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Closing Down an Open Society

Yesterday I wrote about the emergency our now-fragile republic faces as the Bush administration appears to be using the time-tested tactics of dictators throughout the last century to close down an open society. I wrote yesterday about how we are one arrest away away from the 'after' in the 'before and after' of a closed society; the reasoning, you recall, is that the White House's position is that the President can designate anyone as an 'enemy combatant' — you, me, the owners of your local bookstore or the head of your local antiwar or environmental group — and lock you up in solitary confinement for months or years without ever filing charges. Notably, the Bush White House is proposing that the next Attorney General be the man who defended the legal position that the President can have this power over US citizens — in the case of Padilla. While Padilla is not a good guy, the precedent has been set and, as Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents the detainees, points out, it can now be used against you and me. It is profoundly dangerous that the man who upheld the President's authority to do this is now being presented as a moderate AG choice and could soon be in the position of enforcing the law of the land.

Today's news — look at the front page of AOL — shows a recognizable shock moment in the annals of a closing society. A very ordinary-looking American student was tasered by police when he asked a question of John Kerry about the impeachment of George Bush. His arms were pinned and as he tried to keep speaking he was shocked — in spite of begging not to be hurt. A stunning piece of footage but unfortunately, historically, a very familiar and even tactical moment.

It is an iconic turning point and it will be remembered as the moment at which America either fought back or yielded. This violence against a student is different from violence against protesters in the anti-war movement of thirty years ago because of the power the President has now to imprison innocent US citizens for months in isolation. And because, as I have explained elsewhere, we are not now in a situation in which 'the pendulum' can easily swing back. That taser was directed at the body of a young man, but it is we ourselves, and our constitution, who received the full force of the shock.

Anyone who has read my chapter "Recast Criticism as 'Espionage' and Dissent as 'Treason'" will see this moment for the horrific harbinger it is. I argue in The End of America that strategists using historical models to close down an open society start by using force on 'undesirables,' 'aliens,' 'enemies of the state,' and those considered by mainstream civil society to be untouchable; in other times they were, of course, Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals. Then, once society has been acculturated to that use of force, the 'blurring of the line' begins and the parameters of criminalized speech are extended — the definition of 'terrorist' expanded — and the use of force begins to be deployed in HIGHLY VISIBLE, STRATEGIC and VISUALLY SHOCKING WAYS against people that others see and identify with as ordinary citizens. The first 'torture cellars' used by the SA, in Germany between 1931 and 1933 — even before the National Socialists gained control of the state, during the years when Germany was still a parliamentary democracy — were informal and widely publicized in the mainstream media. Few German citizens objected because those abused there were seen as 'other' — and even though the abuse was technically illegal. Even in 1931 there were German human rights lawyers and activists who tried to speak up for the abused detainees. But then, after this escalation of the use of force was accepted by the population, students, journalists, opposition leaders, and clergy were similarly abused during their own arrests. Within six months dissent was stilled in Germany.

What is the lesson for us, from this, and from other, closing societies, some of them democracies? You can have a working Congress or Parliament; newspapers; human rights groups; even elections; but when ordinary people start to be hurt by the state for speaking out, dissent closes quickly and the shock chills opposition very, very fast. Once that happens democracy has been so weakened that major tactical and strategic incursions — greater violations of democratic process — are far more likely. If there is dissent about the vote in Florida in this next Presidential election — and the police are tasering voters' rights groups — we will still have an election.

What we will not have is liberty.

We have to understand what time it is. When the state (and it is notable to me that the student was harmed in Florida, Jeb Bush land, and that the violence happened to be so well lit and so effectively filmed — dissent is crushed when people see and understand the penalties for dissent) starts to hurt people for asking questions, we can no longer operate on the leisurely time of a strong democracy — the 'Oh gosh how awful!' kind of time. It is time to take to the streets. It is time to confront those committing crimes against the constitution. The window has now dropped several precipitous inches and once it is closed there is no opening it without great and sorrowful upheaval.

We also need to understand from history that the temptation at a moment like this to grow more quiet — to stay out of the line of fire — is the wrong choice by far. History shows categorically that if citizens do not stand up now to confront and imprison the abusers, things do not get safer — they get much more dangerous for ordinary people, activist or not.

I was scared when I wrote The End of America — personally scared because the blueprint I was tracing in the summer of 2006 showed clearly that protesters and critics would start to be hurt within the year. When I told a dear friend that I was scared, he gently reminded me of the history I was reading: he asked, will things be scarier for you and the ones you love if you speak up now — or if you are silent?

We don't just need to speak up now. We need to act. It is time to rebel in the name of the flag and the founders.

÷ ÷ ÷

Naomi Wolf is the author of The Beauty Myth, an international bestseller; Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood; Misconceptions; and The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from my Father on How to Live, Love and See. Her most recent books are The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot and its sequel, Give Me Liberty. She lives with her family in New York City.

