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“The End of America”: Feminist Social Critic Naomi Wolf Warns US in Slow Descent into Fascism

StoryNovember 28, 2007
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In her new book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Naomi Wolf says the United States is on the road to becoming a fascist society, right under our very noses. Wolf outlines what she sees as the ten steps to shut down a democratic society and argues that the Bush administration has already implemented many of these steps. Wolf is the author of several books, including the 1990s feminist classic, The Beauty Myth. [includes rush transcript]

Naomi Wolf joins me now in the firehouse studio.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re joined by a special guest who has just written a book. The United States is on the road to becoming a fascist society, right under our very noses. That’s the premise of the new book by feminist social critic Naomi Wolf. It’s called The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, and it’s already on the New York Times bestseller list.

Naomi Wolf outlines what she sees as the ten steps to shut down a democratic society. She argues the Bush administration has already implemented many of these steps. Naomi Wolf is the author of several books, including the ’90s feminist classic, The Beauty Myth.

Critics describe her latest book, The End of America, as a wake-up call to Americans to heed the lessons of history and fight to save their democracy before its too late.

Naomi Wolf joins us in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

NAOMI WOLF: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Start off with the stories that you tell in your book.

NAOMI WOLF: Well, they’re the stories of societies that were systematically closed down by would-be despots, would-be dictators, whether they were on the left or the right, who essentially developed a blueprint in the first part of the twentieth century to crush democracies or to crush democracy movements. So they’re also individual stories of how people react as a democracy is being closed down.

But I guess the book really began with a very personal story, because I was forced to write it, even though I didn’t really want to, by a dear friend who is a Holocaust survivor’s daughter. And when we spoke about news events, she kept saying, “They did this in Germany. They did this in Germany.” And I really didn’t think that made sense. I thought that was very extreme language. But finally she forced me to sit down and start reading the histories, of course, not of the later years, because she wasn’t talking about German outcomes, ’38, ’39; she was talking about the early years, 1930, ’31, ’32, when Germany was a parliamentary democracy, and there was this systematic assault using the rule of law to subvert the rule of law.

And once I saw how many parallels there were, not just in strategy and tactics that we’re seeing again today, but actually in images and sound bites and language, then I read other histories of Italy in the ’20s, Russia in the ’30s, East Germany in the ’50s, Czechoslovakia in the ’60s, Pinochet’s coup in Chile in ’73, the crushing of the democracy movement in China at the end of the ’80s. And I saw that there is a blueprint that would-be dictators always do the same ten things, whether they’re on the left or the right, and that we are seeing these ten steps taking place systematically right now in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Lay them out.

NAOMI WOLF: Well, they’re not happy. The first step is that all would-be dictators or would-be despots, which is what the founders of our country who foresaw exactly this kind of possibility would call them — all would-be dictators invoke a terrifying internal and external threat. And often it’s a real threat, which they will hype or manipulate. For instance, Stalin spoke about sleeper cells, which is one of those phrases that are being recirculated now by the Bush White House. And this was an invention. He said there were capitalist secret agents who were hiding among good Soviet citizens and who are going to rise up at a signal and create terrorist mayhem — fake story, but it worked to frighten citizens.

Pinochet talked about a real threat: armed insurgents. There were armed insurgents, but he hyped it using fake documents. And we saw — we see this a lot in the historical blueprint, that a would-be dictator will fake documents. His were called Plan Z. He claimed they were going to bomb infrastructure, assassinate leaders. We saw fake documents used by the White House to hype of a terror threat when they used the fake yellowcake documents to claim that Iraq was trying to secure yellowcake uranium. And remember the famous sound bite — “We can’t wait for the smoking gun to come in the form of a mushroom cloud” — to drive us into an illegal war with a nation we were not at war with.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about the language, like the Department of Homeland Security.

