From the Editor's Desk: It Can’t Happen Here: Or Has It?
"Yes. Why are you afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word – just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours – not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini…"
– Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here
The media and media watch groups have been abuzz this week with talk about the recently revealed "Presidential Advance Manual," which lays out the tactics the Executive branch uses to control, limit, and silence protest and political speech at all public presidential events. Most coverage of the document’s release, including a Slate column published Aug. 20th, 2007 have responded with humorous chuckles and characteristic liberal cynicism seeing the manual as just another example of Republican malfeasance, stupidity, or hubris. Although the manual’s tactics are indeed sometimes laughable, the existence of the publication, and the consequences of its use should be a wake up call to anyone who takes their own freedoms and democracy for granted. The manual, which was acquired through court proceedings related to a case the American Civil Liberties Union brought against the President’s office, is now available online for anyone with the inclination to read it.
Although all but about four pages of the 103 page document have been redacted (one shudders to imagine the "unknown unknowns" contained therein) those several passages reveal, with startling directness, the degree to which this executive branch in particular, but the US government more broadly has sought to promote certain kinds of public speech, while actively seeking to suppress others. The document, which includes bold sections on "Crowd Raising" "Preventing Demonstrators," and "Handling Demonstrators," include some of the following recommendations for dealing with any abnormally vocal citizenry. If demonstrators are discovered at an event, the manual recommends, in disturbingly militant language that: "Rally squads…be dispatched to surround and drown out demonstrators immediately." The task of these "Rally squads," as the document describes earlier, is
to use their signs and banners as shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform. If the demonstrators are yelling, rally squads can begin and lead supportive chants to drown out the protestors (USA! USA! USA!) As a last resort security should remove the demonstrators from the event site. The rally squads can include, but are not limited to, college/young republican organizations, local athletic teams, and fraternities/sororities.
Obviously, the idea of sorority sisters as ideological shock troops seems laughable on the surface, but like all good fascists, it appears that Bush’s handlers understand the political and militaristic value of enthusiastic and patriotic youth, and the image of cheerleading college students shouting "USA! USA! USA!" – a scene almost straight out of Lewis’s nightmare vision of American fascism – is unnervingly reminiscent of similar youthful popular rallies in Germany and Italy in the 30s and 40s. Like these previous regimes, which managed to recruit millions of ordinary freedom loving citizens to genocide and murder, despite their own best interests, our government is in the process of influencing and managing public opinion for the interests of a small elite, shielding the press from images of dissent, and manipulating impressionable young recruits for the cause of the "homeland."
Meanwhile in New York City, the New York Police Department continues to search the belongings of innocent subway riders, violating their civil liberties almost daily, and to crack down on and declare illegal any public gatherings of more than 50 people, while the MTA is running television ads asserting that "1,944 New Yorkers saw something and said something," thanking them for keeping their eyes and ears open. Of course, the MTA fails to mention how many suicide bombings have been thwarted by these vigilant citizens, or how many riders’ rights were violated and their belongings illegally searched when they became the subject of these investigations.
The NYPD, for its part, has also been remarkably silent about just how many attacks have been stopped thanks to their "random" bag searches. As I’ve said before in this space, it seems more than absurd to think any terrorist with enough sense to put together a bomb would be dumb enough to be deterred by uniformed guards at a subway entrance. All of this manipulation and abuse is made possible, of course, by the climate of fear and cynicism that predominates our culture today. No longer does the government steal our civil liberties away from us; it doesn’t have to since so many among us seem so eager to give them away. Indeed, we have been convinced that it is in our best interests to remain meek observers and let the professionals take care of our comfort and security.
Every time the government shields dissent and public outrage from the media, every time the average citizen stops vigilantly asserting their rights in the face of police force, and every time the people are taught to fear and suspect their own neighbors, we take one goosestep closer toward totalitarianism. Lewis’s vision of a perfect storm of political events leading to an American fascist state, although more than seventy years old now, seems more relevant than ever.