The Plague of Historical Amnesia in the Age of Fascist Politics

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-005-28 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons

Einmarsch in das Sudetenland. Motorisierte deutsche Truppen in Saaz. German mechanized troops enter Saaz. The streets are decorated with swastika flags and banners. 9.10.1938 14.30 Uhr. Saaz. Sudetenland

[Editor's Note: As we approach the Holocaust Memorial Day Yom Hashoah Thursday, April 8, the issue of whether it could happen here is no longer a wild paranoid fantasy. The most extreme haters have de facto taken over the Republican party and are involved in a systematic campaign to suppress voting rights so that they can win over both houses of Congress in 2022 and then win back the presidency in 2024. The Democrats have no serious strategy to stop this, stuck as they are in a false perception that most Americans care more about their money than anything else and that they will remain loyal to the Dems as long as Biden succeeds in providing them with enough material benefits. They, and many progressives, ignore what the Institute for Labor and Mental Health uncovered in its detailed empirical research--the hunger for meaning, love, respect, and genuine caring. I have explored the political, physiological, and spiritual relevance of that research in my latest book Revolutionary Love. I invite you to share this article by Tikkun ally Henry Giroux, read it to people on zoom or in-person this coming Wednesday night or Thursday as you create your own memorial, or join us as we discuss these issues and grieve together all the lost souls (including the one out of every 3 Jews who lived in 1940 and were murdered by 1945). Learn from Henry Giroux, below, on the plague of historical amnesia.
-- Rabbi Michael Lerner rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com]


The Plague of Historical Amnesia in the Age of Fascist Politics

As the boundaries of the unthinkable become normalized, historical consciousness is replaced by manufactured forms of historical amnesia and ignorance. As white supremacy becomes entrenched at the highest levels of power and in the public imagination, the past becomes a burden that must be shed.[1] Disparaging, suppressing or forgetting the horrors of history has become a valued and legitimating form of political and symbolic capital, especially among the Republican Party and conservative media. Not only have history’s civic lessons been forgotten, but historical memory is also being rewritten, especially in the ideology of Trumpism, through an affirmation of the legacy of slavery, the racist history of the Confederacy, American exceptionalism, and the mainstreaming of an updated form of fascist politics.[2]

Theodor Adorno’s insights on historical memory are more relevant than ever. He once argued that as much as repressive governments would like to break free from the past, especially the legacy of fascism, “it is still very much alive.” Moreover, there is a price to be paid with “the destruction of memory.” In this case, “the murdered are …cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.”[3] Adorno’s warning rings particularly true at a time when two-thirds of young American youth are so impoverished in their historical knowledge that they are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.[4] On top of this shocking level of ignorance is the fact that “more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust.”[5]   Historical amnesia takes a particularly dangerous turn in this case and prompts the question of how young people and adults can even recognize fascism if they have no recollection or knowledge of its historical legacy.

The genocide inflicted on Native Americans, slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the rise of the carceral state, the My Lai massacre, torture chambers, black sites, among other historical events now disappear into a disavowal of past events made even more unethical with the emergence of a right-wing political language and culture. The Republican Party’s attack on critical race theory in the schools which they label as “ideological or faddish” both denies the history of racism as well as the way in which it is enforced through policy, laws, and institutions. For many republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persists in American society. For instance, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida stated that “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”[6] In this updated version of racial cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated to a form of racial hatred leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn, and confront in the public imagination the history and persistence of racism in American society.

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Bolstered by a former president and a slew of Vichy-type politicians, right-wing ideologues, intellectuals, and media pundits deny and erase events from a fascist past that shed light on emerging right-wing, neo-Nazi, and extremist policies, ideas, and symbols. As Coco Das points out, given that 73 million people voted to re-elect Trump, it is clear that Americans “have a Nazi problem.”[7] This was also evident in the words and actions of former president Trump who defended Confederate monuments and their noxious past, the waving of Confederate flags and the display of Nazi images during the attempted coup on the Capital on January 6th, and ongoing attempts by the Republican Party legislators to engage in expansive efforts at enabling a minority government. America’s Nazi problem is also visible in the growing acts of domestic terrorism aimed at Asians, undocumented immigrants, and people of color.