NAOMI WOLF: That is where I, as a social critic and a student of language, get really scared. It’s scary enough to see these ten steps, but what is terrifying to me personally is how many actual phrases are being recycled, and tactics. “Homeland security” — “heimat” —- became popularized by the National Socialists. Goebbels developed the practice of embedding journalists. Leni von Riefenstahl was embedded, for instance, in Poland. And we’re seeing embedded -—

AMY GOODMAN: She’s the famous German filmmaker.

NAOMI WOLF: Filmmaker. If you look at the sequence of, you know, Hitler descending in an airplane in von Riefenstahl’s famous Triumph of the Will

and being greeted by the uniformly armed paramilitary sort of surrounding their leader and him saying, “Help us accomplish our mission,” and then you look at other famous images from this administration —-

AMY GOODMAN: Like George Bush on “Mission Accomplished.”

NAOMI WOLF: “Mission Accomplished,” exactly right. You look at how, you know, Hitler said we have to invade Czechoslovakia because they’re a staging ground for terrorists and they’re abusing their ethnic minorities -— again, a country that we’re not at war with, when the WMD charge vanished, the White House said we have to invade Iraq because they’re a staging ground for terrorists and they’re abusing their ethnic minorities. On and on and on.

I mean, this one scare’s me to death. You know, Mussolini developed — again, a parliamentary democracy, Italy was, in the teens and into 1920. He developed the Blackshirts, which were these paramilitary thugs that beat up newspaper editors, terrorized the population, and they intimidated people counting the vote in Milan. And then Hitler studied Mussolini, so many things were repeated by Hitler. Stalin studied Hitler, Hitler studied Stalin. But Hitler developed the Brownshirts, the SA, who intimidated people counting the vote in Austria. So 90% of them voted for their own annexation, because they were the Brownshirts. And you saw this scene of identically dressed Republican staffers in Florida in 2000 intimidating people counting the vote.

So things like that are really chilling. And they’re more and more chilling as — I think right now people are kind of ramping up their awareness of these echoes, and what you also see predictably, because the blueprint is predictive, is that the White House is ramping up its implementation of some of the scariest aspects of its crackdown.

AMY GOODMAN: You began with these stories back in the summer of 2006 of headlines from a two-week period. Give some of those examples.

NAOMI WOLF: Well, 2006 seems so long ago and so innocent a time, considering how swiftly we’ve zoomed along implementing this blueprint or we’re suffering this implementation. In 2006, a blogger was jailed in San Francisco. In 2006, people in Alabama couldn’t get a fair hearing for protecting voter rolls. There was the beginning of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, in which the state basically legalized torture, which is one of these crucial turning points as an open society closes down.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about Christine Axsmith, the computer security expert working for the CIA, who, what, wrote — posted a message on a blog site on a top-secret computer network, criticizing waterboarding —-

NAOMI WOLF: Waterboarding.

AMY GOODMAN: —- saying waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong.

NAOMI WOLF: And then she lost her security clearance. She’s one of many, many whistleblowers, key individuals, who have tried to take a stand against some of these positions and who have faced — again, in a closing society this is what happens. This is step seven: target key individuals. They face job loss, character assassination or worse. Valerie Plame’s bolts were taken away from her back deck, fifty feet off the ground. She has two toddlers. People are being put on the watch list for criticizing the government, for engaging in antiwar protest. Their kids are being put on the watch list. But, yeah, back then, all she said was it’s wrong. And now we’ve just confirmed an attorney general who pretends not to know what waterboarding is, because if he acknowledged that it’s against US and international law, he’d be confirming the fact that there are criminals in the White House right now who have already staged a coup.

AMY GOODMAN: You say step three is establishing secret prisons.

NAOMI WOLF: That’s right. You establish secret prisons, and what I mean by that is unaccountable prisons where torture takes place. And often there will be a military tribunal system set in place. Lenin pioneered that. Mussolini developed the confino system. Hitler again studied Mussolini and developed the People’s Court.