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Naomi Wolf is the author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries

14 Responses to "Closing Down an Open Society"

    Tim Mathers September 18th, 2007 at 10:46 am

    Ms. Wolf -- did we watch the same video?

    You describe "A very ordinary-looking American student was tasered by police when he asked a question of John Kerry about the impeachment of George Bush."

    I see a screaming, ranting lunatic who didn't ask a question so much as seek an inappropriate platform to vent his political rage. He didn't give Kerry a chance to answer, in fact he yelled over Mr. Kerry. He was disrupting the entire thing, and it is perfectly normal for security (be they paid security guards, campus police, or what have you) to take people away when they disrupt an event.

    You can see and hear on the video that security asked him to sit down, tried to guide him away by his arms, and only tackled him when he physically resisted.

    Is that really suppression? Was this an open forum for anyone to rant and rave, or were audience members supposed to ask questions and then listen to Mr. Kerry's answers?

    "His arms were pinned and as he tried to keep speaking he was shocked — in spite of begging not to be hurt."

    We can't actually see what kind of fight he may have been putting up, but we know he was struggling with police and refusing to leave the event. His "begging not to be hurt" came after a full minute of screaming and ranting and fighting the police.

    I'm at a loss as to how this isn't merely police dealing with a public nuisance but is rather evidence that Bush's storm troopers are actively gaining control over us.

    Robin Wallace September 18th, 2007 at 11:00 am

    This is great, Naomi--but I hope next time you'll tell us exactly HOW we can act to 'rebel in the name of the flag and the founders'. Is reading and writing blogs enough? What can we physically do to make a difference?

    Miss Gretchen September 18th, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    Ms Wolf, I can tell you that the sound of that young man's screams sold one of your books today.

    I was sitting in the parking lot of a chain bookstore, about to go in to get a coffee, when I heard the Dave Ross Report on the news, featuring this story. The report so rattled me that as I stood getting my stupid latte I had to choke back tears as I thought "am I in a Philip K. Dick novel or is this really happening?" As I went out the door, I bought your book (sorry Powells) (with cash.)

    I've given and recommended your book The Beauty Myth to more than one young woman (I left the fashion business to go into teaching, ((although I'm surely no saint, and enjoy endless amounts of pretty things,)) but at the top of my book wish list was another Naomi. However, today I hoped to be part of a sales "bump" for your essays.

    I've seen responses to this incident on a few blogs as well as on YouTube, and I have to shake my head in disbelief -- I guess there are a bunch of people from the suburbs who A) have seen too many episodes of "Cops" B) have never themselves been involved in a brawl of any kind, and imagine they know exactly what they'd do when jumped on by 5 people, be they police or no (people who are trained civil disobediants know how to drop limp in front of the police, regular folks might not) and C) have never participated in a town meeting or otherwise, where a well-known neighborhood person with an axe to grind might drone on for beyond their alloted two minutes -- perhaps for (gasp!) five minutes. When I went to watch the video with my own eyes, I was actually expecting a more dramatic performance, as I suspected that the clean cut young man was, you know (from FOIA reports from the 60s) "not who he appeared to be." But really all I saw was an earnest young man who was prepared to showboat, sure, but who was scared out of his mind when things got hairy.

    I'm going to watch the German movie "The Lives of Others" tonight, and remember a quote which I've tried to live by:

    (loose and disputed translation)

    First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn’t a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn't a Jew.

    Then they came for me, and there was no one left
    to speak up for me.

    -- Pastor Martin Niemöller

    daveinboca September 18th, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    The kid has a history of writing ridiculous stuff on the sports page of the campus paper and is notorious for his grandstanding on campus; not that that is a tasering offense. But he continued to resist arrest even after the cops had him surrounded. I go with the police using non-lethal force if this guy got up and tried to escape, as he did in the beginning.

    I think he wants to get into Columbia School of Journalism where misfits and attention-seekers like him congregate. They love attitude problem students who cheat on open-book ethics exams---takes a lot of ingenuity to do that!

    I can see why you identify with this complete scam artist, Naomi.

    Hans Erik Hermann September 19th, 2007 at 12:54 am

    Dear Ms. Wolf,
    I have now seen the video in my country (Denmark - a little kingdom many miles away from US).

    I must say I feel sorry for future prospects of freedom and democracy in your country.

    We have to protest against use of unnessearily use of police brutality.

    Unfortunate we see the same trend in Denmark.

    According to my oppinion it's really a bad democracy when it is using violence against itself.

    Kind regards,
    Hans Erik

    Jonathan Miller September 19th, 2007 at 2:27 am

    You are spot on Naomi. These scenes do terrible damage to the United States. Quite horrible.

    Mark Anderton September 19th, 2007 at 6:39 am

    Yeh I saw this happen before. It was at a zoo in Detroit where a monkey was going crazy. They had to put sedatives in his banana.

    DM September 19th, 2007 at 9:25 am

    "I think he wants to get into Columbia School of Journalism where misfits and attention-seekers."

