When it comes to describing the US as “an incipient police state,” there’s a frustrating, perplexing fastidiousness on the Left and in the mainstream.
“Incipient” means “beginning to exist or appear.” For some time in this country, the defining characteristics of fascism (a term that, in this context, I use interchangeably with “police state”) have decidedly begun to appear. Notable guardians of democracy such as Lewis Lapham have been warning us about this for nearly 15 years, their warnings amplified in the last seven especially.
If an exponential increase (a) in unaccountable police powers concentrated within the Executive Branch; (b) in the infrastructure, funding, and structure of these police powers; and (c) in their routine abuse by our highest authorities are any indication, we’re well and truly somewhere between “incipient” and “fully fledged.” To me, it just isn’t debatable.
All this is well known. For seven-plus years, national news media have reported on White House and telecommunications conspiracy to conduct widespread illegal domestic spying; on chilling (and still emerging) provisions of the cynically named “Patriot Acts”; on the “Endgame” plan to remove all “illegal aliens” by 2012; on the explosion of domestic concentration camps, euphemistically called “detention centers”; on the systematic political corruption of the US Department of Justice; on an Executive Branch that is contemptuously defiant of the Constitution’s requirement for balanced legislative, judicial, and executive powers; on massive, illegal government databases; on surveillance of perfectly legal, constitutionally guaranteed protest assemblies; on the suspension of our habeas corpus rights; and, yes, on the repeated human rights abuses inflicted by agents of our government on Latinos, citizen and noncitizen, under the guise of dealing with “illegal immigration.”
One has to ask: What more evidence can possibly be required?
Yet even now, while we still have a chance to root out these evils, the loud, irrepressible chorus of condemnations you’d expect from the Center and the Left is nonexistent. Where there should be calls for mass strikes and street protests, only a few brave souls are speaking out. With a few notable exceptions, even our most influential bloggers are pulling their punches.
For instance, after documenting numerous detention and deportation horrors, Joshua Holland of the widely respected AlterNet sees only the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration operation as an emerging police state. Apparently he’s overlooked the cold, hard truth that the mammoth DHS, which, like the CIA and the FBI, is under the Executive’s unilateral control, is just one of many troubling manifestations of fascism in US government operations.
Some I just noted. Others include Guantanamo, “legalized” torture in contravention of the Geneva Accords, citizen detentions by airport ICE agents without access to attorneys, Blackwater, privatized (and therefore virtually unaccountable) prisons, Abu Ghraib, the so-far uninvestigated and un-punished disappearance of trillions ostensibly for “rebuilding” Iraq, a country we occupied illegally and without provocation in the first place. And of course there’s the covering mist of endless media lies and distortions regularly documented and exposed by Media Matters and other vigilants.
All these things are happening, undeniably. Moreover, none of them is happening in a vacuum, and all of them are products of the most ideologically driven, rabidly Rightwing administration in US history.
Yet still there is this peculiar reticence to call an incipient police state just that. Where Holland sees only departmental fascism, Dave Neiwert, whom I respect enormously, won’t even go that far. He writes: “It's perhaps worth remembering that incipient police states always target the most vulnerable members of society when they start out. And in today's America, there are no people more vulnerable than those millions of workers here, for a human universe of reasons, illegally. That's not to say we are in an incipient police state, but the warnings are unmistakable--especially in tandem with the Bush administration's massive acquisition of previously unimagined executive-branch powers--and should not be dismissed blithely.” [Emphasis added.]
Warnings existed when Eisenhower nailed the military-industrial complex. Surely now we’re some distance past warnings?
Certainly Rightwing control of the media—both outright, as in Fox, and less forthright, as in CNN and CBS—is a dampening force for dissenters, as it is meant to be. Corporate owner interests ensure that our media not only shape public opinion but also lampoon the views of, and if necessary, destroy the reputations of those who dare to contradict their mantras. Clarke, Plame, Wilson, and now Ron Suskind (who reports that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a letter linking Iraq to Al Qaeda) are case studies in what happens to resisters these days.
