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.