A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Democracies take nurturing. They're easy to pull down. The Founders understood that. It's a very dangerous time.
-- Naomi Wolf, Author, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot
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We owe a great debt to Naomi Wolf, who cut her teeth in writing about a new generation of Feminist thinking, for writing this wake up call to America.
In interviewing Wolf, we could hear one of her children in the background. And in many ways, young people were on her mind when she penned "The End of America," because she is profoundly concerned that they may lose the gift of democracy and live under a dictatorship.
After conversing with Wolf, we saw her on "The Colbert Report" and marveled at how she shifted so effortlessly into expertly handling the ironic parries of Colbert. But her message was the same as it was with us, in a dialogue that proceeded in a much more somber tone: we are on the verge of crossing the threshold into tyranny.
Wolf structures her book into identifying 10 usurpations of democracy that are underway. When combined with the other assaults on our Constitutional checks and balances, we agree with Wolf that we are on the precipice of seeing this great experiment in Constitutional democracy disappear as our Bill of Rights is steadily eroded.
Careful to document her thesis with parallels to the rise of fascism in other times, Wolf speaks with a sincere and highly credible sense of urgency. She lays out the roadmap to authoritarian rule -- and we are being driven down that road without most Americans even realizing it.
What she asks of us is simple: to awaken to the danger before it is too late, if it isn't already.
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BuzzFlash: Naomi, you've written The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot and A Citizen's Call to Action. Why did you specifically address this to young people?
Naomi Wolf: I know an actual, real young patriot named Chris Le. He is a 28-year-old activist. As I describe in the Introduction to the book, two things were happening at once in my life. A mentor of mine, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, kept saying to me: You've got to read the histories, you've got to read the histories, you've got to read the histories. There are echoes. I kept thinking, that's crazy, but she was so adamant that she basically sat me down and made me read the histories of her parents' experience, basically. I then went on and read about six other classic cases of societies closing down democracies or democratic uprisings being crushed. Then I understood why she was so insistent that I study and write about this.
At about the same time, I went to the wedding of this young patriot, Chris Le, who is typical of the best of his generation in that he's idealistic, he's committed, he wants a better America. He's extremely worried about the themes I write about in the book.
But like most young people, he wasn't given a tutorial in what democracy is in a very clear way. He was certainly not given a tutorial in mid-twentieth century history of the closing down of democracies. When I was at their wedding, and I realized these horrible scary storm clouds were brewing, and these signs were so clear, that there were threats from the past that we need to remind people of in the future in a very clear, accessible way, I decided the best thing that I could do for him and his wife and other people who may not be scholars was to write this kind of primer in a super-clear accessible way that reminds us all about how democracies are crushed. It basically shows that there's a blueprint for doing it, and the blueprint was developed early in the last century, but the tyrants all over the world replicate it.
The Founders totally believed and foresaw that an American despot or tyrant could oppress the American people, and that the greatest threat was not a foreign power. The book is meant as a very immediate reminder and guide to what freedom is, and how our system was set up to protect us in a very personal way. We've become so accustomed to our democracy that we really don't understand how easy it is to close down a democracy, once certain checks and balances are dismantled, and certain pieces are set in motion.
BuzzFlash: You have outlined ten steps to dismantling a democracy, which the Founders of our country also recognized as threats. How did you come to pick those ten?
Naomi Wolf: Basically they leapt out as a pattern in the reading I was doing. I read about these different times of crisis, specifically the Twenties in Italy, the Thirties in Germany, the Fifties in East Germany, 1968 in Czechoslovakia, 1973 in the coup in Chile, and the late Eighties/early Nineties which saw the crushing in China of the pro-democracy movement.
What jumps up when you read those histories is that essentially, the practice of crushing an open society was essentially invented by Mussolini. It was then developed and elaborated on by the other great tyrants of the twentieth century, and then they studied each other. Hitler studied Stalin. Both of them studied Mussolini. Subsequently, the other dictators all over the world go back and look at what works.
The School for the Americas, basically teach it -- this blueprint was passed on to any number of would-be Latin American dictators and military leaders. Tyrants all over the world take the same ten steps. And it really is like a blueprint.
I start the book saying, in Thailand this coup took a week. This is what they did -- boom, boom, boom. It's like they had a shopping list, and, really, they did, because, by now, people who want to crush a democracy know what to do. The people who live in a democracy don't know what these ten steps are. Otherwise, we would absolutely be thronging the streets right now. We might realize that we're in a state of crisis rather than just shopping online and watching "America's Top Model."
