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The End of America
By Naomi Wolf
Chelsea Green Publishing Copyright © 2007 Naomi Wolf
All right reserved.
Chapter One The FOUNDERS and the FRAGILITY of DEMOCRACY
But a constitution of government, once changed from freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever. John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, July 7, 1775
To U. S. citizens in the year 2007, the very title of this book should be absurd. It is unthinkable to most of us that there could ever be an "end of America" in the metaphorical sense. But it is when memories are faint about coercive tactics that worked to control people in the past that people can be more easily controlled in the present.
When I say that the Bush administration has used tactics that echo certain tactics from the past, I am making a conservative argument. You will have to look at the echoes I note and decide for yourself what to make of them. We know that Karl Rove seeks the goal of a permanent majority. A permanent majority is easier to solidify for the future if democracy's traditional challenges to power are weakened or silenced.
I won't insult Republicans by calling this goal a "permanent Republican majority," although Rove calls it by that name. Most Americans-Republican, Independent, orDemocrat-are patriots and believe in the Founders' vision. I have to assume that one reason for this assault on democracy is to secure the "permanent majority" status of a far smaller group, or rather of several smaller groups, driven by motives of power and money: the great power represented by access to an executive that is driving an agenda unthreatened by the people's will, and the vast amount of money that has begun to flow from a condition of uninterrupted domestic surveillance and open-ended foreign hostilities.
Authoritarianism, Fascism, Totalitarianism: Some Definitions
Are any of these terms legitimate for this discussion?
I have made a deliberate choice in using the terms fascist tactics and fascist shift when I describe some events in America now. I stand by my choice. I am not being heated or even rhetorical; I am being technical.
Americans tend to see democracy and fascism as all-or-nothing categories. But it isn't the case that there is a pure, static "democracy" in the white squares of a chessboard and a pure, static "fascism" in the black squares. Rather, there is a range of authoritarian regimes, dictatorships, and varieties of Fascist state, just as there are stronger and weaker democracies-and waxing and waning democracies. There are many shades of gray on the spectrum from an open to a closed society.
Totalitarianism, of course, is the blackest state. Mussolini adopted the term totalitarian to describe his own regime. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt writes of the post-World War I era and the "undermining of parliamentary government," succeeded by "all sorts of new tyrannies, Fascist and semi-Fascist, one-party and military dictatorships," and culminating at last in "the seemingly firm establishment of totalitarian governments resting on mass support" in Russia and in Germany.
Arendt sees Germany and Italy as variations on the same model of totalitarianism. She defines totalitarianism as a mass movement with a leadership that requires "total domination of the individual." A totalitarian leader, in her view, faces no opposition-it has gone quiet-and he can unleash terror without himself being afraid.
Fascism is a word whose definition political scientists (and even fascists themselves) do not entirely agree upon. Though Mussolini coined this term (from the dual rods, or fasces, carried by officials in ancient Rome), some Nazis did not see the Italians as being tough enough to qualify as true fascists. Umberto Eco wrote of latter-day "Ur-Fascists" and other critics have described "neo-Fascists" or "sub-fascists" when they refer to more recent violent dictatorships that use state terror and other kinds of control to subordinate the population and crush democratic impulses-notably in Latin America. The Columbia Encyclopedia defines fascism as a "philosophy of government that glorifies the state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life.... Its essentially vague and emotional nature facilitates the development of unique national varieties, whose leaders often deny indignantly that they are fascists at all."
Throughout this letter of warning, I will use the term "a fascist shift." It is a wording that describes a process. Both Italian and German fascisms came to power legally and incrementally in functioning democracies; both used legislation, cultural pressure, and baseless imprisonment and torture, progressively to consolidate power. Both directed state terror to subordinate and control the individual, whether the individual supported the regime inwardly or not. Both were rabidly antidemocratic, not as a side sentiment but as the basis of their ideologies; and yet both aggressively used the law to pervert and subvert the law.
This process is what I mean when I refer to "fascist shift." Two aspects of most definitions of fascism are relevant here: Fascist refers to a militaristic system that is opposed to democracy and seeks, ideologically and practically, to crush it. And fascism uses state terror against the individual to do this. When I talk about a "fascist shift" in America, I am talking about an antidemocratic ideology that uses the threat of violence against the individual in order to subdue the institutions of civil society, so that they in turn can be subordinated to the power of the state.
