Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Fascist America, in 10 easy steps

Expand Messages
  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com
    Message 1 of 2 , Sep 30, 2007
      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist


      Fascist America, in 10 easy steps
      From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain
      steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional
      freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration
      seem to be taking them all
      Tuesday April 24, 2007
      The Guardian

      Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of
      the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they
      had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days,
      democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial
      law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and
      TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits
      on travel, and took certain activists into custody.

      They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you
      look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint
      for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has
      been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less
      terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult
      and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history shows
      that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing
      to take the 10 steps.
      As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are
      willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been
      initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.

      Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time
      even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree -
      domestically - as many other nations. Because we no longer learn
      much about our rights or our system of government - the task of
      being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens'
      ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and
      professors - we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the
      founders put in place, even as they are being systematically
      dismantled. Because we don't learn much about European history, the
      setting up of a department of "homeland" security - remember who
      else was keen on the word "homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells
      it might have.

      It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his
      administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open
      society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable -
      as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that
      it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.

      Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American
      authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the
      lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the
      potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.

      1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

      After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of
      national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the
      USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to
      debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were
      told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in a "global war"
      against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe out civilisation".
      There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted
      limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when
      Lincoln declared martial law, and the second world war, when
      thousands of Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this
      situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda notes, is
      unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum
      was able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-
      ended in time and without national boundaries in space - the globe
      itself is the battlefield. "This time," Fein says, "there will be no
      defined end."

      Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil - is an
      old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist threat to
      the nation's security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin
      academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he noted, among
      other things, that the alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire
      of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of
      the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-
      ended state of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based,
      like the National Socialist evocation of the "global conspiracy of
      world Jewry", on myth.

      It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of
      course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey
      the nature of the threat is different in a country such as Spain -
      which has also suffered violent terrorist attacks - than it is in
      America. Spanish citizens know that they face a grave security
      threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are
      potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it.
      Of course, this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our

      2. Create a gulag

      Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a
      prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the
      American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in
      legal "outer space") - where torture takes place.

      At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as
      outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people"
      or "criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret
      prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify
      with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders -
      opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are
      arrested and sent there as well.

      This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy
      crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to
      the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is standard
      practice for closing down an open society or crushing a pro-
      democracy uprising.

      With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo
      in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without
      trial and without access to the due process of the law, America
      certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress
      recently announced they would issue no information about the secret
      CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used to
      incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.

      Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more
      secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand
      accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people,
      innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are
      aware of and those we can't investigate adequately.

      But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve
      only scary brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It
      was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the
      anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been seized as a
      political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews." Most Americans
      don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at
      Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.

      By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny
      prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift.
      Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the
      Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which also bypassed the
      judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in
      isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and
      were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became
      a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon
      the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.

      3. Develop a thug caste

      When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close
      down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young
      men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian
      countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent
      rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially
      important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence
      and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.

      The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America's
      security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas
      of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the process,
      contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been issued for
      security work by mercenaries at home and abroad. In Iraq, some of
      these contract operatives have been accused of involvement in
      torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi
      civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by
      the one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these
      contractors are immune from prosecution

      Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane
      Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed
      hundreds of armed private security guards in New Orleans. The
      investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed one unnamed
      guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians in the city. It
      was a natural disaster that underlay that episode - but the
      administration's endless war on terror means ongoing scope for what
      are in effect privately contracted armies to take on crisis and
      emergency management at home in US cities.

      Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in
      identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the
      votes in Florida in 2000. If you are reading history, you can
      imagine that there can be a need for "public order" on the next
      election day. Say there are protests, or a threat, on the day of an
      election; history would not rule out the presence of a private
      security firm at a polling station "to restore public order".

      4. Set up an internal surveillance system

      In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in
      communist China - in every closed society - secret police spy on
      ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The
      Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East Germans under
      surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were being

      In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the
      New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens'
      phones, read their emails and follow international financial
      transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans that they, too,
      could be under state scrutiny.

