Friday, February 12, 2010

The End of America: Naomi Wolf, Garry Wills, and Naomi Klein

I almost put "The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot" down, I was that frustrated with it. Then I went to hear Garry Wills speak on Wednesday and I changed my mind. Wolf's book, written in "pamphlet style" (though it's an awfully long pamphlet), is a "call to action" for Americans who have been sleeping too long. We are on the brink, she argues, of losing an over 200-year-old democracy for a dictatorship, along the lines of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. She understands that this argument will seem specious to many (especially the comparison to a Holocaust-era Germany, and stresses that the genocide is not necessarily a part of the future) but posits that to ignore these two historical precedents is to miss what's going on right now. Wolf is a strong believer in the "founders" and the Constitution (she almost lost me when she said we are too harsh on the "dead white men"), and believes that they really were onto something when protecting us with the Constitution. Here are Wolf's ten steps to dictatorship:

1. Invoke an external and internal threat: For free citizens to give up freedom, they must be scared of something pretty terrifying, and seek security, as they did after 9/11 in response to Bush's "Islamofascism" abroad which made so scary that it was a threat to all of "Western civilization."
2. Establish Secret Prisons: This secret prison system, according to Wolf, "starts out modestly and metastasizes," initially only containing people that most of society can agree are "evil," and that everyone knows about. Then the prisons expand, become more secretive, and contain more people, that might be less "threatening"- journalists, intellectuals, activists, clergy. Guantanamo, she argues, is the beginning of a "mission creep."
3. Develop a Paramilitary Force: Ok, I didn't know much about Blackwater, and I still don't, but I'm not sure I want to know. It sounds fucking scary. Basically, they're a private firm that operates as a military. A para-military, made up of former Special-Ops, and other people. They have $500 million in government contracts AND a "black" budget from US intelligence. Wolf writes "At the height of the war, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors in Iraq, one for every US soldier." And because they're civilians, they're not punishable by military codes, and because they're civilians, they're not immune from prosecution of war crimes. Yeah. She had me convinced right about here.
4. Surveil Ordinary Citizens: According to Wolf, "One reason dictators demand access to such private data is that this scrutiny breaks down citizens' sense of being able to act freely against those in power." We have all these frustrations with Google and other mega-corporations, but really, Big Brother IS watching (and I'm not just paranoid- in fact I'm too trusting. Wolf says my normal answer, "I have nothing to hide," is just stupid. So what if I have nothing to hide- that doesn't mean I should give up my rights!)
5. Infiltrate Citizens' Groups: The goal of infiltration is "to make sure that it becomes too costly and nerve-wracking to act out as a citizen," or basically, to violate the 1st Amendment of free right to assemble.
6. Arbitrarily Detain and Release Citizens: Wolf is on "The List," which means that each time she flies, she is pulled aside and searched by the TSA: armed guards who track her moves, and search her stuff, then let her go. The list is secret, known only to the President, the FBI, etc, and in extreme cases, can even lead to rendition to places like Syria, without charges.
7. Target Key Individuals: Scientist, academics, artists, entertainers, civil servants: they've all got to toe the party line.
8. Restrict the Press: Wolf gives some scary examples of false news, faked documents, targeting reporters for bombings in Iraq, etc.
9. Cast Criticism as "Espionage" and Dissent as "Treason": In the Constitution, "treason" is narrowly defined as "levying war" or "giving aid and comfort" against the enemy. When moving towards dictatorship/fascism, treason is used much more broadly, invoking the 1917 Espionage Act, which makes it illegal to have information relating to national security, which criminalizes even common conversations of leaked information.
10: Subvert the Rule of Law: Bush uses these "signing statements" to make law. If you've forgotten your elementary school history, the President can't make laws: the Legislative Branch (Congress and Senate) makes laws. This overrides the system of Checks and Balances, that has protected democracy for 200+ years.

So, I had read about 1/2 of Wolf's book and was going to give up. It reads poorly- she jumps around between modern examples and historical examples to prove her point, and it seems alarmist. If you read my summary, it may seem alarmist to you, too. I was feeling some connections between Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" and wishing these two had spoken to each other, or if they had, wishing they had worked together, or something. Because Wolf was basically arguing the political, and Klein the economic, but really, they go together. Wolf writes about the "security-industrial complex" early on, in her section on the first step, invoking an internal and external threat, and how the US shift to fascism is no pure ideology- it's also driven by corporations and profit: "Peace," she writes, "is bad for business." I think Klein would offer similar steps to dictatorship, and her build up to the economic Friedmanism she deplores involves many of the same steps- subverting the rule of law, the paramilitary forces, surveillance, detaining- ok maybe it involves all of them. I just was desperate for the two plots to meet up.

And then, like I said, I heard Wills speak and read the rest of Wolf's book in a hurry. I like Garry Wills a lot, and I kind of think he knows everything. He's written about historical figures and religion and historical figures AND religion, and really, yeah, I kind of maybe have an intellectual crush on him. I had no idea what his new book was about, and didn't really care, but I guess "Bomb Power" is about how the nuclear bomb changed the President's approach to the constitution, and America's approach to the President. Wills talked a lot about secrecy, and how the executive branch's need for secrecy led to the usurpation of a lot of citizens' rights, and to a lot of checks and balances falling away. He talked a lot abut "signing papers" and basically, he agreed with Naomi Wolf, but put her argument into a local historical context- how Bush got to where he got. Wills sums up his book and talk which includes that since WW11 and the development of the nuclear bomb, the US government, especially the executive branch, has operated as though we were in a state of war: first the Cold War, now the War on Terror. This has led to an immense amount of power in the office of the President, which, in my opinion, has led to the possibility of the developments described by Wolf. In Wills' words:
But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the "war on terror"—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

Neither Wolf or Klein or Wills are particularly encouraging on where we go from here. That was a sort of criticism posed at the end of Wills' talk and one I've found in his book reviews, though in that article he offers the paltry "Nonetheless, some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution. It may be too late to return to its ideals, but the effort should be made. As Cyrano said, "One doesn't fight in the hope of winning" (Mais on ne se bat pas dans l'espoir du succès)." Wolf gives us a conclusion in the for of "The Patriot's Task," which is a call to arms for left and right to come together to bring back democracy. It doesn't have any directions, but a cute little anecdote about Critical Mass. Behind the notes and the bibliography, there's an overwrought "American Freedom Campaign" which includes "The Pledge of the American Freedom Campaign." If we recite it enough, will the bad guys go away? And Klein ended her book with some local efforts at local control. But basically, it's depressing, and leaves one with the sense that the megacorporations and megadictators have taken over, and ruined democracy.

Brought to you by Debby Downer, blogging first thing in the morning.