But how did those ten steps arrive on my list? Various writers on fascism try to identify what the key steps are. Hannah Arendt, Umberto Eco, and Robert O. Paxton have all written about the elements of the totalitarian or fascist mind. All the writers look at different things, and they don't all correspond to my list, although Eco's list had some of the same elements. It just seemed very clear to me from my reading that you see these ten things again and again and again, such that you know what's going to happen. It's so predictable; it's so well-established.
Here's one. Categorically, in every closing society, someone who wants to crush democracy will establish a military tribunal system which parallels or is outside of the established judiciary. Once you create a prison system outside of the rule of law -- I call it a secret prison system, unaccountable, not transparent, where people get disappeared, where people get tortured -- can you name a society that did that that did not eventually have fascist rule?
As I was writing the book, someone sent me documentation of the expansion of the definition of terrorists to apply to activists. It was so clear that the definition of terrorist in every fascist shift expands to include more and more, to reach closer to the heart of civil society. You start to see the expansion of the term traitor, treason, espionage. Look at the censure by the Senate of an ad -- the notion that criticism is unpatriotic and bordering on treason. Stalin and Goebbels both developed that tactic. You start to see the broader and broader use of accusations of treason and espionage, like the calls we heard after the SWIFT banking story broke to try citizens under the 1917 Espionage Act -- an Act which, most Americans do not realize, was used at the end of the teens in this country to round up and arrest thousands of people like you and me; some were beaten in prison. Eugene Debs got a ten-year sentence under the Espionage Act for a speech about the First Amendment. The White House led a drumbeat of voices calling for the trial of New York Times executive editor Bill Keller for "treason" when he published the SWIFT banking stories. The penalty for treason in this country can be execution.
Sure enough, if you go back to history, you find that Nikolai Bukharin, the publisher of Izvestia, was tried in the third Moscow show trial and was in fact executed for treason. So these things are like part of a game plan, part of a blueprint. And there are so many parallels I found, which I point out in the book, that it is very hard to avoid the hypothesis that someone brilliant in this administration studied history and is replaying elements, language, and tactics from violently closing societies that worked in the past.
I really saw the same tendencies happening again and again in the reading I did about how open societies dismantled parliamentary democracies and constitutions, and how they were crushing pro-democracy uprisings.
BuzzFlash: Hannah Arendt wrote about the "banality of evil," and the reality is that sometimes we find ourselves in a situation where we simply can't see what is happening to us. One analogy to what is happening to our Constitution being dismantled and the encroachment upon our civil liberties is the idea of a frog being boiled in water. The frog doesn't realize, until it's too late, that the temperature just keeps rising.
To the average person, is it just too much to comprehend, too much to think about, it's not what we're concentrating on, so in the end we're the frogs being boiled? We're busy entertaining ourselves, or working, or being with our families, or going out and having a drink. It's only people like yourself, or people who really follow this, who are aware that we're being boiled.
Naomi Wolf: This is the desperately urgent question, and you're right to ask it. Let me address it on three levels.
First, I deliberately wrote the book in the most accessible possible way, really based on Tom Paine's prose style. The pamphleteers of the Revolution were really deliberately trying to write in a way that ordinary people -- farmers, small shopkeepers, people without an elaborate higher education, people who are not aristocrats -- could understand. It was urgent that the ordinary colonist or the ordinary American got it -- the kind of threat that was posed by George III -- what it meant to have blanket warrants, what liberty meant, what the arguments for liberty were. You know, before Common Sense, most people in the Colonies were not persuaded that they needed a revolution. The American experiment at the time pushed human beings further out into a completely untested model of government. So his very transparent, accessible prose style let people realize for themselves, or think through for themselves, that they deserved liberty and that they needed to act on behalf of liberty.
You and I are in the same position -- and everyone on the Internet. We have to switch our model of leadership and return it to the Revolutionary American model of citizen leaders. The Congress is not going to save us. The mainstream media is not going to save us. The pundits are not going to save us. The U.N. is not going to save us. The European Union is not going to save us. There is not a force on earth that can save us, except for our own talking to each other, clearly and urgently, to explain and convey the nature of this threat, and then for us to take radical action NOW. So that's why I wrote it this way.
Our strategy has to be that thousands, and we hope soon millions, of other citizens who are persuaded by the argument will speak to each other and then mobilize in a hurry to confront these abuses. It depends on citizens acting as journalists, citizens acting as advocates, citizens acting as leaders and revolutionaries to mobilize one another. So that's A.
