An Open Letter to Bill Barlow: Your “Fascism at Yale” Article Did Not Make Much Sense

Dear Mr. Barlow,

Hello. I don’t know you personally, and I don’t want to cast any aspersions on your character. However, I feel compelled to write to you, because I read your article “Fascism at Yale,” and I’m afraid I didn’t think it was very good.

I don’t intend to write very specifically here on the current debate surrounding respect and racial inclusivity at Ivy League universities. I’m sure that other members of the Harvard community can and will write far more incisive critiques of that dimension of your article than I could. I look forward to reading them. Rather, I’m here to comment more generally on the structure of your argument, which I believe is deficient in several respects. I’ve listed my objections below.

1. Employing “Tactics” That Were Supposedly Used By Fascists Does Not, Of Itself, Absent Further Evidence, Make Someone A Fascist

In your article, you indicate that you wrote a senior thesis on tactics employed by European fascists, tactics which you claim have also been employed recently by students at Yale. You provide no examples of these tactics within a historical context, so it’s rather hard for the reader to judge the accuracy of your analogy. I guess we’re supposed to just kind of take your word for it?

There’s also a bit of an elision in your argument, which goes like this:

Students at Yale employ X tactics

Fascists employed X tactics.

Therefore, students at Yale are fascists.

Here’s a parallel example:

Harvard Law students drink heavily to relieve stress.

Yale Law students drink heavily to relieve stress.

Therefore, Harvard Law students are Yale Law students.

You get the idea.

2. Contrary to Popular Belief, “Fascist” is a Political Term With An Actual Meaning, Historically Speaking

If you’re going to go out of your way to accuse people of being European-style fascists, you had probably better address some general characteristics of European-style fascism. Have students at Yale been agitating for a single-party political system? Have they outlined protectionist and/or interventionist economic policies? Do they believe that cultural and individual identities should be forcibly subsumed into a spiritualized conception of The State or The Master Race? Are they planning to annex any neighboring territories?

Yes, yes, I know the popular use of the term “fascist” has basically been a meaningless pejorative for the last 50 years, but you claim to be an expert on this stuff, Mr. Barlow. We expect more from you!

3. Being “Pro-“ or “Anti-“ Free Speech Doesn’t Have That Much To Do With Fascism, Specifically

It so happens that I too wrote a senior thesis – mine was on Irish politics in the 1920s and 1930s. (PDFs available at a very reasonable price!) Now, senior theses are not exactly cutting-edge works of scholarship, and so in academic terms this is probably something of a Lilliputian pissing match. But here’s my modest micturition, for what it’s worth.

In the 1930s, Ireland had a homegrown fascist (or quasi-fascist, we can argue about it later) movement called the Blueshirts. All the more virile and aggressive shirt colors had been taken by other countries, so the Irish fascists simply made do with what was left over. They held rallies and marches and goosestepped around carrying cudgels, and Irish President Éamon de Valera (partly because he found them personally distasteful, partly because they had been co-opted as a populist wing by the floundering opposition party) was not at all pleased. So he tried to outlaw them, indirectly, by proscribing all organizations that used military-style uniforms and titles. This was the justification he gave:

“We know the provocation which these shirts cause. They are provocative not merely in Ireland. They are provocative in London, in Brussels, in Geneva and in other Swiss cities. They are provocative in Holland and other countries and have been stated as such. That is one of the reasons why Acts have been passed in these countries to prevent the wearing of these shirts.”

The Blueshirts countered that their political views, their right to gather in public, and their questionable fashion decisions were all protected as free acts of expression. Members of the IRA (who were not fans of the Blueshirts) took to disrupting Blueshirt gatherings with the rallying cry “NO FREE SPEECH FOR TRAITORS” and generally shouting down anybody who tried to address the crowd. Rather the inverse of the paradigm you describe in your article, huh?

Now, the Irish situation in the 1930s was quite different in numerous ways from the continental European situation(s), and you would know a lot more about the latter than I. My point here is not to argue that fascism, as an ideology, is pro-free speech. My point is that fascists, like most political actors, assert the right to free speech when it suits their purposes, and are wary of free speech when it’s employed by their political opponents, or by individuals whose views are simply repugnant to their sensibilities. It has a lot to do with the particular political landscape and its distributions of power. In our own country, we’ve seen plenty of examples of self-proclaimed fascists and neo-Nazis invoking their right to “free speech,” from Skokie down to the present day.

You could probably argue that various arguments placing restrictions on free speech fall within some authoritarian, paternalistic, or pragmatic zone of the political spectrum, according to the particular situation. But being “anti-free speech” is neither unique to, nor universally characteristic of, the political tactics of fascists and proto-fascists. Annoyingly, these kinds of things are always very complicated and context-dependant.

4. The Yale Students In The Video Are Also Exercising Freedom of Expression

I gather from the general tone of your article that you believe in unrestricted free speech. Well, thing is, unrestricted free speech is a two-way street. If you’re allowed to wear an offensive costume, I’m allowed to call you a jerk. If I’m allowed to announce that offensive costumes are totally cool, you’re allowed to campaign for me to be fired for announcing it. Nowhere does it say that free speech must be calm and well-mannered. Moreover, the right to free speech in free society merely protects a person from being arrested or fined for expressing an opinion. It does not protect a person from being fired, if they have expressed views that are contrary to the goals of the organization by which they are employed, nor does it preclude others from freely calling upon them to be fired.

You, Mr. Barlow, seem positively shocked by the Yale students in that video you link to. They were so angry and upset! They were calling on the administrator to resign or be fired! They were shouting over him! They were swearing! They were interrupting! You clearly find all of these things highly offensive. Well, as you know, some students at Yale find culturally appropriative Halloween costumes offensive. But you seem to think that donning a racist costume should be excused as an act of free speech, and screaming an obscenity at an administrator should not be. (Why? Because, were the screaming accompanied by spitting, it would technically be battery, and battery is totally illegal and possibly fascist—is what I gathered from your chart.) Perhaps, it may be that you experience one of these acts of “expression,” but not the other, as personally threatening, and this, perhaps, has had some influence on what you consider to be a legitimate exercise of free speech?

In any case, I infer that when you use the word “fascist” (for, as I discussed above, I really don’t think you’re using it in a sense that relates to its actual definition) what you truly mean is something more like “angry,” “uncivil,” “rude,” “rowdy,” “over-the-top,” “in-your-face,” “opinionated.” But, you know, “Rowdiness at Yale” isn’t a particularly interesting headline. And the mantra “They are discourteous. They are discourteous. They are DISCOURTEOUS” wouldn’t have made for a very dramatic finish to your article. Much better to use a knee-jerk controversialist buzzword like “fascist,” if you want to be read.

To conclude:

I find your argument illogical.

I find your argument illogical.

I find your argument illogical.

Brianna Rennix

Harvard Law School, Class of 2018

Brianna Rennix is the editor-in-chief of The Record and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.