Sociology professor examines whether fascism could occur in the United States

Sociology professor examines whether fascism could occur in the United States
Sociology Professor Brian Fogarty at St. Kate's 2009 Convocation celebration. Photo by Julie Michener.

St. Catherine University Professor of Sociology Brian Fogarty’s new book, Fascism: Why Not Here?, compares and dichotomizes the cultures of early 20th century Germany and the post- September 11th United States. The rhetorical question posed in Fogarty’s title echoes throughout the book as an ominous warning. Looking at the exploitation of power and infringement of rights in Nazi Germany, Fogarty reminds the reader that the United States. has, at some point in its history, committed similar abuses, and in some cases continues to do so today.

Fogarty, now in his 21st year at St. Kate’s, has taught such courses as “Sociology of War and Peace” and “Sociology of Medicine.” One of his favorite courses, “Music, Culture, Genocide," which explores the role German music played in the rise of National Socialism in 20th century Germany, was the catalyst for his book.

“The question we ask in the course is: How did German music and German myth feed the dreams of domination of a people who, ironically, may have been the most thoughtful and sophisticated on Earth?” Fogarty says.

Much of Fogarty’s book revolves around defining fascism. Early on, he decries the flagrant use of the term in the media and across political aisles. He says thoughtless use of the word “fascist,” wherein the term comes to be applied broadly to any restriction on individual license, makes it difficult to create an argument for American fascism.

In order to accurately identify fascism, Fogarty stresses that it is a particular type of totalitarianism, specifically one that enlists citizens themselves in their own oppression. The book breaks fascism down into five characteristics: romanticism, nationalism, populism, racism and authoritarianism. All were central to the rise of the Nazis, Fogarty says.

In dissecting fascism, and in looking at how the Nazis manipulated these characteristics, Fogarty argues that the German culture that allowed Hitler’s rise to power may not have been unique.

“The book really ties in with my role as an educator,” says Fogarty. “Getting young people thinking about how the political process works and recognizing the connections between cultural values and politics is one of the most important aspects of my teaching."

Examining excesses
The role of culture figures prevalently in Fascism, and Fogarty closely examines both those of 1920s and 1930s Germany and contemporary America. He finds stark differences, stemming from ideas regarding individualism and national history, but also alarming similarities. Specifically, both cultures exhibit a distrust of outsiders and contempt for “elites.” Militarism, also, figures prominently in both cultures, as does the idea of exceptionalism (the belief that one’s own nation is superior to all others).

Perhaps most disturbing, though, given the weight of the Holocaust in Germany’s cultural memory, is Fogarty’s chapter on racism, wherein he traces the suppression of various races through a timeline of the United States’ history. From the beginning of the slave trade (coinciding with America’s genesis) and moving through the displacement or eradication of the Indians, to Jim Crow and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Fogarty shows that racism is hardly confined to Nazi Germany.

During his research for the book, Fogarty says he was surprised by the number of political excesses in which Americans have indulged over the years. “I was, of course, familiar with the history of slavery and the McCarthy era, but I wasn’t aware of the breadth and depth of the way we’ve reacted to various events,” he says.

Which is why Fascism can be read as part history, part admonition. Fogarty’s chapter on authoritarianism reminds us that loss of freedom rarely occurs suddenly, but rather in increments. The climate of early and mid-20th century Germany (a fragmented country, mired in war reparations and in economic turmoil) doubtlessly contributed to Hitler’s ascent. However, Fogarty posits that the prevalence of romanticism, nationalism, populism, racism and authoritarianism in the culture intensified the Nazis’ appeal.

A call to reason
“Much of my interest the topic of fascism was sparked by how quickly the United States rushed into things after 9-11,” Fogarty says. “There was a kind of nationalism I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I felt like what needed to be said could not be said.”

America’s reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- which involved illegal domestic surveillance and indefinite imprisonment of detainees without trial, among other civil rights infringement -- gives Fogarty a window through which to glimpse how the United States might respond to more extreme crises, such as an economic disaster or repeated terrorist attacks.

This, combined with the prominence of the aforementioned five characteristics in American culture, could very well set the stage for the rise of fascism in the United States.

“America has flirted with fascist ideas in the past, but never faced the crises the Germans did to push us over the edge,” Fogarty says. “The Germans were cured of their hunger for dominance and ethnic cleansing by their destruction in World War II, but America hasn’t had that type of experience.

"We believe we’re different;" he explains, "that this type of political upheaval can’t happen here. But the cultural similarities between contemporary America and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s are greater than we like to acknowledge.”

Even in light of these similarities, Fogarty notes that America has responded to threats more calmly recently than in decades past, such as during the Red Scares or the anti-Hun hysteria of World War I. He also says America’s diverse population and two-party system may serve as deterrents to the type of racial injustices and totalitarianism the Nazis espoused.

Nevertheless, Fogarty cautions readers against placing too much faith in third-party “outsiders” who appeal to extremes and disparage the establishment.

“I’ve tried to say the threat of fascism isn’t a left or right thing,” Fogarty says. “It comes from extremes on both sides. We have to respect reason. If not, we invite extremists and demagogues, and that’s what happened in Germany.”

Tom Vogel is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

By Tom Vogel
Dec. 17, 2009

Contact Julie Michener, (651) 690-6521

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