"Never Again?" How fascism hijacks democracies over and over

Fascism very much could be alive and well in America in today's toxic political climate. After all, the appeal of fascism breeds in unhealthy democracies. We can’t be too careful, says political expert Rob Riemen.

Rob Rieman: Why is it difficult to identify fascism? 

Well the first, the main reason I think, is that it’s bad news. And with bad news, with inconvenient truths the natural response is denial, right?

The most famous form of denial related to inconvenient truth was the report of the Club of Rome in 1972 limits to the growth, which was the first scientific report to make clear for the whole world that an ongoing economic growth in a industrial society will have devastating consequences for the planet. And the denial was enormous for decades. Now the denial is no longer possible and, you know, governments try to do what they do, and Greenpeace and other organizations—But imagine how the world, how the planet would have looked like if at that time people would have realized yes, it’s an inconvenient truth but they are right. We wasted time. 

So the first part and to say look, the return of fascism is an inconvenient truth. 

The second thing is… it’s very embarrassing, you know. After World War II, especially in my part of the world where fascism came from, Europe, at our commemoration day we will say, “never again”. That’s what we said all the time: “Never again.” 

And so the whole idea that this terrible, terrible thing of fascism could be back was, you know, out of the question. 

The third element is the phenomenon of we do not know our history anymore. There is a kind of political amnesia. 

And so we are, we have forgotten some extremely important warnings which the warnings did not come from the political scientists. The warnings came from important artists. Novelists like Albert Camus and Thomas Mann, two great artists who lived through the era of fascism.

And in 1947, independent of each other, said “Don’t make the mistake. World War II is over but fascism did not disappear.” 

Camus even wrote a very important novel about it, La Peste, The Plague, trying to explain “Look, this phenomenon of fascism is there to stay because it’s the dark side of every democracy. In every democracy it is possible that at the very moment the spirit of democracy is gone then you’ll get a society (which we now call a mass society) which is no longer cultivating the high ideals of a democracy, but you get the kind of society which is dominated by our lowest instincts – greed, fear, resentment, hatred, propaganda, stupidity. And that’s where the demagogues and the populists will move in and they will present their own version of fascism. 

But we don’t recognize it, again because the idea is – well we know fascism is a bad thing, but in our, you know, media, Hollywood-oriented visual culture... look, in a visual culture, evil has to be very visible. 

Look at Batman, right? Batman, handsome guy. And who’s the evil guy? The Joker, and you immediately see that is an evil man, right? 

And James Bond, you immediately recognize who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. So we think that if there’s evil in our society you have to be able to immediately see it, right? 

And so when it comes to fascism probably we’ll have swastikas and black uniforms and silly gestures. Now of course on the fringe there are always those lunatics who like to present themselves “Oh we are fascist” or “we are Nazis” or whatever. That’s the fringe. We can ignore, I mean, those idiots are always there.

But the fascism in our time will present itself in forms of our time. 

So we have to look at the characteristics because the characteristics will be the same. 

You and I—everybody who looks at this—will be different next year and five years from now, okay, because of time. At the same time we’re still the same, because our characteristics are still the same. 

And so what are the characteristics of a fascist culture? In a fascist culture you’ll always have, and again, you know, the terrible examples of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler—they tell us: The fascist leader will always come forward in a time of crisis. 

He—most of the time it’s a he—will present himself as the anti-political leader who will cure society of all social evils. A kind of new messiah. It's a cult figure. It will always be a form of extreme nationalism, you know, to “make the country great again”. That’s a very old phrase every fascist will use. Deprived of any positive idea, not even interested in it, because those fascist leaders are completely obsessed by self-interest. It’s all about them, them, them, them—them and nothing else. 

They know they have to use all kinds of propaganda to captivate and brainwash and manipulate people. Again this is also an old story. I mean interestingly—enough the focuses of Sigmund Freud—Mr. Bernays, came here to American in the twenties and he wrote a small essay which is still available, entitled Propaganda. 

And Bernays became the godfather of marketing and he became also very rich because he was one of those people who at that time managed to make women smoke. And he also could use the techniques of his uncle Sigmund Freud. But anyway in his essay Propaganda he in a very honest way said look, of course America is a democracy and Washington was the president and the congress. 

He said, “but beyond that is an invisible government. And that’s us. Because we can control the mind of the people by marketing, by propaganda, by advertisement, a whole commercial culture is like this, right?”

So interestingly enough when the Nazis came to power in the thirties he got in touch with the White House and said look, you know, I know those people. Not personally but I know that Goebbels because I know their techniques. Probably I can help you because we will have the war of propaganda. 

So anyway, propaganda. The other thing is all fascists will be and have to be: pathological liars. It will always be lies, lies, lies, lies, lies. 

And a very telling example is that one of my intellectual heroes, Thomas Mann, who came to America in 1938, in 1948 he gave a lecture in L.A. And he said at that time, “if fascism should come to America it will come in the name of freedom.” And interesting enough so many of those fascist parties are parties for freedom including my country, the Netherlands, is the Party for Freedom. Of course this is a lie. 

(Unintelligible) Okay, so there was this thing of and the demand of complete loyalty. 

Then because the crisis is there so we always are in need of a scapegoat. The Jews or the Mexicans or the black people or people from Poland or wherever. They always are in need of a scapegoat. They are always in need of new enemies. And so the thing is that fascism is a political expression of our lowest human instincts. And with a leader who knows how to use it, you’ll get a very corrosive process in your democracy. 

What we should never forget – two things about this. 

We should never forget that Hitler could come into power through a democratic process. It was a democratic process. And even more telling than that: he lost the popular vote. He had 11 million votes, and 22 million voters did not vote for him. But the political parties, the power elite at that time thought well, you know, we can use the guy, we can control him. We give him this responsibility then people will understand what kind of failure he is, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, so many things as we’re seeing here right now.

And then there is this terrible blind spot. 

So even one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, on February 1933 – so Hitler was already in power. He gave a speech for the League Against Socialism—because as a real conservative, for Churchill, socialism was one of the terrible things and he immediately related it to Bolshevism, et cetera. In this lecture he gave there he says, he says quote-unquote, “In Italy it was Mussolini. Mussolini is the Italian genius of law and his fascism might be the strategy for our future.” Churchill in 1933. I mean it took him even a couple of more years to realize what the connection is between Mussolini and Hitler. 

So if even if Churchill, you know, can make this mistake, and he was not the only one—I mean even Freud in the thirties dedicated one of his books to Mussolini. And with a whole line up of hundreds of intellectuals who wanted to see Mussolini. He wasn’t only a politician but he also was a poet, he wrote plays, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

So anyway fascism always comes with a huge temptation. 

This is also the reason why so many intellectuals and so many artists on the one hand they could go off to Stalin and, you know, Stalin is the new messiah. But they also felt, you know, temptation to fascism. So if you put all these things together we realize that again in moments of crisis when people are losing trust in their own political system—which is happening—when the democratic spirit is going out a new anti-democratic spirit will come in. 

And if we have bad luck—and we are now having a lot of bad luck in Europe, and here—and here the risk is a leader with a fascist mindset.

Rob Riemen — founder and president of the Nexus Institute — posits that the type and level of toxicity in today's political climate is a breeding ground for fascism. He argues that most people in fully democratic Germany in the early 1930s didn't think that by decade's end they'd be a fully fascist country, and goes further to say that perhaps history will look back on the 2016 American election in the same way. Is he correct? You be the judge. Rob Riemen's latest book is To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism.

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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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