And what starts to happen is — and this is what’s so scary about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and these black sites around the world — apart from the moral issue — and your interview just now with the Palestinian representative brought me to tears, because when he said it’s not just the Palestinians he’s concerned about, it’s the Israelis who lose their souls by this kind of occupation — it’s not just the often-innocent prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and these black sites around the world we should be concerned about, it’s our own American souls that are at stake. But just for purely personal reasons, we should be afraid when the state starts to torture people that it sees as at the margins or that citizens see at the margins: brown people on an island in Guantanamo with Muslim names, whatever. That’s what they did in Germany in ’31, ’32: anarchists, communists, Gypsies, Jews, whatever, homosexuals, whatever. You know, people didn’t care, because they were seen as at the margins. People knew about the torture cellars in Germany.

But then, what always happens, always — you can’t name a society in which this doesn’t happen, Amy — is that there’s a blurring of the line. And once the state legalizes torture of people at the margins, inevitably it will begin to direct state abuse at people at the heart of civil society, and it’s always the same cast of characters: journalists, editors, opposition leaders, outspoken clergy and labor leaders. And when that starts to happen, society can close down in a heartbeat, because people start to sensor themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. During the lead up to Nazi Germany, American reporters were fired by their American editors, pulled back from Germany, because they were sounding the warning. They were saying, “We’re seeing a fascist society build.” And they were told that they were biased, they were not understanding the circumstances in which Hitler was rising up, people were concerned about their economy, they had been devastated, and that they were being alarmist.

NAOMI WOLF: Interesting. That’s really interesting. I mean, I’m immediately thinking, as you say that, which I actually hadn’t known, that — thinking of a lot of books I’ve been reading lately about deep US involvement. Some corporations were deeply involved in Nazi Germany, making millions, like IBM. How did they round people up so quickly, you know, in Germany when they were rounding up the Jews so fast? It’s because IBM had developed this prototype of a punch card system, and they were secretly working with the Nazis. Prescott Bush, Bush’s grandfather, was making millions in consolidation with Krupp, Thyssen, and it’s very interesting to me, because in the Nuremberg trials they went after these industrialists like Krupp, and so there was a moment at which the Nuremberg trial was about to identify supporters of these war crimes who were US collaborators.

AMY GOODMAN: But they didn’t.

NAOMI WOLF: But they didn’t. But I think it’s interesting that there is that historical memory in the family.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s the question of who controlled the trials, right? It’s the question of who controlled the trials and not wanting their own people to be involved.


AMY GOODMAN: You talk then — four, developing a paramilitary force and surveilling ordinary citizens. Those are the fourth and fifth steps.

NAOMI WOLF: Yeah, that’s another big one. I just want to note about the blurring of the line why we’re in such a moment of danger right now. The President has said that he can say, “Amy Goodman, you’re an enemy combatant. Naomi Wolf, you’re an enemy combatant. This guy behind the camera, you’re an enemy combatant. A person walking down the street, enemy combatant. can be anyone. A person walking down the street, enemy combatant.” And it doesn’t matter that we’re innocent US citizens. I mean, we could be Republicans, we could be evangelicals. It doesn’t matter. He can take us, and if he says it’s true, that makes it true, because it’s a status offense, and he can put us in a ten-by-twelve-foot cell in a Navy brig in solitary confinement for three years, making it difficult for us to see our families, to contact an attorney, to get charges filed.

They can’t torture us yet, though I was chilled to learn that an adviser to the White House was reported in a British newspaper yesterday as not ruling out waterboarding against US citizens. However, psychologists know that prolonged isolation makes sane people insane. That’s what happened to Jose Padilla. So, you know, when I say everyone’s got their moment at which they start to silence themselves, the day I read in the New York Times that someone I identify with has been named an enemy combatant and is sitting in a Navy brig in isolation, that’s when I’m going to stop talking in a context like this, because that’s when I will become too afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Naomi Wolf. Her book is The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Number six in these ten steps toward fascism: infiltrate citizen groups. Seven: arbitrarily detain and release citizens. Eight: target key individuals. Infiltrate citizens’ groups, the evidence?

NAOMI WOLF: Well, the ACLU is suing many agents of the state for illegally infiltrating citizens’ groups. It’s not a new thing in the United States. COINTELPRO did it quite a lot. But it is a hallmark — it’s an extension of a surveillance society, and it’s a hallmark. It’s an extension of step number four, which was the surveillance apparatus. Now, you can’t close down a democracy without a surveillance apparatus aimed at ordinary citizens. And what many of us know is that there’s been a heightening of surveillance in the wake of 9/11.

But what we’ve got to understand is that our country is unique right now in directing the crackdown on civil liberties and surveillance at citizens. In countries like England and Spain, experienced the same terror attacks, the same kind of terror attacks by the same bad guys that we did, but they’re not using that as a pretext to strip citizens of civil liberties in the same way. And what is so terrifying — again, Italy had a surveillance apparatus, people were informing on each other; Germany, surveillance, the Stasi in East Germany. You couldn’t have a conversation with your neighbor without fearing that it was going to go into your file.

You can’t close down a society without a paramilitary force. We skipped over that one. It’s very important. Blackwater, the Blackshirts, the Brownshirts, that’s not answerable to the people, and surveillance.

So why am I petrified, you know, when I read about Blackwater and about surveillance? I was on the watch list for a year and a half, Amy, which means that every time I got on a plane, I got taken aside for extra searching, quadruple-S high-risk Naomi, you know. And I was told, “You’re on a list.” And I found out that many critics of the administration are on the list: ACLU staffers, Ted Kennedy, antiwar activists, David Altoon [phon.], a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who was critical of the Iraq war. Not only is he on the list, but people who come to me in tears after my readings are more upset that now their kids are on the list if they write a letter critical of the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been able to get off the list?

NAOMI WOLF: Well, I was off the list ’til this book came out, and now I’m back on the list. Why is this more than a sort of irritation? Or, you know, in a strong society, it’s just like whatever, you know, it’s a kind of compliment. But in a closing society, it gets very frightening. In February, the management of the list, which has swollen from 45,000 to 775,000 Americans — they’re adding 20,000 names a month, right? Where are they getting those names? Remember when I said, how do they round up people so quickly in a closing society? The management of the lists is going to go from the airlines to the government. And in February, unless we push back this regulation — it’s being slipped in very quietly — we are going to have to apply to the state to get an airline ticket to cross a border, which moves us from 1931 to about 1936.

AMY GOODMAN: Number nine and number ten of your steps toward fascism: restrict the press; cast criticism as espionage, dissent as treason. Subvert the rule of law is eleven. What is the patriot’s task, where you conclude?

NAOMI WOLF: Well, the patriot’s task is, first, wake up. I mean, all around the world, democracy activists who are familiar with these same ten steps are sort of waving their arms at us, going, “No! You know, recognize this.” You don’t make it easier for the President to declare martial law, as we just did with the 2007 Defense Authorization Act. You don’t make it easier for the President to lock up political opponents in a cell or strip people of habeas corpus. No, you don’t make it easier for the President to have a paramilitary force like Blackwater, composed of hand-selected torturers and murderers from countries like Chile and Nigeria and El Salvador, where they’re trained to torture their own civilians. You know, you don’t set them loose in Illinois and Southern California and North Carolina. No! Bad idea! So, first, you wake up. You see the blueprint.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

NAOMI WOLF: Finally, we have to — we started the It’s a democracy movement to restore the rule of law. We’re calling for lawyers across the country and citizens to call for hearings, special prosecutor, identify the crimes, impeach and prosecute, and save the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Wolf, I want to thank you for being with us. Do you think Democratic candidates are raising these issues, for president?

NAOMI WOLF: Not enough. This is a transpartisan issue, and we all need to push them, hold their feet to the fire across the board.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Wolf’s book is The End of America. Thank you for being with us.

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