Sunday, October 21, 2007

Why We're Not Laughing...

Last week at a press conference, the Codpiece-in-Chief responded to a journalist's remarks about Putin's intention of retaining power after he steps down as President of Russia next year by joking that he "...had plans like that of his own".

Since this wit comes from a man who has several times in public joshed that things would be easier with a dictatotship, as long as he was the dictator, we are not laughing. Especially we are not laughing because he has set the stage so that, under unfortunate but quite possible future circumstances, something terrible could happen to our democracy.

I want to stress that American democracy, as an institution, is much more resiliant and vibrant than one might think. When, I write about the Third Galaxy, it is not because I think that this is what is will happen to America -- it is because these are the things that must not happen to America...

However, if America were to, God forbid, mutate into a closed, totalitarian society, it would certainly be fascist and not communist.

People mistakenly think that fascism is jack boots, crooked crosses, goose stepping soldiers and arms in rigid salute -- however, these are but trappings, window dressing.

Mussolini supposedly defined fascism as the corporative state, that is a union of politcal and economic power. With a few footnotes, this is true enough. By the way, did you know that a clique of industrialists had plans for a coup against President Roosevelt in the 1930's? Nothing came of it, partly because the man they proposed as a front figure for their putsch was General Smedley Butler, a Marine with two Comgressional Medals of Honor and a true patriot. He blew the whistle and the plans came to nothing. As this happened shortly before the confluence of madness we call the Second World War, the plot recieved little public noteriety.

Furthermore, the plot was, in fact, rather ameteurishly concieved. There are several things that need to be in place first in order to cow a population into submitting to an authoritarian dictatorship -- here is the "shopping list":

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

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).

2. Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law... [Halliburton, with a 400 million dollar no-bid contract, is building relocation centers with room for a quarter to a half-million people in the case of an undefined emergency.]

3. Develop a thug caste

When leaders who seek...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. [Private mercenaries in New Orleans, private "Minutemen" prowling borders, the "Watchmen on the Wall" in the Northwest US]

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 watched.
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...thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated by agents... [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... pro-democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, [are] 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...and thousands of ordinary US citizens.

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.
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 already.

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 papers.

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"... 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",

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...[In January, 2007, the President, in an Executive Order, declared that he can assume temporary dictatorial powers in order to defend the Constitution, in the case of an undefined emergency which he has the power to declare, for as long as that state of emergency lasts... ]

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."

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... is the definition of tyranny," wrote James Madison (4th President of the United States)

[These ten points and most of the comments were distilled from an article by Naomi Wolf, who, if you are familiar with Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, et. al ad nauseum, is a notorius "feminazi".]

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