Debate on American Fascism: Naomi Wolf v. Alan Wolf

Introductory Note: The Guardian asks, "Is America on the Road to Fascism?" This is a wilfull distortion - America has been fascist for decades, the denials of media and liberal spokesmen notwithstanding. I've been writing about American fascism for 20 years - and we were well along "the road" when I began my own personal anti-fascist campaign. "The People," a mass of self-indulgent ultra-conformists, are due for a chilling realization – they are GOOD GERMANS, if not willing accomplices, in a brutal FASCIST system with international ambitions. Who trained the death squads? Paid accomplices in the intelligence underworld.

WHO paid the CIA to train death squads? You did, if you live in the taxable kingdom.

Ms. Wolf would have us believe that domestic fascism began with the criminal excesses of the Bush administration – another distortion. The plot against the peace was organized internationally in the 1920s with an ideological impetus from Mussolini and funding from American industrialists. This has been the topic of many books over the years, but the press turns up its nose and clings to shoddy celebrity reporting instead. The sad truth is to be found in the remaindered bin and lies prevail.

Anyone who believes that we are "on the road" hasn't seen the stop lights, is joy-riding without a map.

And blood is not an alternative fuel.

- AC
From the Guardian's Comment Blog
May 12, 2007

Editor's note: Two weeks ago, Naomi Wolf, author of the forthcoming The End of America, published an essay in the Guardian entitled "Fascist America, in ten easy steps", in which she argued that, "beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society". She went on to list the ten tactics, which included invoking a "terrifying internal and external enemy", establishing a surveillance system and suspending the rule of law. "As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol," Wolf concluded, "the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded."

The piece was one of the week's most widely read and hotly debated, so Comment is Free has invited Wolf back to do a dialogue with Boston College professor (and homophonous namesake) Alan Wolfe, author of the recent book, Does American Democracy Still Work?

Alan to Naomi:

Well, you certainly provoked a firestorm of responses with your essay outlining the ten steps any government would have to take to turn society fascist. Nearly all of that commentary, even from bloggers on your own side, wonder whether much is to be gained by using the "f" word. I want to take a different tack. Suppose that a country's citizens, fearful of an increasingly authoritarian leadership, wanted to preserve their society's democratic character. What steps would they take?

1. They would, as soon as the seriousness of the crisis dawned on them, vote the opposition into power, much as Americans did in 2006 when both houses of Congress were up for grabs.

2. Once restored to majority status, the party that had recently been in opposition would use its new-found powers to investigate matters that had long been neglected, ignoring efforts to claim immunity from testimony and refusing to be put off by the administration's stalling tactics.

3. On the most serious issue of the day, the war in Iraq, both houses of Congress would take the dramatic step of confronting the president's power to make war in any way he chose, in the process showing a willingness to stand up to the charge that they were betraying the troops and therefore acting in ways amounting to treason.

4. The courts would refuse to roll over and play dead but would issue rulings limiting the ability of the executive branch to rely on military tribunals to try suspected terrorists.

5. The press, starting to sense which way the wind was blowing, would begin to perform the task they had so conspicuously avoided in the recent past: publicising some of the government's secret actions and calling its officials to account.

6. Some prominent intellectuals who had been supporters of the Bush administration would, without abandoning the label of conservatism, join liberals in denouncing the president and vice-president for their incompetence, shallowness of purpose, and blatantly unconstitutional reliance on such dubious ideas as that of a unitary executive.

7. Liberals who had supported the war in Iraq, and in so doing had provided considerable intellectual cover to the Bush administration, would publicly admit their error and become critics of the war.

8. Public opinion would turn so much against the administration that the president would be unable to rally two-thirds of the country to his support and the vice president would achieve a popularity ranking in the single digits.

9. Unpopular because the war he launched had become so unpopular, the president would be forced to shelve his plans to abolish social security.

10. Badly tarnished because its support for the administration had produced one fiasco after another, the evangelical Christian right, which had furnished the political energy for the conservative turn in American politics, would fracture and find itself without any supportable Republican candidate for the 2008 presidential election.
I don't mean to sound too much like Candide here; all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and for the past six years, the United States has indeed had an administration with little respect for the rules of open democratic debate and bipartisan cooperation that have characterized our country at its best moments. But I don't think you should sound so much like Cassandra, either. Resistance to what is going on is taking place in circles far wider than the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. Americans seem to like their democracy, and so long as they do, they will keep it.

