Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke Friday in a packed Michigan Theater about her book “Fascism: A Warning.” History professor Juan Cole, known for his work in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies, led a discussion focused on the rise of modern fascism, Albright’s experience as State Department head and Albright’s thoughts on world politics today.
Albright’s book focuses on the history of fascism, its role in the 20th century and the dangers of extreme nationalism currently seen around the world. Albright discussed her understanding of fascism as outlined in her book.
“(Fascism) is when there is a set of anger going on and the leader comes along and decides to identify himself with one group, some nationalist group, at the expense of the minority,” Albright said. “When there are problems, what you try to have are leaders that try to find common interests and try to figure out how to mend the bridge. A fascist leader is somebody that exacerbates those conditions.”
One topic Albright discussed was the role of immigrants in a fascist regime — an issue particulary close to home for her. Albright’s family immigrated to the U.S. in 1949 from Czechoslovakia when Albright was 12. Her birth name was Marie Jana Körbe, but her family changed it to avoid Nazi detection. Albright explained how immigrant and refugee groups are used as scapegoats for the faults of society, pushing ethno-nationalist agendas.
“Truly that scapegoating of somebody that it’s ‘their fault’ and the refugees and the immigrants now are a part of that,” Albright said.
To drive her point home, Albright talked about the current discrimination of Muslims in the U.S.
“I wish that we would, in fact, have a legal (immigration) policy that was generous because we are a country that believes in the rule of law,” Albright said. “But I think that what is going on now is outrageous, frankly… Talk about scapegoating. I think that what is going on now is un-American.”
Albright spoke about ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995 and the U.S. intervention under the Clinton administration. Conflicts like these need global attention because eventually, nationalism can turn into means for discrimination and extermination, Albright said.
“I believed that we should and did intervene and I think it did make a difference,” Albright said. “These things, you have to call them out. Because they come for some reason that you think you’re defending your nation, and in the meantime what you’re doing is undermining the others and blaming them for everything. And then it leads into terrible, really circular, horrible arguments that you decide there are certain people that need to be exterminated.”
Albright emphasized her opposition to isolationism, noting the importance of multilateralism in foreign relations.
“It’s the job of every president to protect our territory, our people and our way of life,” Albright said. “I happen to think we are better off if we are involved, and that we are and that our value system is out there. I am not an isolationist.”
Albright mentioned the issues surrounding Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s alignment with Russia. She said these two countries specifically have “ill-enrolled democracies,” where the majority rules without granting minority rights.
“He (Putin) has a plan,” Albright said. “He is trying to re-engage with the countries that were a part of the Soviet Union and at the same time undermine democracy, and he’s been able to weaponize information and try to separate us from our allies and undermine NATO, and that has been quite a wave.”
According to Albright, the U.S. is not responding effectively to international threats to democracy.
“The U.S. is not reacting properly,” Albright said. “I am not nostalgic for the Cold War and we don’t need to have an ending like that, but I do think the Russian issue is a very complicated one and some of the things the U.S. is doing is a gift to Putin. I think we have to be very careful about that. And the undermining of democracy are not just the elections in central Eastern Europe, they are here also.”
The political system Albright was familiar with in her adolescence emphasized global collaboration, she said. Now, Albright believes we currently live in a broken system.
“I think this is a very strange time in so many ways and, in terms of a historian, we are living in a very different system,” Albright said. “Basically, the system that I grew up with was within the U.N. There were attempts to have some kind of an international system, democracies were thriving, and all of a sudden the system is very different and we don’t have a functioning system in so many ways.”
Albright encouraged citizen involvement in government and spoke on the importance of engaging in controversial dialogues, especially on college campuses.
“People should run for office or support those that do,” Albright said. “It’s very important to talk to people with whom you disagree. People don’t like the word ‘tolerance’ because that’s to tolerate and put up with. I think it’s respect. I think what we need to do is respect those with other views and to have that dialogue and I think we need to encourage it and really listen.”
LSA freshman Sarah Zhao attended the event and said younger generations have trouble engaging in controversial and constructive dialogue.
“I think one thing that kind of struck me was when she said we have to talk to people we disagree with to grow, and I think that’s a problem our generation has had and it will help a lot if we do that,” Zhao said.
Albright called media the basis of democracy and emphasized the role of the media to work for truth, not ratings.
“I think that the whole role of the media is something that is very key, it is the basis of democracy,” Albright said. “But it also requires a responsibility on the side of the press and I am troubled by the fact that ratings have somehow taken over responsibility.”
This point resonated with Rackham student Ron Keinan, who said ratings have often dictated the media’s attention to different stories.
“I agree that the press has gotten a lot more about ratings and sensationalism,” Keinan said. “They’re not really focusing on objectivity, they’re not focusing on getting the real story, they’re just focusing on what people will pay attention to and I think it’s an important role of the media to not just devolve into the extremes. Just stay objective, tell people the facts, make sure that people are informed.”
It is a citizen's responsibility, Albright said, to stay informed by intaking media from different sources. This way, readers can understand more of the full picture.
“When you do research, you actually look at a number of different sources,” Albright said. “You need to read and compare, and I think that in these days one has to be able to listen to a variety of sources of information.”
Albright said she worries, as her father did, that Americans do not understand the vulnerable nature of democracy because they have not witnessed it taken away.
“He was very concerned that Americans don't understand how fragile democracy is, and his background and therefore mine have seen how quickly it can disappear is something that we need to think about,” Albright said. “The press and having a free responsible media is the key to it.”