Monday, July 26, 2004

On the brink of fascism

There’s a scary word now making the rounds in Washington and small town America – fascism. It’s time to say the awful truth…before it’s too late. America is on the brink of fascism.

As someone who lived outside my country for a dozen years and who served that country as a political observer of other societies and governments, I tend to look at America as an objective outsider might. But I can’t claim complete objectivity, for I love this country, wish it well, and have a profound stake in the outcome.

I am frightened by what I see and find that I am not alone in that harsh judgment. Far better judges of society and government agree. Doris Lessing, for example, detected in the post-9/11 atmosphere a “contagion of extremism” sweeping the country. Norman Mailer saw in it an “identity crisis” and concluded that ours was now a “pre-fascist society.” While not using the “F” word, Senator Robert C. Byrd has raised similar alarums in his aptly titled new book Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.

How cavalierly we threw away - in the October 2002 vote on Iraq - the separation of powers that for more than two hundred years has protected the people from non-democratic tyranny. How blithely we dismissed the constitutional protections of unlawful search and seizure, habeas corpus, and the like, positing in their place the frightening provisions of the frighteningly named Patriot Act and the whims of John Ashcroft, a fundamentalist ideologue.

How could that happen? George W. Bush was right. September 11 did change everything! There was, to be sure, a moment – maybe a month – of shared introspection, grief, and resolve…a healthy patriotism that asked “How could anyone hate us so much?” But, we were quickly assured by our President – nay, our Commander-in-Chief, our supreme “Leader” – that there was no need for messy questioning. The truth was manifestly clear and divinely delivered. “God,” the President told an Israeli newspaper, “told me to strike al Qaeda and I struck, and then he [sic] instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did.”

What the “Islamo-fascists” hated, we were assured by Michael Savage and George W. Bush, was our “freedom” and our “way of life” (Would that be money, Britney Spears, the “Terminator,” or “reality” TV?) No, no need to examine our policies or the shortcomings of our society. Much too complicated. The answers were far simpler. We were good. They were evil. The “civilized” world would have to “hunt them down” in their “caves” and “kill” them…before they killed us. We were on a divinely ordained Crusade. It was a recipe for “endless war for endless peace.”

Already in October 2001 the President and his neo-con handlers were plotting their attack on Iraq…under cover of September 11. Already in January 2002, Karl Rove was boasting to RNC political operatives that September 11 was the issue that his “war president” would ride to re-election.

And so the campaign was launched. It relied on a steady drumbeat of well-calibrated fear – meaningless color codes, amorphous “chatter,” strategically timed leaks, the evocation of the shallowest modes of patriotism, repeated and very big lies, and the cowing – almost physically cowing – of anyone who would question, object, oppose. We were at war against an enemy at once undefined and broadly defined for an unknown duration. Anyone who opposed the president’s policies opposed America and was unpatriotic. And, with laws like the Patriot Act, the tools were put in place to ensure conformity and/or silence.

As the lies that led to Iraq grew bolder and louder in their repetition, the opposition Democrats and the media knuckled under. The Senate, including the nominees of the Democratic Party and our two California senators, voted to give the president a carte blanche that surpassed that of even the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. When the president reiterated the big lies in the run up to war – linking Saddam Hussein to September 11 at least nine times in his last press conference in March 2003 – not one reporter called him on it.

Some of us marched – in October, December, January, February, and, yes, March – in our hundreds of thousands to shout “Not in My Name!” But on the eve of war, our media and our “opposition” politicians remained silent, as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly snarled: “Once the war begins, we expect every American to support our military and, if they can’t do that, they can shut up!”

The flags again sprouted from the yellow humvees and critical thinking disappeared or was shouted down as “unpatriotic.” It was time to “support our troops,” “support our president,” stand up for America, right or wrong…or just plain dumb.

A year later, more than 900 American deaths later, many billions of dollars later, and ever deeper in the quagmire of terrorists proliferating exponentially in their numbers and in the gruesomeness of their atrocities, over 60% of Americans still trust President Bush to lead us in our foreign policy and our war on terror. The big lie and the manipulation of fear have worked their effect.

I know I tend to hyperbole, but we are truly at a crucial tipping point. I don’t recognize my country anymore, and I am worried by the strangeness of the place. Is this is to be the fascist moment or democracy’s proudest moment? Remember Sinclair Lewis’ response to the assertion that “It Can’t Happen Here” – It can and, if it does, he warned, “it will come wrapped in the American flag.”

Indeed, I fear, it is already happening here. Witness the physical attacks upon the person of Lori Haigh and her Capobianco gallery in North Beach for daring to display art depicting Abu Ghraib. The perpetrators are un-apprehended (It is San Francisco.), the gallery is closed, and Ms. Haigh and her young children remain in hiding

Witness Americans being dragged away handcuffed from a Bush rally in West Virginia by gray-shirted West Virginia state troopers? Their crime? Wearing t-shirts with anti-Bush slogans.

Witness would-be demonstrators – loyal Americans all – confined to a caged internment camp well out of earshot of the Democratic National Convention. Why? Because Homeland Security has declared the convention a “Special Security Event.” What, one wonders, happened to the people’s right to peaceful assembly?

Witness the riot at Las Vegas’ Aladdin Hotel, when Linda Ronstadt dedicated her rendition of “Desperado” to Michael Moore. A few hundred well-heeled but ill-mannered customers booed, shouted, tossed their drink glasses into the air, and stormed into the hotel lobby, where they defaced placards for the performance and otherwise made themselves obnoxious. Upshot? The British owner of Aladdin had his private security force escort, not the unruly guests, but rather Ms. Ronstadt from the hotel, not even allowing her to return to her suite. I wonder if they were wearing brown shirts.

Most frightening of all, however, was an AP photo of a week or so ago showing our new Leader being greeted by students at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. Looking at it, I felt an uneasy queezy feeling in my stomach. It evoked something I had seen before in another picture…something that, decades later, gave the lie to the contention of Germans that, in the thirties, they really didn’t know what was going down around them. There in Marquette, as on the streets of Nuremberg, beaming blond maidens swooned in the throes of some psycho-sexual Leader worship, their equally enthralled male counterparts raising their right arms in an eerily familiar salute.

And there at the rallies awash in red-white-and-blue, all covered live by Fox, the shouted “USA, USA, USA”s were also redolent of an earlier time and place. I covered my ears, but still I heard the familiar echo – “Sieg, Sieg, Sieg!”

Remember that closing line from “Fahrenheit 9/11” – “Was it all a dream, these last four years?” I want to shout “Please wake up! Please wake up, before it’s too late.”