October 1, 2007
Book Review

Fear as the Catalyst for a Fascist Shift?

John R. Guthrie

Given that truth is often too complex to reduce to a binary proposition, each reader must satisfy themselves as to whether Naomi Wolf is an alarmist or the faithful sentry on the ramparts of a great nation.

The End of America is a well written and evocative, one worth the thoughtful reader’s time. Wolf is methodical enough in developing her case. She covers in separate chapters ten steps transitional steps involved in the transition from democracy to dictatorship:  Invoke an external and internal threat; develop the paramilitary force; create a secret prison system; surveil ordinary citizens; arbitrarily detain and release individuals; harass citizens' groups; target writers, entertainers, educators and other key individuals who dissent; intimidate the press; recast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage"; and eventually subvert the rule of law. While such has occurred historically in the U.S: Woodrow Wilson’s sedition laws, the detainment of Japanese, many of them U.S. citizens, in World War II, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the ship of state eventually righted itself due to checks and balances built in by the founders.  Wolf states that these very checks and balances, though, have been under constant assault by the Bush administration, with the department of justice subservient to the executive and the congress weakened and submissive. She provides numerous examples of these attempts to undermine legal opposition; scientific panels packed with ideologues and attempts to silence opposition voices through intimidation or retribution, such as the case of Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Intriguingly enough, she points out how would be dictators cast themselves in some degree or another as great warriors. Bush provides a fascinating and telling example of this.  On the evening news in May of 2003 the nation was greeted by the spectacle of our Commander-in-Chief, after making two fly-bys of the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in a Navy S-3B Viking landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Costumed in a military flight suit, in his speech to the assembled crew he announced that, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended…The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11, 2001…”

The entire scene for this reviewer was like seeing the cartoon page puzzles of the comics of my childhood, those labeled “What’s wrong with this picture?” The alert child finds that there is a fish flying through the air outside, a dog sitting in a bird’s nest in a tree outside the window, and the child pictured has gloves on his feet and shoes on his hands. In the Bush the landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, many viewers were aware that the conquering hero descending on the ship was a draft dodger, one whose credentials as an elected president were iffy at best. Then there was the obvious fact to those who are reasonably well-informed that the U.S. assault on Iraq was nowhere near over. There were even those who realized that the attempt, once again, to bind Iraq to 9.11.01 was as improbable as a fish flying high in the sky.      

Despite the dark humor of the vignette, there was the uneasy felling that I had seen this exquisitely scripted spectacle before. I rented a copy of Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s classic 1934 propaganda film starring Adolf Hitler. And there it was. The primary theme of both “Mission Accomplished” and “Triumph of the Will” was that of a heroic leader who, like Odin in marvelous raiment on his magical steed, arrived on the field of battle to bring glory to a fearful populace. Naomi Wolf also forcefully references the similarity between the two carefully choreographed bits of agitprop.

Wolf, though is not so crass as to compare the current administration to Hitler’s Third Reich alone to point out reasons she feels there is a fascist shift, a documentable slide from democracy to dictatorship in the United States. An equal or greater number of comparisons are drawn from historical examples to include the emergence of and maintenance of Pinochet’s Chile, where dictatorship was wrested from a democratically elected government, or Mussolini’s elected governance of Italy, the manipulations of  the  Chinese Politburo’s as well as those of Stalinist Russia and others.
The invocation of an internal or external threat to scare the bejesus out of the populace is one recurrent theme historically in the move to dictatorship. The threat may be real or an invention of the ruling elite. In Pinochet’s Chile, the threat of Communists taking one’s children away; the Reichstag fire served Nazi Germany well, the enemy within in the rise of Stalinism, or “Islamo-Fascist Terrorists,” in the contemporary U.S. In the latter example that of 9.11.01 in the United States, she points out that London and Madrid both dealt with their own terrorist acts, but in a more reasoned manner and without the super-heated rhetoric of the Bush administration, rhetoric that accrued power the executive branch. 

Wolf notes that, “Just as habeas corpus or some equivalent procedure, is a cornerstone for virtually every democracy, so a secret prison system without habeas corpus, is the cornerstone of every dictatorship [46]”.  Such prison system systems start openly, perhaps containing only persons deemed “evil,” the “worst of the worst” as Rumsfeld maintained. But inevitably there is “mission creep [ibid]” and the system then is prone to everything that follows. Activists, civil society leaders, dissenting members of the clergy, and political opponent become victims.

Wolf provides a chilling discussion of the Military Commissions Act, passed by congress in September of 2006. Under this law, according to constitutional lawyers, the president or his agent can designate anyone in the country, citizen or not, as an “enemy combatant,” arrest and imprison them indefinitely.

“Peace,” the author notes, “is bad for business [43]” When the Soviet Union imploded, the U.S. military-industrial complex was faced with the prospect of a falling market. This was resolve in part by expanding product lines from fighter jets to include surveillance equipment. The Department of Homeland Security, as with the defense Department, is near impossible to downsize, no matter the circumstances. Both have institutionalized relationships with private industry. In the case of surveillance equipment, this has been accompanied by an increase of government. Surveillance, once begun, is likely to continue even if every Muslim terrorist were to lay down their arms. 

The writing in The End of America is clear, concise. The End of America is a well documented work with a useful bibliography. Though there are impeccable end-notes for each chapter, a comprehensive index would also be useful. There is a supplementary postface concerning resources for The American Freedom Campaign, a campaign to encourage grassroots citizenry to restore damaged democratic checks and balances. Naomi Wolf is a “third wave” feminist intellectual and social critic, a Yale graduate and a Rhodes Scholar.

The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot
by Naomi Wolf
Charles Green Publishing, 2007
Soft Cover, 176 pages
ISBN: 978 1 933392 79 0

Photographs courtesy of Google Images (http://images.google.com)

Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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