Propaganda and fascism

Propaganda and fascism

Yale professor, at JCC U in Tenafly, talks about grim trends in public life

Dr. Jason Stanley teaches philosophy at Yale.
Dr. Jason Stanley teaches philosophy at Yale.

Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale — and before that, at Rutgers, and he held named chairs in both schools — has taken an academic approach as he studies the linguistic and social and political underpinnings of propaganda and how fascists can flourish when they use it to their advantage. He’s written a book about it — “How Propaganda Works” — and he’s now finishing up his next work, on fascism, which is due out soon.

It’s a subject that he knows personally, through family history, as well as academically, he said.

Dr. Stanley, who will speak at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on September 14 (see the box for more information), is the descendant of Holocaust refugees; like all Holocaust refugees, they have stories.

Dr. Stanley is 47 years old. His father, Manfred, was 6 1/2 when his parents got the family out of Berlin in August 1939, where they had gone into hiding right after Kristallnacht. His mother, Sara, literally came from a family that had lived in the town of Chelm, but she was born in Siberia, where her parents had fled. After the war, the family returned to Poland, where they experienced “the horror of anti-Semitism in postwar Poland” before they were able to get out of there, across the ocean, and into the United States. “They came into New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty,” Dr. Stanley said. “That’s why attacks on the statue are personal for me.”

He’s talking about the comments President Donald Trump’s adviser, Steven Miller, made as he tried to decouple the Statue of Liberty from its welcome to new immigrants. Emma Lazarus’s poem, with the lines “Bring me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to be free” came later, Mr. Miller said.

But let’s first return to his family, because its fight against fascism, in the form of national socialism, was both intense and successful. His grandmother, Ilsa Stanley, who accompanied her young son to America, had been an actress; in fact, she’d been in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” the 1927 German Expressionist silent film classic.

Ilsa Stanley with her parents, Henriette Fröhlich and Magnus Davidsohn
Ilsa Stanley with her parents, Henriette Fröhlich and Magnus Davidsohn

After work dried up for Jewish actresses in Germany, and the screws were tightening on German Jews, Ms. Stanley played her greatest part. She pretended to be an Aryan social worker, and using that persona and fake papers, over the course of two years she rescued 412 people from a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen.

Then Kristallnacht put an end to that extraordinarily brave effort, and soon she and her son got out. Ms. Stanley wrote a memoir, “The Unforgotten,” thought to be one of the first Holocaust memoirs written in English.

Ilsa Stanley had yichus as well as accomplishments. Her father, Magnus Davidsohn, was the cantor of the largest synagogue in Berlin, a liberal institution whose rabbi was Leo Baeck. Her uncle, Max Dawison, was a world-class tenor and the first Jew to sing Wagner at Bayreuth.

All of this is inherently fascinating. Dr. Stanley’s family history is also, to a dramatically great extent, the history of 20th century European and American Jewish life. And if you look him up on Google, you’ll see that he has not been shy about taking public positions on current issues, and he’s been both praised and excoriated for them. He’s a Jew, an academic, an occasional New York Times op ed writer, a man of deep beliefs and opinions, the grandson of Holocaust refugees, the proud husband of an African-American cardiologist who also teaches at Yale, and the loving father of two small sons.

And that brings us back to his study of propaganda and fascism.

Propaganda is a very old problem, Dr. Stanley said, and is inextricably tied to democracy, in which it can flourish and to which it is poison. He begins his book with a discussion of “Plato’s Republic,” which told the ancient world that democracy will never work, and with a quote from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. “This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy — that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed,” Goebbels is reported to have said.

In other words, “democracy requires that you allow people to say what they want to say.” That they have the right to free speech. “But that means that a demagogue,” who like everyone else is free to say what he wants to say, “can get people to set people against each other,” Dr. Stanley said. “Plato spells it all out.” A demagogue will define an enemy, and set the majority against that enemy. “He will create fear and represent himself as the protector, and then seize power.” And then, of course, democracy ends.

Ilsa as a young woman.
Ilsa as a young woman.

It is the built-in, inescapable paradox of democracy.

“To have a democracy, you need a well-formed state,” Dr. Stanley said. “You can’t have groups that resent other groups. You can’t build a state on racism or sexism. If you do, then democracy doesn’t work.

