The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, by Naomi Wolf (Chelsea Green Publishing, 192 pp., $19.95)
"So it turns out that we are at war -- a long war, a global war, a war for our civilization."
The line might well have been written by Norman Podhoretz but in fact it comes from Naomi Wolf in her new book, The End of America. It would seem, on first glance, a welcome sign of intellectual maturity from the feminist critic whose most famous contribution to American political discourse is advising Al Gore to wear "earth tones" during the 2000 presidential election.
But any suspicion that Wolf has become a clear-eyed observer of the political scene does not survive the first chapter of this book. For the existential threat that she has in mind isn't the Islamic terrorism that murdered nearly 3,000 Americans in one day and untold thousands across the globe. Rather, it is a supposed "fascist shift" that has seen the United States become the heir to Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Stalin's Russia, and indeed just about any other despotic regime that Wolf's Dictatorship for Dummies reading of 20th century history can turn up. Her book, an expanded version of an April 2007 essay she wrote for the London Guardian titled "Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps," is written as a "letter of warning" to all who are prepared to defend civilization against the advance of this American fascism.
To be sure, making the case that America is in the grip of a fascist takeover presents formidable challenges for even a seasoned polemicist. Of these the most obvious must be the fact that, as a country with the freest press in the world, an independent judiciary, a representative government, a vigorous democratic process, and a cultural tradition of anti-authoritarianism dating back to its founding, the United States is not exactly the dictionary definition of a fascist state. Conscious of the fact, Wolf acknowledges that it is "tempting to think that the basic machinery of [American] democracy still works fine" and that the political process can correct such flaws as exist.
But she knows better. Sure, "the courts are ruling, newspapers are publishing exposes, protest marches are being planned against the war; a presidential race is underway." Underneath it all, however, is a "dictatorial reality." Hidden to the eyes of "ordinary citizens" are "parallels" between life in the modern United States and the dictatorships of the past. In a passage that coveys the general flavor of her book, Wolf shows precisely what these parallels are:
A Long Island mother, for instance, was forced to drink her own breast milk from three bottles of breast milk prior to boarding the plain at JFK. Other adult passengers have been forced to drink baby formula. In Benito Mussolini's era, one intimidation tactic was to force citizens to dink emetics and other liquids. German S.S. men picked this up: They forced Wilhelm Sollmann, a Social Democrat leader, for instance, to drink castor oil and urine. Of course baby formula is not an emetic. But a state agent…forcing a citizen to ingest liquid is a new scene in America.
Ripe for ridicule, such dubious parallels -- First they came for the baby formula, then they came for the Jews... -- are nevertheless a good illustration of both the odiousness of Wolf's reductio ad Hitlerum style of argument and the sloppiness of her research. For instance, the policy of having passengers drink from containers before boarding was indeed imbecilic (not to mention revolting in some cases). That is precisely why it was suspended in 2002, just two months after the incident with breast milk occurred at JFK. Moreover, the security officer responsible for the woman's humiliation was not a "state agent," but a privately employed guard. That fact is made plain in the news story that Wolf quotes in her footnotes, but beyond whose headline she evidently neglected to read. As for the comparison between airport security checks and Nazi torture, it is so rebarbative in its moral equivalence as to require no serious refutation.
The above selection is by no means unrepresentative. The End of America is replete with preposterously strained parallels. The Nazis, you see, referred to Germany as Heimat, or "homeland." In 2003, the Bush administration created the Department of -- wait for it -- "Homeland" Security. Need she say more? Alas, yes. Vice President Cheney has used the term "war footing" to describe America's military posture. Nazis favored the same term. The Department of Justice uses the term "sleeper cell" to describe domestic terrorist organizations. Stalinist Russia used similar-sounding rhetoric about internal enemies to suppress political dissent. (Never mind, for the moment, that Wolf's intellectual predecessors on the Left were happy to overlook these injustices at the time.) And did you know that Mussolini coined the label "Axis Powers" to describe his alliance with Nazi Germany? Well, President Bush, with the aid of his Manichean speechwriters, has labeled his enemies "the axis of evil." Coincidence? Not for Naomi Wolf.
A mania for reducing complex issues to their imagined antecedents in twentieth-century totalitarianism is just one of the flaws of this unedifying book. A no less serious defect is that, on subject after subject, Wolf shows herself to be entirely out of her intellectual depth.
