the end of america

It took me a long time to finish Naomi Wolf's The End of America - Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Not because it's long or difficult to read; it is just the opposite - short, clear and concise. It took me so long to finish because I kept starting to cry and would need to put down the book.

It's overwhelmingly sad and frightening to think about what "the end of America" could mean - to all of us.

If you're not familiar with this book, I blogged about it here (that includes an extended excerpt) and here. Wolf draws historical parallels to other times when democracies morphed into fascism - governments that were democratically elected, then systematically weakened, twisted and dismantled the structure of democracy through legal, legislative and executive means.

Finally democracy became a mere facade, a hollowed-out shell, and the leap to fascism could be completed. Her most frequent examples are Germany, Italy, Russia and Chile. The similarities are unmistakeably, chillingly clear.

Wolf calls that middle period - the phase when the country is not yet fascist, but when democracy is sputtering and faltering - when it is being dismantled - a fascist shift.

I readily admit that one reason I loved this book is that it gives me evidence and ammunition to bolster my own world view. It strengthens my own observations and beliefs with further facts.

Allan and I have both believed, for a long time, that democracy in America has been upended, supplanted, destroyed. That the country is now living under fascism. It's hard to explain this to people, because most people's idea of fascism looks like - to use a shorthand - tanks rolling down main street. Wolf's "fascist shift" is the missing piece in our observations. Looking at the last eight years as a bridge, a transition, it's very clear to me the US has been undergoing a fascist shift.

I went back into the wmtc archives to see how long I've been writing about this fascist shift without using those words. The earliest post I found is from November 2004, while I was depressed after the stolen election. I wrote:
I often think we're looking at something historically new here: a dictatorship dressed up as a democracy. No tanks rolling down Fifth Avenue, no government mass rallies, no junta, no putsch. We retain party conventions, campaigns, voting booths - but it's like a backlot movie set, a facade of props. The US democracy has been in trouble for a long time, controlled by corporate interests and a conglomerated media. But if voting is not legitimate, what makes it a democracy at all?

One of Wolf's central points is that if we're waiting to see tanks rolling down the street until we admit to ourselves that the US is no longer a democracy, we'll miss what's happening under our noses. Because by that time, it's too late. And this regime won't need tanks. Wolf writes in her conclusion:
I will say again that the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing down of the system that followed Mussolini's March on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners. Our press, military and judiciary are too independent for a scenario like that.

But there are erosions possible in all of our institutions, that could close down our experiment in democracy in ways that would look very American and familiar, but still leave us less than free.

* * * *

There's a wmtc category called "US regression", a multi-purpose shorthand for a country in decline. Massive, ever-expanding poverty; the collapse of the middle class; huge segments of the population with no access to health care, decent housing and education; the destruction of labour, health and environmental laws; fixed elections; the expanding police state and the crackdown on personal freedom; the rise of religious influence in government... "US regression" is my catch-all category that means the country is falling, has fallen, apart.

That category has included the decline of democracy and democratic institutions. Now I've broken out a subcategory of US regression: fascist shift.

Consider this, from the final chapter:
If Fascist Germany - a medium-sized modern European state - could destabilize the globe in a matter of a few years, and it took a world war to overcome the threat, what force on earth might restrain an America that may have abandoned the rule of law - an America with its vastly greater population, wealth, and land mass; its far more sophisticated technology; its weapons systems; its already fully established global network of black-site secret prisons, and its imperial reach?

* * * *

Another aspect of this book I appreciate is Wolf's view of the founders of the US as revolutionaries. Here I often part ways with many of my sister and brother leftists. Of course the founders were all white men, many were slave owners, and they set up a system ruled by their own kind. They were not remaking entire social systems, and had they wanted to, their entire purpose would have failed.

But there's no doubt whatsoever that the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were political revolutionaries. They set about to overthrow an authoritarian regime, with words and with arms. Had they lost, they would have all been executed for treason.

There had been other historical experiments in democracy, but no society had ever ventured so far into those waters before. The framers of the United States Constitution were acutely aware of what tyranny looked like and the need for protection against it - the need to keep power from being too concentrated in the hands of one person or group of people.

Right now in the US, much of their delicate and important work has been undone.

* * * *

The only place where I part ways with Wolf is that she has hope. At least in this book, she has hope that Americans of all political persuasions can rise up and reclaim their country. I understand why she needed to include that in The End of America. But I fear and believe it is too late. While everyone's attention is focused on a glittering distraction (Obama vs. Clinton, then McCain vs. Obama), I fear the sleight of hand will happen elsewhere, and that choice won't matter.

Wolf says it's up to Americans to reclaim democracy before it's too late. I see Americans as too beleaguered - too apathetic - too busy trying to survive - too blindly nationalistic - too focused on the election - too focused on celebrities - too frightened - too cowed into submission - too overwhelmed - too deluded - too any and all of the above - to take up that fight in sufficient strength and numbers.

* * * *

I wish I could buy a few million copies of The End of America and distribute them to all the people who need to read it.

I'll close with one more quote from this book, in which Wolf uses two of my favourite metaphors for what's happening in the US right now: the abused woman ("this time he'll change!") and madness (just voting Democrat one more time...!).
Think again about 2008. Now think about human nature.

We assume, with our habits of democracy, that we can simply "throw the bums out" in the 2008 election.

But do people really change direction so dramatically? Is it reasonable - is it really a matter of common sense - to assume that leaders who are willing to abuse signing statements; withhold information from Congress; make secret decisions; lie to the American people; use fake evidence to justify a pre-emptive war; torture prisoners; tap people's phones; open their mail and e-mail; break into their houses; and now simply ignore Congress altogether - leaders with, currently, a 29 percent approval rating - will surely say, come 2008, "the decision rests in the hands of the people. May the votes be fairly counted"?

In trusting that the "pendulum will swing" when it is time for the votes to be counted, we are like a codependent woman with an abusive boyfriend; surely next time he will do what is right.

It's a truism that the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome. If for eight years this group has flouted other equally precious rules of the democratic game, aren't we rash to assume that this same group will see transparent, fair election as sacrosanct?

Naomi Wolf: talk on YouTube, first chapter on Huffington Post, review in The Guardian, interview on Democracy Now!.

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