Saturday, January 26, 2008

The End of America? Lessons for Democracy.

US social commentator Naomi Wolf recently published a book called "The End of America: Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot". in which she takes a deep look at her country and the state of democracy in the United States.

Naomi Wolf argues that we should not take democracy for granted. In times of crisis, there can be many pressures on democracy. She says there is a kind of "blue print" for establishing dictatorships which tends to be very similar across the world.

According to Wolf, there are ten typical steps, or "tipping points", which can bring about the closing down of a functioning democracy. Wolf argues that all ten steps are currently underway in the United States. She also makes the point that the founding fathers of the United States had been well aware of the dangers of losing democracy and that the American system of checks and balances was designed with the aim to prevent such a take-over of power. However, too many Americans do not understand the system, and many have little knowledge of early 20th century European history where democratic countries such as Germany or Italy ended up with brutal dictatorships. Many Americans are therefore ill equipped to understand what is happening in their country and how their democratic system could be eroded in front of their own eyes.

This YouTube video shows a talk Wolf gave on October 11, 2007 at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus, in which she summarised her arguments.

(Please note: This is a long video and a slower broadband speed may not be able to deliver it properly. In that case you can also download her talk as an mp3 from radio4all)

Wolf says that the typical ten steps to close down a democracy are:

1) Invoke a terrifying external or internal threat. This can be real or invented, and it will be used to create fear and terror in the hearts and minds of the population. - She reminds us for example of the false evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

2) Create a secret prison system where torture takes place and which is outside the rule of law. Very often this includes the establishment of a military tribunal system. - It is hard not to immediately think of Guantanamo Bay and American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

3) Set up a paramilitary. - Mercenaries now often replace US military troups, such as in Iraq. According to a report in The Nation, one major private security firm, Blackwater, began operating on US soil after Hurricane Katrina. Changes to the law have made it possible for the President to use private security firms any time without having to get permission from Congress.

4) Set up a national surveillance system under the banner of "national security". (The New York Times reported on 6 August 2007 that "President Bush signed into law on Sunday legislation that broadly expanded the government’s authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of American citizens without warrants.")

5) Infiltrate and harass citizens groups. Apparently according to the Guardian, this has indeed happened, for example in church groups where the pastor preached in favour of peace rather than support Bush's war campaign in Iraq. The Guardian also reports that "groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000."

6) Engage in arbitrary detention and release, and create lists of people on watch lists. For example, Professor Walter F Murphy, emeritus of Princeton University and foremost constitutional scholar, was put on a no-flight list and therefore could not board a domestic flight in March 2007. It turned out that he had ended up on a "terror watch list" because he had publicly criticised George Bush's violations of the constitution. (see democracy now)

7) Target key individuals. - According to the Guardian, "Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them. Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her job."

8) Control the press. Wolf maintains that there is a steady stream of misinformation coming from the White House which makes it increasingly difficult for the American public to work out what is real and what isn't.

9) Dissent is seen as equal to treason. Let me quote the Guardian again: When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories (who wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions), Bush called the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.

10) Suspend the rule of law. To quote the Guardian one more time: "The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency - which the president now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state's governor and its citizens."

Wolf does not end her talk in despair. There is not going to be a military coup in the United States. But democracy can be eroded away. This does not only apply to the States, it applies to any democracy. It is up to us citizens to be watchful and understand that democracy matters.

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