KEPT ON FILE SINCE AROUND 2004..WRITTEN 2003
Why I Left America
The Rise Of Elitist Fascism And The Death Of American Democracy
An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup
“The really dangerous American fascist… is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power… The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism… But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective, toward which all their deceit is directed, is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”
— U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace, quoted in the New York Times, April 9, 1944
Why This Essay
On the ninth of August of 2003, I cast the only vote that really changes anything. I voted with my feet. I got on an airplane and left the United States, hopefully to never return.
My family and many of my friends, with varying degrees of puzzlement, even astonishment, have inquired as to why. This essay was written, in part, to explain to them. But it was also written as an open letter to my fellow Americans, to warn them once again, as I have tried so many times in the past, as to the perils that await them.
I voted with my feet, primarily, because, as the long-time readers of this site and my activism email list are aware, I’ve been the subject of illegal, judicially unauthorized surveillance and harassment by the FBI, purely and solely for my political opinions expressed on this web site, and have therefore concluded, based on what had already happened to other webmasters with sites similar to mine, that expediency required fleeing into exile. But a contributing factor is that I believe that the American republic came to an end on the 20th of January, 2001, the day that George W. Bush was inagurated as president in the aftermath of an election, judged by a court of law, to have been fraudulent – the first time in American history this has happened. What I found even more alarming than the election fraud itself was the almost complete absense of outrage among the American people. Indeed, most remained blissfully unaware of the sheer scale of the fraud that had ocurred. As Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, had suggested must be done, the people had been repeatedly lied to, so many times and so consistently, that the lie simply became conventional wisdom, that the outcome was both legal and reflected their wishes. And so to this day, they slumber on, even after a second fraudulent election, on a truly vast scale has occurred, which has, for all intents and purposes, established a one-party state in all but name. And the second time, there was even less outrage!
Even worse, a nascent dictatorship, unrestrained by the American constitution with its Bill of Rights, could be fairly said to have commenced on October 31, 2001, the day George W. Bush signed into law the seriously mis-acronymed “USA PATRIOT Act” effectively gutting the Bill of Rights, permanently, and again alarmingly, without significant opposition or protest.
And finally, in 2008, when the American people had finally had enough to actually do something about it, they were presented with a false choice – and were allowed to vote for what they thought would be change, but were actually given a continuation of the same policy of the replacement of their civil liberties in exchange for a false promise of security. It was the ultimate triumph of style over substance, of illusion over reality.
I’ve long contended that America is headed for a fascist dictatorship, and have said so publicly, on this web site, as long ago as 1996. Yet, while many people, from across the political spectrum, have agreed with me in theory, they don’t seem to think that serious repression that will inevitably accompany the fascism will ever happen in their lifetimes – a clear case of denial, based on my own personal, recent experiences with death threats (which I traced to government IP addresses), illegal secret searches of my home, and monitoring trucks openly parked in front of my house for days at a stretch, and even an attempt on my life after I fled into exile. What finally convinced me I was right, and convinced me to flee into exile, was when a fellow webmaster, whose site was no more seditious than mine, even if rhetorically more inflammatory, was arrested and convincted on a trumped up terrorism charge. The only “crime” they could pin on him was that while being searched during his arrest, the cops found an empty plastic Coke bottle and a rag in the trunk of his car – and he was therefore indicted for possession of a “Molotov cocktail.” He ultimately did a year and a half in a federal penitentiary, a sentence handed down by a Reagan-appointed judge, who openly said he was going to make an example out of him. His computer, on which his web site had been running, has never been returned to him. His real crime, of course, was outspoken opposition to the Bush regime, and his advocacy of resistance to it. I am convinced that the only reason my site is still online is that it is running on a large commercial server with 7,000 other web sites – and confiscating the server would likely result in a class-action lawsuit – and a lot of publicity – by the other users.
“But,” my activist friends have all countered, “periods of repression have happened before in this country, and every time we’ve turned it around. Why should it be different now?”
They are, of course, arguing that what we are going through is temporary and cyclical, and that it will eventually pass, as Americans tire of the repression and demand that their leadership reform itself, and that a true republican (small “r”) democracy be restored.
But apparently, unlike them, I can see the cancer of a fascist authoritarian dictatorship, slowly and quietly forming and carefully and effectively consolidating its hold on power in America. It is a fascism that has arisen from the tombs of a thousand European fascists of the last century, but it is coming back to us, not in the black leather jackboots and bearing flags emblazoned with swastikas, but instead, this time, carrying crucifixes, waving the Stars and Stripes, and chanting the Pledge of Allegance. A truly American brand of fascism, just as Henry Wallace, in the epigraph above, warned us about.
Yes, there have been periods of fascist repression in America before, but I can discern some very fundamental differences between the crisis at hand and the historical periods of repression in America. And so I’ll examine some of those periods, and why, unlike those times in the past, I do not believe that this time we will be able to turn the situation around without, in all likelihood, a violent revolution as advocated by Jefferson to resolve this kind of situation.
There are several factors which my friends are ignoring, or which may not have occurred to them or about which they may be in denial, that make things very different this time. I believe that they don’t see any of them as important, because by themselves, each factor is weak and insufficient by itself. But added up, all together, they create a force, a synergy so powerful that no democracy could prevail against it, even one built on the underlying bedrock of cultural support the American democracy has traditionally enjoyed.
What follows was originally written in the form of a letter to a close friend, a fellow activist, who is also aware that American democracy is in serious jeopardy. He had a difficult time accepting the reasons why I felt compelled to leave, beyond the illegal harassment I have suffered at the hands of the FBI. He was contending, as many others have, that political repression in America is really nothing new, and I should just wait it out, and that it would change as it always did in the past. Below is a somewhat expanded version of my response to him.
Things are different this time, very different.
There are a lot of reasons why I think that the rescue of the American republican democracy is unlikely, but there are nine reasons that stand out.
First, and this is by far the most important reason, the values of the Enlightenment (liberté, egalité, fraternité, as expressed in motto of the French Revolution and embodied in the Declaration of Independence, which were always the cornerstone of American culture, and during the first two centuries of the American republic gradually became the basis of its political culture, have been systematically (and quite deliberately, I believe) undermined, discredited and have been made quite unfashionable. In their place, an attitude has been cultivated among the American public that the rich deserve to be rich because they’re somehow better than the rest of us. The unstated but troublingly well-accepted idea seems to be that they are better because they make better decisions and/or are morally superior. Would they still be rich if they weren’t somehow better than us? This idea, exploiting as it does the long-cherished American value of self reliance, has taken the form of a social Darwinism, that holds that those who fail, for whatever reason, deserve to fail and are therefore unworthy of assistance, because they are incapable of making good decisions and somehow therefore deserve their fate. This attitude has arisen as the result of a new, bizarre and twisted theory of justice promoted by the far right, the notion that always and in every case, the circumstances in which one finds oneself are entirely the result of decisions one has made. This, bizarrely, would argue that a child born of drug-addicted parents in a rubbish tip in a Central American slum, who must scramble by himself all day for a few rotting scraps to eat, is exactly as much responsible for his circumstance, and therefore no more entitled to assistance, as the child of a Nelson Rockefeller, who can create entire fortunes for himself by expending no more effort than saying “yes” to an employee.
