November 4, 2007

America is not on the Brink of Fascism

About a month ago, Cameron sent me an article by Naomi Wolf entitled "Fascist America in 10 easy steps" worrying that President Bush is quickly leading us down the path to Fascism. Here is my response to that article:

1. Invocation of a ubiquitous enemy

While it is reasonable to suggest that a nation is more likely to sacrifice certain freedoms when under threat by an enemy (and indeed, the sacrifice itself may often be reasonable) and that many dictatorial regimes have used real and imagined threats to gain power, it is absurd to suggest that stating the truth concerning real threats to this country, such as global, Islamofascist terror, is a step towards Fascism.

It is also important to note that the supposed parallel between the Richstag fire [1] and the subsequent Enabling Act [2] and September 11 and the PATRIOT act is quite a stretch. Despite its controversial measures, the PATRIOT act is a far cry from essentially transferring all legislative power from the legislative branch to the president (or from the Reichstag to the Hitler [2]) by arresting a large part of the opposition in Congress.

While it is certain that the PATRIOT act expanded the surveillance powers of the federal government and that September 11th was a powerful motivator for the original passage of the PATRIOT act, it is important to note that the invocation of Fascism can be seen as a similar fear tactic. What one ought to do is rationally evaluate threats, such as terrorism and fascism, recognize that real threats DO demand real action, and determine the best course of action. Oh-my-gosh-fear-mongering->fascism (or oh-my-gosh-fear-mongering-fear-mongering) is not an appropriate response to every potential danger or security legislation.

[1] "Reichstag Fire". Wikipedia. October 1, 2007.
[2] "Enabling Act". Wikipedia. September 27, 2007.

2. Gulag creation

According to Wikipedia, the Russian Gulag was a Communist department in charge of prison camps for prisoners of all kinds, but includes an emphasis on the usage of such prisons for political prisoners [3]. This hardly seems equivalent to prisons in Guantanamo and secret prisons elsewhere where the vast majority of the inmates were apprehended abroad on battlefields such as Afghanistan and certainly do not include mere political dissenters or opponents, such as the Communist party members arrested by the Nazi's following the Reichstag Fire that such prisons are supposedly equivalent to.

[3] "Gulag". Wikipedia. September 25, 2007.

3. Thug Caste

Under this argument Naomi Wolf posits that a facist shift is facilitated by "paramilitary groups of scary young men who terrorise citizens". Based on this premise, she attempts to compare Mussolini's Blackshirts and Hitler's Brownshirts to security contractors involved a Iraq and Katrina and "angry young republican men, dressed [identically], menacing poll Florida".

First, security contractors in Iraq are not "terrorizing" US citizens. They are in Iraq. Wolf attempts to claim that they at least set a precedent by being immune from state law. Unfortunately, the state law they are immune from is not that of the US, but Iraq. I suspect that our troops are likewise immune from Iraqi prosectuion. However, they are not immune from our own laws. As a result, one such contractor group, Blackwater is currently under investigation. [4] It should also be noted that as with our own soldiers, the firing of guns is to be expected in dangerous areas and particularly with an enemy that uses civilians for shields, the death of civilians is, regrettably, to be expected as well.

Second, Wolf provides the better observation of security contractors working in the US, in helping deal with the Katrina disaster. According to Wolf, one guard admitted firing on unarmed civilians to another reporter. Unfortunately, there is no citation and brief searchers were unable to find anything specific. However, even if the claim is true, one instance is far from "groups of scary young men [terrorising] citizens", "roaming the...countryside", or "staging violent rallies [throughout the country]".

Finally, Wolf begins to grasp for straws, citing "Groups of angry young Republican men...menacing poll workers in Florida". Again, no citation. I couldn't find much on this either, but I'm pretty sure that the "angry young Republican's" probably didn't do much anything worse than many of the fairly aggressive protests we hear about occasionally. I'd hardly characterize such groups as "paramilitary", "above the law", "beating...communists", etc.

[4] Sinan Salaheddin. "Iraqi PM Disputes Blackwater Version". Associated Press via September 18th, 2007.

4. Internal Surveillance

Wolf's next claim is to compare the Nazi SS spying on civilians in order to subjugate them and Federal surveillance including wiretapping of phones and e-mails to catch terrorists. I've discussed the wiretapping program before [5][6] and the basic conclusion is two-fold. First, there is no justification for the definitive conclusion that the government is actively surveiling the general populace. Second, they are hardly employing the kind of surveillance follow up that the Nazi's used, even if they do engage it such illegal surveillance.

[5] Brenden Hartford. "On Politics of Paranoia and Intimidation". Facebook Notes. April 2nd, 2007.
[6] Brenden Hartford. "More on the NSA". Facebook Notes. April 9th, 2007.

