The End of America? Naomi Wolf Thinks It Could Happen
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If you think we are living in scary times, your worst fears may be confirmed by reading Naomi Wolf's newest book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. In it, Wolf proves the old axiom that history does repeat itself. Or more accurately, history occurs in patterns, and in order to understand where our country is today and where it is headed, we need to read the history books.
Wolf began by diving into the early years leading up to fascist regimes, like the ones led by Hitler and Mussolini. And the patterns that she found in those, and others all over the world, made her hair stand on end. In "The End of America," she lays out the 10 steps that dictators (or aspiring dictators) take in order to shut down an open society. "Each of those ten steps is now under way in the United States today," she writes.
If we want an open society, she warns, we must pay attention and we must fight to protect democracy.
I met with Wolf to discuss what she learned while researching this book, how the American public has received her warnings, and what we can do to squelch the fascist narratives we are fed in this country each day.
Don Hazen: Let's take up a big question first -- your fears about the upcoming U.S. presidential election and what the historical blue print about fascist takeovers shows in terms of elections.
Naomi Wolf: We would be naive given the historical patterns to have hope that there's going to be a transparent, accountable election in 2008. There are various ways the blueprint indicates how events are much more likely to play out. Historically, the months leading up to the national election are likely to be unstable.
What classically happens is either there will be a period of provocation, and we have a history of this in the United States -- agitators who are dressed as or act like activist voter registration workers, anti-war marchers ... but who engage in actual violence, torch property, assault police officers. And that scares people. People are much less likely to vote for change when they're scared, and it gives them the excuse to crack down.
In addition, I'm concerned about the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, which makes it much easier for the president to declare martial law.
DH: Are you saying that they keep on adding coercive laws for no apparent reason?
NW: Yes. Why amend the law so systematically? Why do you need to make martial law easier? Another thing historical blueprints underscore is the hyped threat; intelligence will be spun or exaggerated, and sometimes there are faked documents like Plan Z with Pinochet in Chile.
DH: Plan Z?
NW:Yes, Plan Z. Pinochet, when he was overthrowing the Democratic government of Chile, told Chilean citizens that there was going to be a terrible terrorist attack, with armed insurgents. Now there were real insurgents, there was a real threat, but then he produces what he called Plan Z, which were fake papers claiming that these terrorists were going to assassinate all these military leaders at once.
And this petrified Chileans so much that they didn't stand up to fight for their democracy. So it's common to take a real threat and hype it. And close to an election it's very common to invoke a hype threat and scare people so much that they will not want to have a transparent election.
Americans have this very wrong idea about what a closed society looks like. Many despots make it a point to try to hold the elections, but they're corrupted elections. Corrupted elections take place all over the world in closed societies. Ninety-nine percent of Austrians voted yes for the annexation by Germany, because the SA were standing outside the voting booths, intimidating the voters and people counting the vote. So you can mess with the process.
One current warning sign is the e-mails that the White House is not yielding about the attorney general scandal. The emails are likely to show that there were plans afoot to purge all of the attorneys at once, like overnight. And then to let the country deal with the shock.
Now that's something that Goebbels did in 1933 in April, overnight. He fired everyone, focusing on lawyers and judges who were not a supporter of the regime. So you can still have elections ... in an outcome like that. If that had happened, if the bloggers and others actually hadn't helped to identify the U.S. attorney scandal, and they had been successful and fired them all, our election situation would be different.
Basically we'd still have an election, but it is possible the outcome would be predetermined because it's the U.S. attorneys that monitor what voting rights groups do, what is legal and who can decide the outcome of elections.
DH: Well there's a lot of activity currently in terms of the Justice Department aimed at purging voters ... reducing voter rolls ... that's an ongoing battle to try to keep voters eligible. Conservatives are always trying to reduce the electorate. By the way, are you familiar with Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism?
NW: Yes, and it all makes a lot of sense. And its certainly historically true. We're in this post-9/11 period when there is a lot of potential for these kind of "shock therapy" things to happen, but virtually everything ... has happened previously in history in patterns. It's just the blueprint. It's not rocket science.
I could tell last fall when a law was passed expanding the definition of terrorists to include animal rights activists, that people who look more like you and me would start to be called terrorists, which is a classic tactic in what I call a fascist expansion.
DH: Don't look at me -- I'm not a vegetarian. Just kidding.
NW: (Laughs) Right. It's also predictive ... according to the blueprint, that the state starts to torture people that most of us don't identity with, because they're brown, Muslim, people on an island. They're called an enemy.
That there will be a progressive blurring of the line, and six months, two years later, you're going to see it spread to others. ... According to the blueprint, we're right on schedule that this kid recently got tasered in Florida, I gather, for asking questions.
There was a study by people who pioneered tasers, and the state legislature supported it; a Republican legislator put pressure on the provost, who put pressure on the university, and then the police at this university implemented the taser use. So unfortunately, it's likely that we're going to see more demonstrators, typical society leaders, in a call to restore "public order," leading up to the election. You put all those cases together ...
DH: I want to shift gears a bit and ask you to talk about what the response to the book, what kind of people have heard you speak, and what kind of reactions have they had?