    Speaking only for myself, may I say that I would take a misfit and attention-seeker like him over a frightened and cowardly conformist like you any day of the week.

    Richard Biggs September 19th, 2007 at 10:16 am

    Maybe it would help if we were all clear on exactly what part of the First Amendment was violated:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    How peaceably was Andrew Meyer assembling when he was talking over John Kerry and yelling at security guards who were trying to remove him in a reasonable manner?

    If you still want to make him a hero you should read this first:

    Miss Gretchen September 19th, 2007 at 10:44 am

    To those who posted more about the personality of the student, thank you, it's true I did find him "actor-ish," which is why I hold open the possibility that his motives are not what they seem. As well, he didn't seem like the kind of guy I'd choose to be my BFF. But that's just it, democracy is messy, if I want my civil liberties, then I have to support the KKK to march in Skokie (yes, that example really dates me.)

    There are many who condemn what happened who have no interest in making the guy a "hero," just like I don't vote for president by who I'd like to have a beer with, or like how there may be a politician where from what I know, I wouldn't want my young daughter working for him, but on the other hand, if he's doing his job, then the rest is not my business. Democracy exactly means holding the principle, judge not lest ye be judged.

    Billy Beck September 19th, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    "What we will not have is liberty."

    Take it easy, Naomi. Hillary hasn't been elected, yet.

    Jonathan Miller September 19th, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    America is even closer to a state of fascism than I had feared - to judge from the very large number of fanatics here and elsewhere who will rush forward to condemn those seeking to ask a question of a politician, and defend those engaged in the suppression of this expression. I find the student in this case entirely admirable and would hire him instantly for any newsroom for which I had responsibility.

    J Wood September 21st, 2007 at 7:58 am

    Hi there,

    I wanted to respond in part to #8 on the fascist list and in part to this post -- about the press. There's no real need to control the press, because it's already been restructured to be both investigatively toothless and almost exclusively responsive to spectacles.

    The press has always been drawn to spectacles, that's nothing new. But consider this: The proliferation of mass media in the 1960's and 1970's led to some of the largest social unrest in the U.S. since the Great Depression. People rioted, police fought with students, various minorities found their legal voices, and the status quo in place since WWII was overturned. Mass media played a large part in that. Dick Cavett's recent op-ed in the NY Times about Nixon trying to "screw" him speaks to how alarmed certain sectors of power became at the role of mass media, and they wanted to regain some measure of social and ideological control.

    So what to do? You can't just control the press; that flies in the face of the first amendment, and would just result in more social stress. The question was how to manipulate the press into a specific corner without them realizing it. This is where Reagan's sweeping media deregulation comes into play. Before then, a radio station couldn't have a license unless it maintained a news department. We had hour-long local newscasts, top and bottom of the hour newsbreaks, and there was a premium on investigative reporting. But news has never really been a money-making venture. When deregulation went through, the fences fell around all of those protected news zones. Something like 95% of all U.S. radio stations immediately ditched their news departments.

    This effectively had two consequences: 1.) It forced news media to compete with entertainment, and 2.) It hobbled both the amount and -- most importantly -- the quality of information the public had access to. (Which is partly a result of news media having to compete with entertainment, thus becoming more entertainment in its own right.) The other nice side effect is that it opened up the press entirely to market forces. Of course there's the libertarian argument that this is a good thing, but only if the people have enough knowledge to accurately and effectively judge the quality of their press in order to drive that market into a direction of more and better information.

    The Internet has made some interesting in-roads into a revitalized press, but it's still the wild west of information. I recently read something about how long-form investigative reporting still hasn't found a way to present itself online (can't recall where at the moment). The Internet is a free and open venue for discussion at the moment, but with the current net neutrality debates, we're seeing more and more measures being introduced to control access and content in a pay-to-play model that smacks of money equaling free speech.

    So what do we get with TV Taser Tag? A perfect spectacle that will be splashed all over the press, planting the subconscious fear of authority without bounds. The press doesn't have to be told to play something like that; they're already primed to do it, just like a water-skiing squirrel or an ex-football star's slow-speed chase, and to do it in a way that will reduce it to a soundbyte that leaves the audience more shocked or thrilled than informed.

    Thomas Jefferson said if a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be, and to remain free, it's the responsibility of every American to be informed. The struggle then becomes maintaining access to information against the tide spectacle and pap.


    (Hi Ms. Gretchen)

    Miss Gretchen September 21st, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    Hi J! Thanks for your thoughtful reply. When I try to explain to well-meaning but factually ignorant friends all the things that happened under "that nice man Uncle Ronnie" and how they snowballed, they just don't believe it. They surely would have heard about it at the time, right?

    And thanks for quoting Mr. Jefferson, yes, he was not perfect, and it is difficult to hold him up as a 100% hero. Well, welcome to the 21st century. There is still much to admire in his Renaissance Man career.

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