Letters — From the July 2017 issue

Letters

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In Name Only

As Robert O. Paxton notes, it’s tempting to label President Trump a fascist [“American Duce,” Revision, May]. Just look at Trump’s far-right entourage—Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller über alles—or at the neo-Nazi trolls praising him as their “Dear Leader.” It’s clear that Trump enjoys ignorant race-baiting, knee-jerk authoritarianism, and gilded grandiosity, but Paxton is right to conclude that it’s smoke without a fire. We’ve seen no redemptive nationalism, no political theology, no revolutionary dynamic. Indeed, an academic consensus now exists that fascism is not a helpful framework for thinking about Trump, especially when the term is reduced to Axis practices in interwar and wartime Europe.

Yet fascist ideology was, and remains, more fluid than Paxton allows. Fascists have existed outside Europe. In fact, in the years before Pearl Harbor, “America First” was the slogan of isolationists whose views were closer to Trump’s semi-constitutional nationalism than Hitler’s totalitarianism. For decades, fascist intellectuals have worked tirelessly to lessen the stigma of racism and imperialism, and have reinvented their style to erase the iconic images of jackbooted men in stiff-armed salute. The rise of the new far right in Europe, India, and the United States testifies to the success of this long-term strategy.

Although I don’t agree with how Paxton reached his conclusion—using an organizational rather than an ideological model of fascism—I certainly agree that, for Trump, “plutocrat” is a better descriptor than “fascist.” He is more Ayn Rand than Benito Mussolini. Populism and brutish narcissism explain Donald Trump. That is alarming enough.

Matthew Feldman
Professor of Contemporary History, Teesside University
Middlesborough, England

Paxton finds much in Trump’s character and rhetoric that is consonant with history’s most brutal fascists, but he concludes that “plutocrat” is a more suitable label for the president. Perhaps Trump is both. Critics should not shrink from applying either term to someone who has more overt contempt for democratic institutions—the courts, the media, the loyal opposition—than any previous occupant of the White House.

It’s true that the political and economic situation in the United States today is unlike that of Germany and Italy after the devastation of World War I, but the question is really about Trump’s core beliefs, not the circumstances in which he exists. The worker whose dream of cooperative ownership has not yet been realized is still a socialist, and the conscientious objector who fails in her quest for nuclear disarmament is still a pacifist. By the same token, a fascist by any other name is still a fascist.

Stephen Fortunato
Warren, R.I.

Conscious Living

Christopher Beha’s thoroughgoing response to the work of Daniel Dennett illuminates a problem with the prevailing theory of mind: the lack of a clear distinction between intelligence and consciousness [“Head-Scratcher,” Review, May]. Beha, who edited my work at Harper’s Magazine, disentangles the two by comparing the responses of a human driver and a computer to a stop sign: However proper and intelligent the computer’s behavior, he notes, it can’t experience the red color of the sign. Dennett’s assertion that thought and mind must arise from information (words, memes) suggests an inability to conceive of a human function that is not somehow instrumental, and it leads him and his cohort to propose that there’s no such thing as consciousness. It’s the sort of conclusion that the scientists of Jonathan Swift’s Laputa might come to.

I recently—very late in life—took up the practice of Buddhist meditation, in its least dogmatic form. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be striving toward or what sort of enlightenment I would reach (none has come), but I eventually understood that the simplest goal was to quiet your thinking voice—the judgments, opinions, anecdotes, regrets, and commentary that Dennett calls the “Joycean machine.” In the resulting stillness, consciousness expands and the mind is able to experience pure qualia, that is, consciousness without memes.

It’s possible to draw two conclusions from this. Either humans learned in the past millennium or two how to ignore those memes—or, more likely, we’ve learned how to return to the place before memes, where all other conscious beings still reside.

John Crowley
Senior Lecturer in English, Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Reason Out

Yasmine Seale writes that the failure of medieval Muslims to embrace the doctrine of “createdness”—the idea that the Koran exists in historical time—signaled the defeat of “reason” within Islam [“Unseen Worlds,” Review, May]. “Ultimately,” Seale writes, “the doctrine of the eternal Koran prevailed, and the advocates of ‘createdness’—of reason—met brutal ends.” But those advocates, the Mutazila, were not prototypical secularists who wished to desacralize the Koran, as some modern-day Muslims have alleged. The Mutazila never called into question the Koran’s status as God’s speech. They simply argued that God and his book were not coeval or coeternal and that believing otherwise was tantamount to undermining the concept of God’s unity.

Interpreting Islam through the lens of Christianity or secularism has rarely yielded good results. Medieval Christians viewed Islam with suspicion and hostility because they looked to the Bible to explain it. More recently, some scholars have tried to use the Reformation and the Enlightenment as a way to emphasize Islam’s similarity to the West. Both tendencies, however, occlude the specificity of Islam and, with it, the possibility of engaging with the religion on its own terms.

Asma Barlas
Professor of Politics, Ithaca College
Ithaca, N.Y.

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