This fascist shift has proven compact, effective, and exportable, long after these two regimes met their end in World War II. If it is too emotionally overwhelming to think of Italy and Germany, you can consider the more recent fates of Indonesia, Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Guatemala, all of which suffered widespread state terror and the activation of many of the ten steps that I describe, as leaders sought to subdue the people. A fascist shift brings about a violent dictatorship in a context where democracy could have taken the nation toward freedom.
Some critics responding to an essay I wrote laying out the spine of this argument were more comfortable with the term authoritarian than with fascist. A number of U.S. writers have used "authoritarian" to describe the Bush administration. Authoritarian, in contrast-the term Joe Conason uses, for example, in his prescient book It Can Happen Here-means that one branch of government has seized power from the others. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as "favouring, encouraging, or enforcing strict obedience to authority, as opposed to individual freedom....") Conason's argument is entirely right for where we are at this point: in July of 2007, America actually already has an executive who is disregarding the restraints of the two other branches of government.
But authoritarianism has many guises, and some are relatively livable for most people. For instance, you can have a military leadership in an authoritarian system, but you can have fairly independent courts and a fairly independent press. Indeed, people can see authoritarianism as rather attractive in what they understand to be a time of national emergency. Authoritarianism can be downright cozy compared to some alternatives. The grave danger in America is that events are not stopping here.
When I refer to other societies, I use the terms totalitarianism, fascism, and authoritarianism where they are appropriate.
State terror directed against the individual is the difference between a fairly stable American authoritarianism and the fascist shift I am writing to you about. Theorists such as Arendt and Zbigniew Brzezinski saw top-down terror to be at the heart of both Nazi and Soviet regimes. They argue that it was the overwhelming power of the secret police agencies such as the Gestapo and the KGB that led to the fear that blanketed these societies. More recent historians focus on how populations in fascist or totalitarian systems adapt to fear through complicity: In this view, 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 acts of violent repression. The authors of an oral history of Nazi Germany point out that, though it may sound shocking, fascist regimes can be "quite popular" for the people who are not being terrorized.
Both perspectives are relevant here: Top-down edicts generate fear, but when citizens turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned atrocities committed against others, so long as they believe themselves to be safe, a fascist reality has fertile ground in which to take root.
When America gets fascism it will be called anti-fascism. Attributed to Huey Long
America has flirted with fascism before. In the 1920s, a number of newspaper editors in the United States were impressed with the way that fascism coordinated with capitalism. In the 1930s, when Americans were suffering from economic depression and labor unrest, some U.S. leaders looked at the apparent order that Mussolini and Hitler had imposed on their own previously chaotic, desperate nations, and wondered if a "strong man" approach would serve the nation better than our own battered system. As historian Myra MacPherson puts it, "In the thirties there was alarming support for Hitler [in America], with American-style brownshirts proliferating...." Nineteen-thirties American fascism boasted many followers, nationally known demagogues, and even its own celebrities, such as aviator Charles Lindbergh, one of the most famous Americans of the day.
Some commentators of the era speculated that demagogues might spearhead an extreme patriotic movement such as those in Italy and Germany. In 1935, crusading journalist I. F. Stone compared Huey Long's dismantling of democracy in Louisiana to Hitler's legislation dissolving local self-government.
In 1939 author James Wechsler wrote, "There was genuine fear that a fascist movement had finally taken root in New York," where reactionary hooligans were staging anti-Semitic street fights modeled on the German youth actions. Other U.S. intellectuals thought the time was right to develop an American fascist mystique themselves, and began to do so.
American interest in fascism was prevalent enough for popular writer Sinclair Lewis to satirize it in his 1935 classic, It Can't Happen Here. Lewis, as Conason eloquently notes, showed step by step the ways in which it-a fascist coup-could theoretically "happen here." Though many mocked Sinclair's premise in 1935, many others read his fable of warning and thought more seriously about the dangers that American fascism really represented. It was healthy for Americans at that time to imagine the worst that could unfold if the nation chose to follow the seductions of fascism any further.