NW: I'm really gratified by the response to the book. I have found, with the book's publication, though I'm not following everything that's been written about it, that most of America gets it -- people across the political spectrum.
All kinds of people, including very mainstream people. Republican people. Progressive. Libertarian. Very moderate people. Very conservative people. They are basically saying to me, "Thank you for confirming our fears and showing us how these things fit together, and what we can do about them."
DH: I'm also interested in your process of deciding that you were comfortable in using words like "fascism," "Nazism," "Hitler," "Mussolini." Michael Ratner talks about it in the jacket of your book, when he writes: "Most Americans reject outright any comparisons of post-9/11 America with the fascism and totalitarianism of Nazi Germany or Pinochet's Chile. Sadly, what Wolf calls the echoes between those societies and America today are too compelling." At some point you must have come to this turning point in terms of the language -- how far am I going to go, how am I going to talk about this? Was it a difficult decision?
NW: It was hard emotionally but it was unavoidable intellectually. The book actually got started with the influence of a holocaust survivor -- a dear friend, who's the daughter of two holocaust survivors from Germany. She basically forced me to start reading history.
Not the end or outcome. She was talking about the early years and the effects on rights groups, gay rights groups, and sexuality forums and architecture, At first I didn't even want to draw conclusions, but my hair was just standing on edge.
When I saw that, then I went and read other history books, and looked at Stalin and Hitler, a real "innovator." I thought, if people want an open society, they need to pay attention.
You see the same things happening again and again and again. And historically people were really mislead and just reading kind of teaches us the blueprint. People use the same approach all over the world because it works. This is what they do.
Now we've just seen it in Burma. It is like clock work: monks in the street ... and because I know the blueprint, how long before they start curtailing free assembly, shooting monks, and cutting off that communication? And two days later ... you know what happened.
So intellectually I couldn't avoid using the language. Now in terms of the word "fascist," it's a very conservative usage in the book. I used the dictionary definition. There are many definitions of fascism. And even fascists disagree with other fascists. It's kind of like the Germans thought the Italian fascists weren't butch enough.
DH: So the Italians were wussier fascists than the Germans?
NW: Exactly. It gets better. The definition is pretty straightforward: "When the state uses violence against the individual to oppose democratic society." And that's what we're seeing.
And then looking back at Italy and Germany, which were the two great examples of modern constitutional democracies that were illegally closed by people that were elected ... duly elected ... most Americans don't remember. Mussolini, a National Socialist, came to power entirely legally. And they used the law to shut down the law. So that's what I call a fascist shift.
DH: So let's talk about what could happen here. Is America in denial? Or is avoidance an attitude that seemed to be present in all historical examples? That people assume it's not going to happen to them. Does the Americans' denial at this point run parallel with the denial of Germans and Italians? Or do we have our own version of denial here?
NW: That's a really great question; both are true. It's really instructive to read memoirs and journals from Germany. People writing, "This can't last ... we surely will come to our senses"; "they can't gain any ground in the next election ... you know, we're a civilized country"; "this is ridiculous, they're a bunch of thugs; no one takes them seriously."
History is particularly instructive in the early days of the fascist shifts in Germany and Italy, when things were really pretty normal. People go about their business, just like we're doing now. It's not like goose stepping columns of soldiers are everywhere. It looks like ordinary life. Celebrities, gossip columns, fashion, before getting caught up in a snare. People kept going to movies, worrying about feeding the cat. (laughs) Even while you watch the sort of inevitable unfold.
DH: And now in America?
NW: Right. So in some ways it is human nature to be in denial ... but Americans have our own special version, which is profoundly dangerous. Europeans know democracies are fragile, and they could close. They had closed. Bismarckian Germany was not a democracy.
But here we're walking around ... we usually have that sense that somehow our air will sustain us, even when no one else's air does. And we don't have to do anything about it. We have this like bubble, that somehow democracy will just take care of us, and we don't have to fight to protect democracy.
They can mow down democracies all over the world, but somehow we'll be just fine. But what's so ironic about that is that the Founding Fathers drafted the Bill of Rights in fear. They knew that you had to have checks and balances, because it's human nature to abuse power, no matter who you are. They knew the damage that the army could do breaking into your home. ... they knew that democracy is fragile, and the default is tyranny. They knew that. And that's why they created the system of checks and balances.
DH: In your book, on page 36, you write in terms of the political environment we are in: "But we are not wracked by rioting in the streets or a major depression here in America. That is why the success that the Bush administration has had in invoking Islamofascism is so insidious. We have been willing to trade our key freedoms for a promised state of security in spite of our living conditions of overwhelming stability, security, affluence and social order."
How and why has it been so easy here in the U.S. in terms of taking away liberties?
NW: I assume you mean how did it succeed even though we don't have Bolsheviks rioting in the street? Yes. I mean it is incredible looking back, but in a way it's not. I mean 9/11 was a complete left brain shock. If we had had wars at home, experienced the kind of violence at home that other countries have, we would not have gone into shock ... not have been willing to trade in our heritage in exchange for a manipulated false sense of security.
