Democracy vs. fascism, part 1: What do those words mean — and do they describe this moment?

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There’s considerable talk about “democracy” and “fascism” these days, as the poles between which our society is supposedly suspended. But what do those words actually mean? If we admit, as I think we must, that in both cases what it says on the box is not exactly what’s inside — that those are approximations or generalizations or terms of art — do they really help us understand the reality of this dark and puzzling historical moment, or are they just getting in the way?

Joan Didion would have tried to ask those questions, and to answer them. We should all lament that she will not wage that struggle, in full awareness that we might not have enjoyed the results. Didion understood, above all, that imprecision of language reveals imprecision of thought, and that the failure to “observe the observable” — her famous dictum for journalists — leads reporters and…

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