the Holocaust.  In conclusion, while I agree with Moyn’s conclusion that comparisons between political systems and governments have become partisan and over relied on, I lean more towards Gordon’s argument, in that the fact that fascism can and is being used as a modern style of authoritarianism means that comparing it to contemporary political failings is necessary.

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Why Use Political Analogies?

Étienne Plourde

Comparison and analogies are a key political tool: they insinuate a certain course of action will have the same outcome as another, or they create a hierarchy of events. As per the example cited by Gordon’s piece, comparing the camps along the contemporary American-Mexican border to the camps of Nazi Germany serves (for those making the comparison) to bind Trump’s immigration policy to Nazi horrors, while those opposing these comparisons argue they are preserving the ‘non-partisan’ status of the Holocaust as a metonym for ‘ultimate evil’.

I am particularly interested in the rhetorical value of making these accusations (when they are facile or politically motivated, and fail to conform to the intellectual honesty described by Moyn). Why is it not sufficient to debate the issue at hand purely on its own? There must be some special rhetorical value to this avenue of attack to justify its use, particularly given that the diminishing returns associated with this strategy.

As Moyn warns, use of analogies is itself analogous to ‘crying wolf’: if dire warnings of ‘existential threats’ are trotted out at every action, the population may simply become inured to these calls to action. Overuse of these analogies may also, as de Grazia describes Mussolini as doing, leave the accuser open to accusations of having no political platform other than sabotaging the accused. This tactic has certainly made a resurgence in the past four years of American politics, with criticism of the Administration being dismissed and mocked as the results of ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome’.

The most obvious motivation, I think, is to tap into the power of whatever metonym is being invoked. By describing something as ‘Nazi-like’ or ‘quasi-fascist’, the accuser is hoping to clobber the accused with the already-settled societal value that ‘Nazi = bad’. The terms of the debate, with that accusation as an opening volley, are not built around the morality of the accused, but around the strength of the analogy. The power of this shorthand is revealed in the examples given by de Grazia, where the case for foreign intervention in Vietnam and Libya and Yugoslavia and Iraq is argued in terms of their similarity to the Third Reich; as well as the way in which political parties that may flirt with Nazi ideology will reject the labels.

Arguably, tainting a political actor with accusations of Nazi-likeness hopes to legitimate action against them in two ways. Firstly, there is what is mentioned above, in which the agreed-upon equation that ‘Nazi = valid target for violence’ is applied to the new target. Secondly, though, there is the insinuation that the target is following a foreign ideology, that it is acting in a way alien to the country and thus is an illegitimate ruler due to this imported creed.

By presenting fascism as this amorphous force that has inflicted pain across borders and eras, then, referencing it serves to build alliances. By claiming that a political actor is but the latest iteration of a fascist evil unbound by time or place, the accuser calls for all the others who have been victimized by its previous forms – of which there are countless alleged cases, as Allardyce and Finchelstein bemoan – to avenge themselves. It is a cry for allies, it paints the accused as an iredeemable pawn of a loathed movement that must be put down wherever it is found, and it allows the accuser to claim the moral virtue of Holocaustic victims, as they fight the same enemy.

While the individuals lobbing accusations of ‘fascism’ and ‘Nazism’ are presumably not plotting the specific appeals of this strategy, I believe the above serves to cover at least the basics. Calling the opponent a Nazi simplifies the argument by removing the need to argue morality; it delegitimizes the opponent by painting them as irredeemably evil and exogenous; and serves as a rallying cry for opposition, aligning the accuser with the societally-recognized victims of fascism and calling for those who care about those causes to take action regarding this one.


Works Referenced

Allardyce, G. (1979, April). What Fascism is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept. The American Historical Review, 84(2), 367-388.

de Grazia, V. (2020, August 13). What we don’t understand about Fascism: Using the word incorrectly oversimplifies history – and won’t help us address our current political crisis. ZOCALO. Retrieved from https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-history-mussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Finchelstein, F. (2017). Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past. In F. Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (pp. 1-30). Oakland: University of California Press.

Gordon, P. E. (2020, January 7). Why Historical Analogy Matters. Retrieved from The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, S. (2020, May 19). The Trouble with Comparisons. Retrieved from The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Historical Analogies

By: Vincent Larocque

This weeks readings focus on drawing comparison and similarities between the past and utilizing them in a modern context that can either highlight similarities in an argument or be utilized in a manner that can be deemed as unfit or a ‘stretch’ and only used as buzzwords to incite a visceral reaction.