Historical amnesia also finds expression in the right-wing press and among media pundits such as Fox News commentators Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, whose addiction to lying exceeds the boundaries of reason and creates an echo chamber of misinformation that normalizes the unspeakable, if not the unthinkable. Rational responses now give way to emotional reactions fueled by lies whose power is expanded through their endless repetition.  How else to explain the baseless claim made by them, along with a number of Republican lawmakers, right-wing pundits, and Trump’s supporters who baselessly lay the blame for the storming of the US Capitol on “Antifa.” These lies were circulated despite the fact that “subsequent arrests and investigations have found no evidence that people who identify with Antifa, a loose collective of antifascist activists, were involved in the insurrection.”[8]

In this case, I think it is fair to re-examine Theodor W. Adorno’s claim that “Propaganda actually constitutes the substance of politics” and that the right-wing embrace of and production of an endless stream of lies and denigration of the truth are not merely delusional but are endemic to a fascist cult that does not answer to reason, but only to power, while legitimizing a past in which white nationalism and racial cleansing become the organizing principles of social order and governance.[9]

In the era of post-truth, right-wing disimagination machines are not only hostile to those who assert facts and evidence, but also supportive of a mix of lethal ignorance and the scourge of civic illiteracy. The latter requires no effort to assess the truth and erases everything necessary for the life of a robust democracy. The pedagogical workstations of depoliticization have reached new and dangerous levels amid emerging right-wing populisms.[10] It is not surprising that we live at a time when politics is largely disconnected from echoes of the past and justified on the grounds that direct comparisons are not viable, as if only direct comparisons can offer insights into the lessons to be learned from the past. We have entered an age in which thoughtful reasoning, informed judgments, and critical thought are under attack.  This is a historical moment that resembles a dictatorship of ignorance, which Joshua Sperling rightly argues entails:

The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, place, the land, the soil; possibly, too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.[11]

It is clear that we live in a historical period in which the conditions that produced white supremacist politics are intensifying once again. How else to explain former President Trump’s use of the term “America First,” his labeling immigrants as vermin, his call to “Make America Great Again” — signaling his white nationalist ideology — his labeling of the press as “enemies of the people,” and his numerous incitements to violence while addressing his followers? Moreover, Trump’s bid for patriotic education and his attack on the New York Times’s 1619 Project served as both an overt expression of his racism and his alignment with right-wing white supremacists and neo-Nazi mobs. Historical amnesia has become racialized.  In the rewriting of history in the age of Trump, the larger legacy of “colonial violence and the violence of slavery inflicted on Africans” are resurrected as a badge of honor.[12]

America’s long history of fascist ideologies and the racist actions of a slave state, the racial cleansing espoused by the Ku Klux Klan, and an historical era that constitutes what Alberto Toscano calls “the long shadow of racial fascism” in America are no longer forgotten or repressed but celebrated in the Age of Trump.[13]  What is to be made of a former President who awarded the prestigious Medal of Freedom to a blubbering white supremacist, ultra-nationalist,  conspiracy theorist, and virulent racist who labeled feminists as “Feminazis.” In this case, one of the nation’s highest honors went to a man who took pride in relentlessly disparaging Muslims, referred to undocumented immigrants as “an invading force” and an “invasive species,” demonized people of color, and recycled Nazi tropes about racial purity while celebrating the mob that attacked the Capitol as “Revolutionary War era rebels and patriots.”[14] Under the banner of Trumpism, those individuals who reproduce the rhetoric of political and social death have become celebrated symbols of a fascist politics that feeds off the destruction of the collective public and civic imagination.

William Faulkner once stated “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In its updated version, we live not only with the ghosts of genocide and slavery, but also with the ghosts of fascism—we live in the shadow of the genocidal history of indigenous inhabitants, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and systemic police violence against people of color.[15] And while we live with the ghosts of our past, we have failed to fully confront its implications for the present and future. To do so would mean recognizing that updated forms of fascist politics in the current moment are not a rupture from the past, but an evolution.[16] White supremacy now rules the Republican Party and one of its tools of oppression is the militarization and weaponization of history. Fascism begins with language and the suppression of dissent, while both suppressing and rewriting history in the service of power and violence.

