Is it hyperbole to title a book The End of America? Those of you who read the Huffington Post may have seen excerpts there from the introduction of my new book of that title that is now out by Chelsea Green; the book argues that there are ten classic steps dictators or would-be dictators always take when they wish to close down an open society or crush a movement toward democracy — and that each of these ten steps have been taken systematically in the US in the past six years. I argue in the book that, based on the models from history that show such clear, shocking parallels to the situation in the US today, we are much further along in this process than most of us realize — and that the time for understanding and action is now.
The chapters show how recognizable these ten steps are. Whether the despot is operating in Italy in the '20s, Germany in the '30s, East Germany in the '50s, Czechoslovakia in the '60s, Chile in 1973 or China in the '80s, each of them reproduces 'the blueprint' to engineer a closed society. Would-be despots always:
â€¢ Invoke an internal and external threat (it can often be a hyped version — as in the cases of Stalin and Pinochet — of a real threat);
â€¢ Establish secret prisons outside the rule of law where torture takes place — they often also create military tribunals;
â€¢ Establish a paramilitary force — many of you are familiar with the rise of Blackwater, a powerful mercenary army that is now operating in US cities;
â€¢ Train a surveillance apparatus at ordinary citizens — you know now that your emails, phone calls and bank records are open to scrutiny by the state;
â€¢ Arbitrarily detain and release citizens — you may be familiar with the growth of the TSA watch list, and the fact that increasingly, American administration critics are being singled out for scrutiny or worse (see also today's paper about a blameless music teacher from Mills College who was seized and intimidated by the TSA before being told she could not reenter the United States where she had been living for years);
â€¢ Infiltrate and harass citizens' groups — the ACLU has many lawsuits underway exposing the extent of the infiltration of your local peace or environmental group;
â€¢ Target key individuals — civil society leaders begin to experience job setbacks, personal smears, retaliation of increasingly serious kinds as they stand up to the administration;
â€¢ Target the press — I describe many suspicious cases of violence against non-embedded working journalists in Iraq, as well as more familiar domestic threats against reporters such as warnings that they will be prosecuted under the Espionage Act — a law that, when it was last used widely, sent a generation of activists, editors and journalists to prison, where some were beaten, for crimes such as criticizing the war (it was at that time the Great War they were imprisoned for speaking against);
â€¢ Recast criticism as 'espionage' and dissent as 'treason' — there is a major push right now to criminalize certain kinds of speaking out against the administration; it is disturbingly familiar to students of history to see language such as 'treason' resurface when politicians such as Mrs. Clinton criticize the war, and to hear drumbeats on the right to prosecute such people as Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, for treason — the penalty for treason is execution. (The publisher of Isvestia was actually prosecuted for treason in the Third Moscow show trial — and in fact executed);
â€¢ Make it easier to declare a state of emergency and martial law — the 2007 Defense Authorization Act gives the President the power to declare a state of emergency on essentially his say-so alone — and send in the National Guard to enforce emergency rule — over the objections of governors of the various states.
We are at the point right now at which one arrest — an editor prosecuted successfully under the Espionage Act, or an activist identified by the President as an 'enemy combatant' — can close down our democracy precipitously. This is not an overstatement.
What is clear from looking at the examples of what I call the 'fascist shift' in other times and places is that once there is a certain point of pressure reached in terms of multiple assaults on a democracy, we have to understand that democracy can no longer heal democracy and a point arrives quickly at which there can be no turning back. We are close to that point. By the way, our nation's founders understood this innate fragility of democracy much better than we do; they set up our checks and balances as they did precisely because they had come from or their parents had fled repressive regimes; they knew beyond a doubt that a despot could arise in America to oppress Americans; and they realized without question that it is human nature to abuse power if power is unchecked. We need to reclaim their urgent sense of how difficult it is to sustain a democracy and how easy it is to close one down if we are to take action — to lead a democracy movement here in America — in time to essentially save our nation. There is no less than that at stake.
The historical record shows that these turning points are sudden once certain elements have been put into place. This morning I read in the New York Times about Nalini Ghuman, an assistant professor at Mills College in Oakland, California, who was taken to a room by the TSA, intimidated and told that if she moved she would be accused of trying to assault the agent questioning her. Having studied 'the blueprint' for The End of America, this saddened but did not shock me; it is simply part of the set of steps. Classically, when despots try to close down an open society, they begin their arrests or detentions with 'others' — those considered alien, hostile, beyond the pale — then move their harassment closer and closer to the kinds of people that you and I begin to identify with. What I am warning Americans about with great urgency and a sense of personal anxiety as these examples, that began in trickles as I began to write, start to cascade, is that it takes ONE such arrest of someone we identify with — an editor, a journalist, a member of the political opposition — to silence dissent. This blog I am writing now is part of the 'before' in a closing America; but if tomorrow I read in the Washington Post that a newspaper editor was called an 'enemy combatant' and was being held in solitary confinement — a power the White House argues the President may exert on his say-so alone — I would not be writing in this way, because I am not that brave. Democratic modern societies do not close down in a coup or a 'night of the long knives'; they close down in a network of assaults on laws and individuals like the ones I am describing. After such an arrest, newspapers would continue to publish, TV would continue to blare, we would still have internet shopping and NFL games; what we would not have is the condition of liberty. And once such a 'tipping point' moment is reached, the other such moments that we can expect — if we do not stand up in time and recognize â€˜the blueprint' to orient us in our resistance — will come thick and fast, as we are beginning to witness now even before such an arrest has taken place.
Know the blueprint; understand it. Nothing less than freedom depends on you.
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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.
Books mentioned in this post
Naomi Wolf is the author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries