Madeleine Albright’s Warning
April 5, 2018
“Why has international momentum toward democracy slowed, and why are so many charlatans seeking to undermine public confidence in elections, the courts, the media?”
This is the urgent question voiced by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Fascism: A Warning, who will be speaking on Apr. 24 at The Paramount Theatre. The book is not only a sage examination of figures like Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, but also of contemporary leaders who seem to be reading from the totalitarian playbook, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
Fascism rarely thunders dramatically onto a political scene—so how do we know if America is immune to it? Drawing from knowledge culled during her diplomatic career and intelligence from colleagues across the globe, Albright unpacks current social, economic, and technological trends that could allow fascism to creep insidiously into our leadership. “Some may view this book and its title as alarmist,” writes Albright. “Good. We should be awake to the assault on democratic values that has gathered strength in many countries abroad and is dividing America at home.”
We’ve learned many things from reading Fascism; here are just three:
1. In 2016, “fascism” was the second most searched-for word on the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (the first being “surreal”). But what does it mean? While the “F” word might get tossed around during political disagreements, Albright provides a more lucid definition: “A Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means necessary—including violence—to achieve his or her goals.” What about the tangled thicket of similar labels: totalitarians, dictators, tyrants, and autocrats? She remarks that “often the difference can be seen in who is trusted with the guns.” While modern dictators are “wary of their citizens,” hiding behind elite security units, “Fascists stir [the people] up so that when the fighting begins, their foot soldiers have the will and the firepower to strike first.” Instead of promoting a specific political ideology, such as the Nazis’ anti-Semitic and anti-immigration policies, fascism is more of a strategy for seizing power and not letting go.
2. Albright recognizes that strongmen have the potential to appeal to all of us in our quest for decisive and sure judgements—but Fascism also provides the right questions to be more discerning of our prospective leaders. In moments of anger, confusion, or fear, many of us get sick of asking, What do you think? Instead, Albright observes, “We want to be told where to march. […] There is a reason that vigilante movies are popular. We all know the scenarios: a law-abiding citizen is hurt—a loved one slain, a daughter kidnapped, a rape unprosecuted—and the police have no answer. Suddenly we feel ourselves identifying with an agent of vengeance […] When the villains are annihilated, we cheer. It is our nature—or at least part of it.” To reconsider what we mean by greatness, strength, or justice, however, Albright closes her book with ten questions that will encourage us to take a time-out and measure our leadership before a vote. Here are just a few of those questions:
-Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process?
-Do they seek to destroy our faith in essential contributors to democracy such as an independent press and a professional judiciary?
-Do they exploit the symbols of patriotism—the flag, the pledge—in a conscious effort to turn us against one another?
3. Albright has the ability to deliver an unapologetic political message while also being wickedly funny. After all, this is the civil servant who, being the only woman on the Security Council during her time, saw an opportunity to wear decorative pins as a way to deliver a visual diplomatic jab. When once asked by Putin why she was wearing a pin with hear-no-evil, see-no-evil monkeys during a summit, Albright responded she wore the pin because the Russians would never talk about what was really going on during their conflict with Chechnya. “He was not amused,” Albright recounted in an interview with Smithsonian. Although Fascism is in many ways a somber and unsettling read, it’s peppered throughout with her signature wit, whether she’s describing Chávez’s nine-hour, scriptless speeches or Putin’s on-camera judo demonstrations.
On Tuesday, April 24, at The Paramount Theatre, Madeleine Albright will discuss her new book in conversation Mark Suzman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Tickets are still available, and all purchases (except Student and complimentary tickets) include a copy of Fascism: A Warning. Tickets for this event are sold through www.stgpresents.org.