When egalitarianism is replaced by social Darwinism, as promoted by this bizarre theory of justice, repression of the lower classes not only is acceptable, but is even justified in the minds of the average person even when they are part of the persecuted class. The result has been that Americans don’t even care about social justice issues as they once did. If the rich have to step over the homeless in the street on the way to the opera, then so be it. The belief is that the homeless are laying in the gutter because of decisions they have made – that they’re lazy and incompetent, and they could “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they had any “gumption.” Any effort to improve the lot of the poor is ridiculed as “bleeding-heart liberalism” and “social engineering.” This attitude has come to be prevalent, even among the working classes in the United States, in spite of the growing experience of those same people with increasingly rapid downward mobility in the form of lower real wages and reduced benefits, over which they have no control and which no decision they could take would halt, and which has occurred in spite of the harder work and longer working hours being put in by the average American worker, more than at any time in living memory. So deeply have they been convinced that their circumstances are entirely of their own making, that they never seem to question why this downward mobility continues in spite of increasing worker productivity and a growing economy. They have been told, and therefore assume it to be correct, that it is their fault for decisions they have made themselves.
This is, I believe, the primary legacy of Ronald Reagan, one of the most successful promoters of this weird theory of justice, and one of its strongest advocates. He thereby succeeded in making elitism, and the increasing concentration of wealth, and the power and privilege that accompanies it, and the social Darwinism that morally justifies it, not only acceptable, but even fashionable. His success in creating that fashionability is the main reason, besides the appalling corruption in his administration, why I believe historians, in the really long term – a few centuries on – will be very unkind to the man. The fashionability of anti-egalitarian elitism is something quite new in American politics – such values have not been popular in America since before the “Second American Revolution” of 1800, in which the elitism of the Federalist party was finally defeated after the mass of Americans had grown weary of governance under those values and threatened a second violent revolution.
Without a recognition of inherent, natural inequality of circumstance, an understanding of the vital importance of equality of opportunity and the importance of economic and social justice, there is no way that democracy can survive for long. As Plutarch noted two and a half millenia ago, social inequality is always, and in every case, the fatal disease of every republic. And if egalitarianism isn’t valued, if people grow to accept elitism as if it were the natural order of things, the people won’t care that democracy has vanished, because they’ll have come to regard absolute rule by the propertied elite as how things simply are and should be, based on the self-evident superiority of the propertied elite. By fostering this attitude, the oligarchy will have succeeded in re-introducing the “divine right of kings,” and the economic feudalism of the past based on it, but in a new guise: the “natural right” to rule by the “obviously and self-evidently” superior, i.e., the rich and powerful.
Indeed, this “natural right” is the basis of the Straussianism, better known popularly as “neoconservatism,” to which most of the major figures in the Bush II administration were adherent and which guided their policymaking – and many of these same people are still in positions of power in the Obama administration. Neoconservatism is nothing less than a new Marxism, but a Marxism turned on its head – a kind of polar opposite – not based on an egalitarian, naturalist theory of justice, but rather the rationalization of a ruthless social Darwinism in which the propertied elites are entitled to rule by the virtue of their presumed superiority. Neoconservatism is descendant from nothing less than Nazism, as a result of Leo Strauss’ close affiliation with many luminaries of the Nazi movement, including its theoreticians, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt and others. Although most biographies of Strauss claim he was a refugee from Nazi Germany, the fact is that his position at the University of Chicago was actually arranged for him through the influence of Carl Schmitt, Adolf Hitler’s political theoretician, and a close associate of Strauss since their university student days together at the University of Hamburg. Many of the luminaries of the far right – Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Daniel Perle, William Kristol and many other well-known and highly influential neoconservatives were acolytes of Leo Strauss and accepted his views almost as divine wisdom. These intellectual descendants of Nazism are the men that are now, today, creating social, and in many cases, political policy in the United States.
Second, this is the first time in American history where there has been no check whatever on the excesses of the propertied interests, checks which have always been present to some degree in American politics since the founding of the republic. It is the first time that oligarchic plutocracy has taken full control, on all three branches of government simultaneously, without any effective restraint whatever, thereby short-circuiting the system of “checks and balances” so carefully designed by the founding fathers, and generally reinforced by the knowledgability and rationality of an educated and informed voting public. Even the press, the “fourth estate,” which always informed and educated in the past, has been subsumed into the elitist cause. The term, “fourth estate,” comes from the French Revolution, when a free press was regarded as the essential fourth chamber of the three-“estate” legislature which ruled France. It was recognized that the press was an essential element in informing the public – and holding the feet of public officials to the fire when they messed up or began to concentrate power in their own hands. But in America today, that “fourth estate” serves to actually prop up and support the oligarchy, rather than to restrain it.
In the past, at least one branch, usually two of government, or at the very least, public opinion, was under the control and/or influence of people with egalitarian ideals. The propertied interests simply couldn’t grab full control of the machinery of power, because the system of checks and balances or because informed public opinion prevented them from doing so. No longer. Nowadays, the President is an elitist, both houses of Congress are firmly under the control of the propertied interests, and the Supreme Court is evenly split – four elitists, four egalitarians and one swing vote who was appointed by the propertied elites and generally sides with them on all but the most blatantly unfair positions. And a generally ignorant public opinion is guided by a press owned and controlled by the oligarchy, which serves its interests shamelessly and unhesitatingly.
During the post-revolutionary period, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, sought to establish rule by the propertied elite, because they believed that the “rabble” were incapable of governing themselves. It was their influence that created many of the elitist institutions that are with us today, such as the electoral college, the rules of seniority in Congress, the difficulty of replacing unresponsive public officials, etc. Hamilton sought to impose a series of draconian, elitist policies that, until recently, Americans would have regarded with horror, disgust and disdain. I know I certainly did when I studied them in American history classes and civics classes in high school all those years ago.
The Federalist era ended when the people had had enough. The Shea Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, followed by the results of the election of 1800, made it very clear that the nation was in no mood to allow a homegrown elite to rule in lieu of the British elite, with no regard for the concerns and needs of the masses. That “Second American Revolution” as it was once called, saw the end (at least for a time) of the Federalist movement, and that “revolution” was made possible by a free press that informed the public of what was really happening to it and why, and what options were open to it to change the situation. Americans were once taught in detail as to the issues and meaning of the Second American Revolution. Yet how many Americans these days have even heard of the Second American Revolution or know what the issues were?
The next era of repression came with the Civil War. Again, it was a close call for the Bill Of Rights. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and the constitutional requirement for civilian trials during the civil war, because of what he considered to be the urgent necessities of what was by far the greatest crises ever to be faced by the American polity. But Lincoln appreciated the requirement that the convenience of the government must take a back seat to civil liberties if democracy is to flourish, and Lincoln was a thorough-going egalitarian. So at the end of the war, habeas corpus was promptly re-instated. And had he not done so, the courts had made it clear that they were quite prepared to overrule him.
During next period of repression, the first “red scares,” which led to the Palmer Raids, in the 1920’s and ’30’s, there was public opinion, informed by what was then a truly free press, that created the outrage that eventually forced the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, to eventually turn things back. The outrage among the public was the result of the fact that people understood the perils faced by democracy, because they had been schooled in civics and had understood the threat to the Bill of Rights that the Palmer Raids represented.
During the Second World War, with the memories of the Palmer Raids fresh in everyone’s minds, it was tacitly agreed that the restrictions imposed as part of the war effort were genuinely necessary for the emergency at hand, and would be turned back at the cessation of hostilities. Which is exactly what happened – Harry Truman, for all his defects, at least was a social libertarian at heart, and understood and undertook that responsibility.
During the most recent repressive era, the McCarthy Era of the 1950’s and early ’60’s, the first major voice of dissent that spoke out to turn back the tide of repression, was a journalist, Edward R. Murrow, speaking out on the then brand-new medium of information, television. His words had deep resonance, because the American people had been educated in civics and understood the perils to personal liberty that demagoguery posed, and it was self evident that they had a crisis with which they had to deal, and what needed to be done about it. The public outrage, led by the press, finally forced the courts and the Congress to rein in the excesses. Yet nowadays we have neither a truly free press (which today is owned by and serves the interests of the propertied elite) nor do we have an educated electorate. What percentage of Americans today have taken a high-school course in civics?
