Wednesday 25 April 2007

Naomi Wolf on 'fascist' America: motes, beams and ignoring the obvious

Shuggy asks if anyone else read Naomi Wolf's article on 'Fascist America, in 10 easy steps' in yesterday's Guardian. I did - just haven't had time to post about it until now. Shuggy links to a comment on the article at Lenin's Tomb which I think goes too far in accepting Wolf's premise. Although I agree that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and all that, and some of the signs of an authoritarian drift that Wolf identifies in the Bush regime are certainly there, I think the overall tenor of the piece is unduly melodramatic.

I hope I'm not being complacent, but the fact that the developments that Wolf mentions have been the subject of heated debate in the US itself, plus the nation's recent falling out of love with Bush and all his works (see the recent House and Senate election results, and the strong chance that the Republicans will lose the White House in 2008) are surely signs of the relatively health state of American democracy - certainly not of anything so cataclysmic as a drift towards fascism.

I detected a weary, almost apologetic note in Wolf's article, as though she knew she was going through the motions of a certain kind of tired, leftist critique of 'the West'. This was evident in the proliferation of qualifying phrases such as 'Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome': in that case, why introduce the deliberately inflammatory term 'fascist' at all?

There's a saying attributed to Jesus about removing the beam from your own eye before you bother with the mote in the other guy's. In the case of some leftist critiques of western democracies, I sometimes think a reverse version is called for: by all means be concerned about the imperfections in our own democracies, but don't let this detract from the task of tackling the more obvious manifestations of something resembling fascism elsewhere in the world. There's another over-used metaphor about ignoring elephants in the room that might be appropriate here.

I came across another example of this kind of 'ignoring the obvious' in a recent article by Jeremy Waldron in The New York Review of Books (subscription needed), reviewing a number of books by and about Hannah Arendt. Having posed the question 'What would Hannah say?' (if she were alive today), Waldron then catalogued a familiar list of apparent signs of a drift towards 'totalitarianism' in the US: the 'war on terror' came in for a lot of predictable criticism in the course of this. Once again, I'm sure Arendt, if she were still around, would be concerned about some of these things (though these exercises in second-guessing departed thinkers are always flawed) - but do you really think that, given the proliferation of totalitarian regimes and movements elsewhere, America would be the main focus of her concern?

Surely any neutral observer of the contemporary scene, with a knowledge of the fascist and totalitarian movements of the 1930s, would see familiar and worrying signs not in the US, but in the regimes of North Korea, Burma, some of the former Soviet Asian republics, possibly Iran, the recently toppled regime of Saddam Hussein, and in the ideology of Islamist groups such as al-Qaida?

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