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The End Of America - Riffs and Licks
The End Of America
Naomi Wolf has written a powerful political pamphlet that's got me thinking: The End Of America: Letters Of Warning To a Young Patriot.

Subtitled "A Citizen's Call To Action," the book makes a simple point without sliding into hysteria: The transition from a democratic government to a fascist state has happened many times in recent history, always by ostensibly legal means, and usually with the tacit cooperation of most of the country.
Populations in fascist or totalitarian systems adapt to fear through complicity ... when a minority of citizens is terrorized and persecuted, a majority live out fairly normal lives by stifling dissent within themselves and going along quietly with the state's act of violent repression. ...[F]ascist regimes can be "quite popular" for the people who are not being terrorized.
Most of us are, for now, in the latter category, and behaving exactly as described.

This shift, she says, happens according to a ten-point plan, followed not only by the monsters of history like Hitler and Stalin, but also by everyone from Pinochet to Musharraf. She makes a compelling case that this plan is well underway in this country, putting into one very small and precise book the fears many of us are probably feeling.

This country is slowly sliding into totalitarianism, and may in fact be further along that road than we realize. And beyond that, her point is that democracy is fragile; that we have grown accustomed to "outsourcing" our democracy to lawyers and civil rights organizations and professional activists, which is how we got ourselves into this fix in the first place.

The ten-point agenda looks like this:

  • Invoke an external and internal threat
    "What matters to a fascist leader is not to get rid of the enemy but rather to maintain an enemy." Does this explain the incomprehensible incompetence of the so-called war on terror?

  • Establish secret prisons
    It's staggering how unimportant Guantanamo and the rendition programs are to most of us. We're all convinced that, while some people are being held for years without trial, access to a lawyer, or even a chance to contact their families, it won't happen to us. "The classic secret prison system starts out modestly and metastizes," she says. "Initially the government targets people seen by the rest of the population as 'evil' ... because there is now a two caste system, and because most people are in the protected caste, a kind of magical thinking makes many people feel more secure as they witness 'others' being sent into brutal detention."

    Over the past six years, Bush has asserted that he (and any President following him) has the power to name anyone, citizen or not, at home or abroad, an "enemy combatant," and having done so, to detain you without any access to the courts and without ever telling you what you're accused of or what the evidence is. And he has expanded the definition of "enemy combatant" to include those not even directly accused of terrorist acts, but of vague and easily redefined crimes.

    A theme Wolf keeps returning to is that what looks like incompetence may actually be good planning. Any law enforcement or intelligence professional will tell you that you don't get good intelligence by torturing people; they'll say anything or agree to anything. But what if the goal is not getting intelligence, but scaring those who might speak up?

  • Develop a paramilitary force
    Bush is building a private army, perhaps not personally responsible to him, but certainly not responsible or accountable to any governmental or legislative body. The legions of private contractors working for Blackwater and its fellow "security" companies are mercenaries, plain and simple.

    The Secret Service now arrests anyone who protests or displays signs and messages at Presidential appearances. Groups of thugs gathered around voting booths in minority neighborhoods during the presidential elections.

    Did you know that Blackwater employees patrolled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? Were they accountable for their actions? What if they'd killed someone arbitrarily? Did you know that Bush has changed the law so that he can take direct control of National Guard units even over the objections of a governor, and send them to other states if he wants?

    Bands of thugs -- "aggressive men who have no clear, accountable relationship to the government or the party seeking power" -- are a necessary part of any fascist shift. And we're building up quite an army of them.

  • Surveil ordinary citizens
    Nothing new here, of course; we all know about the government's warrantless wiretapping and other invasive activities. Wolf asks whether the New York Times' exposures of these programs were actually leaks, or planned releases by the government intended to put us all on notice that we're under surveillance. "Dictatorships want citizens to know they're being watched."
    Many citizens have noted how relatively muted Democratic and other opposition leaders seem to be in the face of all of this....Politicians understand what state surveillance mans faster than ordinary people do: Political candidates assume as a matter of course that their opponents are trying to monitor them.
    Whether or not the surveillance is effective is not the point. You can't catch terrorists this way, but you can intimidate people.

  • Infiltrate citizen's groups
    Did the NYPD really think it was going to prevent terrorist activities by sending spies to the anti-war marches in 2003 or to the convention protests in 2004? Of course not. And they knew most of their arrests were blatantly illegal. That wasn't the point. "When the state infiltrates citizens groups, people feel vulnerable about acting in accord with one another and so are less likely to risk the assertive collective behavior that democracy requires."