As a result, one by one, the Federalist policies are coming back to haunt us – sedition legislation, outright loss, not just suspension, of habeas corpus, highly regressive taxation, exclusive access by the propertied elite to the machinery of power and the like, and the few dissenters are ignored, or, as in my own case, repressed. The movement to bring back Federalist elitism is being led by a group that even calls itself the “Federalist Society” – an appellation whose connotations of elitism they openly and quite happily endorse. President George W. Bush, failed Supreme Court candidate Robert Bork, Justices Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist are all members, as are many of the Republicans, and even a few Democrats in Congress, as well as many well-known conservative political commentators, such as Alan Keyes. Many are openly contemptuous of democracy for any but the propertied elite, which of course, always means themselves (“too much democracy,” they’ve often been quoted as saying).
Third, the propertied elites have learned well the lessons to be derived from their loss of control in the past. They know that they can’t allow a free press, nor dissent from an educated populace if they want to sieze control and remain in control for long. They have learned the necessity of taking control of the press, so that there will be no disturbance to the deep psychological denial in which the vast majority of Americans slumber on so peacefully.
You will not see a genuine outrage this time, because the propertied elite have learned how to make outrage unfashionable, and keep it unfashionable. That last phrase is vitally important – they have learned that to suppress dissent, it is necessary only to make dissent unfashionable, and by doing so, they can ensure that any and all voices of dissent remain marginalized. This has enabled them to quite effectively suppress dissent in America, not through the efforts of a harsh, repressive secret police or heavy-handed censorship board, but by simple, relentless peer pressure. In that way, they have learned from the mistakes of the Nazi and fascist propaganda machines, and have learned very well how to subvert dissent permanently, with no secret police anyone can point to as evidence of a machinery of repression. The result in America these days is that the only voices of dissent one hears at all come from those far to the left on the political spectrum – and the propertied elites have learned how to discredit them, not by proving them wrong, but by simply ensuring that they remain shouted down through a carefully manipulated media machine that actively discriminates against them, while repeating the lies over and over.
This is new. We’ve never seen this before in America. Each time the Bill of Rights has been threatened, from the American revolution to the present, it has been the voices of dissent that have called attention to the peril, and eventually turned the tide of repression, with the sword of liberty taken up by the press. That can no longer happen, because the voices of dissent have been silenced through enforced unfashionability, and the self-serving press itself has become an agent of the propaganda machine with its mindlessly and endlessly repeated distortions and even outright lies. But even this was not enough. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, a deliberate effort has been made to propagandize the American people directly, by means of covert programs, designed to propagandize the American people directly, (PDF file, 3.4 mb.) which began for the purpose of building support among the American people for the intervention in Nicaragua and the violent overthrow there of a popular regime that won elections handily in a free and fair election – directly contrary to the assertion of the national value of supporting democracy and self determination abroad. Those covert domestic propaganda programs continue, and have expanded greatly in recent years – we know they are going on, but no one is complaining, not the American people, not the Congress, not even the political parties that are being repressed and discriminated against by them. It is all part of the new machinery for manufacturing consent and discouraging dissent – and directly controlling how people vote.
Fourth, the public education system has been carefully subverted for the purpose of ensuring that Americans end up generally undereducated and incapable of critical thinking and reasoning, so the propertied elite can rule without interference by the “rabble” or the “great unwashed” asserting their outrageous demands for the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By de-emphasising critical thinking and reasoning skills, Americans with all their years of education, know a lot of facts, but are generally incapable of doing independent, critical thinking that might lead to conclusions at variance with the consensus generated and maintained by an propertied elite with an ingeniously slick propaganda machine. Civics is no longer taught, so most Americans don’t even understand the meaning of demagoguery, much less understand how to recognize it and, more importantly, neutralize it. The numerous examples of other peoples in the world living better than Americans are carefully kept from the American people, whose world runs from the 49th Parallel to the Rio Grande, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There is a whole world out there of which Americans are woefully ignorant, and from which they hear only when there is a calamaty that needs their attention. Fewer than 14% of Americans even hold passports.
Instruction in critical thinking and classical logic, with rigor, from the very beginning of education is why civil war soldiers were able to write letters home with far more erudition than many college graduates can write today, even though those civil war soldiers had an average of only three years of public education. They often quoted classical Greek philosophers and pondered the philosophical meaning and consequences of their suffering. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, simple farmers and trades-people would sit and listen to intricate political theorizing with rapt attention for hours – and even college graduates today would hardly be able to even understand the transcripts of those debates, much less follow the reasoning. That’s a huge difference, and a major setback for the cause of the Enlightenment and the values that underlie democracy. The rigorous teaching of critical thinking, logic and philosophy is why Switzerland, one of the richest nations in the world, has a population three fourths of which, never went beyond the equivalent of the American sixth grade, yet nevertheless is one of the economic, scientific and cultural powerhouses of Europe, and has the admiration and respect of the rest of the planet.
The propertied elites don’t like hard questions being asked about why they are entitled to the sole exercise of power to the exclusion of the genuine participation of the masses. Without widespread critical thinking and reasoning, there is little effective dissent, so they don’t have to worry about their privilege being questioned. Democracy cannot be sustained for long in such an atmosphere, and the propertied elites know that and want it that way, and worked hard over the last half century to implement and maintain that policy. They have succeeded brilliantly, and most Americans only sense a problem with their educational system, but have no clue as to what that problem actually is or what to do about it.
Fifth, the fundamentalist conservative religious elites and economic elites are conspiring to ensure that power is removed from democratic institutions and is maintained in their grasp. It would have been inconceivable to earlier generations that a deliberate effort would be made to subvert the “wall of separation” between church and state, but now, we have a situation where the fundamentalist Christians realize that they can never evangelize their way to power, so they see the only way open to them to evangelize America is to sieze power by force, and evangelize America by codifying their religious beliefs into law and public policy. The propertarian elites realize that they’re vulnerable to a revolt against their greed, avarice and hunger for power if their hegemony were wholly sectarian – without an obvious reason why they should be the rulers – their hubris and sense of self-entitlement would be naked and exposed to the view of the lower classes. That’s why the unholy alliance between what has been called the “theofascists” and the “econofascists.” By combining their influence, a synergism is formed that will be difficult, if not impossible to stop in a profoundly ignorant and predominately blindly religious nation such as America.
Sixth, there is no historical precedent for a society that has not had economic and social justice, but has remained a stable democracy over the long term. There are plenty of examples of nations that are not politically free, but which have relative economic and social justice (South Korea, Taiwan, communist Yugoslavia and Singapore come immediately to mind), and a few examples of societies that maintain an outward appearance of democracy, but which in reality remain firmly in the grip of propertied elites (India, Brazil, and Mexico and much of the rest of Latin America are good examples), but it has never been shown that it is possible to maintain a genuinely politically free and open government in the absence of economic and social justice. It never has been done, and I am convinced it never will be done. America’s problem here is that Americans seem to have been taught that social justice and egalitarian democracy are mutually exclusive, and have been taught to accept social injustice, thinking it to be a prerequisite to democracy. Actually, the opposite is the case – most of Western Europe stands as an example – from the French Revolution, democracy was always fragile in Europe until social justice became firmly established after World War II. The history of Costa Rica is also an excellent example – democracy there was struggling and barely hanging on until a civil war in 1948 brought to power a man who established a constitution based on social justice and the rule of law, and careful and thorough education of the masses. Those policies ushered in an era of stable, flourishing democracy unprecedented in Central American (and even Latin American) history. As a result, Costa Ricans not only enjoy a median income five times that of their neighbors on a per-capita Gross Domestic Product that is not much higher, but their government is far more stable and secure than their neighbors as a result of adherence to that 1948 constitution. Every president since 1948 has come to power in Costa Rica as the result of a free and fair election – a record not matched even in the United States. The past half-century of history in Costa Rica has demonstrated that even in a poor country, transparent democracy and social justice are directly correlated – not inversely correlated as many Americans have been so skillfully deceived by their propertied elites into believing.
