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Radcliffe Fellow Omer Aziz, a lawyer and the former foreign policy adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, discussed fascism in America at a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies presentation Wednesday.
While attending law school and as a writer, Aziz has researched the history of fascism through a historical, legal, and sociological lens. He is currently writing an essay collection that examines fascism in the modern-day U.S., inspired by political scientist and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s book “Democracy in America.”
Aziz began his talk by defining fascism as an “aggressively nationalistic, anti-democratic” form of government.
“It embodies and glorifies the traditionally masculine, it has a great nostalgia for the past, and it exercises a certain war over culture,” Aziz said. “But in practice, fascism leads to the marginalization and the demonization of an other, always.”
Though fascism is most often associated with 20th-century movements like Nazism, Aziz said its roots lie in slavery and white supremacy.
“Fascism was not just in the recent past of the West. It was practically tradition,” he said.
Aziz’s research focuses on the “core tension” between American conceptions of equality and the discrimination written into U.S. law.
“‘All citizens are equal before the law’ is a famous passage that’s quoted often in law school. I view it as an aspirational statement,” he said.
Many Nazi policies were heavily inspired by racist American laws, according to Aziz. Jim Crow laws, racial restrictions on immigration, and U.S. policies toward Native Americans formed much of the groundwork for fascist legislation like the Nuremberg Laws, he added.
Some American race laws were even believed to be too extreme within Nazi Germany.
“The Nazis actually thought American law around the one-drop rule and other forms of segregation was actually too harsh,” Aziz said.
Aziz said he believes America must be more critical of its own history and complicity in racist policies.
“The common narrative is that America went into Europe and saved Europe from Nazism and fascism, which is totally false,” he said. “The original Constitution had white supremacy written right into it, and the Nazis understood this.”
Aziz said Harvard also has a history of complicity with 20th-century fascist movements, citing an instance in 1934 when the Harvard Class of 1909 welcomed an alumnus who was a Nazi official to campus.
“Ernest Hanfstaengl, the Nazi official, came to campus and had tea with Harvard’s president,” Aziz said.
Aziz said extremist fascist ideology continues to have a modern-day presence, noting that Cambridge saw members of a neo-Nazi group harass students and local residents last November.
“Neo-Nazis were here, assaulting, attacking students, shouting slurs,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is not theory. These people didn’t go away.”
Modern-day fascists are “unified by their love of violence or hatred of progress and the sinister sense of entitlement that America belongs to them,” Aziz said.
“I don’t believe that we are destined to end up in a fascist country or fascist regime. But I do think right now we’re living in a pivotal moment where it could go either way,” he added.
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