In Samuel Moyn’s “Trouble with Comparisons” he discusses that comparisons can be a useful tool in discussions about events that draw upon similarities but can also be dangerous in reducing the seriousness of the events being used in such comparisons. Not only this but using comparisons with only vaguely similar contexts is seen as banal as he states in when the Nazi regime is used in comparing political activities “So what? Of course, Nazi Germany was similar in some respects to other examples, but that is true of everything in the world” (Moyan, 2020) and does not in the long run help victims and offers no productive difference in reducing the power that they can hold. Similarly, Peter Gordon in “Why Historical Analogy Matters” looks at the fallout that occurs when using analogies, specifically in this case the holocaust, with other events that draw upon some similarities and that evoking comparisons reduces the severity of the event itself and are ‘sloppy analogies’ that are ‘grossly simplified’. Interestingly, terms such as ‘fascist’ and others like ‘concentration camps’ that have been wholly synonymous with the Nazi regime has historical connotations with other events predating Nazi Germany and as such. These terms can be hijacked and used politically to further an agenda and may not always have true moral objectives this making it a dangerous territory to venture into without proper context or thought on the matter. Likewise, in Victoria de Grazia’s piece “What we don’t understand about Fascism” discusses the over use of the term “Fascism’ which can further denote the true intensity that National Socialism brought upon those subjected to it, “Americans may think we know this history, but we have oversimplified its complexity” (de Grazia, 2020)

With these texts in mind I find that using terms in historical comparisons important but all depending on the situation and should not be used lightly. While certain current events can mimic historical events, all instances in politics can be comparable in some way or another to less than pleasant historic events. Using terms can diminish the actual meaning and further water down the original occurrence to which the term originates from. However, when used correctly in the right as it can help and bring to light important factors that could possibly redirect the trajectory of actions being perpetrated in some instances by drawing on the public eye to the causes these comparisons are used for.

Works Cited/ Bibliography

de Grazia, Victoria. “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism.” Zocalo Public Square, 13 Aug. 2020, zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-history-mussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Political Analogies: Helpful Tools? or Harmful Comparisons?

By Austin Pellizzer

The articles of this week looked at the use of political analogies of the past to be applied to the present is a discussion that carries divided stances from scholars and historians alike. While we were able to analyze articles from both groups, I am afraid that this discussion and debate is anything but solved after considering all sides.

In Samuel Mayn’s article The Trouble with Comparisons, Mayn takes the stance that comparisons are helpful and the key to being able to understand the importance of historical events and actions. However, it is also seen that it can lead to intellectual laziness and letting the fears of such comparisons take control. Additionally, we see that similarly, in Victoria de Grazia’s piece, What We Don’t Understand About Fascism discusses the overused term ‘fascism’ which she states, “Calling people “fascists” has been as American as apple pie”… . While both writers demonstrate the dangers of oversimplifying and overusing the term which carries heavy meaning especially in the last century, it is also important to understand the reason as to why and how these analogies have been able to carry such weight in public discourse and political circles. 

In contrast, we see in the Peter E Gordon article, Why Historical Analogy Matters, the comparisons of historical accounts of the Holocaust and the concentration camps and the migrant detention camps are easily used to try and push similarities. While these analogies useful and gets across very similar messaging, we see how this could once again be seen as minimizing the events of the past to try and fit different political narratives. 

With all this being said, it is apparent to see why and how the political phenomena of analogies is a nuanced area when discussing the socially acceptable tools and means of getting messages across.

Works Cited/ Bibliography

de Grazia, Victoria. “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism.” Zocalo Public Square, 13 Aug. 2020, zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-history-mussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Populism v Fascism: Return of The state?

Written by Conrad Yiridoe

The theme of this week’s readings focused primarily on the terminology of populism and fascism. With a few of the readings, the main focus was on the comparison of fascism to the modern day and why this may not be the most effective strategy to address current events. In the United States specifically, the comparison of the republican party (or rather this specific version of it) and especially soon to be former president Donald Trump has become to the historic days of fascist regimes (Italy’s Mussolini) has become rather “fashionable”. De Grazia, Moyn and Gordon all argue (to differing degrees) that the constant comparisons may in fact actually dilute and even to some degree even insult the “actual fascism” that was present in the past. Moyn and Gordon argue with a broader approach, that the trend of comparing current events (regardless of their degree of horror and general disapproval), may in fact serve to be counter intuitive to a certain extent.

With regards to Moyn’s analysis, I am inclined to both agree and disagree with his opinion. Specifically, I concur with his overall message that the main objective with comparisons to the past need to take into consideration not only the context of what occurred, but also examine the weight with which these comparisons should be taken into account. As Moyn states, “charging fascism does nothing on its own. Only building an alternative to the present does…” and hence the idea that simply drawing the comparison between Donald Trump and fascism without actually providing context for why specifically the comparison is being made and furthermore what should be done about it, needs to be readdressed.

