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American Fascism in Ten Hysterical Steps: Naomi Wolf in the Guardian

During the six years I was marooned in the British Isles, I became, by necessity, an amateur taxonomist, like those dilettante Victorian naturalists who poked around looking for new types of dung beetles or butterflies. I wasn’t after dung beetles, … Read More

By / April 26, 2007

During the six years I was marooned in the British Isles, I became, by necessity, an amateur taxonomist, like those dilettante Victorian naturalists who poked around looking for new types of dung beetles or butterflies. I wasn’t after dung beetles, though; I was cataloguing the diverse forms of obeisance with which American liberals try to elicit the condescending approval of Europeans, that sublime reassurance that “You, you’re not quite like most Americans, are you? You’re rather…European.”

I lovingly collected my specimens, and identified the occasional species—for example, Declinatio pessumus absurdus (Kurtzman, 2003), the warbly faux-British intonation with which the American Europhile triumphantly peppers the end of any sentence in which he’s asking a question. Or the dreaded Fellatio iratus michaelmooricus (Kurtzman, 2003), which sees the disgruntled American lecturing his European hosts on the exquisite sophistication of their own culture, and the hopeless barnyard vulgarity of American culture.

But every so often I would be so mesmerized by some virtuoso performance, some unclassifiable peacock display of American self-loathing, that I’d pine for a systematizing genius, a sociological Linnaeus who would catalogue the entire fauna of overseas American life and just hand me the multi-volume taxonomy necessary to describe the whole writhing ecosystem.

I mention all this because Naomi Wolf has a mindblowing new article in the Guardian, and it’s the first time since I’ve been back in the States that I’ve felt that way. Fascist America In Ten Easy Steps is Wolf’s Cassandra cry that America is headed very truly and quickly down the road to fascism.

The piece is a mandatory read for everyone, if only because it’s such a jackpot of delightful absurdities, little gems of rhetorical lunacy, that it’s likely to get you weirdly excited and shouting “No she didn’t! No she didn’t!” until your irritated wife wakes from her nap, walks into your office, and hisses at you to shut up, freak. It’s that good.

Wolf knows that the American government is not yet slicing off the eyelids of religious nonconformists or shutting down all small liberal arts colleges, as per Sinclair Lewis’s classic vision of a totalitarian America. But just you wait. Wolf’s got an inexhaustible arsenal of fatuous Hitler allusions to prove that we’re well on our way. For example, you know that little word “homeland” that Bush uses? Hitler used a similar German word! QED.

But even if you’re not as pleased as I am by egregious reductios ad hitlerum, fear not. There’s plenty more here. Wolf identifies ten steps by which a free society is made into a dictatorship, and then asserts “it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these ten steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.” The fun is in the way she tries to demonstrate that that the steps have been “initiated” in America.

For example, step number 3: Wolf argues, reasonably enough, that any successful fascist movement must have a “thug caste” to physically intimidate political opponents.

When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.

All well and good. But who in Bush’s America could possibly correspond to the SA, the profoundly thuggish Brownshirts who disappeared early German opponents of Naziism and instigated Kristallnacht? Open your eyes, Polyanna:

Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000.

Wolf is referring here to an incident in which Democrats claimed that Republican protestors harassed the three members of the Dade County canvassing commission during the Gore-Bush recount. The angry protestors chanted “Fraud! Fraud! Fraud!” because the Democrat-dominated commission had relocated the vote recount from a public setting to a private one where neither media nor anyone else could observe the process. One of the three members of the commission described the event as a “noisy, peaceful protest,” and none of the three agreed that they had been “harassed” by the protestors. But for Wolf, when a protestor is a Republican, they cease to be a protestor. They are instead a sinister thug, a threat to the very right to protest, and, amazingly, a sign that fascism is nigh.

And what about that classic outfit of a fascist militia, the “identical shirts and trousers” worn by the protestors? They were novelty t-shirts ordered by Republican activists, and featuring punny recount-related slogans such as “Sore-Loserman.” When done by a Democrat, this sort of thing would be plucky activism. But because it’s done by a Republican, Wolf tells us in utter seriousness that it’s a sign that America is undergoing a “fascist shift.”

The entire article is as ludicrous as this. Every one of the ten points. This sort of puerile Manichaean fantasy belongs on a LiveJournal page. And that’s without mentioning some of the annoying factual promiscuities that should never have gotten past the Guardian editors. For example, Martin Niemöller’s endlessly misquoted comments about “First, they came for the Communists/Jews/Cubs Fans/any other group of your choosing” get the treatment yet again here, with Jews winning the spot at the front of the line. Niemöller almost certainly never put them there.

Anyway, I’ve got libertarian inclinations and a suspicion of any state’s motivation for undercutting civil liberties. But this article is not about civil liberties. It’s an entertaining but disturbing postcard from the fantasy world of secular urban lefties like Wolf, who cannot accept that they must share this country with 150 million mostly decent, rational people who just happen to disagree with them about a great many things.

American democracy is not threatened by Wolf’s fantastical “fascist shift”; it’s threatened by her intensely parochial unwillingness to grapple with a worldview different from her own, and the impoverishing effect this has on public dialogue. Democracy doesn't require her to agree with Republicans, but it does require that she engage them as fellow citizens and not as jackbooted strawmen. When she’s done basking in the praise and sympathy of the European left, she might try getting serious about democracy and having some real discussions with members of the American right.

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