So I suppose it makes sense that some prominent progressive opinion shapers--political candidates, TV and radio commentators, print editorialists, and bloggers alike—would be afraid to step off the designated path. It just makes sense that they’d fear running afoul of the White House and its media familiars and, consequently, losing even the modest persuasive power they possess in this concepts marketplace dominated by flags, fear, and money.
There’s a plague of holding back, as if we're all waiting for some unspecified second shoe to drop. But if it’s some sign of a strong, supportive, broad-based anti-fascist political consensus we're all hoping for, surely history shows that such a thing never emerges in time. How can it, when everyone of any moment is waiting for somebody else to speak first?
For what it’s worth, I have a theory. This reticence to name US fascism for what it is, and the impossibility of broad public consensus, happen because we dwell in a comic book. “Reality” consists of a given set of symbols punched out in stark lines colored in bold crayon hues. Nothing beside remains. In our comic book world, things that can’t easily be represented by a simple line drawing cease to be. What can’t be expressed in light-bulb commentary—the graphic equivalent of a 5-second sound bite—can’t be addressed.
The one arena in which we might all plainly see our new-minted US police state at work is immigration, but among the sound-bites written by White House flaks for flunkies like Wolf Blitzer, among the pandemic spores cooked up by professional racists and rained nightly on us by Lou Dobbs and Kitty Pilgrim, and given the banning of journalists from cattle drives like Postville, we only know what they want us to know.
We live in the immigration comics. This phenomenally complex issue has been colonized by a set of images which, in turn, establish the boundaries of our national debate. In the immigration comics, the villain is an imbecilic “illegal” here to finance his human trafficking sprees by drug-dealing and living off (our) “welfare.” If he happens to work in a packing house, well. Never mind. He’s a closet terrorist who taints what he touches anyhow. Besides, on his off time, he spawns anchor babies and rapes white women. America, land of pristine (white) purity, is being dragged into the sewer by (brown) Pedro. Hoards more like him are just waiting to crawl across (our) border as we speak. The only (sane) recourse is violence. This is war, and with war come prisons and police. This ain’t no time to play (stupid) all constitutional-like. Ergo, enter our heroes: the fascist Republican Right. Here it’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio. There it’s Tom Tancredo. Don’t worry: There are plenty enough to go around.
Synecdoche reigns. That comic book “illegal” and his law ‘n order opposite sum up the whole discussion, implying both all immigrants and the sole (rational) response. It’s a thought stopper. It’s meant to be. We can no longer see the immigrant’s humanity or our own. It’s all caricature, all two-dimensional, all binary, bipolar: Right or wrong, black or white, 010101010.
But the world doesn’t work like that, does it? Law isn’t always justice. Order is too often authoritarian abuse of human rights. More often than we’d like to admit, their crime was necessitated by ours first. Global “free” trade comes to mind. And earlier expropriations of other people's things.
While we are trapped in immigration comic book world like flies in amber, real-world immigration policy, in fact, has emerged concretely as the laboratory in which reigning US fascists are developing, funding, propagandizing, and refining the apparatus of a fully fledged police state. If you doubt it, read this. Read it all. You might not see it, but it's there just the same.
Here, eyewitnessed and in print, in cattle pens, in neighborhood midnight raids, in babies torn from mothers’ arms, in the nightmares of American children left behind to wonder what has become of their playmates, is the unveiling of a new American constitution. Here is the hellish stable in which the Antichrist is born. Its first targets, as always, are “the least of these,” but tomorrow, sure as sundown, its skinny arm will snatch up anybody it views as “undesirable.” You know who you are. No, the centre cannot hold.
Do you still doubt? Some have already observed the toll this fascist US immigration policy has taken on organized labor. If you’re not among them, go back and read the Des Moines press about the Agriprocessor ICE raids in Postville. Notice who wins and who loses. Notice the timing. Notice the effect of it all on nascent union organizing, the one thing that (as FDR showed us) can ever counter the conspiracy of business and the GOP. The losers? The five-foot-tall, dirt poor, two-bit workers. The winners? The profiteering extortionists, slave masters, and cheats who exploit those workers. They’re left entirely alone, free to continue to enrich themselves in flagrante delicto.
To the extent that we cannot see that this is essential fascism, we are both evidence and symptom of that engineered myopia I talked about a minute ago. Synechdoche reigns here, too.