Demonstrating the point is Wolf's inept discussion of Guantanamo Bay prison. Wolf begins by calling Guantanamo a "secret prison," when of course it is no such thing. Later she explains that the United States has always granted the writ of habeas corpus -- that is, the right to challenge their military detention before the civilian courts -- to enemy combatants. In fact, foreign enemies never have been entitled to habeas corpus under the Constitution, which is reserved for American citizens. Citing an unnamed "Seton Hall study," Wolf claims that "most of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners are innocent" and were unjustly netted in raids by Afghan warlords. But as anyone familiar with the declassified transcripts of interrogations released by the Pentagon's Combatant Status Review Tribunal and Administrative Review Board knows, most of the inmates at Guantanamo Bay openly admit to receiving training, shelter and even weapons from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, even as they protest their detention. And it is flat-out false to suggest, as Wolf does, that the intelligence gathered through interrogations at Guantanamo has been worthless. Among other valuable revelations, U.S. interrogators have been able to learn the identity of top al-Qaeda operatives and even capture some of them, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Wolf's command of the facts, then, is elusive as best. So it is a commentary on the persuasiveness of her thesis that that her failure to report accurately a single detail about Guantanamo Bay -- or, for that matter, about domestic surveillance, private military contractors, "torture," and any number of other subjects that stir her political passions -- does not deter her from proclaiming them tell-tale signs of the "fascist shift" in American life.
Ironically in a book that trumpets the dangers of fascism, Wolf seems to nurse her own soft-spot for totalitarianism. How else to interpret her reverence for radical attorney Lynne Stewart, whom she hails as a hero carrying out the "noble tradition" of lawyer activism? That this noble tradition includes, in Stewart's case, facilitating communications between Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and his terrorist acolytes in Egypt, is a detail conveniently omitted from Wolf's swooning tribute. Incredibly, Wolf finds sympathy even for Adam Gadahn, al-Qaeda's American-born propagandist. In Wolf's telling, Gadahn, indicted for treason for his services to the terrorist organization, is a free-speech martyr. "His words are his crime," she sighs. And while Wolf is willing to concede that Gadahn's chosen profession is "wrong," it is not nearly as wrong as the "frightening precedent" set by an American citizen being charged with treason. In a conclusion that even she can't really believe to be true, Wolf asserts that the Gadahn case is proof that in the United States any citizen can be charged with treason solely on the government's say-so.
Then again, perhaps she really does believe it. If much of the book hints at Wolf's paranoia, her conclusion brings it into full view. In a final chapter titled, without irony, "The Patriot's Task," she urges private citizens to go "over their records with a critical eye," lest the fascist powers-that-be decide to use the details of our lives against us. Public figures meanwhile must retain "lawyers and accountants, painful as that may be in the short-term." Above all, readers must remember that they can't "fight this fight" against American fascism "unless there is nothing left with which to blackmail you." Ted Kaczynski surely would approve.
It says nothing favorable about contemporary left-wing polemics that Wolf is not alone in her fixation with the alleged rise of fascism in America. Earlier this year, columnist and professional blowhard Joe Conason published a book called It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush, in which he made the case that America's democratic institutions were imperiled by a "gradual and insidious turn toward authoritarian rule." Wolf's erstwhile employer Al Gore went even further in his anti-Bush jeremiad The Assault on Reason, charging that not only were the Bush administration's policies undesirable but that the administration was the enemy of rational thought. Not to be outdone, journalist Chris Hedges came out with American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America, a work whose subtlety of thought and civic tolerance is well-summed up in the title. On the whole, 2007 has been a banner year for left-wing paranoia.
There is something unseemly about this trend. When self-declared fascist Lawrence Dennis wrote The Coming American Fascism in 1936, he could at least be forgiven for thinking that fascism was the wave of the future and that the United States would ultimately succumb to its power. But today's left-wing critics write with the benefit of hindsight, and there is no excuse for their cynical and ahistorical attempts to link the actual crimes of fascism with the policies of the Bush administration and the War on Terror with which they disagree. Her shrill protests to the contrary notwithstanding, there is nothing in common between Naomi Wolf's being inconvenienced by airport security officials, frustrating as this assuredly is, and Nazi Germany's closing down its borders to prevent refugees from fleeing certain death in extermination camps. Nor is there any reasonable comparison to be made between the federal government's monitoring of al-Qaeda communiqués in the United States and the Stasi's attempts to monitor every breathing moment in the lives of East Germany's citizens. Even to suggest the possibility is to dishonor the historical memory of those who truly suffered under fascism.
Of course, challenging these authors to moderate their rhetorical excesses may well be an exercise in futility. "Silence," Wolf writes in The End of America, "is un-American." Here she is probably correct. But it is not to justify fascist-style censorship to say that in the case of Wolf and her fellow pseudo-dissidents, the fact is deeply to be regretted.