In the end, if we let it, the fascists make fools of us all. It’s a strange and gruesome riddle. Can it be solved — can we stop it? First, let me illustrate it a little.
The leftist looks around bewildered, after the ruin of a nation, and wonders: “was I wrong to ask for a strong and robust state? Ah, what have I done!” He sees the institutions he once championed perverted, turned on their heads. Departments of Welfare become those of oppression. Militaries subjugate instead of liberate. Courts find the guilty innocent, and the innocent guilty. And those who once policed freedom and prosperity now police obedience, indecency, and subjugation instead. And so there the poor leftist stands, baffled, made a fool of, as the fascists uses law, justice, and governance as instruments of ruin and atrocity. What good is a larger state if the fascist will only one day use it as that much more powerful a tool?
There, beside him, stands the conservative, shocked at his nation’s fall. He cries out: “Ah! How wrong I was! If only I myself hadn’t called for the destruction of governance — then perhaps the fascsists wouldn’t have arisen in the vacuum left behind!” He looks around and sees a state, a polity, institutions, that, eroded, corroded, dismantled, were to the fascist tide what a freshly bulldozed dike is to a tsunami. He wonders: why was he wrong? Should he have supported a stronger state, a larger government? If the conservation of one’s heritage and values and ideals results only in the elevation of the pure, who then turn a society into a machine of predation upon the impure, then what good is this thing called conservatism at all? What does it really conserve but the worst in us?
Beside them both stands the ghost of history, laughing. He whispers, “it was never about big versus small. But about better and worse. About dignity, truth, respect, and possibility. About the right and wrong ways to organize and order things. Your fight never mattered at all.” But they do not hear him. They are haunted by their own mistakes.
Next to the conservative and the liberal sits the intellectual. Clutching his notebook, his eyes wide, his face ghostly pale. He writes a line, and then scratches it out. “But how could this have happened?”, he mutters. “My equations said everything was fine!” He does not see that his facts and figures were built to measure the rise of a society — not the downfall of one. And so he never that growth contained masses of the desperate, barely able to make ends meet, living at the edge, and so all too ready to turn to the first bellowing demagogue who made them feel strong and safe once again. And all the better if that demagogue scapegoated the stranger, the other, the weak, the nobody — because who was it easier to trample, to gain a sense of superiority over?
So there he sits, the intellectual, puzzling over a riddle he will never solve — because facts and figures and equations are blind to the blazing darkness burning in the hearts of men.
Beside the intellectual sits two forlorn figures. They are the leaders of the left and right wings of the country that once called itself free. They look at each other, but their eyes do not meet, ashamed. Only each knows the burden that weighs the other one down into the depths of despair. “Ah”, both think, bitterly, heavy with regret, “if only I had mounted a genuine opposition! A real one! A true vision for a broken society, that people might have believe in again, that might have united people, which might have aroused and awakened them! But I wasted all my time and energy in outrage, in anger, in trying to shame the shameless. Ah, what a mistake I made!”
His colleague replies, sadly, “We did not know it then, but we were only feeding the fascist’s spectacle — because every ounce of anger we gave to him only fed the myth that he was strong, transgressive, and bold enough to fix a broken society. But why weren’t we? Why didn’t we ever offer people a better social contract, and turn the tide against fascism, instead of feeding it?” And they both look at one another, numb, broken, defeated.
Last of all, besides them, sits the journalist. “But I told the truth! Why didn’t anyone listen?!”, he cries, even though no one is hearing him anymore. They are all marching to the fascist’s drum by now. Yet he does not hear history laugh, and gently ask him: “Ah, but when you called lies ‘falsehoods’ and fascism ‘nativism’ and concentration camps ‘detainment centers’ and disappearing children ‘shameful’, instead of a crime, was that really the truth? When you refused to make parallels with the darkest periods in history, to educate people of what Gestapos and Stasis were, of how quickly the darkness fell the last time, was that really any kind of truth — or just the hubris, pride, arrogance of ‘it can’t happen here’? Isn’t the truth something more like using the most accurate words and stories that we know? Those which contain the fullness of the human experience within them?
…And so when you yourself refused to call things what they were, didn’t you make it easier for the fascists to rise, too, by giving them a license to go on bending the truth, to pervert reality, to call indecency decency and injustice justice? Could they have done any of that if you had really warned people of the tales that history tells, using words that echo down through history — like ‘genocide’, like ‘collapse’, like ‘camps’ and ‘atrocity’ and ‘ruin’ — with the might and the suffering of ages?” But the journalist does not hear him. He is too busy pleading to be heard, with words that mean not a thing, and never did.
And there the people are. Some are scared. Some are proud. Some are numb. Some are defeated. The worst among them have triumphed, and the weak are beginning to perish. Yet no one still, even those who worry and wonder of what is yet to come, has solved this great and terrible riddle.
If fascism makes fools of us all in the end, then how are we best to defeat it? The answer is hidden in plain sight. To admit our folly now —own up to it, take stock of it, accept responsibility for it — and believe me, there is more than enough to go around, whether we are intellectuals, journalists, politicians, academics, or activists. To come face to face with our own weaknesses. The mistakes we have made, the injustices we have done another, the tiny betrayals we have committed, and the little grievances we nurse. Whether they are intellectual, political, moral, or social. Fascism makes fools of us all in the end — and so should we admit our all too human folly first, we snuff it out before it has a chance to ignite. Before the fascist twists his face into a sneer and shouts — “weakness! It is the most despised thing of all! Eliminate the weak!” — and before we know it, we are at one another’s throats.
If, even now, we can do only that — let our weaknesses lead us, teach us, instruct us, and guide us, towards all that is good and noble and true in us, then there is hope. But if we cannot, then there is nothing but despair and ruin in our futures. Because the truth is this. The riddle of fascism has only one good answer — but millions of unthinkable ones.