Seventh, democracy is inherently fragile. While there are a lot of nations that display the many trappings of democracy, but are not truly democratic, true republican democracy is a far more fragile and ephemeral thing than most people who have no real grounding in civics will ever understand. We’ve been exceedingly fortunate in America for having a unique set of cultural factors that have enabled us to maintain, without a lot of effort, a democratic republic for two centuries, even in the face of a political system that was deliberately biased towards propertarian elitism. There are so many ways to subvert democracy that it really does require “eternal vigilance” to maintain, even in a culture as supportive as ours has historically been (but unfortunately is no longer). But nobody is maintaining eternal vigilance in America anymore except for a few discredited, and often harassed leftists such as myself. And now, as the result of the fact that the cultural values that support egalitarian democracy have been identified and systematically undermined by the propertied elites, and in the absence of “eternal vigilance” on the part of the masses, democracy cannot long exist, nor can genuine open, egalitarian liberty, based on equality before the law, long endure.
The most time-honored method of subverting a democracy is the rigged election. Rigging of elections in the United States is nothing new, of course; it is as old as the republic. But what is new is the sheer scale of the vote rigging. In the past, vote rigging was always done at the local or at most, regional level by corrupt local political machines. But now it has gone national. In 2000, it was the use of doctored felon purge lists in Florida that robbed the Democratic candidate for U.S. president of at least 24,000 votes, and of course, the presidency – a fact that was front page news in Europe for a week at the time, but was entirely unreported in the U.S. In Ohio, in 2004, a variety of techniques were used to swing the vote in key precincts and counties state-wide, and skewed the total vote in that key state by at least three percent. And again, it cost the Democratic candidate the presidency. And now, voter suppression – keeping Democrats from even casting ballots in the first place – is a technique that has gone national, with mostly Republican secretaries of state being empowered by a new national law to simply remove from the rolls anyone they wish, for any reason they wish, at any time they wish, and without recourse – and as a result, in California, nearly 40% of newly registered voters are in for a surprise when they try to vote. And most of those whose names have been secretly removed from the rolls registered as Democrats. Another vote suppression technique that is being used is to require voters to present government issued photo IDs before they can be given a ballot – a tactic that discriminates against the poor and elderly, who often do not possess government issued photo IDs. And you have only one guess as to which party that group predominately votes for. There is also an effort being made to make voter registration drives so onerous, difficult and the potential liability so great that no one will undertake them – because they typically register more Democrats than Republicans. The League of Women Voters has announced that in many states, it will no longer undertake voter registration drives, for the first time in its history.
Eighth, corruption eats away at the very foundation on which democracy is and must be built, namely the rule of law. Yet Americans have come to tolerate and accept public corruption, and the result is that the rule of law is quickly being eroded, as the governing Republicans and conservatives believe that it’s fine because their ends justify their means (a sentiment thoroughly and rightfully abohrrent to earlier generations, even among conservatives). As respect for the rule of law erodes, there is no way that democracy can survive for long. One of the cultural changes that were made by the Reaganites was the toleration of corruption as long as it is committed by the ruling propertied elite for whom corruption grew to be considered an entitlement. The scandals of the George W. Bush administration, in earlier generations, would have been an outrage, and people would have demanded immediate disciplinary action, if not outright impeachment of the president. But not anymore. The corporate media, whose corporate owners have participated in much of that corruption, have been largely silent beyond a very superficial reporting of some of it, and few realize what dangers this corruption poses to democratic values and the rule of law. As the reasoning goes, corruption is expected of Republicans, and as long as it is conservatives that do it, it’s OK, because, as they say and Americans generally believe, they’re in favor of liberty (even if privately they admit that they believe in it for themselves alone). The current administration has made a mockery of transparency in government, even going so far as to subsidize any and all agencies and individuals within the government who are fighting Freedom Of Information Act requests. They are classifying as “secret” reports that have nothing to do with national security or criminal investigations, and are harassing and intimidating whistleblowers on an unprecedented scale. Getting information out of the current administration, particularly when it reflects badly on the administration, is becoming extremely difficult. Virtually the only information appearing in the press and among the dissidents nowadays is the result of leaks. This is new – there was never this kind of governmental opacity in the past. Additionally, this president has not only ignored the law in many cases, but has defied the will of congress, and has even gone so far as to completely ignore a Supreme Court decision that went against him. Only once before in all of American history has a president done that, and Andrew Jackson has been excoriated through history since as a result. This president does it, and no one even seems to notice, much less begin drafting articles of impeachment.
Ninth, the United States has taken it as almost a god-given right in its operations abroad (PDF file, 1.2mb) to subvert the rule of law, organize and operate terrorist paramilitary death squads, undermine any and all political and economic activities with which its operatives disagree, including the overthrow of democratically elected governments, hide human rights abuses, including kidnapping and murder, from journalists and the public, engage in warrantless searches and surveillance, secretly kidnap and detain people off the street and hold them indefinitely without charge or contact by families or legal help, engage in false-flag operations, create and operate secret propaganda projects designed to control public opinion, and even employ terrorists whenever it suits them, all without the knowledge and approval of the local government. So much is this assumed to be a right of the United States government in its operations abroad, and so long has it gone on, that there is almost no political opposition to it at home anymore – though foreign populations are quite well aware of it, and angrily resent it. But what happens when the U.S. government begins to begin to use these same tactics at home, on American citizens? What is to prevent it from doing so? But most importantly, why would they not? Indeed, it has been my own personal experience, that at least some of these activities are already happening domestically in the U.S.
Most of these situations are without precedence in American history, particularly in their confluence. That’s why in the past we’ve always been able to cycle between fascist repression and a relatively transparent republic, but this time we can’t and I am convinced, we won’t.
Where will it end? In the very long term, the most likely possible outcome is that the United States will end up in a brutally violent and extremely repressive fascist dictatorship in which the distinction between business and government is blurred if not outright abolished, and between which the propertied elites move back and forth freely, a world in which the propertied elites simply regard the general population as oxen to be put to the plow and to be exploited to the maximum extent possible. Human rights will be completely ignored by a flag-waving, Bible-banging paramilitary elite, since the citizenry will be regarded essentially as livestock, and business will use large amounts of penal labor as slave labor for the production of cheap goods to be exported to the rest of the world, exclusively for the propertied elites’ benefit – any hint of opposition will earn a life sentence of slave labor in the camps, and ever increasing numbers of the general population will find themselves involved in the criminal “justice” system as ever more slave labor is needed. Eventually, even the pretense of democracy will be abandoned, and the constitution will become but a fond memory.
Another possible but less likely outcome is that the United States will settle into an unstable fascist dictatorship, falling apart over the course of the twenty-first century, breaking up into a small number of under-developed, ineffectually governed, deeply repressive third world dictatorships, many, if not most of them elitist Christian theocracies, in which the difference between big business and government is often blurred and where the use of slave penal labor by business is common, but which are frequently at war with each other. Either way, this end-state of capitalism – a merger of business and government – will be so brutal and inhumane that it will cause the rest of the world to re-examine with abhorrence its blind acceptance of market-based capitalist free-enterprise and the very premise of an American-style republic.
A third possibility, by far the least likely in my view, is that the people will rebel, and take up Jefferson’s challenge to revolution, which would end up brutal and bloody indeed, and which is unlikely to succeed. I view this outcome as unlikely, because the fascists are already making thorough preparations to deal with dissent and rebellion – they have learned well the lessons to be derived from their loss of power in the past.