B is, you're absolutely right about the incremental nature of this kind of shift. That's why I spend so much time looking at the early years of earlier such shifts. Americans tend to think that the closing down of a modern parliamentary society happens in some giant, dramatic explosion. But it doesn't. In a democracy as sophisticated or resilient as ours had been, it's going to be closed down incrementally.
If you go back to Berlin in 1931, it wouldn't have looked so unrecognizable to us. There was a Parliament that was meeting there. There was a constitution. There were abortion rights organizations, human rights lawyers and activists. There were gay rights organizations. There was modern art. People were doing what we're doing. People were going to the movies. They kept living -- and that's why I draw on diaries and memoirs and personal accounts. People were doing what we're doing. They were shopping. They were leading their lives, even as the catastrophe was tightening and tightening around them.
There are scenes in the books I cite that are exactly the same as the scene that played out in the University of Florida last week when the kid was tasered for asking a question and everyone sat still as he was dragged out. That scene was described by Count Kessler, by Victor Klemperer, in memoirs of Germany form 1931-1933. And people then were saying what we are saying: surely this can't get worse; people will come to their senses.
Historians such as Richard Evans point out that, at that point, if the people of Germany had arisen and confronted the abusers of parliamentary process and of the Constitution, the horrors could have been averted. By the way, I am not looking at Germany to make an analogy of any kind about outcomes. I am Jewish and do not take that issue lightly. What I am doing, and I think we honor the victims of the Holocaust by doing so, is looking at how there are threads that recur in the early years of a fascist shift, and lessons we have to learn in time. What we really have to realize is that in a modern democracy, the shift to a closed society doesn't happen overnight.
And it doesn't happen even in a clear line on a graph that's left to right diagonally. It happens in what Malcolm Gladwell would call tipping points. You can chart it, and there may be pressure, pressure, multiple assaults, and, then, a key event that would be like a vertical line on that chart. And then you're looking at another reality.
The really important thing to understand, which is why I walk the reader so carefully through the way democracies really curve down, is democracies can reach a point of no return. And it's sudden when that happens. And it's disorienting. There's a point at which democracy can no longer heal democracy. People have got to understand that. People need to realize that the day we made it legal, essentially, for the state to torture people, that was one of those vertical lines on the chart. We're now in a place where it is legal, the White House has claimed, to knock on your door or my door, and say: You are an enemy combatant. Come with us. Then there is what Jose Padilla went through, in three years of solitary confinement -- making it difficult to see a lawyer, making it difficult to see his family.
I'm not saying he's a good guy. But I'm saying the White House is taking the position that the President -- and any future president -- can say: You, Naomi, you, peruser of BuzzFlash -- you're an enemy combatant. And the President gets to decide what that means. The President gets to decide to hold you. The first time that someone is called an enemy combatant that you and I identify with -- that's going to be another one of these vertical lines, after which you are not going to be having this conversation, because I'm not that brave. The tasering of this student was another vertical line, because, believe me, if they are tasering voting groups in Florida in a disputed 2008 election, dissent will close down pretty quickly. People are just not that brave when they start to get physically hurt.
And that's how society is closed down. Suddenly, there's news of someone getting arrested. Or someone being taken. Someone getting a ten-year sentence under the Espionage Act for publishing something in the Wall Street Journal.
And the next day, there are still newspapers. There's still online shopping. There are still so many aspects of normal society. But what there isn't is freedom, because people are scared. And that's why we need to wake up now, because, believe it or not, the President has the power to do that. The President -- any president, President Thompson, President Giuliani, President Obama -- any president now has the power to make it easier to declare martial law and to declare a state of emergency. The president gets to decide what that is. That is not what the Founders envisioned.
People who are fighting overseas for democracy understand better than we do that we are witnessing the clasic danger signs. They know how dangerous it is to have a leader relegate for himself or herself the power to do that -- to seize people and to militarize civil society. Or to declare a state of public emergency or to make it easier to define a threat to public order. Those are classic signposts that other democracy activists around the world recognize as flashing warning lights.
The third point is simply that you're absolutely right about our psychology. We've been so blessed and so spoiled, in a way, by over 200 years of strong democracy, even taking into account the serious moments like the McCarthy era, that we expect the pendulum will always swing back, because the checks and balances have always been in place. I've explained in the book why this is different now -- why the pendulum isn't as free as it used to be, why we can't rely on it, a point Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda made first.