As a final note, I also agree with De Grazia’s main point which I feel was the fact that once again, another “trendy” term (this time being fascism) is in a sense not being fully appreciated, due to many of those using the term, not fully appreciating its weight. As a question going forward, I wonder if perhaps these analogies to historic events would become more useful and meaningful by first ensuring that the definition of the term (fascism in this case) is fully understood by the audience (whether it be a specific person, or the general public). Furthermore, I postulate if perhaps it would be worth while to always follow up said comparison with more actionable concepts

Onwards to populism briefly and here I found the DEMOS study to be quite surprising (at least to my less historically experienced eyes) in that they were able to divide up the different movements into four distinct types of populism. In addition, these types were all over the political spectrum, from the far left and right, to in-between, which surprised me as I figured based on the limited definition of populism (essentially charging a “the people” vs “the elite” anti-establishment mentality), that the specific ideology of populism was fairly rigid (which of course is not the case). I also do not completely understand the significant difference between the illiberal compared with the anti-establishment populist movements. In particular, I wonder about the “radical democratic appeal” that the authors charge is present mainly in the anti-establishment movement yet lacking in the illiberal movements. I also wonder how the use of “conspiratory explanations” with the illiberal charges is also not strongly reflected in the anti-establishment movements.

Distinctions and Similarities between Past and Present

By: Gabe McReynolds

This week’s articles seek to establish and contextualize terms that could be argued are used fairly flippantly today. In many industrialized, Western states, “Fascism/Fascists” and “Authoritarianism” are used by all ends of the political spectrum to demonize one’s opponents. Moyn and Gordon both to define these terms in the context of the past and our present society, while also putting forth their own position on approaching this subject. The authors seekto understand the benefits and drawbacks to using analogies or comparisons of the past and relating them to the present. Gordon puts forth the idea that being able to compare parts of history with the present is valuable. It allows us to understand the path and present so much better as well as morally orient ourselves and protect against future atrocities. This is simply a more elaborate way of saying we learn from our mistakes. Moyn argues that the dangers of relying on past narratives or events is that they tend to disregard distinctions and differences from the period in which they are being compared to. Moyn also argues that the danger in doing so is that people may disregard differences or misconstrue the historical contexts of these events.

 However, instead of focusing on their differences, of which there are some, I find that both authors argue a rational middle ground from which to approach these comparisons. Moyn and Gordon are arguing many of the same ideas just from different starting points. Moyn seeks to show that comparison is important but that the distinctions when comparing are equally important. He argues that the lack of this can result in partisanship as people will seek to justify past atrocities. For Gordon, these similarities must be examined to avoid dismissing comparisons due to each subjects’ distinctions. It seems like they both argue for a balanced approach to using comparisons. However, it seems that they both argue this from their own perspective and experience of resistance to their ideas. Gordon seems to have gotten resistance from many who would posit that the distinctions are too different to allow for comparison and so his article reflects that. For Moyn, it seems as if the resistance and challenges have come from those who would attempt to dismiss the finer points of distinction when comparing and using these labels which dilute and diminish past experiences as well as current experiences.  

References:

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Etymology and contemporary political discourse

Etymology is at the forefront of the readings posed this week, as we seek to contextualize contemporary events in the light of historic atrocities and political uprisings. Each reading this week poses questions about the utilization of terminology that has garnered significant media attention since waves of populism have catapulted to mainstream political discourse with movements in the US with the election of trump, and around Europe with far-right groups seeking to challenge established liberal democratic norms.

While we seek to define fascism from our historical recollections of Italy and Germany in the De Grazia article to situate ourselves within the trump presidency, it becomes evident that etymology plays a significant role how we understand and analyze this reality. What does the role of characterization of historical movements within the contemporary achieve, does it seek to overshadow the current issues? Does using terms like fascism to describe people, rather than the historical moment obscure the realities of contemporary social issues. When we use the word fascism as a blanket statement, on both sides as De Grazia mentions, what words are being left out, does it appropriately address the contemporary or utilize the past to fear-monger?

Moving from fascism, the etymological analysis is shifted to defining populism within Europe through DEMOS. Populism as a term often that has increasingly become synonymous with far-right ideals in Europe, the reality that the article highlights is the diversity for which populism manifests politically. Rather than being a one-party problem, the entire political spectrum from end to end can manifest as populism. This complicates the ways in which we analyze and understand populist movements, defining them only by far-right actors undermines the work of those on the far-left. More nuanced approaches to utilizing terminology like populism, as a method of undermining a movement, must become normalized to effectively understand the differences and variations of motives and ethics of populist movements in Europe.