What Is Freedom?
"It's a free country," any American child will say, a comfortable assurance that this same American carries as he or she grows up. We scarcely consider that that sentence descends to that child from arguments for liberty that date back through generations of Enlightenment-era English and French philosophers, who were trying to work out what "a free country" could possibly look like-even as they themselves lived though or looked back on reigns of violently abusive and capricious monarchs.
We tend to think of American democracy as being somehow eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults. But the Founders would have thought we were dangerously naïve, not to mention lazy, in thinking of democracy in this way. This view-which we see as patriotic-is the very opposite of the view that they held. They would not have considered our attitude patriotic-or even American: The Founders thought, in contrast, that it was tyranny that was eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults, whereas democracy was difficult, personally exacting, and vanishingly fragile. The Founders did not see Americans as being special in any way: They saw America-that is, the process of liberty-as special.
In fact, the men who risked hanging to found our nation, and the women who risked their own lives to support this experiment in freedom, and who did what they could to advance it, were terrified of exactly what we call dictatorship. They called it "tyranny" or "despotism." It was the specter at their backs-and they all knew it-as Americans debated the Constitution and argued about the shape of the Bill of Rights.
The framing of the documents upon which the new national government rested did not take place as we were taught it did-in a sunny glow of confident assertiveness about freedom. That scenario is a Hallmark-card rewrite of the real mood of the era and the tenor that surrounded the discussions of the day. The mood as early Americans debated the proposed Constitution and the Bill of Rights was, rather, one of grave apprehension.
For the Founders shared with the rest of the people awaiting the outcome of their labors a dread of what nearly all of them-Federalist or anti-Federalist-saw as the real prospect of a tyrannical force rising up in America. This repressive force could take many forms: the form of a rapacious Congress oppressing the people; the form of an out-of-control executive; or even the form of the people themselves, cruelly oppressing a minority. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were set forth not as a flag flying merrily but as a bulwark: a set of barriers against what the Founders and their fellow countrymen and women saw as people's natural tendency to oppress others if their power is unchecked.
What recurred regularly in various arguments as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights took shape was the widespread fear of an unchecked executive. It's not surprising that these patriots would so deeply fear a single man invested with too much power. They had just freed themselves from being subjugated to George III, an abusive, not to mention mentally ill, monarch.
The Founders had fled repressive societies themselves, or were children or grandchildren of those who had done so. The North American colonies were settled by people-Puritans, Quakers and others-who had fled countries in which they had been imprisoned and even tortured for such acts as assembling in groups to pray; or for attending certain churches; or for publishing pamphlets critical of the King or of Parliament. The Founders knew from their own experience how the Crown treated those who talked about democracy (that is, "sedition"). They knew about criminalized speech, arbitrary arrest, and even show trials. They had personally to reckon with the risk of state-sanctioned torture and murder: Each of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence could have been hanged if the colonies had lost the Revolutionary War.
When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, the little book that helped start the big revolution, he risked being hanged by the British Crown for treason. Indeed, the Crown did charge Paine with sedition for having written another book, The Rights of Man. He was tried by a jury hand-chosen by the government that he had attacked-a jury sure to condemn him. The proceedings were a mockery of the rule of law. In spite of his lawyer's brilliant defense, as one witness put it, "the venal jury ... without waiting for any answer, or any summing up by the Judge, pronounced [Paine] guilty. Such an instance of infernal corruption is scarcely upon record." Paine's publisher was dragged off to prison in chains.
Arbitrary arrest, state intimidation, and torture were the tactics of the tyrannical monarchs of eighteenth century Europe-tactics that the Founders sought to banish from American soil forever. The Founders' rebellion on this continent intended systematically to open a nation up to freedom-meaning, fundamentally, freedom from these evils.
In colleges with progressive curricula, the Founders are often portrayed as "dead white men," whose vision was imperfect, who denied women and the poor civil rights, and who defined an African slave in America as being three-fifths of a person; old guys in wigs who wrote documents that are now dusty in language that seems to us to be either arcane or to offer sentiments that are so obvious now they have become clichés ("... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ...").
Excerpted from The End of America by Naomi Wolf Copyright © 2007 by Naomi Wolf. Excerpted by permission.
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