March 14, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
‘Totalitarian propaganda’ imprisons Trump’s supporters. They need a way back into the ‘ordinary experience’ of life
Recreating a community in which to be fully human.
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The former president held last night another one of his tiresome rallies. I say “tiresome” because it was more of the same spleen and bile.
But he did say something useful for my purposes, which is talking about John Dewey amid global tyranny. Below is a interview with Nathan Crick, a professor of Communication at Texas A&M University. His latest book is Dewey and the New Age of Fascism.
Amid Donald Trump’s laundry list of grievances, including reiterations of the Big Lie, he said: “Getting critical race theory out of our schools is not just a matter of values, it’s also a matter of national survival.”
“Each of the three foundations of fascism were built on top of the other, but all of them were grounded on the modern destruction of the self and community.”
“We have no choice,” he said:
The fate of any nation depends upon the willingness of its citizens to lay down – and they must do this – lay down their very lives to defend their country. If we allow the Marxists and communists and socialists to teach our children to hate America, there will be no one left to defend our flag or to protect our great country or its freedom.
That’s boilerplate fascism.
Just ask Jason Stanley. In 2018, he told Vox:
The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.
Per usual, the crowd was so rapt with attention, so immersed in the grume and gall, you wonder if it’s possible to reason with fascists.
Yes and no.
“You can’t argue a person out of a cult by walking into it,” Nathan told me. “There is hope only when they step outside of that experience.”
One does not ‘reason’ with fascists. It is more that you get outside the fascist vocabulary and talk about something different. The hope is by connecting with ordinary experience, perhaps they find life is more valuable than Donald Trump’s talking points.
What would that “outside life” look like? For Dewey, it meant more than protecting and advancing democracy. It meant protecting and advancing the capacity all humans have to be more fully human.
But first get them out and back into ordinary experience.
As Nathan said:
Propaganda is totalitarian when it encircles a person. It creates an entire identity for them that tolerates no gods before it. It is a lifestyle and gives you an identity that you can share with other like-minded people.
Dewey used to be central to our discourse, but his appeal has faded. What brought you to thinking he’d be worthy of a new book?
Dewey lived through two world wars. As a young man, he absorbed the spirit of the early 20th-century progressive movement. He believed in the upward ascent of society toward its ultimate end in democracy.
What he saw instead was fascism and global catastrophe.
I believed his life would be instructive for our time to prevent catastrophe from happening again. I believe there is something called wisdom about human beings we can learn. He had that wisdom.
Let’s break down some of that “progressive spirit.”
The foundation of Dewey’s thought was the possibility of experience to be educative. Everything he wrote revolved around that basic idea.
We were born to learn and grow. Although Dewey was a Christian in his early writings, he came to look skeptically at organized religion and adopted a more naturalistic perspective toward human experience.
He believed human beings are born to live on earth like all other organisms. We are gifted with certain powers that other organisms do not possess. It is our gift to use those powers for our own growth and the growth of our community, not for any transcendent idea or aim beyond this world. This world is our home.
So by “progressive” he meant we could always learn to grow.
I love that, but how can this view face the fascism of his day? One wants to grow. The other to destroy. They seem irreconcilable.
It’s important to see the world from the perspective of fascist anti-humanism. Fascists also wanted to grow in the 20th century. They just wanted to grow in one direction toward a fixed aim.
The anti-humanism of the fascist is not anti-growth.
It is anti-experimental.
“I think Dewey’s response is never about persuading fascists. You have to confront power with power. And I don’t mean force or violence. I mean the capacity to act in concert for a common end against resistance. This is where rhetoric and communication become so valuable. One has to fight fascism by establishing a community.”
The fascist has one idea of what it means to be human and excludes all others. Fascism’s destructive power is the annihilation of alternative visions, of difference, of diversity of views and practice, of anything that, from the fascist view, obstructs the one way vision toward utopia.
So the idea of “growth” might need to be modified. Fascists want to grow in the sense of feeling a fixed mold, like pouring water into a jug.
For Dewey, humanism meant seeing the human being as a source of potential power, diversity and creativity. Nothing inherent in us meant we’re going in one direction. This was his resistance to religious fundamentalism. He saw power as very general. It is through individual practices and cultures that we develop these powers in different ways.
So there is certainly a conflict here.
Unfortunately, there is no ultimate reconciliation of these forces.
I think trying to reconcile them at a philosophical level is somewhat futile. I think it comes down to creating the conditions of diversity to continually get in the way of a singular totalitarian mindset.
Unfortunately, technology creates the conditions for that totalitarian view by combining like-minded people into a single vision that prohibits alternative realities. When those unities become strong enough and resourced enough, one ends up in contests of force.