Daniel Ortega, a founder and the leader of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, once observed that if the United States government ever did at home what it does abroad, America would become the most repressive nation on earth. He was right. The American propertied elite has finally figured out how get away with doing at home what it has done abroad for many years. And the result will become just as Ortega predicted. America is soon going to become a seriously unpleasant place indeed for those who are not in league with the arrogantly self-serving propertied elite.
I came to understand that. And that is why I voted with my feet.
When I first wrote this essay back in May of 2003, after only two years of unrestrained fascist rule, I could not have imagined how rapid the decline of the American democracy into an authoritarian one-party state would be. Nor could I have imagined how totally unopposed would be the rise of that authoritarianism. It has truly been astonishing to watch from a thousand miles away in a foreign land. And everything that I feared back then, has been realized, in spades, and even faster than I could have imagined it would be.
The public education system is more than ever being undermined, from a two-pronged assault – on the one side, from fundamentalist Christians who are determined to undermine the teaching of science, particularly the biological sciences, as well as critical thinking and independent reasoning skills, and replace that learning and those skills with religious doctrine dressed up as if it were scientific theory, and to encourage blind religious adherence at the expense of reasoned analysis and conclusion. The result is statistics that speak for themselves: As I write this (January, 2006) 59% of Americans actually believe that the prophesies in the Book of Revelations are about to be visited on Americans, and nearly all of those believe that the “righteous” will be taken up into heaven in the “Rapture” followed by a “Tribulation” of those “left behind.” The extent to which religious doctrine has, without significant opposition, been inculcated into law is mindboggling – abortions, which technically remain legal throughout America, have, as the result of the fundamentalists forcing their religious doctrines on the rest of society, been made so difficult to obtain that doctors and hospitals across America are seeing the results of the return of back-alley and self-induced abortions, all while there is hardly a soul who questions the absolute absurdity of declaring human gametes to not be human-beings, while human zygotes are, with even more legal rights than are enjoyed by a post-partem newborn or even its walking, talking, living, breathing mother!
The other side of the assault is coming from the fascists themselves, who are increasingly successful in “dumbing down” the public education system to make its product servile, compliant and easily manipulated and used, a project which it has been working on since 1948 when the project was first overtly planned. Again, statistics tell the story of the success of that project: “In a ‘State of the First Amendment Survey’ conducted by the University of Connecticut in 2003, 34 percent of Americans polled said the First Amendment ‘goes too far’; 46 percent said there was too much freedom of the press; 28 percent felt that newspapers should not be able to publish articles without prior approval of the government; 31 percent wanted public protest of a war to be outlawed during that war; and 50 percent thought the government should have the right to infringe on the religious freedom of ‘certain religious groups’ in the name of the war on terror.” Since 2003, these statistics have clearly worsened noticably, as has been quite evident to me by the responses to this essay and others on my site that I have received over the years. The New York Times has reported that many school districts are now making sobriety tests a regular feature of the school day: apparently opium derivatives are the opiate of the youth who cannot cope with the mind-numbing vapidity of an educational system deliberately calculated to rob them of their initiative and creativity. And 90% of that opium is coming from one of America’s new colonies – Afghanistan – and no one notices or cares. Millions of Americans have no idea who the U.S. fought against or with in World War II, and even fewer understand what the issues were. Few recent college graduates can define the difference between an argument and an assertion. Geographical ignorance is appalling – one travel agent in Hawaii reports that he regularly gets inquiries as to whether taking a plane or a train to Hawaii is cheaper. The majority of high school graduates cannot locate themselves on a map of their state. Many cannot even identify the United States on an outline map of the world.
American universities are no longer the preferred venue for foreign students to come and get an education, as they were when I left the States just three years ago. That honor has gone to European and Canadian universities, and increasingly, universities in China and Japan. So many universities are having problems attracting foreign students that many are now actively recruiting abroad, while American college students find that tuition is rising with such brutal speed, and with federally-funded college loans no longer available, that a college education is no longer within reach of the middle class, and quite by design. Working your way through college, as I did, or getting a Bachelor’s on the GI bill, is no longer even remotely possible.
Daily, their political leadership tells Americans, quite falsely, that they are the most envied people on earth, and, even more absurdly, that that envy is the source of the “terrorism problem” and the 9/11 attacks. But what Americans are not told is that their medical system is by far the most expensive in the world (nearly twice as expensive, per capita, as number two), yet is ranked 37th best by the World Health Organization, with Cuba, of all nations, offering a lower infant mortality rate than the United States. They’re not told that one American in five has no access to health care at all, or that one child in four lives in poverty, a rate higher than some third-world nations, and that rate is rapidly rising. They’re not told how rapidly their educational statistics are declining, how far they are behind the rest of the world, and how rapidly functional illiteracy, and especially innumeracy is increasing. They’re not told that America has one of the highest costs of living in the world, yet all that money they’re spending on it buys a quality of life that barely makes it into the top twenty anymore.
The United States doesn’t manufacture much of anything anymore, but simply borrows money from abroad to buy whatever it likes from foreign manufacturers, and increasingly, service providers – to the tune of half a trillion dollars every year in new debt to finance its current consumption of everything from European airliners and Russian satellite launches, to Chinese plastic flip-flops and underwear stitched in sweat shops in Indonesia or El Salvador. Americans never hear about how the United States now buys more food abroad than it sells – the United States, which once fed the world, no longer even feeds itself, but instead increasingly borrows money from other nations in order to buy its food – the very definition of food insecurity. Americans are not told how this new debt not only mortgages their future, but how it is rapidly eroding America’s influence in the world as foreign nations such as China, the owners of that debt, thereby gain leverage over American foreign and increasingly even domestic economic and even political policy. While the Chinese automobile industry is rapidly rising, the American automobile industry is in a state of near collapse, and no one seems to care or even notice. They’re not told how legislation, much of it actually written by business itself, has subsidized the export of all those jobs. Even Hollywood, the industry that has proudly entertained the world for generations, is about to be surpassed by the Indian film industry known as “Bollywood” in terms of both film output, theater showings and even revenues. Already, there has been a huge rise of local entertainment (including film) industries in Latin America, the Far East, South Asia and in the last two years, even Africa. While the American film and music industries are obsessing over online digital piracy and how to hijack the coercive power of government to stop it, the rest of the world is happily eating Hollywood’s lunch. America’s arrogant and belligerent foreign policy has made America so deeply unpopular that increasingly large numbers of foreigners are unwilling to pay to watch American movies anymore, just to be reminded of how well Americans are living at their expense.
The rapid decline of the American middle class has become noticable since I left. A surprising number of middle aged couples, looking forward to becoming “empty-nesters,” are finding themselves now raising young children again – their grandkids, because their own children cannot afford to live on their own while raising kids anymore – a situation that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago. More and more people who used to buy a new car every other year are now finding themselves shopping for three-year old used cars and driving them until they’re worn out. Most homes in the U.S. are now mortgaged to the their current market value and even beyond, and their owners are dependent on pulling out the equity from increasing home values to finance a lifestyle that can no longer be sustained by their shrinking real incomes. When the real estate bubble finally bursts, and the equity is no longer there to pay back those second and third mortgage loans, there will be some serious anguish as bankrupt homeowners suddenly discover that they can no longer escape their mortgage debt burden through a declaration of bankruptcy, thanks to new bankruptcy laws. Americans on the whole now are, for the first time in American history, spending considerably more money than they are earning in income – sixty percent more – and pulling equity out of their homes and drawing down savings to make up the difference. The savings rate in the U.S. is gone negative, for the first time in American history.