In the age of neoliberal tyranny, historical amnesia is the foundation for manufactured ignorance, the subversion of consciousness, the depoliticization of the public, and the death of democracy. It is part of a disimagination machine that is perpetuated in schools, higher education, and the corporate controlled media. It divorces justice from politics and aligns the public imagination with a culture of hatred and bigotry. Historical amnesia destroys the grammar of ethical responsibility and the critical habits of citizenship.  The ghost of fascism is with us once again as society forgets its civic lessons, destroys civic culture, and produces a populace that is increasingly infantilized politically through the ideological dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. The suppression of history opens the door to fascism. This is truly a lesson that must be learned if the horrors of the past are not to be repeated again. Fortunately, the history of racism is being exposed once again in the protests that are taking place all over the globe. What needs to be remembered is that such struggles must make education central to politics, and historical memory a living force for change. Historical memory must become a crucial element in the struggle for collective resistance, while transforming ideas into instruments of power.


Footnotes:

[1] John Gray, “Forgetfulness: the dangers of a modern culture that wages war on its own past,” New Statesman, [October 16, 2017]. Online: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2017/10/forgetfulness-dangers-modern-culture-wages-war-its-own-past

[2] Paul Street, “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial: 26 Flavors of Anti-Antifascism, Part 1,” Counter Punch. (Feb 7, 2021).Online https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/07/the-anatomy-of-fascism-denial/; Sarah Churchwell, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Again,” The New York Review of Books, [May 26, 2020].Online https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/06/22/american-fascism-it-has-happened-here/; Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2020); Jason Stanley,  How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, [Random House, 2018); Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (San Francisco: City Lights 2018); Carl Boggs, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads (New York: Routledge, 2018); Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Crown, 2017)

[3] Adorno, Theodor W., “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Guilt and Defense, trans. Henry W. Pickford, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 215.

[4] Harriet Sherwood, “Nearly two-thirds of US young adults unaware 6m Jews killed in the Holocaust,” The Guardian (September 16, 2020). Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/16/holocaust-us-adults-study

[5] Ibid., Harriet Sherwood. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/16/holocaust-us-adults-study

[6] Michael Moline, and Danielle J. Brown “Gov. DeSantis has found a new culture-war enemy: ‘critical race theory,” Florida Phoenix (March 17, 2021). Online: https://www.floridaphoenix.com/2021/03/17/gov-desantis-has-found-a-new-culture-war-enemy-critical-race-theory/

[7] Coco Das, “What are you going to do about the Nazi Problem?” refusefascism.org. (November 24, 2020). Online:   https://revcom.us/a/675/refuse-fascism-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-the-nazi-problem-en.html

[8] Michael M. Grynbaum, Davey Alba and Reid J. Epstein, “How Pro-Trump Forces Pushed a Lie About Antifa at the Capitol Riot,” New York Times (March 1, 2021). Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/01/us/politics/antifa-conspiracy-capitol-riot.html

[9] Theodor W. Adorno, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (London: Polity, 2020), p. 13.

[10] I take this issue up in detail in Henry A. Giroux, Racism, Politics and Pandemic Politics: Education in a Time of Crisis (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).

[11] Joshua Sperling cited in Lisa Appignanesi, “Berger’s Way of Being,” The New York Review of Books (May 9, 2019). Online: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/05/09/john-berger-ways-of-being/

[12] Angela Y. Davis, ed. Frank Barat. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, (Haymarket Books, 2016: Chicago, IL), pp. 81-82.

[13] Alberto Toscano, “The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism,” Boston Review. (October 27, 2020). Online http://bostonreview.net/race-politics/alberto-toscano-long-shadow-racial-fascism;

[14] Anthony DiMaggio “Limbaugh’s Legacy: Normalizing Hate for Profit.” Counter Punch. (February 19, 2021). Retrieved  https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/19/limbaughs-legacy-normalizing-hate-for-profit/

[15] See, for instance, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds.  Four Hundred Souls (New York: One World, 2021) and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown, 2016).

[16] On the American origins of fascism, also see Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018). Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism(San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2018).

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