Name It To Tame It, So Spell the Name Correctly

Yale historian Timothy Snyder offers advice on thinking beyond bumper stickers and distinguishing fascism from "not even fascism".

Last week, in Beyond Language, I outlined four “messages” about our moment in history. The first message is a critique of the idea that, to mitigate the current assault on factuality, we can “name it to tame it”, so to speak. Here, I’d like to examine this meme more closely.

The idea has a respectable pedigree, and it lends itself to defensible interpretations and applications. For example, in mindfulness meditation and in many forms of psychotherapy (e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), people learn to name their experiences so as not to be tyrannized by nameless horrors. This habit of mind helps guard against cognitive biases and emotional hijacks.

Any student of mythology knows that you can defeat a demon if you know its name. But you have to know the name precisely. That's why, psychotherapy helps people cultivate emotional literacy. Without emotional literacy, you might struggle with fear, for example, if you don't realize that you’re really struggling with disgust. Or you may mislabel excitement as anxiety or infatuation as love.

Similarly, in the current climate of ideologically inflamed animosities, we need to cultivate ideological literacy. Otherwise, we may struggle with “fascism” wastefully and prematurely if we don’t realize that we’ve been struggling with what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls “pre-fascism” in The American Abyss (01/09/2021).

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.

In a 2019 talk in Germany, Snyder also distinguished fascism from “not even fascism”. In my view, the latter should not necessarily be interpreted as a milder version of the former. But you can judge for yourself.

Snyder sketches out six points of comparison between fascism and “not even fascism”.

  1. Both these phenomena inflame the passions of the masses by pointing to a pseudo-problem, but fascism is also motivated by a sense of “tragic responsibility” to enact a solution. By contrast, “not even fascism” is characterized by farcical irresponsibility; the performative outrage is the whole point. For example, “not even fascism” may use a slogan like “Build the Wall” to inflame passions without actually building a wall.

  2. Both these phenomena distort reality, but fascism sacrifices reality at the altar of a higher truth (e.g., saving the race). By contrast, in “not even fascism”, there’s no higher truth for people to serve by embracing “The Big Lie”. Instead, “not even fascism” relies on medium-sized lies (e.g., Mexican rapists).

  3. In fascism, people support the “higher truth” physically; they literally put their bodies in the service of the ideology, whether by marching in protest or going to war or building a wall. By contrast, “not even fascism” does not call for physical engagement; it expects people to stay home; in fact, it views physical protest with suspicion (e.g., the protesters must have been paid by George Soros).

  4. Both fascism and “not even fascism” worry about resources and distrust science as a response to the looming resource crisis. Instead of science, they rely on colonizing resource-rich territories.

  5. Fascism is motivated by imperialist ambitions. “Not even fascism” yearns for a return to the nation-state (which never existed).

  6. Fascism wants the traditional territorially sovereign rule-of-law state modified to facilitate the destruction of other states. By contrast, “not even fascists” are generally cosmopolitan. Consider, for example, the multi-national ambit of Steve Bannon’s populist project.

Snyder argues here that “not even fascism” is the more precise name for our moment in history. But 2019 now seems like a distant pre-Covid past. Although has changed, the need for precision and rigor in naming our predicaments is only becoming clearer.

On January 6th of this year, America started its graduation from “not even fascism” to fascism as a minority of elected officials embraced The Big Lie of a stolen election. That’s part of Professor Snyder’s argument in The American Abyss.

In both the essay and the lecture in Berlin, Snyder uses the “fascism” label without fetishizing it. He acknowledges that, even when this phenomenon returns, it’s not necessarily the only social pathology perverting our epistemic and institutional order. With this acknowledgement, he exemplifies one of the guiding principles for naming demons so as to tame them: don’t lionize them; don’t spell the name in all caps.

Other guiding principles in this art form include:

  1. You have nothing to prove, not to the demon. Speak the name with complete confidence, and entertain no objections from interlocutors approaching the dialogue in bad faith. Their opinion carries no weight.

  2. When you name the demon, you kill the demon. If the demon is still alive, you probably didn't spell the name correctly.