Naomi Wolf: The End of America

“Speaking to booksellers, publishers, and librarians—I’m at Ground Zero” in the fight to preserve democracy in the United States of America.

The speaker is Naomi Wolf, author of the new book The End of America, published by the always-interesting Chelsea Green. Her venue is Book Expo America, the largest book-industry gathering in the U.S., in May 2007.

The U.S., she says, is undergoing a “fascist shift.” And she says she’s not being metaphorical. “This is not simple totalitarianism. Fascism is the technical term. Authoritarianism can be quite cozy compared to fascism.”

She sees a lot of “historical fingerprints, echoes”–parallels between Germany of the 1930s and the U.S. in the 2000s:

The use of terms like “homeland” and “war footing” (a direct translation of Goering’s “krieg foos”)…embedding reporters in the armed forces…prison techniques at Guantanamo pioneered in Stalin’s gulags…burning cultural artifacts, whether books in the 1930s or CDs today…young thugs in identical shirts harassing vote counters in 2000, echoing those of Hitler’s time.

Apologizing several times for being the bearer of bad news, she exhorted her listeners to defend liberty. “It doesn’t honor the victims of history to be unwilling to learn the lessons. Italy and Germany in the ’30s, Chile in the ’70s were open, pluralistic democracies” before the dictators took over. Her chilling message: not only could it happen here, it is happening here.

“There are ten things would-be dictators always do when they seek to close down a democracy. Each of these is underway in the U.S.”:

  • Invoke a powerful terrifying threat–it could even be real (example: 9/11)
  • Establish secret torture prisons and military tribunals outside of judicial oversight (examples: Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib)
  • Set up a paramilitary force that is not answerable through the traditional justice system (example: Blackwater)
  • Engage in surveillance of ordinary citizens (example: the NSA wiretap scandal)
  • Infiltrate citizen groups (the ACLU has collected thousands of examples)
  • Arbitrarily detain and release citizens (example: Naomi Wolf: “Every time I travel, I get searched. 450,000 Americans–critics of what’s going on–are on the ‘terror watch list.’ It’s a way of intimidation”).
  • Target key visible public officials, academics, and students (example: the mass firing of U.S. Attorneys who had not shown sufficient loyalty to the Bush administration; interestingly enough, Wolf says, during the Nazi era, Goebbels also fired government attorneys general)
  • Restrict the press (examples: “Two CBS journalists are held in Iraq today. If that doesn’t chill coverage…” And Wolf claims that even the publisher of the Wall Street Journal was threatened with legal action–part of a long and dishonorable history of dictators intervening in journalism that included Stalin’s execution of Izvestia’s editor, as well as the 18th-century Alien and Sedition Acts in the U.S.)
  • Recast criticism as espionage and dissent as treason (example: stirring up mass hysteria against the Dixie Chicks)
  • Subvert the rule of law (example: Bush’s “signing statements”)

Oddly missing from her analysis was racial or ethnic scapegoating–a factor in many (though not all) wars and dictatorships over many centuries, and a dominant theme of the World War II era (including not only Nazi persecution of Jews, Gypsies, and others but also American imprisonment of innocent Japanese) and a continuing theme in our own day (not a good time to be Muslim, Arab, or even French in the U.S.)

Usually, Wolf says, freedom returns when the current war is over. But the so-called “war on terror” is deliberately open-ended. There will be a permanent war climate and thus growing suppression of dissent. “We can’t just wait for the pendulum to swing back; we have to act!”

“The founders foresaw this day, and set up checks and balances. They saw democracy as fragile,” in need of protection. “They didn’t see that Americans needed to subcontract out democracy. They saw each of us as responsible for the task of liberty, each of us being a leader in that movement.”

Wolf exhorted her audience to get behind an “American Freedom” movement that includes groups on both the Left (American Freedom Campaign, which she co-founded with Wes Boyd of and Dr. William Hazelton, who sequenced the human genome) and Right (American Freedom Agenda), with a platform of protecting the shield law for journalists, restoring habeas corpus and the rule of law–and she suggested that forming a political party to defend the Constitution is a logical step when neither the Republican nor Democratic Party will rise to the challenge.

Please see these related stories from the 2007 Book Expo America:

BEA 2007: The Year of the Thinking Reader

Social Entrepreneurship: Make a Difference AND a Profit

Big Authors at Small Presses, #1: Ralph Baruch: First, Cable—And Then?

Big Authors at Small Presses, #2: David Silverman: An Industry Dies of Outsourcing

Big Authors at Small Presses, #3: Naomi Wolf: The End of America

Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress

Remote Signing Technology: The Coolest Thing at BEA

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Peace & Politics Magazine and a political blogger.