DH: Most people were not affected directly by 9/11 except traumatically by seeing it on the screen.
NW: Yes, but you can't undercredit the incredible sophistication of the way the Bush administration manipulates fear. For example, the sleeper cells narrative, which is Stalin's narrative, was totally made up.
And I give lots of examples in the book of alleged sleeper cells that never turned out to be the creepy, scary, nightmare scenario that the White House claimed they would be.
DH: In the book you say that fascists have great skills at changing public opinion.
NW: That's correct. That's exactly right. They've been very skillful at creating extremely terrifying narratives. And this is why looking at Goebbels is so instructive. Our leaders have been busy creating footage and sound bites that can be petrifying, and as a result, some of us live in a state of existential fear.
In contrast, in England and Spain, where they were hit by the same bad guys we're fighting, they're going after terrorists, but the population isn't walking around in a state of existential anxiety.
Gordon Brown said it, "Fighting terror ... well, terror's a crime." You can't underplay how sophisticated the Bush team has been about manipulating our fears. And one reason we really can't ignore is our home-grown ignorance. We now have two generations of young people who don't know about civics. A study came out that showed that even Harvard freshmen really don't understand how our government works.
And so we really don't know what democracy is anymore. I had to do a lot of learning to write this book -- I'm not a constitutional scholar. I'm just a citizen. And we've been kind of divorced from our democracy. We've let a pundit class take it over. Where the Founders wanted us to know what the First Amendment was and what the Second Amendment does for us.
So as a consequence we don't feel the kind of warning bell of "Oh, my God, arbitrary search and seizure! That's when they come into your house and take your stuff and scare your children! We can't have that!"
Because there's this class of politicians, scholars and pundits who do the Constitution for us, so we don't bother educating ourselves. It's hard to educate yourself now these days.
All of that plays into how easily we can be manipulated. We really don't read history in America, so we don't notice warning signals. We tend not to pay attention to the rest of the world or the past, so we don't know what the classic scenarios are.
DH: In terms of your personal narrative, the kinds of books you've written about feminism and gender like the Beauty Myth , Fire With Fire and Promiscuities ... this book seems pretty far a field. It seems like it would have to be a wrenching realization to lead you to read everything and produce the book. Was it traumatic?
NW: Well, I would say that it's been traumatic.
DH: Is it because you are out there on the front lines now?
NW: That's not the trauma. I feel like I'm living inside a consciousness of urgency and potential horrific consequences. And that is much more uncomfortable than living inside my prior being where I generally thought, "We're living in a democracy where there are some annoying people doing the wrong things" kind of mindset.
But I know that there's a "true consciousness" that we need to overcome the false consciousness. I know it's the right consciousness to get the facts. And I guess what's heartening is that a bunch of other people seem to be collectively entering this consciousness. They are saying: "My gosh, there is a real emergency here with very devastating stakes." That is traumatic but necessary.
It is a loss of innocence to see how easy it is to degrade democracy. I certainly walk around with kind of hyperawareness tuned into, for example, the toll in Guantanamo and those children in Iraq. It doesn't get covered well.
There's basically a concentration camp being established in Iraq with children in it. And no one appears to be digging in to it ...
DH: As we are coming to an end here, there are a couple of concepts I found particularly interesting in the book. One is when you talked about the "10 steps," or the "blueprint" that fascists have used time and time again to close down democracies. You say that that these factors, ingredients, are more than the sum of their parts, which suggests a kind of synergy, "each magnifies the power of the others and the whole," as you write.
You also write about the pendulum clichÃ©, that we have this illusion through our history that the pendulum always swings back. But because of the permanent war on terrorism, that may not be true anymore. Can you say a little bit more about those two things, and how that might fit together?
NW: Well part of the illusion is created because it seems we are in two different countries, operating at home and abroad. For example, they can come at you, anyone and claim you're an enemy combatant. They rendered people in Italy ... they can render people all over the world. And they can put people like Jose Padilla in solitary confinement for three years, literally drive sane healthy people insane.
If the president can say, Well, "Don is an enemy combatant," there is nothing you can do. It's like "Tag, you're it!" To that extent we can not be innocent. And then someone is in jail for three years without being able to see their families or have easy access to a phone.
If they can do that, the pendulum can't swing, because after the first arrest, it generally goes in one direction, and according to the blueprint, the time has come for those first arrests. We're having this conversation now, before these arrests. But if tomorrow you read in the New York Times or the Washington Post that New York Times editor Bill Keller has been arrested, the staff will all be scared, others will get scared. And people don't understand that that's how democracy closes down. And when that happens first, it's the tipping point at which we think it's still a democracy.
DH: That is when the rules have changed?
NW: Yes, and people need to believe and realize that that kind of negotiation is pretty much over. And there's just the lag time, which is so dangerous, when people still think it's a democracy, even while the martial law steps have begun. And that's where we are at, unless we get it.
Because you know, Congress keeps saying, "Hello, we're Congress." You have to answer us when we ask for information. The president's like, "Sorry, I'm ignoring you!" It starts becoming thinking like an abused woman, like: "Surely he's going to do it right this time, surely he's not going to do it again." And he does.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.