Plenary: An Oxford-Style Debate: “Resolved: Fascism Is Back”

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 PM-9:30 PM
Trianon Ballroom (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
David Greenberg, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, New York University
Paul Berman, Tablet Magazine
Federico Finchelstein, New School for Social Research
Claudia Koonz, Duke University
The Audience

Session Abstract

In recent years, authoritarian leaders, riding populist currents, have come to power in countries across the globe, from Turkey to Poland, from the Philippines to Hungary, from Italy to Brazil. Even in the United States--where, historically, ideological extremists have seldom come close to national power--the populist hyper-nationalism of Donald Trump marks a clear-cut ideological break even from his staunchly conservative Republican predecessors. These developments have prompted many citizens and commentators to wheel out the term "fascism" to describe these movements. In the news media and the publishing world, historians have been enlisted to explain whether, and to what degree, that term properly applies. This plenary session will be an Oxford-style debate, in the manner of the program "Intelligence Squared," in which four leading historians of fascism--each expert in a different country or region of the world--will ask whether the lens of fascism is the right one with which to understand today's global political developments. They will, moreover, forge beyond basic definitional questions to ask how their historical knowledge can be fruitfully brought to bear on understanding the present. On the affirmative side, Ruth Ben-Ghiat of NYU will argue that today's authoritarians are making use of techniques of propaganda, victim politics, and personality cults that the fascists of the 1930s pioneered, even if the label is not quite apt; and Timothy Snyder of Yale will argue that today's politicians are directing admiring attention to the fascist moment, while classical fascist positions -- such as the politics of exception, the politics of us and them, and global antisemitism — have become normalized. On the negative side, Federico Finchelstein will argue that populism, not fascism, is the better framework for making sense of these new movements and will explicate differences between the two. And Claudia Koonz of Duke will argue that the central organizing concept, especially in the United States, should be that of racism. The question-and-answer period will surface subtleties and wrinkles in each historian's position and explore the possibilities of consensus understandings among them, notwithstanding their differences of emphasis.
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