Dewey recognized that, although he wished it to be otherwise.
Please explain the three parts of fascist antihumanism that you talk about in your book. 1. “Ragged” individualism. 2. Animist nationalism 3. Totalitarian propaganda. Can you walk us through each?
From my reading of Dewey, I looked through every single moment he talked about fascism and authoritarianism in the 20th century.
I tried to reduce these characteristics to their absolute foundations. I found there were three conditions that make fascism possible: ragged individualism, animist nationalism and totalitarian propaganda.
Each foundation was built on top of the other, but all of them were grounded on the modern destruction of the self and community.
By “ragged individualism,” Dewey was playing on the utopian notion of “rugged individualism.” This was the idea connected to the cowboy of the American West and the self-made man of the industrial US city.
“By creating conditions that allow people to experience what they wish to recover. It is loneliness and alienation that sets the possibility for fascism. The way to battle that is by fighting for a community that allows self-expression and love and connection and creativity.”
The rugged individual was someone who found strength in being different from other people, in being separate from and even contemptuous of society, and who through trial and error would intuitively discover the virtues and the methods for success.
Dewey saw the opposite.
Rugged individualism tended to celebrate primarily industrial capitalism that came about not through individual creativity but the harnessing of capital and the exploitation of weaker populations.
Meanwhile, rugged individualism created an ethic of contempt for community. It saw that if you needed help, you were weak.
Rugged individualism was “ragged” because it didn’t exist.
In a modern society, individuals were dependent on machines and techniques, not just for industrial production but through social organization. From birth to death, we are dependent on organized technology and automated systems to regulate mass society.
Human beings simply cannot get on in the world without being connected, in one way or another, to some kind of system. The idea that a person should “make it on their own” is virtually absurd.
That does not mean human effort is unimportant. Dewey simply says we cannot pretend, if we truly want to be individuals, that we can do all of these things on our own. We are intrinsically connected to each other. To pretend you are not is to leave you helpless and alone.
I am loving this so far. Keep going!
Worse ragged individualism creates conditions for animist nationalism.
I use the word “animist” to distinguish it from more traditional political nationalism that simply refers to any geographically organized citizenry that feels connected to a state and a common history.
Animism is when you invest a non-living entity with animal spirits. The state is that spirit. Animist nationalism speaks of the nation but it ignores the citizen and our common bond with each other.
Instead, it talks about the national spirit and the origin and destiny of the nation as if it was a kind of creature. What you get in fascist states is the mythology of, say, the “Aryan” as a complete fabrication.
But that’s a natural outcome of ragged individualism.
The more we are set apart from one another, alienated from our community and our families, organized by technology and machines in a way that loses any sort of personal relationship, the more we seek a relationship with something that is simply non-living.
We try to justify our lives by connection to something deeply inside of us and outside of us. This force of the living spirit that we can tap into that is superpersonal, somehow above and beyond everyone.
Once you get into this position, there is no more responsibility either to oneself or to other human beings. You get tied up into a vision of history totally detached from the experiences of ordinary people.
The fascist state or movement is the result.
It’s pathetic because it’s driven by a genuine desire for belonging.
Totalitarian propaganda organizes animist nationalism. I say “totalitarian” to note total absorption into a propaganda message.
Propaganda isn’t necessarily totalitarian. I teach propaganda frequently, as a college course. It can be simply a collection of methods for persuading on a larger scale than rhetorical argumentation can. We see propaganda all the time in social movements we find very noble.
Propaganda is totalitarian when it encircles a person. It creates an entire identity for them that tolerates no gods before it. It is a lifestyle and gives you an identity that you can share with other people.
Totalitarian propaganda is not specific to fascism by any means.
It can happen in any cult-like situation and is not subject matter dependent. Any idea whatsoever can be exploited by propaganda.
The key difference is totality, a vocabulary and a worldview so dependent on media the individual no longer experiences the world.
Thus, we come full circle.
Fascism is the destruction of the individual in the name of some higher ideal of personality.
What were Dewey’s counterpoints? This is important, because I think most people still believe fascists can be reasoned with.
I think Dewey’s response is never about persuading fascists. You have to confront power with power. And I don’t mean force or violence.
I mean the capacity to act in concert for a common end against resistance. This is where rhetoric and communication become so valuable. One has to fight fascism by establishing a community.
By creating conditions that allow people to experience what they wish to recover. It is loneliness and alienation that sets the possibility for fascism. The way to battle that is by fighting for a community that allows self-expression and love and connection and creativity.
There is really no other option.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.