The trouble is that we're so used to a democratic mindset and we're so reliant on freedom, that we, A, don't recognize the dangers, and B, we don't realize what it takes to resist them. When I talk about these threats, people tend to answer before they've thought it through, or before they've read the book, with the correctives of democracy. Well, the ACLU will sue them. Or we'll just vote the guys out. "Vote the bums out." After you've read the book, you'll realize that you cannot rely on democracy to heal democracy, as you could if our democracy was strong, and checks and balances were in place.
So it is a radical shift in consciousness that we need right now, and we don't have time. We need to understand right now that this is a crisis. It's not business as usual. We can't leave it to other people, to Congress, to activists, or until the next election, because we are much further along than people realize.
BuzzFlash: Your book does a tremendous job of putting together the ten different threats running in parallel and intertwined courses. The power of the ten together leads to a tipping point, as you've called it, which, at some point becomes the point of no return. That type of concurrence is described in the book They Thought They Were Free by an American Jew who, after World War II, went back to Nazi Germany to find out how it happened. The Germans thought they were free until they weren't any longer.
In the mainstream news, and certainly in a lot of the political discourse, the Republicans in general, and Bush, are portrayed as the patriots, the champions of freedom, the ones who are the "strict constructionists" in terms of the Constitution, and so forth. You and I would argue that, in reality, what is happening under the current administration is a radical assault on our Constitution, on our freedoms, on the vision of Founding Fathers. The radicals are the people in the government who are trying to change the very foundation of the country. But they wrap themselves in the wrapping paper -- disguise themselves as the champions of the Constitution.
How do you break through to the American public? The mainstream press doesn't seem to be able to even begin to penetrate the dissonance and the contradiction in the narrative as the administration presents it.
Naomi Wolf: I try to avoid theorizing in the book, and instead just let the reader decide for him or herself what inferences may be drawn about this White House. But it's very hard to avoid a hypothesis that the White House has studied twentieth century history in some detail. When despots are trying to close down an open society, and Orwell pointed this out, they call something the opposite of what it is. Goebbels, for one, was a master of saying something the opposite of what it was. If you read Mein Kampf, and look at Hitler's speeches, he is continually invoking democracy and freedom, democracy and freedom, the rule of law. I'm upholding the rule of law; he actually said he was simplifying democracy. Indeed, it was the prior administration that had opened the door to him, and they weren't even national socialists, but they weakened the constitution so badly that it left the field wide open for him to do what he wanted to do.
I have a section in the book about how lies in a fascist shift serve a different purpose than they do in a democracy. In a democracy, people lie to deceive. In a fascist shift, lies serve to disorient. Lies in the service of a fascist shift make it hard for citizens to trust their own judgment about what's real and what's not. Once citizens don't know what's real and what's not real, they are profoundly disempowered. The Bush administration seems to have learned that lesson, and they regularly name things the opposite. And there's a long historical precedent for making people feel that there is no such thing as truth.
There's another tipping point in closing down a democracy when the leaders no longer are accountable for disclosing the truth. Why is the mainstream media not more rigorous?
I think has to do with, first, corporate ownership. There are just some issues you really can't pursue. Recently someone pitched a renewal of a famous program that taught children about democracy, and checks and balances, to a major network. They basically said we don't want to do anything to rock the boat. Even librarians are affected. I've been offering to give librarians copies of the Constitution to distribute, and they say, we can't do that because that'll be too controversial. I'm not kidding. The Constitution's become too controversial.
So the networks have some profound vested interests, which I track in the book, that would be served by a dismantling of the Constitution in this country, and by an ongoing war on terror that never ends. These are powerful industries, and millions of dollars are at stake. And they have lobbyists. They contribute to political campaigns, and it's not negligible.
The second reason, I think, is, it's hard for the mainstream media, even when they're privately owned, to say certain things for psychological reasons. There's a mindset that it's taboo to say in America that an American president might try to bring down democracy. There are a lot of taboos. You're not allowed to look at the history of Germany. That's a social taboo. You're not allowed to suggest in a mainstream context that an American president might have radically oppressive motives, just like dictators all over the world. It's like this collective wish to believe our leaders are always benign, our system will always endure, even if we don't do anything to protect it. We are always safe. We are always the exception. There's a kind of regressive, almost infantile fantasizing that Daddy could never actually be abusive-- it is this magical thinking -- and there's a lot of it.