America is no longer in first place as the preferred venue for foreign investment in the world, as it was for almost a century. That honor has gone to Communist China, of all countries. And just look at who is number two – it is none other than France, the country that the neo-conservatives running the U.S. love to deride as the nation with no future, because it rejects their economic and social nostrums in favor of social justice. It would appear that the international investors know something the neo-cons don’t. Neither are Americans told that their nation is no longer the most competitive nation on earth, and they’re certainly not told that Finland – that bastion of Scandinavian liberal (gasp!) socialism – now is the world’s most competitive, as ranked by business leaders themselves.
The American dollar is dangerously poised for a currency collapse on a scale not seen in centuries. A reader of this essay, a financial analyst on Wall Street, wrote me and said that the conditions exist for a “perfect financial storm” – the confluence of 1) an enormous pool of dollars held by foreign nations, which will become essentially worthless when the dollar is no longer backed by oil as it now is, 2) a level of consumer debt that is so large there is no conceivable way it could ever be paid back, and 3) a level of debt owed to the rest of the world by America that is now so huge that being forced to pay it all back could, by itself, impoverish America for most of a century. And it is hardly just that financial analyst that is concerned, either. Articles are beginning to appear about the looming crisis in such mainstream conservative magazines as The Economist and Forbes. It was the subject of much discussion among heads of state and central bank officials (and even the occasional, timid press report now and again) in the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, in 2006. The death knell for the dollar may finally happen in March of 2006 when the Iranians are expected to open an oil bourse denominated in euro – something other than dollars – so bulk crude oil can be bought and sold for something other than dollars for the first time ever. All those billions of dollars that were being held to buy oil can then get dumped on the foreign exchange markets – and with everyone selling and no one buying, you can imagine what could happen to the value of the dollar. Additionally, the Chinese currently (as of January, 2006) hold well over $700 billion in U.S. debt instruments – that’s one and a half percent of the entire net worth of the United States, being owned by a Communist country – and they’ve made no secret of the fact that they are selling that debt as fast as they can without driving down the market. And that’s just China. Add to that the U.S. debt held by Japan, the Europeans, the east Asians, and the Latin Americans, and you can begin to appreciate how much of American liquidity is owned by or owed to foreigners, who are quietly (and some not so quietly) getting rid it as quickly as they can. And the situation grows worse every day, as the U.S. borrows ever more, ever faster, to finance its current consumption. Add to that all the domestic debt owed by the U.S. government and Americans privately, and you have an amount of debt approaching the entire net worth of the United States of America. How will it ever be paid back? How could it ever get paid back? And with America’s arrogant and self-serving foreign policy of recent years, how many other countries are going to be willing to rush in and sacrifice their own self-interest to help prop up an arrogant, self-serving America and stave off disaster?
Anti-Americanism has risen noticably in the years I have lived abroad, as this administration has thoughtlessly and carelessly squandered American prestige. Americans used to be told that anti-Americanism abroad was the result of Communist propaganda – a lie that didn’t make much sense to anyone who travelled abroad, even back during the Cold War. But now they are told that it is the result of envy, an even more absurd lie. I used to joke to the locals here in Central America that I am innocent, because I didn’t vote for Bush, and when I first arrived, that comment always got a hearty laugh. Now, when I make that joke, the locals take that as a serious comment, intended to distance myself from the millions of Americans who voted to re-elect an obviously disastrous failure, when they could not claim ignorance of his agenda and competence. Anti-American grafitti, present but uncommon when I arrived, is now increasingly apparent, as the locals increasingly blame the American people themselves for Bush and the arrogance of his policies. I find myself increasingly getting the cold shoulder from taxi drivers, bureaucrats, store clerks, bus conductors and just plain people on the street, many of whom have encountered other Americans, some of whom still mindlessly support Bush and aren’t bashful about admitting it. I occasionally find it necessary to fake a British or Australian accent and try to pass as a non-American – there is no prestige in being an American abroad anymore, only stigma, and increasingly, even overt resentment – and it has absolutely nothing to do with some weird neo-con concept of penis envy. Only when I tell my story as a political exile, do the locals open up to me and become friendly nowadays – and some become very friendly indeed when they know my full story, because they can relate – some have become my best and most reliable friends as a result.
Where I live, here in Central America, the erosion of America’s prestige has had noticable effects even in the grocery store or hardware store. When I arrived, American brands in the stores here were everywhere, but now they have all been replaced by local or European brands, even by American corporations which are marketing their goods here. Recognizable American brands are becoming increasingly uncommon – and frequently sit on shelves unbought. The Coca Cola signs, once ubiquitous in front of nearly every Latin American roadside diner and village general store, are now rapidly being painted over or taken down, even when Coca Cola is still on offer. American-branded fast food franchises are even beginning to report declining sales for the first time, not because Latins don’t have the money, they just increasingly prefer to spend it elsewhere – on non-U.S. brands, especially local franchises.
The casual acceptance of the abandonment of adherence to the rule of law, particularly electoral law, has been truly alarming in years I have been gone. There was at least some outrage when the rigged elections in Florida in 2000, put George Bush Junior in the White House. But when in Ohio, in 2004, even more outrageous vote manipulation and egregious fraud occurred, to the extent of at least five percent of the total reported vote in that state, the almost complete silence of the American people was deafening. It was like it was expected and inevitable, or it didn’t matter, or worse, wasn’t to be believed. The American people were robbed of their election – and democracy – and they didn’t even seem to care. There wasn’t so much as a serious call for a congressional investigation, other than from a single member of congress, John Conyers. It was like the opposition political party, the Democrats, who had been robbed of victory, had packed up and gone home with little more than a sigh of resignation to the inevitable, or, worse, that they themselves had somehow been complicit. When it was revealed that America routinely spies on its own citizens, in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment as well as federal law, the president not only wasn’t apologetic, he was openly defiant. The Vice President has created an embarrassing spectacle with his defiance of U.S. law and treaty obligations in demanding that the administration have the right to torture detainees and deny them the most basic of human rights. And the attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the land, has actually referred to human rights treaty obligations as “quaint.” The President of the United States angrily told congressional leaders objecting to the renewal of the Patriot Act, assembled in the Oval Office, not to “throw the constitution in my face! It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!” He probably doesn’t even remember, or more likely, considers unimportant, the fact that, twice, he has sworn an oath to uphold and protect that “goddamned piece of paper.”
The levels of official corruption are now totally without precedent in American history and are truly scandalous to those of us in the rest of the world. The Vice President of the United States is openly funneling no-bid contracts worth millions, even billions of dollars, to a corporation he once headed, which, while he is still in office, continues to pay him a salary – and no one seems to mind or even think that is problematic. When the issue is rarely raised, he is openly, even arrogantly defiant about it. Members of congress dine in the finest restaurants and even vacation in upscale resorts, and then openly, without a word, hands the bills to lobbyists, who pay them without complaint – which they obviously would not do if they were not getting their expected quid pro quos, not uncommonly the passage of legislation actually written by the lobbyists’ clients themselves. So many Republicans in Kentucky state government have been implicated in a job-peddling scandal in that state, that the Republican party actually had problems finding enough qualified but untainted people among its ranks to staff state government. A corrupt-influence scandal in Ohio is of similar proportions. One Ohio congressman is embroiled in three scandals at once – and not only remains in office, but runs for re-election. Qualifications for office were never a problem for this current president who simply – and quite openly, even arrogantly – staffs government with totally unqualified cronies, as a quid pro quo for campaign contributions, or as a simple reward for friendship and loyalty. And the Jack Abramoff scandal threatens a higher percentage of the members of Congress than did the Credit Mobilier scandal a century and a half ago – mostly because it is symptomatic of a system deliberately created by the party in power (the infamous “K-Street Project”) which was actually designed to peddle influence quite openly. But what is really scary about this scandal and others related to it, is that no one seems much bothered by it or be concerned for its implications. Those involved mostly view their crimes as that of simply getting caught.
