Review: The End of America, Naomi Wolf
Published in The Bulletin, 23 October 2007. Copyright Rachel Hills 2007.
The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot
By Naomi Wolf
Reviewed by Rachel Hills
It is hard not to be cynical about a book titled as audaciously as Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.
Throughout the Bush years, ‘America has gone to the dogs’ titles have proliferated to the point that they almost warrant their own section at the bookstore. Whatever the veracity of their claims, the cumulative effect of such books has been less to stir citizens to action than to dull them to their arguments.
In part, this is a result of the natural resistance most of us feel towards anything that sniffs of hyperbole — something conservative commentators like William Kristol (and in Australia, Gerard Henderson) have run with, positioning those who complain of stifled dissent as members of a hysterical far-Left. In part, it’s because the idea of a country as synonymous with liberty as the United States shifting away from democracy is so foreign that we can’t fully conceive it.
What makes The End of America remarkable is that Wolf manages to overcome these natural cynicisms, painting a picture of the US that is chilling without being overstated.
The book is premised on the idea that the US is currently undergoing a “fascist shift” in the vein of Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. Few people would feel comfortable comparing the behaviour of the Bush Administration, however condemnable, to Hitler’s National Socialists — but Wolf says her use of such terms was not “heated or even rhetorical” but “technical.”
The problem, according to Wolf, is that, “Americans tend to think of the shift to fascism in scary set pieces: the boots on the stairs, the knock in the middle of the night, the marching columns, the massive banners waving over city streets.” In fact, the evolution from an open, democratic society to a closed, controlled one happens incrementally, and the people living through it “often experience a brighter picture of what is going on than what the history to be written in the future will reveal” — particularly in the early stages.
“A shift toward violent dictatorship does not need to look like people being fed into ovens,” writes Wolf.
So what does it look like, then? The End of America identifies the steps taken by totalitarian regimes to close down a free and open society: identifying an internal and external threat (that’d be terrorism); establishing secret prisons (Guantanamo); developing a paramilitary force (Blackwater); monitoring ordinary citizens and infiltrating citizens groups; arbitrarily detaining and releasing citizens; attacking academics, journalists and entertainers; framing dissent as treason; and subverting the rule of law.
Every one of these applies to the United States post-September 11, says Wolf. In 2005, the New York Times exposed a program monitoring ordinary citizens’ phone calls and emails without legal warrant. In March this year, nine US attorneys were fired abruptly, reportedly for insufficient loyalty to White House policies. Wolf herself is searched almost every time she boards a US domestic flight.
Australians might see parallels in our own country — most recently in the detention of Mohammad Haneef and the surveillance of activist groups in the lead up to September’s APEC conference.
It is not safe to assume that this kind of harassment will only apply to guilty parties, or in exceptional circumstances, says Wolf — governments and police can and do make mistakes, and besides, the US President has claimed the authority to arrest anyone he deems an enemy combatant.
The US may not be a fascist state, says Wolf, but it is a “weakened democracy.” And while we’re unlikely to see the kind of military coup we saw in Thailand in 2006, Wolf believes “we now have a legal infrastructure in place that could support a ‘paper coup’ — a more civilised, more marketable version of a real crackdown.”
If it sounds a little out there here in Australia, Wolf says that’s not the case in the States. Nor is it just a Leftie thing. “I am horrified at how much validation I’m getting by American citizens across the spectrum.”
So what can be done to heal America’s weakened democracy? A change of administration at the 2008 Presidential election won’t be enough, says Wolf — a President Clinton or Obama would be just as concerning as President Bush without the proper checks and balances in place. Instead, Americans need to lobby their representatives with demands to restore the rule of law.
Countries like Australia need to get involved too, says Wolf — it’s in our national interest. “If America is as powerful as it is constrained by democracy, there’s no power in the world that could constrain an America unconstrained by democracy.”
And if no one does anything? Wolf says it isn’t an option. “I don’t think there is a choice.”