      In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being
      about "national security"; the true function is to keep citizens
      docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.

      5. Harass citizens' groups

      The fifth thing you do is related to step four - you infiltrate and
      harass citizens' groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena,
      whose minister preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found
      itself being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while
      churches that got Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal
      under US tax law, have been left alone.

      Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union
      reports that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental
      and other groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon
      database includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings,
      rallies or marches by American citizens in its category of
      1,500 "suspicious incidents". The equally secret Counterintelligence
      Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense has been
      gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in
      peaceful political activities: Cifa is supposed to track "potential
      terrorist threats" as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A
      little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal rights
      protests as "terrorism". So the definition of "terrorist" slowly
      expands to include the opposition.

      6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

      This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D
      Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote
      China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe
      pro-democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, being
      arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed society
      there is a "list" of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are
      targeted in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get
      off the list.

      In 2004, America's Transportation Security Administration confirmed
      that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for security
      searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have found
      themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace activists in San
      Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela's
      government - after Venezuela's president had criticised Bush; and
      thousands of ordinary US citizens.

      Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University; he is
      one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and author
      of the classic Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated
      former marine, and he is not even especially politically liberal.
      But on March 1 this year, he was denied a boarding pass at
      Newark, "because I was on the Terrorist Watch list".

      "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from
      flying because of that," asked the airline employee.

      "I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in
      September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on
      the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of
      the constitution."

      "That'll do it," the man said.

      Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution?
      Potential terrorist. History shows that the categories of "enemy of
      the people" tend to expand ever deeper into civil life.

      James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo who
      was accused of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by
      the US military before the charges against him were dropped. Yee has
      been detained and released several times. He is still of interest.

      Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was mistakenly
      identified as a possible terrorist. His house was secretly broken
      into and his computer seized. Though he is innocent of the
      accusation against him, he is still on the list.

      It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on
      the list, you can't get off.

      7. Target key individuals

      Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they
      don't toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state
      universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph
      Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile's
      Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in
      punishing pro-democracy students and professors.

      Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift
      punish academics and students with professional loss if they do
      not "coordinate", in Goebbels' term, ideologically. Since civil
      servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by
      a given regime, they are also a group that fascists
      typically "coordinate" early on: the Reich Law for the Re-
      establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7

      Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure
      on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who
      have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the
      Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer
      who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration
      official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees
      pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to
      boycott them.

      Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog
      that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security
      clearance she needed in order to do her job.

      Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys for what
      looks like insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the
      civil service in April 1933, attorneys were "coordinated" too, a
      step that eased the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.

      8. Control the press

      Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s,
      Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the
      70s, China in the 80s and 90s - all dictatorships and would-be
      dictators target newspapers and journalists. They threaten and
      harass them in more open societies that they are seeking to close,
      and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been closed

      The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists
      are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San
      Francisco, has been put in jail for a year for refusing to turn over
      video of an anti-war demonstration; Homeland Security brought a
      criminal complaint against reporter Greg Palast, claiming he
      threatened "critical infrastructure" when he and a TV producer were
      filming victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had
      written a bestseller critical of the Bush administration.

      Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph
      C Wilson accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the
      country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein
      had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame,
      was outed as a CIA spy - a form of retaliation that ended her career.

      Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the
      US is treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict in Iraq in
      an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented
      multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or
      threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters
      and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to
      the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera,
      they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the
      BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or
      killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the
      Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military
      and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to
      see the evidence against their staffers.

      Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news
      and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified
      documents to back up his claim that terrorists had been about to
      attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged

      You won't have a shutdown of news in modern America - it is not
      possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have
      pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What
      you already have is a White House directing a stream of false
      information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to
      sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it's not the lies
      that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from
      fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.