  • Arbitrarily detain and release citizens
    Brandon Mayfield, Jose Padilla, James Yee -- do you know these names? Do you know what they went through on the basis of completely false charges, charges even the government was forced to drop or admit were baseless? How about all those ordinary people who sat in jail during the Republican convention, many of whom hadn't even been protesting? Or the bicyclists arrested en masse every month when Critical Mass rides? How many of us would really be willing to risk a weekend locked up in a pier on the West Side, versus staying home and letting someone else do the protesting?

  • Target key individuals
    Scientists, entertainers, lawyers for imprisoned "terrorists," anyone who speaks up against the Bush agenda, generally suffer in ways that makes their peers sure not to make the same mistakes.

  • Restrict the press
    Remember the Palestine Hotel? Do you know that several working journalists are currently imprisoned by the U.S. military with no access to lawyers? Remember what happened to Dan Rather after he used one falsified document in a generally accurate report about Bush's evasion of military service?

    Combine that with the administration's increasing use of staged news events and outright lies, and what do you have? "At a certain point in a fascist shift, it doesn't matter whether most people believe the faked news or not--eventually they simply don't have access to enough good information to assess what is real and what is not."

    Does new media help? Maybe, but not unless it gets serious.
    Bloggers must take their impact far more seriously, becoming warriors for truth and accountability: Citizens have to start to produce reliable samizdat. Opinion is important, but opinion alone is totally inadequate when the ground of truth itself is under assault.
  • Cast criticism as "espionage" and dissent as "treason"
    It's not just nutcases like Anne Coulter who are calling dissenters treasonous. There were serious calls for The New York Times to be prosecuted for publishing the stories about the wiretapping programs, and people have been prosecuted merely for making statements interpreted to be supportive of al-Qaeda.

  • Subvert the rule of law
    There's an overall belief that things like this won't happen in this country, that as broken as things are, everything rights itself. Some people saw hopeful signs in the 2006 elections.
    In trusting that "the pendulum will swing" when it is time for the votes to be counted, we are like a codependent woman with an abusive boyfriend; surely next time he will do what is right. ... If for eight years this group has flouted other equally precious rules of the democratic game, aren't we rash to assume that this same group will see a transparent, fair election a sacrosanct? The Founder asked us to err on the side of vigilance when it comes to liberty...It's time to notice that they are playing a different game altogether.

Will any of the leading presidential candidates solve this problem? I doubt it. If Giuliani is put in charge of this police-state apparatus, terrifying things will happen; think of how he ran the city when his actions were subject to judicial review. All the other Republican candidates are lining up behind the Bush agenda, even ones like McCain who should know better.

Will Hillary Clinton repeal the Military Commissions Act, close Guantanamo and go back to seeking warrants for all searches? Her record says no. But even if she, or any other Democrat, tries to get our society back on a more Constitutional footing, any crisis or terrorist incident, real or manufactured, would be grounds to impeach that President and drive him or her from office.

Is Bloomberg an alternative? He presided over blatant repression of free speech and protest during the Republican convention in 2004 and has followed a generally anti-free-speech agenda, with his proposals to ban public assemblies, require permits for photography, etc. If not for judicial review and his fears of how the NYC electorate would react, he would have accomplished all of that and more. Between that and his pro-corporate viewpoint, I suspect he'll be a more intelligent and palatable face on the same agenda that Bush has been driving.

And then of course there's Ron Paul. Is it time for people like me to make our peace with Libertarians, as hateful as I find their agenda? I might consider it if I believed he would actually work to reverse the anti-Constitutional trend, but I find little to encourage me on his site. He thinks the greatest threats to Americans' liberty are high taxes and restrictions on religious expression. His anti-immigration stance means there will be more reasons for armed thugs to break your doors down. Overall, his vision looks as much like a police state as the others', but with more people going hungry. No thanks.

In the end, it's not about the candidates. They all follow the crowd. As long as most of us (not them, not the Shrubbies, but you and me) are content to do our shopping and live our lives and pretend nothing is happening, they will be more than happy to reinforce that. Is it time for liberals to make common cause with conservatives who believe in the Constitution, and set aside disagreements over things like gun control, abortion, social welfare and religion? If Ron Paul were making a clarion call for the restoration of habeas corpus, the end of secret prisons and illegal wiretapping, I think I might forgive him his other stances and work with him. Is there a candidate out there like that? Or do we have to move candidates to those positions ourselves?