Since the close of the Second World War, stark news reels, fiction, film, and political art have reduced multivariate fascism to two images only: the SS and the death camp. If we don’t see brownshirts or concentration camps, then, ipso facto, there is no fascism. If we dare to say there is, we’re tinfoil hatters, conspiracy theorists, playing politics with facts.
In 1995, Umberto Eco wrote of just this, in an essay published in The New York Review of Books called “Ur-Fascism.” Lapham says this about that:
Eco wrote to suggest that it's a mistake to translate fascism into a figure of literary speech. By retrieving from our historical memory only the vivid and familiar images of fascist tyranny (Gestapo firing squads, Soviet labor camps, the chimneys at Treblinka), we lose sight of the faith-based initiatives that sustained the tyrant's rise to glory. The several experiments with fascist government, in Russia and Spain as well as in Italy and Germany, didn't depend on a single portfolio of dogma, and so Eco, in search of their common ground, doesn't look for a unifying principle or a standard text. He attempts to describe a way of thinking and a habit of mind, and on sifting through the assortment of fantastic and often contradictory notions -- Nazi paganism, Franco's National Catholicism, Mussolini's corporatism, etc. -- he finds a set of axioms on which all the fascisms agree. Among the most notable:Obviously, the strategy is working well. Why wouldn’t it? Circumstance after circumstance points to the probability that Karl Rove learned his craft from Goebbels. It’s not an original observation on my part. The parallels in method are shatteringly similar. Even a dimwit can see them.
• The truth is revealed once and only once.
• Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten because it doesn't represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader.
• Doctrine outpoints reason, and science is always suspect.
• Critical thought is the province of degenerate intellectuals, who betray the culture and subvert traditional values.
• The national identity is provided by the nation's enemies.
• Argument is tantamount to treason.
• Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear.• Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of "the people" in the grand opera that is the state.
It’s working even when we can see behind the curtain. The truth of Iraq was revealed but war ensued. The Executive—our Constitution to the contrary notwithstanding—says he owes nothing to the Legislative, and appoints the Judiciary. There is no global warming, we're told, but oh, there is. And, right, menstrual cramps can be healed by prayer. Women are free here, but women may not contracept and certainly may not abort. We are anti-terrorists and we do not torture, and you are either with us or against us. You get the drill.
The handmaidens’ choir sings on. You know them well. Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, Savage, even (in a different register) Blitzer, Cafferty, Mitchell, and the late Tim Russert. After all, truth can be beaten to death or it can be obscured in a haze of none-too-penetrating questions. It can be copyedited. It can be driven out of town on the pen of a hack ad writer, the way it always is in political seasons. While the game plan is unfolding as intended, we’re listening to compelling 24/7 coverage of the latest little disappeared white girl, and Cialis commercials.
Their master's talking points disseminated, an obedient corporatist media blathers them one by one in the identical order and syntax, arrogantly contemptuous of our powers of reason and our capacity to see and hear the world as it is even when we'd really rather not.
War on terrorism? Nonsensical, but an effective rubric capable of keeping us on some front or other forever. Once again, because it evidently bears repeating: Illegal domestic spying. Blackwater. Guantanamo. Homosexuals want special rights. A plague of privatized for-profit detention centers sprouting all across the country, their obscene profitability ensured by an endless stream of “illegals” in fulfillment of an ominous “Endgame” that somehow never ends. Do you get it yet? No?Stage-managed presidential press conferences where tax-paying dissenters can’t come in. Where once a whole nation felt free to speak, now there are tiny fenced-in “free-speech zones,” thank you very much. A Justice Department populated with Rightwing monkey boys and monkey girls. Our national treasure re-routed to fascist cronies. A city drowned in cynical, engineered ineptitude to prepare a new, white, domestic tabula rasa, Shock Doctrine style. Now do you get it?
They even warned us. They even said, “We make our own reality.” “They won’t see us coming until they’re in the body bags.”
It’s all true. We know it’s true. Yet still we won’t say so, and if we don’t say so, how can we rally the truly brave, the genuinely patriotic, the ones who really do love their children and want the best for them, to resist?
What happened to our founders’ sons and daughters? Where did America go?