College Quarterly
Winter 2008 - Volume 11 Number 1
Reviews The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot
Naomi Wolf
White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2007.

Reviewed by John Hoben

Naomi Wolf’s The End of America addresses the threat of a growing authoritarianism within contemporary American society and parallels with historical incarnations of fascism. In her study of the culture of hysteria engendered by the War on Terror, Wolf reminds us of the importance of an active, critical citizenry in reclaiming institutions of governance dominated by myopic elite interests.

Accordingly, Wolf attempts to provide some social and historical context to the “fascist shift” inaugurated by contemporary neo-conservatism. She underscores the severity of such authoritarian tendencies by noting parallels with tyrannical regimes of the past by drawing on policy papers, public speeches, legal documents and media accounts to identify ten steps which she alleges are coterminous with the “closing down” of democracies throughout disparate historical eras and cultures. Alarmingly, Wolf contends that all ten of these steps are now underway within present day America, including: the cultivation of a domestic and external threat; the creation of a paramilitary force and secret prisons; the establishment of a widespread domestic surveillance apparatus; a practice of arbitrary arrest and detention; the systematic obstruction of peaceful dissent; the selective oppression and harassment of prominent dissenters; the obstruction of a free press; the characterization of opposition as treason; and the erosion of the rule of law.

More broadly, however, Wolf provides a concise summary of many of the paradigmatic changes which have occurred within American society since 9/11 as she contextualizes popular experience in a way which enables us to process the magnitude of such profound cultural shifts. Although some may find her comparisons with totalitarian regimes offensive, such examples are meant to underscore not only the seriousness of the current threat, but also the ways in which such regimes gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, consolidate their power.

The dilemma, as Wolf sees it, is stark as she describes a country which ignores the Geneva Convention and denies fundamental human rights to “enemy combatants”—a status which potentially includes American citizens who may also be held “indefinitely without charge”. However, as Wolf notes, the mistreatment and violation of rights is not limited to captives at Guantánamo, but includes foreign nationals subject to unlawful rendition and detention abroad. In addition to such egregious violations of human rights and international law, perhaps the most publicized recent example of the domestic subversion of the rule of law is the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, allegedly at the behest of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for “insufficient loyalty.” Such a crisis emphasizes the broader danger of the criminalization of dissent as hinted at the characterization of criticism of government policy in the War on Terror as “treason” by right wing pundits, authors and talk show hosts (136). Indeed, as Wolf suggests, this possibility seems less remote considering the penalties for the disclosure or possession of information purported to be detrimental to “national security interests”, as provided for by extant provisions of the antediluvian Espionage Act.

What are we to make, then, of a society in which revenues from “surveillance industries” total in excess of some $115 billion per annum? Within such a dystopian context, is it surprising that there should be government programs designed to encourage “letter carriers, meter readers, cable technicians, and other workers with access to private homes as informants to report to the Justice Department any activities they think suspicious”? The new normalcy described by Wolf includes an America where police departments and counter intelligence operations infiltrate activist groups and create anti-terrorist databases which include many peaceful activists, and in which citizens are subject to arbitrary detentions and searches when justified by an increasingly broad national security interest.

With the erosion of “posse comitatus” and the recent enactment of the Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Authorization Bill, Wolf raises the alarming possibility that such far-reaching exercises of power may be invoked under the guise of permanent martial law. Speaking of the need to challenge such abuses rather than passively awaiting the restoration of the democratic process, Wolf cautions that there is no substitute for action:

But do people change direction so dramatically? Is it reasonable—is it really a matter of common sense—to assume that leaders who are willing to abuse signing statements; withhold information from Congress; make secret decisions; lie to the American people; use fake evidence to justify a pre-emptive war; torture prisoners; tap people’s phones; open their mail and e-mail; break into their houses; and now simply ignore Congress altogether—leaders with, currently, a 29 per-cent approval rating—will surely say…‘The decision rests in the hands of the people. May the votes be fairly counted’.

If nothing else, then, The End of America reminds us of the irrevocable fragility of democracy. As Wolf notes, once the tipping point has been reached the decline of freedoms often escalates into a deadly spiral. Hopefully, such a specter will provide some animus to motivate an abject, disinterested public. Indeed, even if such far-reaching claims are unfounded, Wolf does provide a much needed contribution to a historical contextualization of American politics which moves past the mass cultural amnesia inaugurated by 9/11 and the interminable War on Terror. In some sense, Wolf suggests, the failing of western institutions represents the coming of age of deeply flawed and abject forms of subjectivity – unlike the engaged, critical consciousness required to maintain an inherited democratic legacy.


John Hoben is a lawyer and a published poet living in St. John's, Newfoundland. He is currently completing graduate work in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University. He can be reached at jlhoben_@hotmail.com.

Reviews

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