Most of us sat by as Bush stole the election in 2000, as he passed the Patriot Act and its increasingly repressive follow-ons, as Democrats and the media colluded with him in defrauding us into war. We cannot afford to do that any longer, but as Wolf says, one of the tactics of a fascist shift is to leave individual citizens feeling ineffective and afraid to speak up. How do we combat that? This is all going to figure into my thinking as I decide what I'm going to be doing next year.

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21 comments or Leave a comment
stacyinthecity From: stacyinthecity Date: December 31st, 2007 07:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been saying this for years.

Except that I do believe that Ron Paul would do much to help the situation. He is actually calling what is going on in this country as the beginning of fascism. If not Ron Paul, then Gravel or perhaps Kucinich, but Ron Paul has the biggest chance of winning, so I'm putting my efforts into him.

Anyway, I think that he has talked about habeas corpus and wiretapping and secret prisons and all of that.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: December 31st, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Many people, myself included, have been saying these things for years, but I've not seen it said so concisely or so starkly before, and certainly not by someone who was encouraging her readers to find common cause with genuine conservatives (as opposed to the MoveOn crowd, for instance).

As far as Ron Paul, if he's saying any of that, it seems to be drowned out by his pronouncement on tax-cutting and the like. The six articles in the "Constitution" section of his web site, for instance, focus on allowing government displays of religion (3), tax-cutting (2), and repeal of Roe v. Wade (1). I don't find that encouraging, but I'd be interested in a more serious conversation about his policies.
stacyinthecity From: stacyinthecity Date: January 1st, 2008 12:11 am (UTC) (Link)
yeah, Naomi Wolf is great. So is Naomi Klein - check out The Shock Doctrine.

I agree that there are a few things I find troubling about Ron Paul, but certainly far less than with other candidates, and he does take a small government stance that I find so wonderfully refreshing. And there are some things, like his opinion on war and privacy that I find incredibly important and have weighted them heavier than some other things. Thats why I'm voting for him on Primary day.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: December 31st, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it's weird that nobody in the current administration is running in 2008. The Republican party isn't a monolith. Who is the totalitarian? "The Republican Party"? That doesn't make sense. It's a whole bunch of different people with different agendas.

It's this administration that I'm afraid of, and the fact that none of them is running. They're all about power; and they're just going to kindly step aside next November and give it all up, after all this?

Although you're too dismissive of Paul (not that I'm voting for him either), I think your best candidate is Kucinich.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: December 31st, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
This administration is essentially irrelevant at this point. A lot of what she's saying is that the mechanisms it's put into place are terrifying no matter who is in power.

As I said above, I'd listen to more about Ron Paul. I can't see Kucinich winning anything.
stacyinthecity From: stacyinthecity Date: January 1st, 2008 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't think it is so much the specific administration - Bush or Clinton or whoever. The totalitarian entity is the Federal Government. Not that I've read this book or article in depth, just what I've gathered on my own from various sources over the course of the last nearly 7 years.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: January 1st, 2008 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
It all sounds a little conspiracy theorist. I think we'll muddle through and the pendulum WILL swing, and as unexciting as it is things will stay pretty much the same.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: January 1st, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
No, that is exactly the point. The pendulum is already slowing down; the 2006 elections didn't change a thing, and neither will the 2008 election assuming it's held fairly. Which conspiracy is a "theory"? That the Republicans stole the 2000 election and then used a combination of voter challenges, racial intimidation, suspect voting devices, phone jamming and other tactics to "win" the 2004 election? That a right-wing cabal almost took down Bill Clinton, did take down John Kerry, and has protected Bush from being held accountable for what he's done? That people across the political spectrum conspired to spread falsehoods and lead us into war?

Wolf's point about the pendulum may be misleading. Really, what she's saying is that dictatorships maintain the illusion of freedom until it's far too late to do anything about it. The pendulum still moves, but the pivot point is moving too. Things that were once unthinkable are now accepted, and as the pivot point continues to move towards authoritarianism, we will come to accept more and more frightening things until it's too late to do anything about it. Or perhaps we will be "lucky" and remain in the you're-ok-if-you-don't-make-any-waves class, but one way or the other, there's no "theory" about it. It's happening in front of our eyes.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: January 1st, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Which conspiracy is a "theory"? That the Republicans stole the 2000 election

Yes, that one, actually. The 2000 election was extremely close, and both sides did all they could to try to take Florida. It could have gone either way based on a number of variables. It was either side's opportunity to 'steal'. It was our failure (I mean the electorate's failure to vote definitively for the less atrocious candidate) that let it be so close and up for grabs.

and then used a combination of voter challenges, racial intimidation, suspect voting devices, phone jamming and other tactics to "win" the 2004 election

If you think the voting is all rigged to that extent, why bother engage in this political process at all?