BuzzFlash: One thing we've talked about a lot on BuzzFlash, is that the Bush administration, and in particular, Cheney, lie with such abandon and brazenness. But you're absolutely right that a key feature of seizing power is to put so much lying out there you kind of just give up trying to figure out what the truth is. But also, the brazenness is a factor. Americans are largely still a common-sense sort of culture. Just put your cards down on the table. Cheney is still saying that Saddam was connected to 9/11 in some way. The lies are so big that they defy common sense. So you're thinking, no one would lie that openly and brazenly. That just doesn't make any sense.
Naomi Wolf: Yes.
BuzzFlash: You may even start to think there's something there, because no one would be so audacious, having been disproven on so many occasions, as to continue to say the same thing. So you question your own sense of truth. And you don't want to accuse your leaders, in a democracy. You would almost be reflecting upon yourself if you're accusing your leaders of intentionally and chronically and daily misleading you. It's almost like accepting that democracy is so flawed that we have to do something about it. And who wants to take that on?
Naomi Wolf: You're right that all these threads are well-documented. In the book you see how they fit together. That's exactly what I try to do.
My readers say that basically the book acts as kind of a key, so that now, when they see the aspects of each of these threads, whether it's a new development in detainee abuse, or whether it's a new development of surveillance, the FISA story, or you hear that assets of critics of the war are going to be seized, it makes a different kind of sense to them than it did before. That's good, even if it is very scary at first, because people really do need to listen differently and watch differently now.
We have a mindset, which is that democracy is the resilient rule. Historically it is fragile exception. Democracies take nurturing. They're easy to pull down. The Founders understood that. It's a very dangerous time.
As I say at the end of the book, I feel like there's very little time left for us to act. I'm very worried about the upcoming elections, and here's why. One of the things very few people followed up on is that there's a strong indication that when they fired the US attorneys, they were considering purging all of the US Attorneys -- all of them, all at once. That's essentially what Goebbels did in 1933 with the civil service. The White House has fought any disclosure of the e-mails about the US Attorneys purge, or would-be purge. It's a classic move in a takeover to purge the civil service, and especially the lawyers and the judges, and replace them with your own cronies -- that's a standard, recognized tactic.
BuzzFlash: TPM Café and Josh Marshall were in the lead on "Prosecutor-gate," as it's called.
BuzzFlash: We at BuzzFlash have editorialized and pointed out that it's naïve, at this late date in their eight-year administration, to still allow them to take advantage of every possibility to seize more power. Why would they want that if they assume there's a possibility that a Democrat will come in on January 20, 2009? They're seizing the power for a Democrat? That doesn't make any sense.
Naomi Wolf: I'm really glad that you're raising that and editorializing on it. So many decisions of this administration are strategic and not tactical. That's why I worry about people like Mitt Romney saying that he wants to expand Guantanamo and sort of eternalize Guantanamo to make it a permanent part of the landscape, or Giuliani -- who seems clearly to have been anointed to carry this process forward -- to say he wants to strip prisoners of even more rights. The building of Guantanamo does not look like a short-term decision. It seems that many of the absolutely systematic changes that this administration is intent on, are strategic rather than tactical decisions. They seem like long-term rather than short-term decisions.
BuzzFlash: They don't make sense to fight terror. But they do make sense if they're for the purpose of seizing power.
Naomi Wolf: That's exactly right. This is another important thing to put across in terms of getting people out of this bubble of innocence, and into fighting anger, and sort of revolutionary ardor. I really believe this issue is a conservative issue, and it's a liberal issue. It transcends party politics. You know, there are as many patriots on the right as on the left. Many are appalled at what's been done in the name of conservatism. Why would they be aggregating power?
BuzzFlash: Right. At this late date.
Naomi Wolf: There's a kind of hypnosis that invoking the war on terror, invoking 9/11 in the mass media, creates. That's why Congress has been so cowed. Off the record, they say to us that they can't be more aggressive because they're afraid of being seen as soft on terror. They can't be more aggressive about liberty, and protecting liberty, and preventing these power grabs, because they don't want to be seen as soft on terror. That's why it's so important for people to understand that, historically, it is an absolute constant for a would-be tyrant to invoke a terrorist threat -- often, a real terrorist threat.