But by far the most disturbing evidence of the corrosion of the American polity and its rapid degradation into a totalitarian dictatorship that has been noticable to me in the years I have been out of the country, is just how eager are the American people to be obediently subservient to a regime that clearly, even defiantly, exhibits serious totalitarian tendencies in its contempt for even the most basic of human rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights and treaties to which the nation is signatory, and its rapid consolidation of power into an authoritarian one-party state, arrogantly, even defiantly, holding itself above the law and the constitution. Not only was the NSA warrantless spying scandal met with arrogant defiance, but America thoroughly disgraced itself when attempts to outlaw torture were openly, vigorously and defiantly opposed by the administration. And now we learn that one of the latest of the Vice President’s open-ended contracts to Halliburton is actually for the construction of concentration camps in the United States, to hold as many as five million people (large PDF document, 1.2mb.), a project ominously called “endgame” by its creators, and the United States Army has been tasked with organizing and enforcing slave labor (PDF document, 775kb) in those camps – and again, no one notices or cares, or thinks to question why a legitimate government honoring basic human rights would need concentration camp space for five million people – nearly twice as many as are currently housed in all the detention centers, jails and prisons of America, put together, or what business does the military have in running forced labor operations in civilian prison camps. The congress and the courts just happily go along with it, as if it were business as usual. The press, pursuing its own interests as allies of the nascent dictatorship, never questions it. The people slumber on, even as new forced-labor concentration camps are being readied for one out of every sixty of them.
All this reminds me of the words of the Roman emperor Tiberius. When he became the emperor, the Roman senate sent him a note, informing him that whatever legislation he wanted, would be quickly passed by them. He responded that this was outrageous. “Suppose the emperor is ill or mad or incompetent?” he asked, returning their message to them. When they sent it again, he responded, “How eager you are to be slaves!”
How eager indeed.
For those wishing to know more about the causes and results of the collapse of the American empire, here are some resources:
Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from Amazon.com by following the links here):
Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance And The Theft Of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann, is an excellent overview of one aspect of how we got ourselves into the mess of unregulated capitalism. Are you aware that the Boston Tea Party was actually a protest at the behavior of a globalized monopoly corporation? Or that the stripes in the Stars And Stripes is a copy of the flag of the East India Company, but in deliberate, exact reverse? In spite of the ponderous title, it’s really a fascinating and easy, but truly frightening read.
The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman. In this volume, written in 2000, Berman makes some prescient predictions about the direction of American culture and civilization, and why it is going to lead to the fall of the American Empire. The book is a short but alarming read. He even begins by telling you right up front that you should not expect to be entertained – but rather frightened.
Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire by Morris Berman. A followup to the above book, Berman analyzes at length the trends he talked about in his preceeding volume (above) and what this means for the fate of western civilization, but more importantly, where the trends he predicted have gone, and why the situation is even worse than he had originally thought. Highly recommended. (available April 10, 2006)
The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America by Kimberly Blaker, is a truly frightening expose about how the Christian right, in league with unregulated commercial enterprise, is rapidly eroding both the separation of church and state, and the concept that one of the principal functions of government is the regulation of the excesses of business. It shows how each is using the other for its own ends – none of which are democratic in any sense.
The Crisis Of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered by George Soros, is a good explanation of the effects that the erosion of American democracy, caused in large part by corporate greed, is having on the rest of the world. George Soros should know – he made a multi-billion dollar fortune trading on his knowledge of how global capitalism works – so he should certainly know what is wrong with it.
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. This book is important not just for the information on the lies you were systematically told in school, but more importantly, just why you were told those lies. A fascinating read.
A People’s History Of The United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn. The best-selling history book of all time, over a million copies have been sold. When you read it, you will come to understand why – it will expose the full scale of the propagandizing to which you have been subjected. A shocking read in many respects.
The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact And Propaganda by Edward S. Herman is a good expose of what the American governing elite has sponsored in America’s name abroad for many years. As such, it offers some good clues as to the kind of repression that is coming home to America, now that the propertied elite can govern without opposition. Written in 1982, it is still in print because it was so prescient – it reads, remarkably, like it was written last week.
Leo Strauss and the Straussians
Until quite recently, Leo Strauss and his disciples were considered (insofar as anyone took any notice of them) just a particular variety of conservative intellectuals, with a special interest in political philosophy and American constitutional history. Now we are beginning to discover that something peculiar has been going on all this time.
The greatest peculiarity of Straussianism is that there is such a thing. Not a single other “conservative” thinker has inspired a following remotely comparable, in size, continuity, and influence, to that of Leo Strauss. There is a Straussian school as there is no Weaveran or Burnhamite or Meyeran or Kendallist or Voegelinist school. And this school has its own interests, ideas, and purposes, which are clearly distinct from mainstream conservatism, however close to their collective chest they play their cards.
The Straussians are also the only group of “conservatives” ever to amount to anything in the academic world. They have reportedly been gradually, quietly infiltrating and taking over political-science departments, making that discipline characteristically theirs, as Marxists have done with sociology, and libertarians with economics.
Then along came Allan Bloom, who was catapulted to momentary fame by The Closing of the American Mind (1987), briefly becoming one of the most publicly-recognized “conservative” figures … second only to William F. Buckley, Jr., who had spent decades making his name as the liberal establishment’s token conservative. Curiously (and characteristically) enough, in Bloom’s famous (or infamous) book, he only mentions his master once, and in passing, so that the vast majority of his readers remained blissfully ignorant of any connection (probably never having heard of Leo Strauss anyway); yet those in the know could immediately recognize Bloom’s intellectual affiliation.
Strauss and the Straussians began to attract more attention, both journalistic and scholastic. One liberal scholar, Shadia Drury, has made a career of writing anti-Straussian exposés: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), Alexandre Kojeve: the Roots of Postmodern Politics (1994), Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997).
The distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy is, quite simply, to take premodern philosophers seriously, and to try to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, a radical challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are “outmoded” and irrelevant; they were mental prisoners of their epoch — usually ignoring the implication that we, too, are mental prisoners of our own epoch, so that contemporary prejudices are no better than “outmoded” ones.
But this is only a prelude to an even more radical challenge to modern thought: the Straussians believe that premodern philosophy is better than modern philosophy. This turns the whole “progressive” view of history topsy-turvy, and provides a very distinctive point of view, and line of criticism, about modernity. The Straussians are pre-modern and anti-modern, not in the name of religion (like the various forms of religious fundamentalism all over the world) or of tradition (like conservatives since Edmund Burke), but in the name of reason, of philosophy: an understanding of reason and philosophy different from the Enlightenment’s.
The teaching of Leo Strauss is “political philosophy” in a very special sense: his primary, if not exclusive, concern is the relation of philosophy (and the philosophers themselves) to society as a whole. Moreover, he imputes this primary concern to the premodern and early modern philosophers.
The lesson of the trial and execution of Socrates is that Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of all human endeavors. The resolution of this conflict is that the philosophers should, and in fact did, keep their teachings secret, passing them on by the esoteric art of writing “between the lines.” Strauss believed that he alone had recovered the true, hidden message contained in the “Great Tradition” of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke: the message that there are no gods, that morality is ungrounded prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.
With Machiavelli, however, there came a shift in emphasis. He was the first to deviate from the esoteric tradition that began with Plato, thereby initiating the Enlightenment. Machiavelli de-moralized political philosophy, and thereby created “political science.” Virtue, whether defined in classical or Christian terms, was dethroned, because no regime could live up to its demands. Instead, a new regime could and should be created, by accepting, understanding, and harnessing men’s lower, self-interested nature.
