Is it possible that we could see Blackwater Worldwide troops patrolling the streets of American cities? Will dissent be completely stifled, even in the Republic of Boulder, because the Bush administration will haul off a few activists and label them enemy combatants, terrifying other anti-war demonstrators? Will we even get to vote for a new president next year? As outrageous as these questions seem, they suddenly become possible when you consider the "f" word. Fascism.
In Naomi Wolf's new book, The End of America, she makes the case that the United States is very deliberately being moved towards fascism by the Bush administration. As a student of history (I was a history major at Allegheny College and still read a few U.S. history tomes each year), I was more than a bit skeptical as I began reading this book. Would the hysteria outweigh the history? Everything this administration has touched has gone wrong. We are mired in Iraq, Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low and mention the word Katrina and even staunch Republicans roll their eyes. Hardly a playbook for moving us into fascism with a demagogic leader.
Wolf's book, which is really more of an old-fashioned Thomas-Paine-style pamphlet, compares the Bush administration with Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy and an assortment of South American regimes. Interestingly, the Bush gang doesn't look too friendly even compared to history's leading henchmen. Wolf wades into this territory knowing the criticism she is going to get and tries to head off her critics with an explanation.
In the introduction she writes, "I am not comparing the United States in 2007 to Nazi Germany, or Bush to Hitler. The two nations and leaders inhabit different worlds . . . But certain threads are emerging that have connections to the past. I am calling your attention to important lessons from history about how fragile civil liberties are, and how quickly freedom can be lost."
Once you accept her framework, it is a frightening book. The single thing that has Wolf most upset is the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in September 2006. This act allows the administration to bypass the Geneva Conventions, it sets up a separate justice system, defines torture very broadly and gives defendants much less protection than we afforded Nazi leaders at Nuremburg. But all that is nothing compared to the fact that the administration's lawyers claim that it also allows the president to declare any one he wants, including United States citizens, enemy combatants. Once you are an enemy combatant and you fall into this secret justice system, good luck, because you won't have any rights or a lawyer.
In the midst of reading her book, I met Wolf at a dinner with a group of booksellers and a couple people from her publisher, Chelsea Green. (Did you really think that Random House, Simon and Schuster or Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins would publish this book?) When I attended the dinner in early October, I was about halfway through her list of the 10 steps that all fascist regimes undertake: set up secret prisons, check; invoke an external and internal threat, check; develop a paramilitary force, check; surveil ordinary citizens, check, check and double-check.
As I drove from Boulder to Denver with a co-worker for the dinner, I was feeling agitated about her premise. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sun glinted off the mountains in the distance to the right, while the grass of the plains, mostly covered with an endless sprawl of office building, condos, malls and warehouse clubs, waved in the mild breeze. We talked about the book, and my co-worker wanted to know who was really behind this fascist takeover. Where was the money? That seemed to be a good question to me, as we drove past billions of dollars worth of businesses.
I was restless because I felt that there was a flaw in Wolf's basic reasoning. America has had democracy for over 200 years, while the countries she studied were barely democracies when the fascist takeover began. Stalin's Russia really had no democratic history. Hitler's Germany had less than two decades of democracy. Maybe a few of the surface details warranted a comparison between these regimes and the United States, but the foundation of her argument seemed flawed.
By the time we got to the Mexican restaurant Tamayo on Larimer Square, we were ready to pounce. Well, it is impossible to pounce on Naomi Wolf, although once I nearly stepped on her. Years ago, she did a book signing at our store. I came back about a half an hour before the event and figured I'd go into my office to get some work done before heading up to the talk. I charged into my office, threw on the lights, and just before my foot came down there was a shriek. I screamed and backed up. It was Naomi Wolf meditating or relaxing in the dark before her event. That was our only previous meeting.
It's impossible to pounce on Wolf in an argument for a several reasons. She is incredibly well read on her subject, she anticipates your objections, she's open to hearing what you have to say and her smile makes you feel like you're a member of a special club. She has a wonderful sense of humor and she can disarm you with a witty retort or a self-deprecating remark. Dinner turned into an absolutely fascinating conversation, and everyone was able to voice both their support of the book and their reservations.
To my question about the histories of the countries she studied and the United States being dissimilar, she agreed in part. But she brought up the fact that fear doesn't know boundaries and historical distinctions. If they could get away with labeling just a few activists or celebrities or authors as enemy combatants, it could completely silence dissent. Sure, it is far-fetched at this point, but they have put the legal levers into place. Also, look at what they are doing on college campuses. In Boulder, one doesn't have to look far. Ward Churchill was pushed out of a tenured job, technically for plagiarism, but really for saying controversial things about 9/11.
Wolf's answer to my co-worker about who would benefit from a fascist state was not as satisfying. We talked about how surveillance has become a multi-billion dollar industry that feeds off of the state. But when pushed about next year's election and questioned about the logic of the Bush administration trying to form a dictatorial government just to hand it over, to Hillary Clinton of all people, she responded quickly, "How can you be so sure that they'll have elections? They're capable of coming up with a reason to cancel them. Look at everything else they've done. You can't trust that there will be elections."
Wolf is an agitator. She is trying to wake people up to how much our civil liberties have been broached. At each stop on her tour she hears horror stories from people about how they've been questioned or detained at airports. At one point, she looked at me and asked "Do you really want to ruin this beautiful meal," as she gestured towards my halibut, "by hearing about all this really depressing stuff?" It's true, her book will make your blood boil and it will make you sad for our society. But it will make you want to get out there and march in protest. Most of all it will make you want to vote in the next election. This whole country is dying to get Bush out of office. Cancelling elections is about the one thing that would ensure that the key members of this administration would end up on trial like they deserve.
I believe that Wolf is onto something that perhaps she can't even articulate. It seems to me that we are moving towards a new type of fascist state. One in which it doesn't really matter who is president or even which party is in power. The military-industrial complex combined with the surveillance industry will rule regardless of the political persuasion of the president. Our computers, televisions, sports and Xboxes will keep us distracted and happy as our freedoms wither away. It's far more depressing than just having to defeat George Bush. The march towards fascism -- economic fascism -- will continue, and not even Barack Obama can stop it. Now that's what really scares me.
Bookstore road trip: A visit to Seminary Coop and Robie House - This summer my niece Jocelyn was in Chicago for some field training. What a great opportunity to meet up! If I were able to convince her to do a bookstore...
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