The national socialists continually invoked Bolshevik terrorism and violence. And there was Bolshevik terrorism and Bolshevik violence. There were communist terrorists. By the same token, Pinochet eased his way in by telling Chilean citizens about insurgents who were going to engage in this spectacular act of terrorism, a mass assassination, and he showed citizens the purported weapons caches on television. He used fake documents to hype a real threat, which again is quite common in history -- like the fake documents the White House relied on to lie to us about the yellowcake threat.
It's absolutely standard for would-be dictators to invoke a terrorist threat, and it can be a real terrorist threat. What they'll do is they'll hype it, or manipulate the information. Or heighten the fear level. The reason is it enables them to subdue people.
I feel like it's actually liberating for readers to read about how this has been used in other countries. First, it lets them snap out of that kind of frightened feeling of, oh, my God, the terrorists have struck from al Qaeda. The terrorist threat from al Qaeda changes everything. We must give up our liberties in order to be safe. It's just not true. There are historical precedents for it not being true.
I also note that Spain and England, which are countries that suffered very serious terrorist attacks, by the same terrorists that threaten us, responded very differently. They responded with transparent trials. Their trials of the accused terrorists are on the Internet. They responded by upholding their values of democracy and openness and freedom. And in England, Gordon Brown says terrorism is a crime, not a cause. Israel has nothing like the red, yellow, orange alert that we do, and they fight terrorists every day.
BuzzFlash: Some conservatives have gotten away with a tremendous framing success in using the word conservative. But as you pointed out, if you're really a conservative about the Constitution, you support civil liberties. You support the checks and balances in our government. You support an independent judiciary. That's a true conservative position.
What we have from the Bush administration is a radical position that's an assault on the conservative position. And for the Bush administration, and Cheney and his aides like Addington, to be called conservative, is an insult to conservatism. That's number one.
Number two, in relation to your point that they initially floated the idea about firing all the U.S. prosecutors, there was a precedent in the German Nazi judicial system. Basically, in addition to the parallel military system, the Third Reich instituted a civil judicial system. If someone was charged with a violation against the state, and they were a German citizen, they went through this judicial system. It was all rigged in the sense that you only served on the judicial courts, just as the Bush administration was trying to do, if you had been vetted, and you were a follower of the right, and you would basically go along with the recommendations of the prosecutors installed by the state. But they gave the appearance to the citizens that would say: Well, this person has been executed because the court found them guilty.
Naomi Wolf: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: So it wasn't just that the military coopted the judicial system. They had a parallel judicial system. But they did have a civil judicial system too which the Third Reich was able to say, well, justice has been accomplished. This person has been tried and they had been determined to have violated laws of the state and that execution is warranted. So it wasn't just that the army took and executed the German citizens. They went through a rigged judicial system, just as the Bush administration was trying to do with the U.S. prosecutors, and which they try to do by appointing judges who are not qualified to be judges. Their only qualification is loyalty to the party.
Naomi Wolf: Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Michael Ratner, who represented Guantanamo detainees before the Supreme Court, is really eloquent about the legal analogies between what happened in Germany and what's happening now. And Harper's recently made some of the same points. What you're talking about is a process that the National Socialists perfected, called coordination. That's why looking at Germany is so necessary now -- because they coordinated every aspect of civil society. And when you've got people who understand that their tenure depends on following the party line, you do get a rigged system.
What's happening with the military -- JAG -- lawyers is also important. These are lawyers, so their job is to uphold the rule of law and do good jobs representing their clients. And again and again, these brave, decent, honorable men and women, probably many of them Republicans, have suffered career setbacks or worse simply trying to do their jobs as lawyers, and not sell out their clients, and not hand over their clients to a rigged system.
Our system is so fragile. If we woke up to learn that all of the U.S. attorneys had indeed been fired and replaced with lawyers loyal to the machine, it would still be America. We'd still have a lot of the stuff that we have now. It would look familiar. But it would be a different reality. The election campaign would be like election campaigns in weak or struggling democracies where a lot of it is sham. A lot of it is wishful thinking. People who go ahead and register voters or fight for candidates who are not in the party line, who are not 'coordinated,' face investigations, face harassment, face warrants for arrest on various minor violations. Would that be America in more than name? Or would that be the end of America?
We'd still have the Internet. We'd still have a judiciary. But it wouldn't be freedom. And it is really important for your community, for all of us, to understand that it's going to take a citizen uprising right now -- I mean a civil uprising -- to hold accountable people who would dismantle our democracy in this way, and to use democracy to heal democracy while we still can, because we still can.
