I’m not paranoid if everyone really is out to get me

Normblog (via Alex Massie) does a fairly poor job of trying to skewer Naomi Wolf’s now well blogged, and I think really quite interesting, piece on the descent of the US into a sort of fascism.

He doesn’t actually say anything substantive as to why it is wrong, rather simply asserts with no argument that “talk of the danger of dictatorship and fascism is light-minded posturing”, and “dictatorship in America ain’t gonna happen any time soon” because the US polity is so, he asserts, very “resilient”. This is very typical of the responses of the moderate and not so moderate right when you use the “f” word. Another reaction I’ve seen is to dismiss the arguments as hackneyed, cliché-ed. But being hackneyed doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I think that complacency is dangerous in itself, and moreover lacks historical imagination. No-one in 1920s Italy or 1930s Germany thought they would ever “go fascist” in the sense that we know it. We know the “powers that were” in Weimer thought Hitler to be an easily controlled frontman for a coalition of industrial and aristocratic interests who never dreamed they would be unleashing their doom. And you don’t need a dictatorship to have a fascist state — any electorate can do that by themselves very well, and then vote itself out of power. No-one would be that stupid? From where I sit outside the US, voting Dubya in for Bush 2, with an increased majority, seems to have been pretty fucking thick too. Wolf makes Norm’s and Alex’s point herself:

It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere – while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: “dogs go on with their doggy life … How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster.”

 No, bald assertion won’t do it. Objections to Ms Wolf’s piece need a point-by-point rebuttal to be convincing; she needs a proper fisking. This is the problem however, because hyperbolic as she may have been, 8 out of 10 of her laundry list items seem pretty undeniable. She’s not making this stuff up: endless war with the evil enemy; create a prison system outside the rule of law; develop a thug caste of enforcers (you sniff? been blogging at all in the past 5 years?); spy on everyone; infiltrate and harass the opposition; arbitrary confinement at the pleasure of the executive; root out potential and actual dissenters in government; misinform and control the press; characterise dissent as treason; suspend the rule of law (habeus corpus, right to a jury trial, counsel etc). Check ,check, umm check I guess, check, maybe, check, check, maybe, and check.

If you want to be effective in your dismissal of Wolf, what you need to do is take issue not with accuracy of the shortlist itself, but convincingly define fascism in a way that shows you either need more than this list to create a fascist state, that this, in other words, is the wrong list, or that these unfortunate phenomena are not in fact the hallmark of burgeoning fascism, but rather harmless eccentricities common to greater or lesser extent to a lot of open societies. This is a lot harder to do in a readable blog format. Has someone done that? I wish we had some readers; they might know someone who has.

My conclusion: I am not convinced the US is a fascist state yet, nor will be in my lifetime. I think fascism would even be the wrong word for what could happen in a worst case scenario. In any case I hope it will pull back from the brink; I have faith, based on Reason, in the justice and beauty of the Spinozist project that is the US constitution. But my faith in the “resilience” of it against internal threats relies more on hope than on Reason. Wolf’s instincts are in the right place, and I am glad she wrote the piece. The key point for me, and Norm Geras and Alex Massie seem to fail to understand this, is that open societies are fragile. They need to be tended to, looked after, treasured, protected. As much from ourselves as from outside enemies. We cannot be too paranoid about threats against them: I am less frightened about the consequences of erring on the side of freedom and license and more frightened about erring on the side of security, and of fear itself.