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Naomi Wolf

Book Review

“Top-down edicts generate fear, but when citizens turn a blind-eye to state sanctions against others, so long as they believe themselves to be safe, a fascist reality has fertile ground in which to take root.

With these simple words written near the apex of the Bush II regime, Wolf captured a serious essence of our times. No society is safe from the autocrats, whether political, religious or plutocratic at root. And while such an event has receded some since this book was printed, it is an arresting exercise to realize the many parallels between America today and Nazi Germany and several other dictatorships are still with us. How it works is that a relatively sudden, historically speaking, event triggers a further series of events that culminate in dictatorship. The event needs only to generate fear in a populace and those in position to take power, either to promptly take over or to start the ball rolling toward autocracy. 911 provided just that opportunity in America. That event followed an historical pattern where we Americans, gladly but temporarily, gave up some of our freedoms for security. What makes 911 different, is that word temporarily. The so-called War on Terror has no end in sight--a feature the commander in chief emphasised again and again, as he continued to abridge freedom in America surreptitiously. That fear remains largely unabated. The present commander in chief has made some progress, as his predecessor had, but it now seems too little too late. Franklin Roosevelt may have been wiser than he knew when he said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

To the typical John and Jane Doe, these words were largely forgotten at the time this timely book was published, and for a good reason. Kept occupied by never-ending war on terror, maintaining an empire in the name of justice, and perennial boom-and-bust business cycles, and a paralyzing polarization of government, all Jane and John Doe could do was hunker down for the “duration." Even if you were not that “typical”, this reviewer was. Even being aware on other grounds, that fascism could come to America, I was missing the many details to cement the possibility. Wolf provides them and more.

It was hardly just willful behavior on the part of John and Jane Doe--they had already been “conditioned” by a compliant press. Further a despot who with impunity used signing statements to tell Congress and the world that he was in charge, of what laws he would enforce and to what degree, went unchallenged by a Congress all too eager to embrace the new order. Key posts in government that had, by tradition, been filled with professional experts in previous administrations were suddenly politicized to levels never seen before in American history. And that politicizing trickled down into the mid-level professional ranks. University grants were only approved if they met certain political tests. Again, most of these edicts went unchallenged by Congress. But that was not all, the very basis for our government and society was attacked as well. For one example, Wolf gives one that should have been involved, the Constitution. A serious and significant erosion of it was enabled by the 2007 budget. It changed the status of state militias: It stated simply that the President has the power to override any governor and call out his militia for reasons only the president needed to determine. Ironically, the Democrats share part of the blame since many went along with it.

If this was not enough, executive fiats eroded important parts of the Bill of Rights--most important perhaps being the suspension of Habeas Corpus, even for an American citizen, and allowing use of torture to coerce prisoners, if the President so determines. And it is made opaque by covering the deeds with a "national security blanket". Never mind that other interrogation methods proved to be more effective during WWII. A sociopath was in power and his distortion of reality persists in the Obama administration.

Shades of the Inquisition and Witch Hunts. This is just some of the “cream” in Wolf’s book. The worrisome part is that there are many Americans who feel safe in such an environment, even support it if only for the joy of “kicking ass.”

In a broader world-view of natural history, all this might be regarded as being a result of the tight connection between the two sides of our nature--put there by evolution (parenting + altruism vs dominance + Hierarchy). Certainly that is true. But, it simply points up the incompatibilities that arose and have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Humanity really is at war with itself.

In conclusion, no way does Wolf think America will become a dictatorship, at least not anytime soon. We agree, but nevertheless we are left with some disturbing questions:

  • Why are the torture facilities still open?
  • Why have so few of Bush's signing statements been rolled back?
  • Why has Congress not acted to limit preemptive presidential power?
  • Why does Obama still retain so much of the power Bush bestowed upon him?

On a personal level:

  • Why does Obama, when negotiating, come across as a person too often explaining why something cannot be done? He is not that way in the hallways.
  • People are human and can be influenced. Would Obama not be better off by focusing on what can be done, and pursuing those ideas with passion?


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