I think both sides engage in fierce tactics to gain and sustain power, there's a lot of corruption and lack of morals, but the pendulum swings and we muddle through, imperfectly. I don't know that we are really more authoritarian than we've been in the past; when we interred Japanese Americans, for example.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: January 1st, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
It was our failure (I mean the electorate's failure to vote definitively for the less atrocious candidate) that let it be so close and up for grabs.
This is the heart of the problem. We let that happen, and not just by voting wrong, but by accepting an outrageous Supreme Court decision that stopped the counting, and by not insisting on following up all the other scandals -- the voter roll purges, the phone-bank scandals, the voting machine irregularities, etc. And we did that again in 2004, and we're allowing much worse to happen now.

The U.S. has gone through spasms of totalitarianism before, but there are two major differences now: one, those past spasms were associated with finite events (wars that ended) as opposed to a never-ending "war on terror," and two, it's never happened in such an atmosphere of general complacency before.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: January 1st, 2008 06:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Agreed. Bush v. Gore was the Court's worst hour. I am currently held captive by a new book about the Court by Jeffrey Toobin, called The Nine. I can't wait to write about it and highly recommend it.
nyhamsterhouse From: nyhamsterhouse Date: January 2nd, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
I really enjoyed--and was thoroughly depressed by--that book. I recommend it highly, too!
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: January 3rd, 2008 02:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow. I gotta read this.
nyhamsterhouse From: nyhamsterhouse Date: January 3rd, 2008 02:40 am (UTC) (Link)
You can borrow mine, if ya want! (that is, if we see each other in real life, someday!)
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: January 6th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Here's my review to read & comment on, if you want to discuss!
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 31st, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, in my grad program class on terrorism (circa 2003), we learned that the goal of most international terrorists is part of a big picture. It's not just about killing citizens of the country or religion they hate. For many who hate us, the ultimate goal is to cause the U.S. to curb its civil liberties to the extent that the country no longer espouses those freedoms that the terrorists abhor. It kills the country itself, and then the terrorists win.

The funny thing is, when I've mentioned this to people on both the right and left, I'm met with a dismissive, "right, like Osama Bin Laden cares about anything beyond killing Americans."

Unfortunately, it seems to me that Americans as a group aren't good at the big picture.

steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: January 1st, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
It certainly seems that way. And by that definition the terrorists (both foreign and domestic) are indeed winning.
From: egretplume Date: January 1st, 2008 08:50 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't have anything helpful to say, but wanted to thank you for writing this.
Every time I get engaged in thinking about this election, I remember that it's all Diebold-rigged machines anyway and slump back into numbness.
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: January 1st, 2008 12:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
To me, this is the stuff nightmares are made from. When I was growing up, the former Soviet Union and Latin American dictatorships and the terror that they used to keep the populace in line terrified me and I was grateful that I lived in this country. I should say my Norwegian relatives fought against the Nazis in the underground, so I don't come to the discussion completely uninformed about fascism. Now to see it happening in this country - I don't know what to do. What's really difficult about the trend of limiting personal freedom and ever-expanding government interference in the lives of private citizens is that it is consolidating power in the Executive branch of government. And once some ONE has that power, it's nearly impossible to persuade them to surrender it.

I should also add (see my "On America" entry today) that I'm horrified by the torture and the cover-up that succeeded it.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: January 1st, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's exactly what I mean by things that were once unthinkable now being commonplace. Just think for a second: We are now having calm conversations, in America, about torturing people. We're not even having conversations about people held for years without access to any form of due process. If someone had told you ten years ago this would happen would you have believed it, or would you have said then, "Oh, that can't happen here."
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: January 2nd, 2008 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)
I would have said it can't happen here. I believed in the "pendulum swinging back." Over the years, however, I've seen the pendulum moving further to the right. It's kind of weird; this whole thing has the flavor of having happened before. It's almost like I've been waiting for it. Just a weird feeling I have.
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