Naomi to Alan:

Thanks for that gameplan; but, respectfully, there is a big problem with your opening gambit.

We need to pass some new laws now, immediately, long before the election - for your plan to work as it should. Laws like those in the ten-point American Freedom Agenda, which would "restore the roles of Congress and the federal judiciary in thwarting executive lawlessness and re-establish protections against injustice that are the signature of civilized nations", and, in particular:

-Prohibit military commissions whose verdicts are suspect except in places of active hostilities where a battlefield tribunal is necessary to obtain fresh testimony or to prevent anarchy;

-Prohibit the use of secret evidence or evidence obtained by torture or coercion in military or civilian tribunals;

-Prohibit the detention of American citizens as unlawful enemy combatants without proof of criminal activity on the President's say-so;

-Restore habeas corpus for alleged alien enemy combatants, i.e., non-citizens who have allegedly participated in active hostilities against the United States, to protect the innocent;

-Prohibit the National Security Agency from intercepting phone conversations or emails or breaking and entering homes on the President's say-so in violation of federal law;

There are more, and you can read all ten here.

I do not share your leisurely timetable or faith that our system is as healthy as it has to be for your model of restoration to work. Your timetable for action makes beautiful sense in a strong democracy with all checks and balances intact, but it is unduly relaxed given where we are now.

Everything in your strategy depends upon Americans first electing the opposition. This in turn depends on a free, fair and accountable election process.

Actually, history (not to mention current affairs - hello Nigeria!) shows that, in a weakened democracy, there are many plays in the playbook that a leader can use to inhibit or to interfere with the transparency of elections.

Leaders who have put only a few of these steps in place in situations in which democracy has been weakened or corrupted have the tools to intimidate those who are working on voter registration, to tamper with the vote count or to corrupt the law in relation to contested elections.

Just one example of how the vote could be compromised: we are in the midst of investigating an attempted purge of the attorneys general which looks as if it was set in motion for partisan reasons. Having just been reading about Goebbels, the first day the scandal broke and there was still little information, I told a friend, "I bet the attorneys are in swing states." This isn't rocket science; it's just about the classic steps of the anti-democratic playbook.

Most of the attorneys targeted were in fact in swing states. In a close national election, those would be the deciding states. The administration's goal of going after `voter fraud' was the original rationale for firing the attorneys who were purged. But the New York Times reported that there is actually little independent evidence of increased vote fraud. Had the purge been successful, it is unlikely that Republican voter registration or get-out-the vote groups would be investigated as thoroughly as democratic groups might be. David Iglesias, for one, thinks he may have been targeted because he would not go after a democratic voters' registration group; he thought the rule of law would not allow for it. Presumably a more `loyal' attorney would be one who would be willing to go there. Originally, the White House actually discussed a collective purge of all the attorneys - a professional Night of the Long Knives. So now imagine a close vote with plenty of legal challenges under circumstances such as that.

We need to pass this ten-point legislative agenda put forward by the American Freedom Agenda, a new organization led by conservatives to support the restoration of democracy from the right - an agenda also supported by a new progressive organisation that is setting up shop to drive support from the left.

For the pendulum to swing back, it has to be able to move freely; for it to move freely, all our democratic institutions have to be restored.

The American founders themselves argued that it is far better to err on the side of vigilance in defence of liberty than less so. When the Constitution and the rule of law are under such sustained assault, we are all much better off using Cassandra as a role model than Candide.

Cassandra's curse, by the way, Alan, was not that she was wrong - it was that she wasn't believed in time. She was right.

Pity, though, about the Trojans.



Alan to Naomi:

You are right that Cassandra was right. But I hope, for the sake of our country, that you are wrong.

Maybe I should correct that. Although your original article, and to some degree your follow-up to my first post, suggest very dark scenarios for the United States - using a term like fascism or relying on names such as Goebbels can do that - you wind up calling for the passing of a new law. If our democracy is as broken as you suggest, and in particular if it is rigged against fair elections, how could we possibly get a new law through? On the other hand, if you believe that a new law can make the system fairer, shouldn't we conclude that it is not in such horrible shape to begin with?

I agree with you that the US attorneys scandal sheds light on an administration that is contemptuous of the concept of fair elections. Few actions constitute more democratically abusive conduct than blending the way we compete to exercise power with the exercise of power itself. This administration's actions constitute something far more dangerous than those forms of politics as usual that seek to tilt the playing field to one side or the other. That is why I wrote a book called Does American Democracy Still Work? - I raised the question, and offered a somewhat pessimistic answer because, like you, I have been appalled by the no-holds-barred political tactics of the Bushies, and by their ability to get away with them.

