HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 22, 2007
From Liberty Street

Friendly Faces

John Turner


Over the past weekend, I saw Naomi Wolf being interviewed on Book TV's "Afterwords" about her new publication, The End of America. Her interviewer was Viet Dinh, one of the authors of the Patriot Act. Though he and Ms. Wolf had a few prickly moments, for the most part their interaction was cordial.

For some reason, I couldn't shake off the picture of Mr. Dinh's continuing to smile and be courteous right up to the instant he led her though a door where she was taken to be tortured. Maybe that's not fair to him. I can't be sure. But of this I am sure: the United States government is liberally seasoned with people who would happily do that and, then, pat themselves on the back for being grand patriots.

Ms. Wolf's book is about the shift towards fascism she says has been taken by the federal government since Bush became president. She identifies ten steps that always lead to fascism in a country and she says we can now see evidence of all ten in the United States. She views our situation as being very dangerous because the move to fascism is not along a gradual slope, where at any moment we can see we've gone too far and decide to turn back. Rather, it proceeds through a series of tipping points, and once we've passed one of them it becomes extremely difficult to regain lost ground. When we reach that stage, recovery is not just a matter of a small portion of the electorate deciding to shift their votes. And the most scary thing is that in the progression to fascism you can never know just how close to a tipping point you might be. She offered as an example that if the Bush administration should decide tomorrow to arrest as few as thirty journalists and accuse them of being threats to U.S. security, freedom of the press would be dead in America. She admitted that she, herself, would no longer dare to write the kind of books she has been writing because she wouldn't be brave enough to face that degree of threat.

Is she exaggerating? Again, I don't know. I do think there's a possibility she may be right. And just the possibility is frightening.

I have learned one thing about my country over the past six years that I didn't understand before. A considerable portion of our population likes a fascist program as a means of dealing with the rest of the world and with internal critics. They don't like the name of it, but they do like the actuality. So, all a skillful politician has to do to win a considerable following is to adopt fascist measures and call them something else. Fascism is like torture -- you can do it all you want as long as you don't call it what it is. Generally, whatever you do call it you need to include "patriot" in the title. Fascism, after all, is the ultimate patriotism. It's the belief that you are justified in doing anything for your country, no matter how vile or vicious it might be.

Another thing I don't know is the percentage of the people who are unconscious fascists. I used to say it was about a quarter but I'm beginning to think it's somewhat higher than that. This I believe I do know: if you take the people who actually are fascists and add to them those who are so muddled-headed they can temporarily be won over to a fascist program by skillful political manipulation, you will have a definite majority.

So, Ms. Wolf may be right. We may be closer to serious tipping points than we have been willing to acknowledge. I'm a bit more optimistic than she. I think we are seeing signs that many people are awakening to what the government has been doing and as they become conscious of it, they don't like what they see. As we learn more about secret prisons, denial of habeas corpus, torture, rendition, unchecked presidential power to declare people enemies of the state, falsifying of intelligence to exaggerate threats, private corruption justified as resistance to those threats, increasing intimidation of spokespersons within the government who are willing to point out false proclamations by high-ranking officials -- all of these prominent elements of fascism -- more people begin to identify them collectively as the bucket of rancid slop they are.

For me, the metaphor for homegrown American fascism is the smile on the face and the down-home manner of the man, or the woman (women are now involved in this business more than they used to be), who is leading you to the prison door. We need to keep in mind that once the door clangs shut, the smile disappears, and courtesy will be gone from your world forever.


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