Sunday, June 08, 2008

Steps Seven through Ten

The final steps listed in Naomi Wolf's The End of America:

Step 7, Target key individuals. The primary "key individuals" Wolf has in mind are government employees, artists and entertainers, and university professors, all of whom either the Bush Administration or its supporters have sought to pressure to toe the line. These attempts are not all equally serious or alarming. There is nothing new about private citizens boycotting artists and their commercial sponsors as a way of exerting pressure. This is not coercive action by the state and is all perfectly constitutional. There is some state coercion in the case of attempts to pressure professors at state universities, but generally tenure makes professors more or less invulnerable. Government employees, despite the apparent protection of civil service laws, are genuinely vulnerable to pressure. There have been cases (which Wolf discusses) of government employees denied promotions, pressured into changing opinions, or squeezed into retirement for holding dissenting views. This is alarming for reasons I hope to discuss further in a future post -- it turns the vast power and weight of the federal government into an instrument of personal and partisan advancement. But it falls well short of genuine dictatorships.

Step 8, Retrict the press. As with secret prisons, Wolf sees a split here, with legal nicities preserved in the case of citizens, but the gloves coming off with non-citizens. In Iraq, Arab journalists are harrassed, imprisoned and even made targets of bombings. US journalists are safe from physical violence, but there have been more subtle forms of pressure. The government has pressured publicly funded outlets such as PBS to toe the line, while private supporters organize boycotts of unfriendly networks. The Administration has planted fake stories in the news and sought to pass off its own propaganda tapes as independent journalism. They have harrassed and subpoenaed reporters writing about sensitive topics. (Wolf also wastes an inordinate amount of space comparing Bush's "Mission Accomplished" footage to Nazi propaganda films. So it was stage managed! All Presidents do that).

Since The End of American was published, further developments on the Bush Administration's attempts to manipulate the press have come to light. The most recent revelation has been the military analysts, posing as neutral experts on network news, were actually being brief on what to say by the Pentagon. Analysts who showed too much independence were frozen out. As one Pentagon employee said,
I recommend we develop a core group from within our media analyst list of those that we can count on to carry our water. They become part of a "hot list" of those that we immediately make calls to or put on an email distro list before we contact or respond to media on hot issues. We can also do more proactive engagement with this list and give them tips on what stories to focus on and give them heads up on issues as they are developing. By providing them with key and valuable information, they become the key go to guys for the networks and it begins to weed out the less reliably friendly analysts by the networks themselves.
And, indeed, pro-war, pro-administration military "experts" dominated the airwaves. MSNBC fired Phil Donahue, its only war critic. Donahue later reported that MSNBC had an express policy that war supporters could be featured alone, but that every war critic had to be matched with a war supporter. There were to be two conservatives featured for every one liberal. In short, the Administration was quite successful in procuring the submission of national broadcast news in the run-up to the Iraq war. Talk radio, of course, was little more than a Bush mouthpiece. But newspapers have proved more grittily independent. Top notch investigative reporters have printed many stories exposing the abuses of the Bush Administration. The Administration's usual response has been to dismiss such stories as artifacts of a "liberal bias." This belief has been drilled so far into the heads of its hard-core followers that they disbelieve anything no officially approved. But over time, reality becomes harder and harder to deny.

Step 9, Cast criticism as "espionage" and dissent as treason. There is no doubt that Bush supporters do throw the word "treason" around all too loosely. Despite Wolf's alarm, however, there is nothing new about this, even in the United States. Fortunately our Constitution defines treason narrowly enough to make prosecution extremely difficult. The Administration has been making a few attempts to prosecute newspapers for espionage. But for the most part, such talk is just that, talk, in no way comparable to actual prosecution of dissenters that takes place in real dictatorships, or even Woodrow Wilson's crackdown on dissent during WWI (which Wolf also discusses).

Step 10, Subvert the rule of law. Wolf writes about the US Attorneys scandal, signing statements, suspicion that Republicans are using "vote fraud" laws to suppress Democratic votes, and laws making it easier for the President to declare martial law and call the National Guard into federal service. She ultimately acknowledges that we are not vulnerable to a violent, total closing down of democracy of the kind that took place in Germany and Italy. So the fair question is, what is she worried about? And, to return to the original question, to what extent is if fair to compare the Bush Administration to real dictatorships?

Ultimately, what Wolf is describing a sort of a two-tier, or perhaps three-tier system. For non-citizens outside the United States, dictatorship has arrived. Reporters can be treated as targets in a war. The mere suspicion of terrorism can send the innocent to secret prisons indefinitely. Kidnappings, torture, hopelessly rigged courts, and lawless mercenaries are here-and-now realities.

Within the United States, people immediately involved in protecting foreign detainees are subject to wiretaps and dubious charges. Illegal immigrants are at the mercy of arbitary, high-handed immigration police who strike seemingly at random, detain and deport. Descriptions of children coming home from school to find their parents missing, or whole families including children held in prison-like facilities read like scenes from a dictatorship.

But for ordinary citizens we are still far from where ubiquitous watchers in leather trenchcoats are always standing outside the door, where fully 36% of the population have been arrested for questioning, and everyone feels surrounded by spies. Our government does not exercise the sort of hard, coercive power over its citizens that it does over non-citizens. The Army and FBI remain (generally) uncorrupted. But ordinary citizens do live in a society in which government agents infiltrate peaceful opposition groups, in which peaceful dissenters never know if they might attract unwelcome attention, in which people are harrassed or even arrested for protesting too openly, in which the press and entertainers are informally pressured by name-calling and denial of access to toe the line, in which government disguises propaganda as legitimate news, and, especially, in which there is a growing attempt to turn the civil service into a parisan instrument. This falls far short of a true dictatorship, but it is worrisome in other ways.

My next posts will deal with what I believe the real danger is to this country's future.

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