My book, however, was written before the 2006 elections. The result of those elections has tempered some of my pessimism. For one thing, at least one democratic principle that had been missing in recent years has now been restored: checks and balances. It is precisely for that reason that the US attorneys scandal is known to all of us. The most important point to be made about this unseemly affair is not that the administration tried to get away with such a violation of democratic procedure but that it was exposed for doing so.

Should we nonetheless follow your advice and seek corrective legislation to the abuses of the Bush years? I think we should, although, if we are going to respect the democratic rules of the game, I think it better to build large majorities behind any new laws, which means a willingness to compromise and a commitment to moving step-by-step. This is why I am not willing to sign on to a piece of block-buster legislation such as the one you advocate. I would settle for steps such as revising the Patriot Act in ways that strike the balance between civil liberties and national security more in the direction of the former than the latter. I also believe that the decision by Senators Byrd and Clinton to revisit the original authorisation of the Iraq War, while unlikely ever to be passed, is a good idea. It is not just that we need new legislation. We need a national discussion and debate over the ideas behind any new legislation that is proposed. If we ever were to pass reforms without it, those reforms could, by a future congress, be undone.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the American people. If they do not value democracy, they will lose it. When I look at Bush's truly remarkable unpopularity - he seems to have hit the 28% mark - and when I realize that he threatens to drag his party down with him in 2008, my confidence in the wisdom of the American people increases. I take your decision to endorse passage of legislation as an indication that, despite your Cassandra-like warnings, you agree.

Naomi to Alan:

Alan, I will take each objection of yours in sequence:

You cite the fact that I call for legislation as proof that the assault on democracy can't be as serious as I am arguing. I am sorry to say that the presence of legislative activity is by no means necessarily a sign of the health of a democracy or the absence of a fascist trend. On the contrary: parliamentary processes were central to both Mussolini's and Hitler's accession to power. Both leaders, of course, came to power legally. These two fascists overtook modern democratic societies by making direct and explicit use of the law, and of parliamentary processes to pervert and eventually subvert the law.

Remember, Weimar Germany had a Constitution. Its own politicians weakened its own Constitution, making it much easier for the Nazis to come to power.

Once empowered, the Nazis actually made using legislation to crush the German people into an art form. The law was a prime mover that drove Nazi goals from a point at which there could have been a 'turning back' - if citizens had recognized the disaster as it unfolded and if parliament had refused to legislate away its own powers - to the point of no return. The Enabling Act was legislation passed by a working parliament in the wake of the Reichstag fire: it disemboweled civil liberties and thus made it far more difficult for civil society to rouse itself effectively as the danger escalated. Members of parliament passed that law with scarcely any debate, because they did not wish to seem unpatriotic.

A 1933 law, as I mentioned, purged the civil service. The infamous Nuremberg Laws entrapped Jews in a welter of hate-based legislation. (There were Jews who were welcomed the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, as degrading as they were, because they felt that the worst had now arrived because their status was now legally codified.)

By late in the decade, news laws entangled every aspect of German private life. Hitler often boasted of his use of the law and legal processes: as historian Amy Newman puts it, the Nazis "reshaped the German bureaucracy, law enforcement system, and military to suit their own needs. The reconstituted German government was used to suppress the Germans and oppress those it labeled enemies." It was hardly anarchy; rather it was an escalating perversion of the rule of law.

We are right, I think, Alan, to be talking about timing; what I need to convey is that a 'fascist shift' in a democracy is incremental.

It does not progress like a diagonal line going straight across a chart; it progresses in a buildup of many acts assaulting democracy simultaneously that then form a critical mass, that suddenly erupts the nation into a different kind of reality; the nation `stablizes'; then this process begins again at that elevated level of suppression; and eventually there is no turning back. It is more like a series of `tipping point' progressions than an arithmetic one. If you mapped it on a chart it would look more like a series of steps.

Each critical turning point marks a vertical line in a 'step'.

Historian Richard Evans points out that the Nazi ascension to power came about in a series of tactics, and that there were many points early on at which the German people could have said, 'enough!' and together derailed the escalation. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Evans also points out that part of this passivity had to do with the fact that no one in the Germany of 1933 could see what was coming later in the decade.

That history, among others, is why I am arguing that we should never open certain doors that our Constitution has wisely closed: we cannot foresee what can come next.