5. Harass Citizen's Groups

Extending the last point, Wolf claims that infiltration and harassment of citizen groups is the next step. For this step, Wolf fails to offer any facist parallel and cites "a church in Pasadena" being investigated by the IRS for "[preaching] that Jesus was in favour of peace" while churches that "got Republicans out to vote" were exempt". Although Wolf does not name the church, a search for Pasadena churches being investigated by the IRS brings up articles on All Saints Episcopal Church, which is being investigated by the IRS for "alleged politicking" [7]. This article originally published in the LA Times reveals that "[preaching] that Jesus was in favour of peace" is a reference to a sermon which sought to enact a debate with Jesus, John Kerry, and George Bush during the 2004 presidential election season. Although this may not be grounds for revocation of the church's tax exemption, it is far from a simple sermon of peace. Wolf provides no citations for churches actively getting out the Republican vote and provides no specifics to narrow the search, so I can't comment on that.

Wolf moves on to claim that a "secret Pentagon database" lists some peaceful anti-war events as "suspicious incidents", which is supposed to support the ACLU's claim that anti-war and environmental groups have been "infiltrated by agents". The only evidence of infiltration I see here is that Wolf somehow knows the contents of a "secret" database.

Next, Wolf claims that CIFA, a counterintelligence agency is monitoring ordinary activists as "potential terrorist threats". Because Wolf fails to name any specific cases or groups, I really have no idea what she is talking about, but I do know that some "charities" are suspected of funding Islamic terror groups which may explain some of the alleged scrutiny. [8]

Finally, Wolf cites a "little-noticed" law that defines animal rights protests as "terrorism". Alas, "little-noticed" is hardly a search-able key word and as usual, Wolf provides no specific citations.

[7] Scott Glover, Louis Sahagun. "Pasadena Church May Fight IRS Summons". LA Times via September 18, 2006.
[8] Josh Gerstein.
"Islamic Groups Named in Hamas Funding Case". The New York Sun. June 4, 2007.

6. Arbitrary Detention

Wolf then tries to claim that probable errors in the Terrorist Watch list resulting in travel delays are akin to Communist China's political suppression techniques of repeatedly imprisoning and releasing people (and probably treating them pretty poorly during imprisonment). Wolf also tries to cite an airline employee as an authority on the inner workings of the Terrorist Watch list. According to the FBI Terrorist screening center, [9] all delays do not indicate that an individual is in the list. Furthermore, the list matching is apparently not exact to catch name variations, which can result in false positives that have to be worked out.

[9] FBI Terrorist Screen Center. "FAQ". FBI website. Accessed October 22 2007.

7. Target key individuals

Wolf notes that many fascists and communists went after academics who disagreed with them and tries to claim that the Bush administration is doing the same thing. Again, Wolf lists no specific cases or identifies any individual targets. While there have probably been a few cases of conservatives calling for academics to be fired (Ward Churchill comes to mind), I doubt there is a legitimate case that the Bush administration somehow orchestrated it. People have a tendency to denounce those that disagree with them, such as Churchill. But this is not limited to liberal academics. Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, resigned after aggressive attacks by feminists after remarking that it was possible that men and women statistically tend to have greater apptitudes for different abilities, which might account for certain field disproportions apart from blatant discrimination. [10] The same Larry Summers was later canceled as a speaker in a California university because feminists at the university were concerned about supporting that message at about the same time that the president of Iran was invited to give a speech at an east coast university. [11] Neither case seems to parallel Facist and Communist oppression of academia.

Wolf then mentions one CIA contract worker whose security clearance was revoked for posting on an intranet blog that "waterboarding is torture". If this is a reference to Christine Axsmith, she was also fired. [12] Of course, I suspect that no matter where I worked, if I remarked internally that my boss or bosses were a bunch of evil torturers, I'd probably receive some negative consequences too. I also fail to see how a computer security contractor qualifies as "a key individual".

Finally, Wolf mentions the firing of 8 US attorneys. Although I am not that familiar with that case, I do understand that US attorneys are hired by presidents and most of the attorneys are changed when a new president comes in. In other words, the attorneys work for the president. It isn't some kind of neutral office, like, say, a judge.

[10] Wikipedia. "Lawrence Summers". Wikipedia. October 16, 2007.
[11] John Wildermuth. "UC Regents find new speaker for event". San Francisco Chronicle. September 16, 2007.
[12] Mark Mazzetti. "CIA Worker says Message on Torture got Her Fired". New York Times. July 22, 2006.

8. Control the press

Next, Wolf tries to conflate hardship for journalists with micromanaged or essentially exclusively publicly run medias in communist and facist countries.

