Teaching the UN Directive on Confronting the Threat of totalitarian Ideologies

The United Nations Genera Assembly in A/RES/43/150 75th plenary meeting 8 December 1988, in laying out “[m]easures to be taken against Nazi, Fascist and neo-Fascist activities and all other forms of totalitarian ideologies and practices based on apartheid, racial discrimination and racism, and the systematic denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” contains a statement that “calls upon all Governments to pay constant attention to educating the young in the spirit of respect for international law and fundamental human rights and freedoms and against Fascist, neo-Fascist and other totalitarian ideologies and practices based on terror, hatred and violence.”

Our educational system is failing in this task. While many schools teach about the Holocaust, they do not honestly present the reasons why the Holocaust and other acts of fascist and totalitarian action occur or what can be done to prevent them (other statements in the resolution quoted in part above detail the program). Failure to present the reasons for genocide is worse that failing to dwell on one or another genocide. Focusing exclusively on the effect makes particular episodes peculiar and forgettable. Slavery fades from memory when exploitation and oppression are rationalized or ignored. We have to explain the cause and identify those who contribute to it.

The reason why educators fail the world on this matter is timidity. It is a fact that much fascist and neofascist thought draws upon religious ideologies, criticism of which draw the ire of religious fundamentalists. Parents and partisans are quick to stifle teachers who approach speaking truth to power, (hypocritically) arguing that value neutrality and nonpartisanship are values to be asserted over history and social studies that accurately identify the sources of authoritarianism. There is a fear of calling things as they are: religious ideologies are cruel, hateful, and lethal. Until people are prepared to tell the truth about things, the risk that history repeats itself remains great.

In my university course Freedom and Social Control, I read the UN directive cited above and then proceed to tell the truth about authoritarian and totalitarians ideologies and political and legal systems, including theocratic arrangements, such as Islamic states, which are essentially fascist (and I’m not using “essentialist” here as a hedge, but in its actual meaning). I see it as my duty as a member of a global society that must stand for democracy over against autocracy to teach this. Many of my students don’t know about these things. I understand why. Those of us who know better have to step up our game.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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