That's why we started the American Freedom Campaign to parallel the American Freedom Agenda. Millions of Americans can compel Congress to pass the legislative agenda that would rewrite these horrific laws, and would restore checks and balances, and, I think, compel Congress to confront the people who have committed crimes against the Constitution. We're still in the state where democracy can heal democracy. That's why we have to act.
BuzzFlash: In a recent editorial we commented on some of the strategic efforts by the Bush administration. Firing the U.S. prosecutors was an effort to control the prosecution system, and one of the chief objectives in controlling it was to be able to indict Democrats, and so help decimate the Democratic Party as an effective opposition party. Let's remember that most of those attorneys who were put in after the purge are still in place. So, it's not like this has been rectified.
A key thing in controlling the government and moving it toward a one-party, despotic state, was to indict Democrats. That was one of the major issues in evaluating who was going to be replaced. If you had indicted Democrats, many of those people kept their jobs. If you didn't indict Democrats and you had been asked to, those were some of the people lost.
The second idea was to use the U.S. attorneys to, in essence, concoct prosecutions accusing the organizations that supported Democrats, or were affiliated with Democrats, or the Democratic Party itself, of "voter fraud."
Naomi Wolf: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: And they make those anti-Democratic cases high profile before elections, to influence the elections. Then, since most of the cases have no justification, they drop them after the elections. And, again, this is not stopping. As you indicated, this is why it's so much of a threat.
Another priority for them is to have, at the state level, laws passed in as many states as possible where Republicans are governors and control the legislature, and to suppress the vote by requiring more identification, more ability to challenge voters when they show up, more claims that they don't live at that address and so forth. In essence, they use state laws to suppress the Democratic vote by picking criteria that will suppress the demographics that would go for Democrats.
Another part of the strategy is the spying issue. The reason that bypassing FISA is so important is that a despotic power wants the ability to be able to spy at will. This is an issue we have pointed out, which went virtually completely unnoticed by the traditional press. When Alberto Gonzales was testifying about the FISA issue when it first came out -- and this we just happened to catch this by watching his testimony on the C-SPAN tape -- but he was asked if the illegal spying powers that had not been authorized by FISA, had ever been used for political purposes. And he said he couldn't answer that question.
Naomi Wolf: Yes.
BuzzFlash: That was astonishing, and the mainstream press didn't pick that up at all. The ability to spy at will on American citizens, without any oversight, is just too great a temptation, even if you had a benign view of the Bush administration.
Naomi Wolf: The surveillance of ordinary citizens is an absolute cornerstone of a closed society. It's an absolute cornerstone to control the population.
BuzzFlash: The third issue is one-party control of the judiciary. Well, if you control the referees, you control the game. You're constantly giving calls that the favor the team you're supporting. So they have judges who are either Federalist Society members with pedigree, or people who don't have pedigrees who are lousy judges, perhaps racist, misogynist, who knows? They've certainly got a lot of them, like David Sentelle and many of these people that they've put in who are just wretched lawyers. You have partisan people on the courts who are not chosen for their ability to adjudicate cases, but are chosen to make the right referee's calls on crucial cases that have to do with the balances of power within the United States between Congress and the Executive Branch.
Naomi Wolf: Right. May I add one thing? It's that Americans, even in this worst-case scenario of all these threads continuing to tighten -- "Oh, my God, they've coordinated the U.S. attorneys, they're using the Watch List to keep critics of the administration from flying, they are tasering professors now for asking questions in a lecture hall, or people registering voters, or they have sent NSA letters to the heads of environmental groups, antiwar groups," -- Americans still imagine that, well, we'll organize. We'll march.
Naomi Wolf: Americans imagine that there is still recourse. Ordinarily, there is recourse, with checks and balances in place. What we need Americans to think about is how the ability to physically threaten Americans on a most personal level will change that.
None of us knows in our bones what it's like to live in a police state. My warning is that, when you get a state using violence against the individual in the act of suppression of democracy, you change your whole reality. Most Americans have a sense of physical invincibility. If we sign a petition somewhere, if we register as a Democrat, someone might know about it, but we still can't believe that anyone would ever hurt us in our democracy.
But people should be aware of how aggressively this administration has sought to assert the right that it has to call any American an enemy combatant and to mistreat them on a physical level. They've been very clear. Think of the abuses against Jose Padilla. And Dick Cheney has said he's outside the system, right?
And history shows that it doesn't take many such cases to close down an open society. Author Greg Palast was investigated by Homeland Security, and it's kind of a joke. But when fifty critics of the administration are investigated, it is a tipping point. And history shows things get quiet after that very very fast.
