In my last essay, I quoted a line of Paul Goodman’s from forty years ago: “So we drift into fascism. But people do not recognize it as such, because it is the fascism of the majority.” I have been thinking about it ever since, with growing alarm.
In one way, it seems insane to call American society fascist. The Italian and German varieties applied the heavy hand of the state to all social institutions, subjecting markets to state control along with education, communications and other social spheres. When we think of Mussolini’s Italy, we see black-shirted troops marching in unison, standing armed on every street corner, smashing the windows of suspect shops, herding people onto transport vehicles. This bears no real resemblance to American life circa 2006: the comparison is ludicrous.
But here’s what I’ve been asking myself: what would a new fascism look like if the populace were given virtually complete freedom as consumers? What if by allowing the free flow of consumer goods and services, most of us could go about our daily business with few glimpses of the machinery of state power and influence? What would a society look like if it embraced the fascism of the majority?
For one thing, most people would be cautious about transgressing those social norms pressed home by society’s leaders. They would know what the majority was supposed to think and do, and take pains to conform. Sound familiar? One of the scariest things about American society is how easily conformism of this type is created (and how effectively it is masked by a profusion of consumer choices).
My husband reminded me of the origin of the word fascism: The Italians co-opted an ancient Roman symbol of power carried by magistrates’ bodyguards: the fasces, a bundle of sticks and an axe. The underlying sense of that symbol is a forced unity that embodies ultimate power: one for all and all for the guy with the axe. As with all threatening symbols, we have only to glimpse it to know it would be dangerous to tangle with the energies for which it stands.
The President has been carrying a bigger bundle of sticks every day. Every time he defends his policy of unauthorized wiretaps, he is careful to first invoke civil liberties: “I understand people’s concerns about government eavesdropping,” Bush said in Kentucky on the 11th, “I share their concerns as well.” On Monday the New York Times reported that it had done little more than waste FBI resources:
President Bush has characterized the eavesdropping program as a “vital tool” against terrorism; Vice President Dick Cheney has said it has saved “thousands of lives.”
But the results of the program look very different to some officials charged with tracking terrorism in the United States. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, including some in the small circle who knew of the secret program and how it played out at the F.B.I., said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive.
There is no evidence unauthorized wiretaps are any kind of necessary tool or have saved even a single life. In flouting the law and flaunting his lawlessness, the President is asserting unprecedented authority and arrogantly daring us to do anything about it.
Each of the many times he pulls out his axe to warn us to be careful what we say about the war in Iraq, Bush takes pains to first invoke the right of free speech, as he did in a January 10th VFW speech: “In a free society, there’s only one check on political speech and that’s the judgment of the American people. So I ask all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our adversaries.” No one fails to get the message that we had better watch our tongues and each others’ as well.
President Bush is auditioning for Il Duce, 2006-style. Will he get the part? Many high officials have been caught in wrongdoing in the past, as Bush has been caught ordering illegal wiretaps, but the custom (however ignoble) has been either to deny the charge as long as possible or to blame it on underlings or enemies. This is the first time I can recall a president not only admitting what he has done, but doing so without the slightest sign of shame or regret. Bush’s position is that he is entitled to do whatever he pleases and we had better get used to it.
President Bush gave into overwhelming pressure and signed the McCain anti-torture amendment into law, but at the same time he issued a “signing statement” reserving his authority to interpret it however he wishes “as commander in chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on judicial power.” This is one of many such statements: Bush’s signing statement for the legislation creating the September 11 commission reserved his right to withhold information for national security reasons, as Commission members were soon frustrated to learn. Samuel Alito, the man whose appointment to the Supreme Court will (if he is confirmed) cement our new status as the United Corporations of America, helped the Reagan administration perfect this device, writing in 1986 that signing statements would “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” Ya think?
I like Wikipedia for its democratic approach to knowledge. This is from its article on fascism: “Fascism is associated by many scholars with one or more of the following characteristics: a very high degree of nationalism, economic corporatism, a powerful, dictatorial leader who portrays the nation, state or collective as superior to the individuals or groups composing it.” By that definition, it’s not so insane to speak of friendly fascism, is it?
Welcome home, fellow Americans. Is the habit of deference—what Goodman characterized as our astounding “slavishness”—so deeply ingrained that we are going to let this man scare us into submission with his bundle of sticks? If you have been reading my work for a while, you know am not an alarmist or a conspiracy nut. But I am scared now, and not wanting to surrender to fear, I speak out.
I am by no means alone. When I wrote about Goodman a few days ago, a reader replied: “Democracy and the state of this nation and its leaders still gives me nightmares. You write: ‘the machinery of democracy, however rusty, still stands; we still have access to uncolonized minds if we so choose.’ I still ask: How?”
It gives me keen pleasure to answer by saying do it like USA Today(!) (America’s largest circulation newspaper after the Wall Street Journal). Read Monday’s editorial entitled “President’s power grab threatens rule of law,” which says “The administration’s power grab has reached such brazen heights that President Bush now claims he is above the law.” I’m also thrilled to say do it like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who’ve filed suit against the president and security agencies challenging the domestic eavesdropping program.
Speaking up and speaking out is the antidote to friendly fascism. However you do it, please do it now.