FILM/BOOK Review: The End of America: The Wolf At The Door

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“Billions of dollars are made in shredding the Constitution.
Not a single penny is made in restoring the Constitution.”

Naomi Wolf - January 17, 2009
Big Picture Theater - Mad River Valley, Vermont

Author, feminist and social critic Naomi Wolf has written one of the most important books of our time. Short, accessible, and deeply disturbing, The End of America: Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot (Chelsea Green, 2007) lays out the ten steps required for an open society (read: a democracy) to move towards a closed society (read: a dictatorship).

I remember reading the book when it first hit the streets – and upon a recent reread in the wake of Mr. Obama’s election, I still find The End of America a seminal work in shaping my own thinking about the constitutionality of and need for nonviolent secession, with the once and future republic of Vermont leading the way.

Wolf’s conclusion? In comparing the coming of closed societies in other countries, notably Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Wolf concludes that all ten steps already have been taken here in the 21st century United States.

It might be worth reading that last sentence again. Let it settle a bit.

Don’t like to read?

Well, fortunately, a new film version of her End Of America book brings her written arguments to life with visual evidence that supports the book’s conclusions: news snippets, interview clips, and on-the-ground footage, edited together with Wolf’s warm, witty, wise and charismatic stage presence – all of which strengthen her written case quite dramatically.

How do democracies get shut down, transformed into dictatorships?

Let Wolf’s analysis of this step-by-step process be submitted to a candid world

Step #1: Invoke an External and External Threat

What does the USA PATRIOT Act stand for? ((It is an acronym, oh yes – the film does a funny Penn and Teller bit with this.) To wit: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” Passed in the immediate wake of 9/11 with nary a peep from Congress (who actually wrote the several hundred page document, and why it was ready for passage so quickly in mid-September 2001 is a matter of no small interest, one ignored by the film), the USA PATRIOT Act, Wolf concludes, essentially guts much of the Bill of Rights (you know, that little add-on to the U.S. Constitution that “guarantees” citizens the rights to press, speech, assembly, gun-carrying, trial by jury – little stuff like that), as well as eroding critical pieces of the Constitution (I won’t bore you with the details.)

Step #2: Create Secret Prisons Where Torture Takes Place

For years, Wolf observes, the U.S. government has denied that it tortures individuals. Not true. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and “extraordinary rendition,” the process by which the U.S. government captures and transports “detainees” (known in the new legalese as “enemy combatants”, a term that the president can now apply to anyone at will) to other countries where the U.S. Constitution has no jurisdiction, solely for the purpose of torturing them, offer undeniable proof. The U.S. government doesn’t call it “torture, though. Nope. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” is the phrase de jour, and, by the way, the Geneva Convention and other international systems for protecting citizens simply don’t apply. And the Military Commissions Act (October 2006) strips detainees of the right to even see the evidence against them.

Step #3: Develop a Paramilitary Force

I’ve got one word for you. Blackwater. Wolf explains that this private for-profit corporate mercenary organization, operated by Eric Prinz and engaged in hiring professional soldiers from around the world, operates at the behest of the U.S. government in global “hot spots,” including Iraq, and, as it turns out, New Orleans and other places around the United States. U.S. law has shielded Blackwater “employees” from government investigation – the State Department has been less than forthcoming in giving Congress any specific information about the cozy relationship between Blackwater and the executive branch. (As an aside, journalist Jeremy Scahill’s recent book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army is a must-read for anyone interested in what’s going on in this arena.)

Step #4: Surveil Ordinary Citizens

You can’t close an open society, Wolf observes, unless you are able to “listen in” on the private conversations of ordinary citizens and intimidate, even silence, those who are most vocal in their criticism of the government. Naomi Wolf speaks to her own personal experience as an air traveler with a quadruple X designation, indicating that she is “on the watch list.” A well-meaning young airport guard clued her in after several successive flights in which she was singled out and detained for extra questioning. Might want to check your ticket next time you fly. Bottom left.

Step #5: Infiltrate Citizen Groups

Anyone who understands the history of COINTELPRO in the United States, Wolf explains, understands how this works. The FBI sends agents to infiltrate, spy on, and harass citizen groups. Congress passed laws against this sort of behavior after the Vietnam War – those laws have since been undone.

Step #6: Detain and Release Ordinary Citizens

Another intimidation tactic, Wolf notes – designed to strike fear into the general population. ‘Nuf said.

Step #7: Target Key Individuals

Wolf notes that Hitler’s propaganda minister Josef Goebbels proved particularly adept at this, according to Wolf. She points to the repercussions that followed Dan Rather and the Dixie Chicks’ criticism of the Bush administration (See the documentary “Shut Up And Sing”) as two high-profile examples, but there are many others.

Step #8: Restrict the Press

On the surface, an obvious tactic. One of Wolf’s weaknesses, however, is that she assumes the U.S. corporate press (yes, I am including the New York Times) is interested in providing a multi-sided picture of any story. With 90% of our media content ultimately owned by one of 6 multinational corporations, vital information rarely gets through the gatekeepers. If you don’t believe me, answer this simple question: How many Iraqis have been killed (estimated) since the 2003 U.S. Iraq invasion? This seems a number that should be on the tip of everyone’s brain. And yet, most Americans haven’t a clue, not because they are stupid, but because the U.S. media simply censors this sort of tough but necessary information. As a citizen of the most powerful Empire in the world, I think it is safe to say that we are generally clueless about what our own government is up to. “Disinformation” is the order of the day, if you read, watch or listen to mainstream news sources.

Step #9: Recast Criticism as Espionage and Dissent as Treason

In a closing society, Wolf suggests, you see more attempts to restrict free speech. U.S. history is full of examples, beginning with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (see John Adams). In our current era, the “T” word becomes more universally applied to any citizen who criticizes the U.S. government. (That’s “terrorist.”)

Step #10: Subvert the Rule of Law

More and more, Wolf suggests, the Executive branch (the President) simply ignores the Legislative branch (U.S. Congress) on those few occasions when Congress actually gets up the gumption to ask some tough questions or hold some public hearings. Have you heard about “signing statements?” Mr. Bush used them more than any other single executive in U.S. history, and they allow the president to simply reinterpret or ignore whatever Congressional laws he deems wrong-headed. Huh.

And Wolf ends the film by suggesting that a coup d’etat has occurred in October 2008, when the president deployed U.S. troops returning from Iraq to patrol U.S. soil, in direct violation of the posse comitatus act of the 1870s, designed to prohibit the president from ever using U.S. troops against U.S. citizens.

Only “the psychology of liberty” can save us, Wolf concludes, with the film suggesting we “write letters, blog, be vocal, and generally embrace a more critical form of patriotism.”

As hope for our constitutional future, this tastes like awfully thin gruel.

Maybe President Obama might save us.

But in the Q and A after the film, Wolf argued that “no American president is powerful enough to restore our Constitutional system by himself. Until every one of the laws is rescinded,” she concludes, “Our work is not done.” America’s “reverence for the law” is what is most admired globally, Wolf observed, and “the law is so fragile – it is a consensus, and if people say ‘fuck the law,’ it is difficult to restore it.”

Check out her new book Give Me Liberty for a blueprint for grassroots change.

Time will tell if Wolf’s optimistic vision of “a people’s army” rising up to reclaim our federal government and the “rule of law” comes to be reinstated.

I am not so sanguine.