The modern world is held to be the deliberate creation (with some unintended consequences) of the modern philosophers — namely, the Enlightenment, which gave birth to both scientific-technological progress and the liberal ideology of social-political progress. The Enlighteners argued (though still covertly) that instead of hiding philosophy, philosophers should reform society to make it more hospitable to philosophy: in particular, by undertaking the “project” of modern science, by which reason masters nature and provides material gratifications — safety, health and wealth — to common men, bribing them into acquiescence to philosophy. Physical science and technology would provide the know-how, while a new kind of regime, liberalism, would provide the conditions of liberty and equality enabling men to pursue their self-interest.
The problem with this (in the Straussian view) is that it exposed philosophy once more, and ultimately prostituted philosophy itself into the service of common men. The esoteric tradition was forgotten, and with it philosophy as such. At the same time, philosophy inadvertently exposed men to certain hard truths, truths too hard for them to bear: that there are no gods to reward good or punish evil; that no one’s patria is really any better than anyone else’s; that one’s ancestral ways are merely conventional. This leads to nihilism, epitomized by the listless, meaningless life of bourgeois man, or to dangerous experiments with new gods — gods like the race and the Fuehrer.
Strauss, an ethnic Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany, looked at the regnant liberalism of mid-century America, and saw the Weimar Republic: morally weak, incapable of self-preservation. His prophecy was fulfilled by the ignominious collapse of the liberal establishment, both political and academic, in the face of the New Left.
Now, this unique interpretation of Western history depends on the existence of a “hidden agenda” in the history of philosophy. If there was, in fact, such an esoteric tradition, it has escaped the attention of most scholars. Of course, that might only prove how well-hidden it is … which goes to show how seductive esotericism can be, once you start flirting with it. But in the end, what really matters is the philosophical questions Strauss raised, whether or not he was correct in ascribing them to the historic philosophers.
There are several problems with his “teaching.” First, is the philosopher (in the original, literal sense: a “lover of wisdom”) really a superior type of person? I think that he is — but not that he is a superior being. The difference between the philosopher and the ordinary person is one of degree, not of kind. His impulses are the same, but ordered differently. No matter how rational he is, he is still a rational animal: a sexual one, for instance, and a social one. His curiosity is more fully developed than theirs, but unless his other faculties are at least as well developed as theirs, this one trait does not make him better than they are.
The ancient philosophers did believe that the philosophic life is the highest and best, but only a few are suited to it. The Straussians concur, and go on to imply that the major evil of modern egalitarianism is that it makes philosophy impossible, by devaluing anything that is not accessible to the common man. But philosophy is not the only thing that suffers: so do creativity, heroism, authority, and all other “elitist” qualities.
Bloom makes much of this, even though he regards these other “types of soul” as rivals to philosophy, because he wants to undermine egalitarianism, and these others are more appealing. Philosophy is all the less appealing if, as he seems to assume, the ultimate truth is that there is no truth. It is all the more important, then, to convey this truth through misdirection: the desire to know cannot be aroused unless the allure of truth is held out.
The main difference between the Straussians and Left-wing nihilists is that the former think the “truth” of value-relativism should be known only to the few. All the philosophical problems with relativism apply to the Straussians’ Right-wing version, and in spades. Suffice it here to say that the Straussians, too, have to introduce quasi-objective standards of judgment, covertly and unintentionally: e.g., the social utility of religion and patriotism. Surely, the very fact that society requires certain things — communal loyalty, for instance — in itself justifies these things: they are rooted in nature, the social nature of humanity.
Then there is an evident contradiction between the idea of philosophy as the pursuit of truth, and the idea of philosophy as a body of esoteric lore. If the Straussian reading is correct, it would seem that the history of philosophy consists of practically nothing but pondering the relation of philosophy to civil society, rather than pondering philosophical questions themselves. All the important questions have already been answered, or declared to be unanswerable: this is what created the tension between philosophy and civil society in the first place. So what is there for philosophers to do? The Straussians themselves are not even philosophers, but historians of philosophy, custodians of the esoteric lore.
The perceived need to write obscurely also tends to obscure thought. The Closing of the American Mind is much better-written (in style, at least, if not in convoluted structure and argumentation) than anything by Leo Strauss. But even Bloom makes his argument complex and subtle to the point of evasiveness, as if he wants to confuse and mislead the reader. (In particular, his critics — those who actually did read him — were hardly ever able to tell when he was or was not speaking in propria persona.) Bloom, at least, writes so well that he charms rather than repulses the reader, so one is (if sympathetic) willing to read his book again and again, with closer and closer attention; but not even the most sympathetic reader can really be sure, in the end, precisely what Bloom really means, behind all the good and important things he does say.
Bloom’s analysis of our cultural predicament is so true, so profound, that there must be some truth in his speculations as to its causes; but he all-too-carefully avoids making clear and specific claims that can be put to the test. This is the great weakness of the Straussian method: so careful is he to hide the point of his argument, he nearly fails to make it. Certainly he fails to support it. Strauss puts his students to such a mental effort to try to understand him that they are too exhausted to make the mental effort to criticize him.
Given the inherent obscurity of the Straussian teaching, one should only be surprised if it did not produce conflicting interpretations. There are in fact two schools of Straussians: those like Bloom, who accept and propound this esoteric teaching; and those, such as Harry Jaffa, who interpret Strauss in terms of a more conventional understanding of classical philosophy. One might call them the esoterics and the exoterics, but it is hard to tell which is which.
It may be that the seeming exoterics are just better at hiding their esotericism, which makes them the true esoterics. Both of them challenge the prevailing relativism of twentieth-century thought, harking back to classical standards of truth and justice; but the esoterics only do so because truth and justice are salutary myths, while the exoterics (perhaps) really do believe in truth and justice.
The two schools are also divided on their interpretation of American history, and particularly the American Founding. Both follow Strauss’s division of philosophical history into the (good) “ancients” and the (bad) “moderns.” According to the esoteric version, America was wholly modern from its inception: it is entirely the creation of the “modern project.” The exoteric Straussians, like conservatives, prefer to emphasize America’s continuity with the classical and Christian sources of Western civilization.
The esoterics, then, basically agree with the libertarian and (pre-1960s) liberal understanding of American history: we are a “proposition nation,” liberal to the core, and conservatism is un-American. The cult of the Founding Fathers is just a salutary myth. The truth is that the Founders, under the tutelage of Hobbes and Locke, deliberately created a squalid regime ruled by self-interest, sacrificing virtue to liberty and equality, and are ultimately responsible for the philistinism, mediocrity, and deracination of contemporary America.
Both esoterics and exoterics seem to agree that we need to try to refurbish the old notion of “natural rights,” on which the republic was founded. Bloom regards “natural rights” as illusory, and bourgeois society as distasteful; but they are at least preferable to the nihilism of the New Left. The question is whether the New Left was the inevitable culmination of the ideology of liberty and equality — and he strongly implies that it is. His only hope seems to be the cultivation of a tiny remnant to pass on the old lore through the new Dark Age. Now, conservatism might or might not be un-American, but this sort of quietism certainly is.
Straussianism is an extraordinarily complex and subtle body of ideas, and I am sure that I have hardly done it justice in this small space. But in the end, Straussianism offers more questions than answers. This is not necessarily bad: the questions need to be asked. What is the relation of nature to culture? Can society be founded on rational principles? Has the Enlightenment brought about its own downfall? How did this happen? What can be salvaged from the wreck? — etc. Strauss, through his disciple Bloom, started me thinking about these questions, which have preoccupied me ever since.
© 2000 by Karl Jahn