You also seem to believe that since the attorneys' purge has come to light through the work of a functioning press, things are still fairly bright. We certainly still have a free press, thank God; but so did Germany in 1931 and Italy in 1920. I don't doubt that the press in America is working, but I am really scared about the fact that the free press is now a target of the Bush administration in exactly the way dictators classically target the press when they wish to close down an open society. I am worried that 'the media' has been listed on a US Army website as a security threat - dictators often target independent reporting as 'a threat to national security' - just as I am worried about the many examples of critical journalists who have been harassed by the Bush administration both here and, more violently, in Iraq. I have had several times to revise my list of examples in the manuscript of The End of America because the pace of this harassment is escalating so rapidly. Yes, reporters for the New York Times published the details of the attorneys scandal this time around; but James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who published the SWIFT banking story, as well as their editors and publisher, faced a campaign of calls for them to be tried under the 1917 Espionage Act.

In a fascist shift, reporters start to face more and more harassment, and they have to be more and more courageous simply in order to do their jobs. If a reporter is prosecuted and gets ten years or even faces execution, God forbid, that will be another vertical line in the process I am warning about. I promise that you and I, Alan, would not be having this kind of free, open discussion together in a public forum on the morning after we were to read in the newspaper about his or her fate. Maybe you would be brave enough to be willing still to have such a conversation, but I am not, and I would rationalise backing down on the basis of the fact that I have young children. That is how dissent gets silenced: person by person, each one of us finds the limit of what we are willing to risk.

The press doesn't stop publishing, by the way, in a fascist escalation; it simply watches what it says. That too can be an incremental process, and the pace at which the free press polices itself depends on how journalists are targeted. After fascists came to power in both Italy and Germany there were still newspapers, radio, working journalists and many media outlets; they just weren't free.

I have an editor acquaintance who has coined the phrase, `Berlin-o-meter'; flippant but also serious; as in: what time is it? In 1931 there was still debate and dissent in Germany; in 1933, after the mass arrests, that was over. What time is it regarding debate? It's about 1931.

Finally, if I understand you correctly, you seem to object to my using words such as "fascist" and referring to such men as Josef Goebbels in my argument. I gather your objection is that this kind of language can be inflammatory.

Let me be entirely clear: I am not using these terms rhetorically. On the contrary, I am using these terms descriptively, to refer to specific tactics and strategies in history. Some people may have other concerns about these terms and examples, though I am not sure that this is part of your objection.
Understandably, one tends to become emotionally flooded when Nazis are mentioned, and I understand too why it can be considered almost unseemly to refer to Hitler or to Nazism (or to fascism) except in the context of pure elegy. This form of intellectual etiquette has been seen for two generations as a tribute to the victims.

But I believe strongly that this etiquette is not helpful in this crisis and not even, at this point, most respectful to the victims. It actually keeps us from thinking clearly about what happened to them and it keeps us from learning the lessons we need to learn in time. Now more than ever we need to honor the victims of fascism by being willing to discuss the details of how these most cruel dictators did they did what they managed to do, in the midst of modern democracies. We honour the victims most profoundly, I believe, by being willing to learn history's lessons in defence of a democratic America in which every life is precious and in which the rule of law is just as precious.

Finally, because Americans are most familiar with the classic images of the late-stage Nazi nightmare - the goose-stepping ranks, the crematoria - they don't think much about the fact that Nazis came to power through a set of replicable tactics. I mentioned names such as Goebbels for a practical reason: he, like others, developed certain tactics to close down a democracy; these tactics are routinely reproduced, less spectacularly but quite faithfully, by other regimes seeking to close down open societies. We all have to talk about what those tactics look like. As the (Jewish) writer Hannah Arendt explained in her book on totalitarianism, it's our task as civilised people who cherish the rule of law to ask of such times in history: "What happened? Why did it happen? How could it have happened?"

Perhaps it is most truly our task to ask those questions when the rule of law is most threatened.

Alan to Naomi:

Thank you, Naomi, for being entirely clear that you use the term fascism literally. I had thought you meant to do so metaphorically. But now I can see that you really are drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and the United States.

Well if history turns out one way, you will be regarded as a prophet. Alas for you, but good for the rest of us, the chances of history turning out that way are close to non-existent. I object to your using the term fascist because I think it belittles the American people. They aren't doing badly these days. If you were willing to give them more credit, you would not be making comparisons that, I believe, lack both historical and political sense.

Part Two Source:

Also see:
The Rise of Fascism in America

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