Everyone has to draw the line somewhere -- and this is also a lesson we need to learn from Germany. How can so many good people have done nothing? Because once you introduce state terror against the individual, you completely change the landscape of what we're willing to risk, understandably. And I just want to kind of conclude by saying we need to reverse these laws, because all of the actions that we can still take in a democracy to restore democracy, we will be scared to take after that next tipping point. Let's conclude on a happier note though.
BuzzFlash: Maybe not, because the reality is what needs to penetrate people. What you have indicated, and what we are constantly pointing out on BuzzFlash, is there's an urgency here. If the Bush administration had started backing off this effort to seize power, perhaps one could have felt they realize they aren't going to achieve their goal. But instead of backing off, they are actually redoubling their efforts. That seems to indicate they have confidence in maintaining one-party control. And it seems to indicate that they must have reasons to maintain that confidence, and we aren't aware of what that basis is. But it is there, and therefore we need to forge forward.
You have a call to action at the end of your book. And you mentioned a couple times you are associated with the American Freedom Campaign. There's a great deal of frustration. Your book is very cogent, and we highly recommend people read it, even if they are regular BuzzFlash readers and exposed to a lot of this information. You give a tremendous historical context, and I think people need to see it, and in one document, in order to understand the gravity of the threat to this great democracy we have. But the concluding question, which you address in your book, is what can American patriots who support our constitutional guarantees do at this critical juncture?
Naomi Wolf: Really, this is where we choose. History will look back and say, either we saved the country or we didn't. Either we stopped it at a point where we could restore democracy, or we didn't, and someone else will be writing the histories.
This is what you need to do. First, educate yourself. It is so important, as you say, to get the historical perspective.
The second thing is we urgently need to drive Congress. Congress can still confront these abusers and dismantle their power. The same could have been true in Germany or Italy, early on, had people driven their representatives to act. So I would say, all of your community and their friends need to immediately sign up with the American Freedom Agenda on the right, or the American Freedom Campaign on the left. We represent a number of cardinal organizations. Total membership now is almost five million in the AFC. We're growing all the time.
BuzzFlash: Just for clarification purposes, the American Freedom Agenda, on the right, I assume is a civil libertarian group working for the Constitution? It's not the traditional concept of the Bush right, but it's the libertarian right.
Naomi Wolf: We're organizing, hopefully, millions and millions of Americans to compel, demand, force Congress to restore balance. We've got a ten-point legislative agenda, which if we forced Congress to pass it, would do a lot to get us breathing room. It includes restoring habeas corpus, and protecting journalists from prosecution. That would do a lot to give us some time. If we don't restore these laws we have almost no time, according to the blueprint. And we know there is a strong impeachment movement.
Nancy Pelosi has said that impeachment is not on the table. I am not taking a position on impeachment, and the American Freedom Campaign hasn't taken a position, but what I am saying is that in a true democracy movement, which is what I'm calling for, it is the people that decide. And that is a debate that hasn't happened yet -- not a rigorous, principled, Constitutional debate, which was what the Founders envisioned in the event of a dramatic crisis such as this one.
What did the Founders intend to have happen when there was a leader that systematically dismantled their checks and balances, and systematically dismantled our system of government? That debate hasn't happened in a principled, educated, patriotic way, and that debate has to happen. What do you do when there are assaults like this? I don't think it's Nancy Pelosi who decides preemptively. I think in a democracy, it's the people who decide.
And the abuses are escalating every day. The Senate just censured MoveOn for speech -- and argues that criticizing anyone in the armed forces is a sign of treason. This is exactly what the National Socialists did. They created these third rail subjects and created strictures that expanded all the time, criminalizing or punishing speech as unpatriotic and eventually criminalizing opposition itself. This is a horrific development, no matter what you thought of the wording of the ad, and Congressional democrats who do not stand up to it -- indeed Republicans as well -- should know they are playing into a very dark development historically.
Most urgently, we need to drive Congress to confront these abuses and restore the rule of law now, long before the election. And we need to take seriously what the founders intended; they did not mean for a professional class to enact democracy for us or to defend it for us or to rise up when a despot threatened to destroy it. They intended for us, on the left and the right, to be the revolutionaries in defense of liberty.
BuzzFlash: This has been wonderful. You did a great job in the book.
Naomi Wolf: Thank you.
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BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
Naomi Wolf Bio (Edge)
Naomi Wolf bio (IMDB)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW