Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Naomi Wolf's End of America: A Valid Concept, But Need More System

Well, I still haven't read Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, but I have now read what appears to be one of his inspirations, Naomi Wolf's The End of America. Goldberg makes no secret that Wolf was one of the people that Liberal Fascism was intended to refute, "I think it is simply amazing that so many liberals who are cavalier about calling conservatives fascists are suddenly willing to become so doctrinaire about what fascism is. It’s like Naomi Wolf insisting that we are literally living in early 1930s Germany. This is paranoid and cartoonish thinking." Indeed, Goldberg appears to believe that in order to worthy of respect any liberal must first repudiate Wolf and preferably "spen[d] your days . . . denouncing Namoi Wolf, Christopher Hedges and the legions of other liberals who have accused today’s conservatives of being Nazis and Fascists."

So, what has Wolf said to get Goldberg so upset? She argues that under George Bush we are experiencing a "fascist shift," meaning that democracy is being undermined in numerous (specifically ten) ways, and that we are heading toward a dictatorship. Or, as she puts is (p. 21):

When I talk about a "fascist shift" in America, I am talking about an antidemocratic ideology that uses the threat of violence against the individual to subdue the institutions of civil society so that they in turn can be subordinated to the power of the state.
Perhaps if she had used the more precise and less inflammatory term "dictatorial shift," we might have been spared Liberal Fascism!

Wolf's basic argument is that all dictatorships use ten basic steps to suppress freedom and democracy, and that the Bush Administration has adopted all ten. She then addresses each anti-democratic strategy individually, comparing the actions of the Bush Administration to the actions of various dictatorships -- Mussolini and Hitler, Stalin, Chile under Pinochet, Communist East Germany and Czechoslovakia and China (as it is today, not China under Mao). The most obvious question about Wolf's book is whether her technique of comparing the Bush Administration to these dictatorships is legitimate.

Certainly comparing Bush's genuinely dictatorial behavior such as secret prisons, illegal wiretaps, torture, or harrassing dissenters is a good deal more legitimate than Goldberg's approach of finding any similarity between liberals and fascists (such as liking organic food!) to paint them as kindred spirits. But Wolf often makes the same error (so much so that I wonder if Goldberg's book began as a parody), failing to understand the difference between serious and superficial resemblance. Comparing Bush's interrogations techniques to those used by Nazis or Stalinists, or his encouragement of informers to spy networks under dictatorships is legitimate. But Wolf sounds foolish claiming that Bush is like a dictator because Hitler also used the term "homeland" (p. 7) or "war footing" (p. 9) or because Stalin used the term "sleeper cell" (p. 10). There is nothing sinister about Rumsfeld talking about "New Europe" just because Hitler also used the term (p. 35) or Bush calling three of his aides the "iron triangle" just because the Chinese use that term to mean three forms of surveillance (p. 83).

That being said, most of the comparisons do legitimately show how Bush is behaving like a dictator. But they are not really systematic portrayals of how dictatorships work. Wolf describes ten anti-democratic behaviors by the Bush Administration and then picks and chooses a similar behavior by a dictatorship as a comparison. But she never demonstrates how each dictatorship employs all ten techniques. Yes, this would make for a longer book, but the descriptions could be concise. This would more effectively make the point that dictatorships are not all the same, but they do have certain common features, in different forms.

Nor is there any real method to how Wolf chooses which dictatorships to use as examples. There are and have been many dictatorships, after all. Why those seven and not some others? The book would be stronger if Wolf could offer some recognizable system for the dictatorships she uses as examples.

What sort of criteria? There are several possibilities. On page 20, Wolf quite correctly points out that the distinction between democracy and dictatorship is by no means black and white; there is a wide spectrum of gray. Dictatorships can be harsh or mild, and democracies can do undemocratic things. One system she might have used would be to choose a wide spectrum of dictatorships from harsh to mild. She could then show how the ten steps look different under harsher or milder dictatorships, but still achieve the same thing.

Wolf frequently emphasizes the fragility of democracy and points out that both Mussolini and Hitler came to power by election and then undermined democracy from within. This is a perfectly legitimate point. Another system she could have used in choosing dictatorships would have been to use only dictatorships that replaced democracies and demonstrate how they destroyed democratic institutions. Wolf does this to some extent (but not systematically) with Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. She hardly discusses it at all in Chile or Czechoslovakia, although these were also ex-democracies. And a focus on ex-democracies would mean leaving the Soviet Union, East Germany and China off the list and instead including others such as Spain or Portugal.

Alternately, if Wolf wants to focus only on how elected leaders can undermine democracy, her choices were be narrower. Democracies do not always fail in the same way. In Germany and Italy democracy fell victim to undemocratic politicians who nonetheless came to power by election. Though less famous and dramatic, Antonio Salazar of Portugal came to power by the same route. But democracy in Spain fell victim to a ruinous civil war; in Chile it fell to a bloody coup, and in post-WWII Czechoslovakia, the Communists seized power by a mixture of subversion of democracy from within, rebellion from without, and coup. She could write about how Mussolini, Hitler, Salazar and the Czech Communists manipulated, undermined and finally destroyed democracy. This would call for more detail and a more chronological approach than the one she took. (Four more chapters, maybe?)

In any event, some (not all) of the Bush Administration's behavior really does resemble the behavior of a dictatorship. The comparison (at least to some degree) is legitimate. But if Wolf really wants to make her case, she should be more systematic about it.

Next post: The Ten Steps

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Blogger Jkat said...

well .. you have more fortitude that i do .. i tried to read naomi .. but i only made it about half way through before i simply lost interest ..

i had the same questions about methodology you voice here .. but wasn't so kind in my assessment .. i found nothing profound in naomi's work to hold my interest ..

but i shudder to think you're going to subject yourself to the torture of reading jonah goldberg .. you're going to need a clothespin to put over your nose .. some mentholatum for underneath it .. [in case the clothespin falls off] .. and some strong anti-psychotic medications to keep you from going totally bonkers with questions like "why am i doing this ..again ??" "is there supposed to be something here ??" shouldn't i really should be doing something more intersting .. like watching paint dry someplace ??"

good luck kiddo .. lol

i followed you here from balkinaztion EL.. i enjoy your postings .. just thought i'd leave some evidence i came by ... best to ya ..

Jkat ...

5:56 PM  
Blogger Enlightened Layperson said...


Gee, thanks! Hope to see you again! BTW, does your comment mean that you actually have tackled Goldberg?

9:43 PM  
Blogger Jkat said...

EL .. naaww .. lol .. i haven't read goldberg .. what little i knowf him and his book ..and his history .. comes from reading GGreenwald for a long time now ..

best ...


10:13 PM  

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