We can see the ways in which negative interpretations of populism are leveraged as inherently anti-liberal democratic, therefore challenging minority rights, pluralism, and the separation of power within the article put forward by Cas Mudde. What seems to be lacking within this analysis of populism is an analysis of why liberal democracy is so prized. The article seeks to show the ways in which all populism undermines liberal democracy and threatens these rights, but why is liberal democracy elevated to something so pivotal. The idea that minority rights and other forms of anti-oppressive institution are inherently and protected within a liberal democracy undermines the reality of liberal democracies in North America and Europe, which operate on the ongoing theft and genocide of populations built using stolen people.

Lastly, we see the ways in which etymology can cause significant division as instances of historical violence are utilized as comparisons to contemporary acts of violence. Gordon highlights the pitfalls and while also discussing why individuals seek to conceptualize one act of violent within language used for other historical acts of violence. Comparing acts of violence, while some may find fruitful to galvanize others into actions and outrage, can also seek to create hierarchies of violence and undermine the specificity of certain acts of violence. The Holocaust is the main example utilized within the article, with many individuals speaking against the comparison considering ongoing violence in the US. While I can understand the ways in which historical comparisons undermine targeted violence, I think it is important to note Gordon’s article engaged in significant erasure in the violence against Roma, disabled people, homosexuals, and other groups targeted by Nazi Germany. The lack of language around this reality while arguing about the need for nuance around language of violence and historicizing of contemporary events feels problematic.

Overall, we see the importance of etymology when discussing and analyzing contemporary political discourse in relation to historical acts of political upheaval and targeted violence.

DEMOS Identifies Four Types of Populism in European Political Parties. https://demosh2020.eu/en/demos-identifies-four-types-of-populism-in-european-political-parties  

Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020), http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-historymussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Cas Mudde, “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania, https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century

Analogies and Comparisons in Political Dialogue

Evoking analogies and comparisons to the past can be a natural response to contemporary political developments. There are both advantages and disadvantages to these actions. Recalling historical figures or events in relation to present ones can sometimes help society grasp the gravity of a situation and serve as a warning. Conversely, it can also risk trivializing the true nature and repercussions of a historical event if it is compared to a recent one. This is because we do not have the luxury of viewing the present through the lens of history, and thus our analysis of it can be prone to personal biases and a lack of nuance.

In Peter E. Gordon’s article, he refers to a recent example of a politician comparing migrant detention centers on the southern United States border to the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Gordon briefly summarizes the debate that ensues and the positions of those on both sides. In writing that “all human atrocities are human acts, and as such all are candidates for comparison,” Gordon does not explicitly affirm the validity of this comparison, but he suggests that such comparisons can stimulate a healthy and respectful dialogue. I can appreciate his point, but I also think that there is a danger in overzealous politicians employing these analogies to appeal to the raw emotions of their constituents, at the expense of those who were personally affected by a traumatic event.

Similarly, Samuel Moyn discusses the potential inadequacies of comparing the present and past, specifically with regards to the Trump administration and the parallels some have drawn between it and Nazi Germany. What I took from Moyn’s article is that in times of uncertainty, it is human nature to rummage through the historical record to find something that matches the present circumstances. When Trump was elected in 2016, many were anxious as to what the future held and some saw the situation reflected in the rise of Hitler during the 1930s. The dangers in this however, it that we risk overlooking the conditions that allowed Trumpism to take hold and thus we are unable to engage in thoughtful dialogue with those on the other end of the political spectrum. Simply dismissing Trump supporters as Nazis is unproductive and lazy if we truly wish to effect meaningful change.  

Works Cited

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Defining Terms

By: Lucas Lang

The overarching theme that I gathered from this week’s documents is that historians need to be careful of the ways in which they use and promote terminology and comparisons to the past. Victoria De Grazia’s essay on the use of the word fascism was interesting in that it seeks to define nationalism and its roots before arguing that the focus should not be on identifying or labeling fascists. Instead, the emphasis ought to be on the identification of the reasons why fascism came to be. Similarly, Cas Mudde’s article is also an examination of the roots and meaning of a term, though instead it examines populism. The two articles are distinct as one addresses concerns use of the term from the past while the other uses a term which is currently occurring. Both authors want the focus to be on what the proper reaction should be to their respective terminologies. Samuel Moyne and Peter Gordon’s articles examine the issue of comparing modern events to the past. While both authors acknowledge a use for comparison, Moyne wants historians to be more cautious in their use of contrast, while Gordon is more open to its usage. Both authors raise valid points. What after all is the point of knowing history knowledge of it is never used to understand modern events? Is not its purpose to learn lessons and mistakes of the past and prevent their re-occurrence in the present? On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that the present is not the past and events are unlikely to occur exactly as they did in the past and fearing such can lead people to take harmful and dangerous action.