I’m ready for some smaller government. Now, if you’ve ever met me (or read anything else I’ve written here), this might be a perplexing statement. How do you go from bleeding heart to…very not?
Well, to start, you read Naomi Wolf’s new book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. And you learn that asking the government to butt out a little isn’t a partisan concern anymore—it’s about fighting to maintain the essentially democratic nature of the United States. The book itself is not masterpiece of political polemic; the structure of a letter to a young patriot often feels forced. However. Wolf’s arguments, at their strongest, are terrifying. She spends much of the book explaining that America is, in fact, losing the precarious balance that the Founders established. The phrase “fascist shift” comes up a lot—but before you roll your eyes, know that she disclaims, early and often, that we’re not talking concentration camps, here. Fascism, a barely-definable phenomenon, can take many forms—just as we’re slowly learning that democracy doesn’t look the same for everyone. What we’re looking at is almost Fascism-Lite, if that—a nominally democratic system in which citizens have a sense that certain acts are out of bounds and so don’t participate.
I don’t mean things that are illegal—just things that might be considered beyond the pale, like protesting on the Washington Mall or checking “subversive” books out of the library or signing on-line petitions that your mother sends you. Of course, we’re looking at the possibility that such activities could actually be illegal, too—if they’re considered somehow a threat to national security. And the government will know about them, despite your first-amendment rights, because we’re letting the executive branch bypass more and more checks and balances in pursuit of wiretapping your phone, reading your email, and checking out your library records. And they’ll have established the legal precedent to detain even citizens indefinitely, perhaps unaware of the charges brought against them. And who knows by what means information might be forced out while you’re in custody?
I don’t think I need to really go into why this particular issue strikes me deep, not just as an American but as a woman and a Jew. Naomi Wolf makes the Jewish point pretty transparent at times—the word “Nazi” is pretty prevalent. No political system in the world has proven as safe for beleaguered religious and ethnic minorities as democratic republics, which is why no one who proudly claims both Jewish and American identity should support Guantanamo Bay and wiretapping and the not-so-subtle attempts to redefine torture, no matter what their political affiliations. And in anticipating the response of those who think that as long as they’ve got “nothing to hide,” I’d hope that our collective historical memory harkens back far enough to remember when being Jewish became something to hide from the state. And as a woman, knowing that the rights to my body are forever on the line in this country, I’m about as in favor of non-invasive government as I can be. If the essential liberty that the Founders wanted to fight for was bodily independence, then…well, I’m not going to pick that particular fight today, but it certainly makes the argument for choice in all corporeal things, wouldn’t you think?
I’ve grappled for some time with the deep fissures that are seriously disrupting our political landscape, and so it’s (almost) a relief to find something that I think we can all easily agree. In the interest of driving home a point, I’ll own up to a point of personal dorkhood: I own a well-thumbed copy of The Federalist Papers, the papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay to convince the New York state assembly to ratify the Constitution. Essentially anticipating and responding to concerns about this brave new adventure of democracy, the assembled papers are one big love letter to the concepts that fundamentally define our government. My man Mr. Madison hits the nail on the head: “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men [or women!—NB] who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
How do we do this? I was disappointed that Naomi Wolf didn’t include a compendium of suggestions, but perhaps her one word of advice is worth all that: talk. Keep talking, keep reading, keep writing, keep making noise and making sense. We the people have been for too long to complicit in the slow strangling of our most valuable civic virtue. Let’s stop that.