Wolf begins with Joshua Wolf. According to Wikipedia, [13] it sounds to me like Joshua Wolf went to an anarchist protest that became pretty violent. Because the protestors themselves wore masks to hide their identities, Joshua Wolf was one of the few identifiable people associated with the protest and was known to have the most extensive video footage. As part of a police investigation, his footage was subpeonaed, and he refused. As a result, he was jailed until he agreed to release the footage. I don't see any evidence here of conspiracy by the Bush administration to control the media.

Next, Wolf cites Greg Palast, who according to his own claims was attacked by Exxon, not the Bush administration, for filming their refinery, leading them to report him to Homeland security for filming "critical infrastructure". [14]

Next up is Joe Wilson, who Wolf notes:

"accused Bush...of leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger."

As a result, the popular myth goes, his wife was viciously outed as an undercover CIA spy, ending her career. Of course, the truth is not that simple. His wife's relation in the story was not spite, but a matter of history, because it was by her suggestion that Wilson be given the job of looking into the alleged attempt by Iraq to get yellowcake uranium, which formed the foundation for his claim that the yellowcake claim was bogus.

Next, Wolf claims that our troops are threatening to shoot embedded reporters they don't like. First on the list is Kate Adie. [15] According to Wikipedia, she was shot by an irate Libyan. Last I checked, "irate Libyan" is not the same as "US soldier in Iraq". Second is Terry Lloyd, who died in a fire fight between US forces and the Iraqi Republican guard. Lloyd was not embedded and Wikipedia makes no mention of any threats. It sounds quite possible that he was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught in the crossfire. [16] Wolf then closes this accusation by claiming that CBS and AP staff were arrested and taken to violent prisons. A quick search did not turn up anything.

Wolf closes this argument by claiming that a steady stream of lies from the administration is polluting the news. Wolf does not list any specifics, but her own article seems to be permeated with speculation, half-truths, and vague references itself.

[13] Wikipedia. "Josh Wolf". Wikipedia. October 8, 2007.
[14] Greg Palast. "Palast Charged with Journalism in the 1st Degree". September 11, 2006.
[15] Wikipedia. "Kate Adie". Wikipedia. October 21, 2007.
[16] Wikipedia. "Terry Lloyd". Wikipedia. October 8, 2007.

9. Dissent Equals Treason

Next, Wolf argues that under the oppressive Bush regime, disagreeing with the administration is considered treason.

Her first example is the "Lichtblau/Risen" stories. This was the case of the New York Times publishing a story [17] revealing the classified surveillance of money transfers out of and into the US through a Belgian bank (Swift) in order to connect, tract, and capture terrorists. Wolf worries that Bush called this "dissent" disgraceful and some Republicans and conservative commentators called for treason chargess. Of couse, the issue here was not that the editor and reporters disagreed with the Bush administration, but that officials in the government had leaked classified information to reporters and the reporters had in turn leaked that information to the public, including terrorists, essentially destroying the effectiveness of the program. This was not an issue of disagreement, but of revealing US secrets.

Second, Wolf mentions the Palmer Raids against those whom Wolf classifies simply as left-wing activists. According to Wikipedia [18], the Palmer Raids were precipitated by several waves of bombings by socialist and communist revolutionaries in the US. Again, this is much more than simply "dissent" as Wolf is trying to claim.

Third, Wolf compares Stalinist descriptions of opponents as "enemies of the people" and the defining of Weimar supporters "November Traitors" to the usage of the term "enemy combatant" as described in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. However, as before, Wolf here seems to confuse "dissent" with violence. A combatant is hardly one who simple disagrees with the administration.

[17] Eric Lichtblau, James Risen. "Bank Data is Sifted by US in Secret to Block Terror". New York Times. June 23, 2006.
[18] Wikipedia. "Palmer Raids". October 30, 2007.

10. Suspend the Law

Finally, Wolf claims that the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gives the president the power to arbitrarily declare a state of emergency in one state and appropriate without governor approval, the "militia" of another state to enact it. The text of the bill [19] appears to only include the word "militia(s)" once, regarding "the demobilization and reintegration of [Iraqi] armed militias".

Probably, her reference is to the power mentioned in Wikipedia [20] to declare martial law and mobilize National Guard troops without authorization of the state governor when public order has been lost and the state and its constituted authorities cannot enforce the law. In other words its not as opened ended as Wolf makes it out to be.

[19] HR 5122. "John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007".
[20] Wikipedia. HR 5122. October 30, 2007.


In conclusion, we should carefully guard our rights from external attacks and internal encroachments, but Noami Wolf's view of the present state of the US is paranoid and often incorrect.

Noemie Emery of the Weekly Standard provides an insightful response to Wolf's article:

Noemie Emery. "The Horror! The Horror!". The Weekly Standard. September 3, 2007.