Flags. These are always a bad sign. Hardly a politician appears on television who doesn’t stand in front of an American flag, sometimes three American flags. A venomous nationalism now poisons the air, and grows. We are off and rolling.
The trappings of fascism spread. General David Petraeus, commander of the Eastern Front, poses with the President in the White House in combat fatigues. The country is now the Homeland, reminiscent of the Nazi Fatherland and the Soviet Motherland. We hear of American Exceptionalism, the ritual self-idolization beloved of pathological nationalism. Blood and Soil. The American Dream. Ubermenschen. All we need is a short Austrian.
We may get one. The times ripen for a man on a horse. (Or perhaps a woman: Twitler of Alaska looms.) An ignorant population, unread, unfamiliar with the outside world, focuses its anxieties on troubling dark things lurking abroad, the brown hordes from the south, the rising Chinese, inexplicable Moslems who want to kill all Christians. Sooner rather than later such a mob finds solace in an angry unity. From an unhappy lower middle-class spring Brown Shirts. Wait.
Things come together: Falling standards of living across a country in irremediable decline, diminishing expectations, growing anger in search of focus, a sense of a birthright being stolen as preeminence drifts across the Pacific. Here is fertile soil for some strange crop not yet clearly seen.
It will play out against a backdrop of totalitarian watchfulness all too imaginable. A digital world lends itself to tyranny, making it, I think, inescapable. For practical purposes, the capacity to store data is infinite, to network it across the world, to track, to scan, to watch. This is not the place for a disquisition on the technology of surveillance. Just note that the machinery exists for a totalitarian watchfulness beyond Stalin’s wettest dreams. The government wants this, pushes for it daily, and gets it. You can’t spend a dollar, take a flight, or send an e-mail without a federal office watching. It is getting worse and cannot be stopped. Surveillance is too easy.
We will be told, are being told, that to be safe we must submit, that enemies within and without are upon us, that terrorists spawn plots everywhere. Where communists once hid in every closet and the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, hunted them, now we have Islamo-terrorists hunted by Homeland Security.
What matter civil rights when the Moslem is at our throats? The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and the vigilance ends liberty.
Hysteria darkly flowers. Homeland Security now wants to train us in how to react to a nuclear attack, à la 1950. Scare’m, keep’em scared, tell them you are protecting them, and they will kiss your boots. An Australian publishes embarrassing cable traffic from American embassies, and politicians call for him to be killed by the CIA. The agency is revered as a sort of clandestine Batman and Robin, defending America secretly where evil swirls in the coming night. Kill, kill. On subways we are told to watch each other, to report curious behavior to the authorities. Nothing can stop this.
Constitutionality becomes a fading memory. Random searches in train stations, genital examinations in airports, the decline of habeas corpus, the evasion of the duty of Congress to declare wars, on and on. The government does what it wants. There is no recourse. We are told that it is to make us safe. I haven’t asked to be made safe.
The genius of American politics is to espouse democracy while keeping political power from the people. The trick is to have barely distinguishable candidates for the presidency who carefully avoid mention of substance – the wars, for example, or affirmative action, guns, abortion. These elections, if so they be, allow people to wave placards, roar invective about throwing the rascals out and returning to traditional American etc. The dust settles and things remain as they were.
Governance does not rest with the people. Today, decree replaces legislation, and must, for our safety. If Homeland Security says you must go through a CAT scan, naked, and singing the Star Spangled Banner, then you have to do it. There is no recourse. You can unelect an elected official, but there is no way to get at a bureaucrat. If you do not submit, you go to jail.
Shortly we will hear the death rattle of free expression. No government sees an advantage to itself in a free press, though countries with decent governments feel much less threatened. Our government fears nothing more.
America has a carefully controlled press that appears free because it is not explicitly controlled by the government. But the real power in America rests with the big corporations and their lobbies, with Wall Street, whose personnel move in and out of the formal government at will. All of the traditional media, radio, newspapers, and television, are owned by large corporations. How curious that they do not question large corporations.
The only free press in America is the Internet, and the government does not like it. Washington now moves to “regulate” it. To promote fairness, you see, to prevent piracy, and to maintain national security. Then it will be found necessary to suppress “hate sites.” Just now you are reading a site that has been blocked on many federal installations for promoting hate. There is no recourse.
How will this play out? America retreats behind its emotional borders, gazes over the ramparts, frightened and hostile. In those outlets of the media than pander to The Heartland, to the manipulable unlettered, the nationalist drumbeat grows apace. That America’s bankruptcy results from America’s economic policies, that the country is everywhere hated because of willfully chosen behavior – this does not occur to people who do not read, who do not so much as know the dates of World War II. They will find someone else to blame. Liberals. Mohammedans. Mexicans.
A danger is that the country will lash out abroad, ever more feebly as the economy declines, at nations that no will longer pay attention to it. Washington says that it “will not tolerate a nuclear Iran,” and Iran ignores the admonition. You cannot not tolerate what you can’t prevent. The Pentagon sends the carriers to steam ferally in circles off North Korea, which ignores them. The consequences of wounded vanity are not trivial in world affairs, as anyone knows who has a familiarity with the Treaty of Versailles. But who does?
It serves nothing to raise alarms, to pen Philippics, to gnash hands and wring teeth. Minor political currents can be diverted by protest, but this one is the torrent subsequent to a broken dam. It will go where it will, as the Thirties went where they would. Hold on tight.
December 20, 2010
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.
Copyright © 2010 Fred Reed