      9. Dissent equals treason

      Cast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage'. Every
      closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that
      increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the
      definition of "spy" and "traitor". When Bill Keller, the publisher
      of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called
      the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while
      Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with
      treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up
      the "treason" drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted,
      reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage
      Act is execution.

      Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack
      represented. It is also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow
      show trial accused the editor of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of
      treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it is important to
      remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last widely
      invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist activists
      were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups, kept in jail
      for up to five months, and "beaten, starved, suffocated, tortured
      and threatened with death", according to the historian Myra
      MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in America for a decade.

      In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were "enemies of the people".
      National Socialists called those who supported Weimar
      democracy "November traitors".

      And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise
      that since September of last year - when Congress wrongly,
      foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - the
      president has the power to call any US citizen an "enemy combatant".
      He has the power to define what "enemy combatant" means. The
      president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive
      branch the right to define "enemy combatant" any way he or she wants
      and then seize Americans accordingly.

      Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be
      completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the
      power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark
      tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me
      to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for
      months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as psychiatrists
      know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners.
      That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantánamo's,
      in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility
      at Guantánamo, is all isolation cells.)

      We US citizens will get a trial eventually - for now. But legal
      rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that
      the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find
      ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials. "Enemy
      combatant" is a status offence - it is not even something you have
      to have done. "We have absolutely moved over into a preventive
      detention model - you look like you could do something bad, you
      might do something bad, so we're going to hold you," says a
      spokeswoman of the CCR.

      Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to
      believe, even though it is true. In every closing society, at a
      certain point there are some high-profile arrests - usually of
      opposition leaders, clergy and journalists. Then everything goes
      quiet. After those arrests, there are still newspapers, courts, TV
      and radio, and the facades of a civil society. There just isn't real
      dissent. There just isn't freedom. If you look at history, just
      before those arrests is where we are now.

      10. Suspend the rule of law

      The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president
      new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national
      emergency - which the president now has enhanced powers to declare -
      he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a state of emergency that
      he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state's
      governor and its citizens.

      Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the
      question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, the New York Times
      editorialised about this shift: "A disturbing recent phenomenon in
      Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American
      democracy have been passed in the dead of night ... Beyond actual
      insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a
      domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease
      outbreak, terrorist attack or any 'other condition'."

      Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act -
      which was meant to restrain the federal government from using the
      military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic senator
      Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to declare
      federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the founders
      set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens
      bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the founders were terrified of
      exactly this kind of concentration of militias' power over American
      people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.

      Of course, 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 democratic habits
      are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent,
      for any kind of scenario like that.

      Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy
      could be closed down by a process of erosion.

      It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the
      profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things
      look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest
      festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the
      movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror
      is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are
      skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ...
      How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."

      As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet
      shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being
      fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us
      unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary
      and free press do their work today in a context in which we are "at
      war" in a "long war" - a war without end, on a battlefield described
      as the globe, in a context that gives the president - without US
      citizens realising it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or
      long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.

      That means a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of
      all these still- free-looking institutions - and this foundation can
      give way under certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an
      outcome, we have to think about the "what ifs".

      What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say, God
      forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of
      emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be
      tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed.
      With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less
      endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani -
      because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will
      through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of
      democratic negotiation and compromise.

      What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with
      treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten
      Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What
      would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history,
      they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very

      Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the
      tide of tyranny for the rest of us - staff at the Center for
      Constitutional Rights, who faced death threats for representing the
      detainees yet persisted all the way to the Supreme Court; activists
      at the American Civil Liberties Union; and prominent conservatives
      trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under the banner of a
      new group called the American Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate
      collection of people needs everybody's help, including that of
      Europeans and others internationally who are willing to put pressure
      on the administration because they can see what a US unrestrained by
      real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.

      We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep
      going down this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us
      in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a
      different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is
      how it was before - and this is the way it is now.

      "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and
      judiciary, in the same hands ... is the definition of tyranny,"
      wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down
      this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and
      take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.

      · Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young
      Patriot will be published by Chelsea Green in September.
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.