“We have a country riven by — indeed, a country based upon — racism and inequality, that we never have addressed,” he continued. The inequalities upon which the United States was built were not addressed and resolved, but they largely have been forced underground, where they flow as a fetid river. “So of course we face this problem of democracy,” he said.

In his book on propaganda, Dr. Stanley continued, he looked at the Republican party’s so-called southern strategy, which Richard Nixon championed and “which the Clintons adopted, demonizing welfare and connecting welfare and race, and demonizing black America using law-and-order talk, linking black Americans to violence and laziness. And that was the justification of slavery.” Many southern antebellum slave owners defended slavery, he said, by arguing that their slaves were of such weak character that the rigors of slavery would ennoble them, that their suffering would make them better. In fact, we have seen Robert E. Lee’s arguments, claiming exactly that reason for the moral goodness of slavery, as they’ve resurfaced over the debate about statues in Lee’s memory and honor.

For many decades, these arguments burrowed further and further underground, surfaced by the code words that are called dog whistles, those words that signal common cause to people who know them but whose true meaning remains inaudible to everyone else.

“In a 1981 interview, Lee Atwater” — the Republican strategist who was responsible for much of George H.W. Bush’s successful presidential run — “said that in the 1950s it was easy. You could just say ‘n—-, n—-, n—-.’ By the ’60s you have to be more abstract, and talk about desegregation and busing. And up till now it has become more abstract. You have to talk about cutting taxes and social spending, about inner cities and illegals.”

Ilsa in a still from Fritz Lang’s enormously influential silent film, “Metropolis.”
Ilsa in a still from Fritz Lang’s enormously influential silent film, “Metropolis.”

Now, though, things are changing again. “The reason Donald Trump’s strategy works is because he is being explicit,” Dr. Stanley said. He’s heard someone — he can’t remember who — say that they’re no longer dog whistles anymore. They’re people whistles. And some people like that, because they hear that lack of coding as honesty.

Then there is the question of political correctness. “That’s the foundation of democracy,” Dr. Stanley said. “That’s because political correctness is basic decency. But his voters see Trump as strong for ripping apart norms, and they reward him for it.

“But of course the fault really lies with both parties, because they both tapped racism and kept it alive by putting everything in code,” instead of confronting it. And now, with all that ugliness out in the open, all the raw sewage running in the streets, “it will take decades to fix the damage to the basic culture,” Dr. Stanley said.

He will talk about that, and also will talk about the work he now is doing on fascism. “My new book will be more about the international links between far right ultranationalist movements,’ he said. “Hungary, Poland, Russia, Austria,” among others.

How should we understand everything that’s going on in the world now, all these old hatreds suddenly becoming new? “I have come to think it is vitally important that everyone read the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’” Dr. Stanley said. “That is what is happening, and people don’t know about it anymore.

“It isn’t clear what anti-Semitism means anymore,” he continued. Anti-Israel sentiment, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism become conflated and entangled. Anti-Semitism often is blamed on a hatred for Israel, but even aside from anyone’s feelings about Israel, “there was no Israel during the Nazi era, and there still was anti-Semitism. There still were people shouting ‘blood and soil.’ We should read the ‘Protocols’ to remind ourselves what European anti-Semitism sounds like. It sounds a lot like the rhetoric we hear now.

“It is hard to live up to the values of democracy,” Dr. Stanley acknowledged. “Democracy runs in opposition to all the things that we want as natural beings.” We naturally are tribal, we naturally value our own children over everybody else’s, we naturally want more and more and more, far more than we need. That’s not all bad, but we must be vigilant. “Democracy is fragile,” Dr. Stanley said.

But it also is well worth fighting for.


Who: Dr. Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale

What: Will speak at the opening session of the JCC U

When: On Thursday, September 14, at 10:30 a.m.

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly

For more information: Go to or call (201) 569-7900


Who: Alan Zweibel, who has won five Emmy awards and wrote for the original Saturday Night Live

What: Will ask “For This We Left Egypt?” as he recounts his 40-year-long comedy career.

And: He’ll also talk about his new book, a parody of the Passover Haggadah.

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