America’s Twilight

By Donald Gutierrez

Naomi Wolf’s short book The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot [Chelsea Green, 2007] begins with a quote from Justice William O. Douglas: “A nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such a twilight that we all must be aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwilling victims of the darkness.”

Douglas’s sentiment is central to Wolf’s book which warns that a society can be in the process of moving from a democratic to a fascist society without most people realizing it. Wolf uses parallel examples from Fascist Italy and Germany to show that dictators like Mussolini and Hitler came to absolute power within democratic institutions. She terms this process a “fascist shift”: “Both Italian and German fascisms came to power legally and incrementally in functioning democracies; both used legislation, cultural pressure and baseless imprisonment and torture, progressively to consolidate power. ... both aggressively used the law to subvert the law.”

This process, Wolf asserts, is underway in our country right now. Though Brownshirts are not storming through Greenwich Village beating up NYU student activists or liberal professors, there are signs that America is indeed becoming a closed society. End exhibits this ominous process as ten steps: Invoke an External Threat, Establish Secret Prisons, Develop a Paramilitary Force, Infiltrate Citizen Groups, Arbitrarily Detain and Release Citizens, Target key Individuals, Restrict the Press, Cast Criticism as “Espionage” and Dissent as ‘Treason,” Subvert the Rule of Law. Just eight of these steps turned Thailand into a police state within days, and the same process, Wolf warns, is occurring here, if more subtly and gradually.

End is a Wake-Up call to make Americans realize that we reside in Justice Douglas’s “twilight” and are moving towards the darkness of fascism. Wolf’s discussions of the steps are so richly suggestive that space only allows brief allusions to each.

Totalitarian Italy, Germany and Russia justified their existence and their increasing and finally totally illegal power by urging the existence of a dangerous external enemy. To perpetuate the threat, these regimes privately wanted that enemy sustained. In this sense the Bush administration’s “War-on-Terrorism” fixation is ideal. Claiming to have a dangerous external enemy turns internal dissent into treason, making constitutionally-protected criticism ultimately condemnable. Such a fraudulent emergency, Wolf urges, led to Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933 and Bush’s Signing Statements, both crucial strategems for cicumventing parliamentary/Congressional checks and balances.

More dramatically alarming is Wolf’s Establish-Secret-Private-Prisons step. This elicits Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, all the Black Cells extended globally. Wolf then formulates a major insight about her pivotal phrase “fascist shift”: “A secret prison system without habeus corpus is the cornerstone of every dictatorship.” Though Stalin’s gulags might come to mind, Wolf stresses that Guantanamo ultimately threatens us, especially considering Bush’s National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 which menaces all Americans by putting civil society under martial law, thereby allowing for detentionary treatment of critic — “traitors” of the regime.

Paramilitary Forces suggest both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s gaggles of thugs increasingly organized to commit targeted violence against enemies. Wolf connects this parallel with material from Jeremy Scahill’s brilliant work on the paramilitary corporation Blackwater, including its disturbing presence and arguably criminal conduct on New Orleans streets after Katrina.

Increasingly widespread government snooping, such as covertly checking the e-mails, phone calls and bank records of millions of Americans, is obviously a major example of surveillance today. One not mentioned in End is the enormous degree of surveillance occurring on college campuses (see “Repress U.” essay in The Nation, 1/28/08). Wolf’s haunting quotation, “Surveillance leads to fear and fear leads to silence,” provides a central insight about any police state. Warrantless surveillance, chilling enough, if made into law (now pending), would shift America even closer to Orwell’s “1984.”

Government spies infiltrate dissident organizations, even including “Veterans for Peace”, while the step Arbitrary Detention and Release is observable in the 75,000 Americans (including Wolf) on the “No Fly List.” Targeting key individuals is effective through silencing dissident leaders and thus intimidating the general population. And a graphic example of Restricting the Press is the US military threatening to fire on independent (including American) journalists if they transmit stories electronically, as well as forcing them to reveal their political attitude towards the Iraq War. The broadest instance of press restriction has been the manipulation of the press by the White House to convey lies—935, latest count—to justify the 2003 invasion.

Criticism as Espionage and Dissent as Treason suggest an advanced phase of Wolf’s “fascist shift,” as it could destroy key areas of the Constitution through several means, such as HR 1955 which, if passed by the Senate, could virtually criminalize and thus potentially repress any public expression of “suspicious” ideas or thoughts.

Wolf’s nine steps climax darkly in the Subversion of the Rule of Law. As with Hitler, this process, which Wolf claims can occur quickly, involves a series of increasing demands by a leader for more power, more rights until a tipping point is reached at which a checks-and-balances system collapses and the president becomes the Supreme Leader. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 further subvert the political and legal institutions designed to protect the public from government autocracy. The MCA allows the government to declare any American an “Enemy Combatant” at the President’s will.

End embodies a rousing call to activism because, instead of focusing only on Bush’s and the Office of Legal Counsel’s extremely serious violations of the Constitution, it piles up ten to arrive at a powerful condemnation of dangerous government malfeasance. If Wolf’s bold comparisons of the Bush administration with the brutal solidification of tyranny achieved by Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini might appear excessive to some, it is nevertheless the alarming similitude of those comparisons that should make Americans subordinate their daily concerns and begin taking civil action against a government regime that is taking their freedom and ultimately their country away from them.

Donald K. Gutierrez is professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2008

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