Commentary Magazine

Defining Fascism Down

AP Photo/Lisa Rathke

When the left refers to their political opponents as fascists, it’s nothing new. Even in the placid 1990s, I recall, a friend of mine referred to Republicans—milquetoasts by contemporary standards—as fascists and storm-troopers. But, at least in his case, one understood it as a bit of a put-on; a deliberate rhetorical excess. Few seriously imagined that George Herbert Walker Bush or Bob Dole were advance men for Mussolinis and Hitlers. Today, not so much.

On Monday, a group of students at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon are preparing to organize a protest against “known fascist,” Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor of philosophy and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The crime that picks Sommers out as a would-be Mussolini is this one of the thought variety.

Though she supports what she calls equity feminism, which seeks above all to break down legal barriers to equality for women, she deplores contemporary feminism, which she thinks has become an assault on liberalism. In defending this view, Sommers has accused contemporary feminists of distortions concerning the wage gap between men and women, sexual assault on campus, and “male supremacism.” In a “round up the usual suspects” way, Sommers’s detractors throw in alleged offenses against “gender non-conforming” and “’genderqueer” persons. But one searches in vain for evidence of such offenses, which seem to have been invoked—by these students of law—primarily for the sake of coalition building.

The slippage between “opponent of contemporary feminism” and “fascist” matters not only because it is foolish to cry wolf about serious affairs but also because, however much even fascists may have a right to speak, it opens the door to restrictions. It is probably fine, and even a good, joke that Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, was permitted to hold forth at Michigan State University only from a remote location on its East Lansing campus: the Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education. But the self-styled “antifascist” movement of which Lewis & Clark’s law students are a part seeks to make perfectly mainstream speakers into Richard Spencers and then some. That is why our future custodians of the First Amendment at Lewis & Clark say that Sommers, who sits squarely in the political middle, deserves not just exile, like Spencer, but should also be deprived of a right to speak in public.

Lest I seem alarmist, I concede that the protesters have demanded merely that the Federalist Society, which invited Sommers, rescind the invitation. To be sure, no one has the right to be invited. But the protesters are also forthright about how things would work if they were in charge: “free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals.” Here, of course, the speech that might have a violent impact is not limited to direct incitement but includes the publication of books like Sommers’s Who Stole Feminism?

Law school students are not children, yet one still wonders where the teachers are in all this. What we’ve heard from non-students is not encouraging. Sommers appeared just last week in a report of the Southern Poverty Law Center as an abettor, albeit not a direct advocate, of “male supremacy,” which is defined as a “hateful ideology advocating for the subjugation of women.” The Portland National Lawyers Guild is “proud” of its “student chapter,” which is taking part in the protest, for “taking a concerted stand against fascist, racist, and misogynistic views being broadcasted on campus!”

I do not wish to exaggerate the influence of organizations like the National Lawyers Guild, a “progressive” alternative to the American Bar Association. Portland is a hotbed of left-wing politics, and the politics there does not tell us much about politics elsewhere. Still, as Sommers own work on feminism indicates, today’s radical ideas have a way of becoming conventional wisdom and a basis for policy tomorrow.

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