Waltz with Mussolini

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"Fascism" was a term bandied about frequently and casually in reference to the reign of George W. Bush. Usually, it was brandished in service of a logically deficient but emotionally charged argument by someone ill-equipped to succinctly document the numerous power-grabs and rights-reductions that took place over the past eight years. While the term itself is inherently inflammatory — and often employed simply for that antagonistic characteristic — it's one that carries a precise meaning.

In her 2007 book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Naomi Wolf neatly laid out the 10 steps nations take on their way to becoming fascist states, and then went on to eloquently and clearly describe how the United States under George W. Bush had checked off every box on that list:

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy. (see: Islamic terrorism)

2. Create a gulag. (Gitmo)

3. Develop a thug caste. (Republican poll workers, Halliburton, Department of Homeland Security)

4. Set up an internal surveillance system. (wiretapping)

5. Harass citizens groups. (the Defense Department's Counterintelligence Field Activity monitoring anti-war and other activist organizations)

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release. (TSA's "terrorist watch list")

7. Target key individuals. (Valerie Plame)

8. Control the press. (Greg Palast, al-Jazeera, Dan Rather)

9. Dissent equals treason. (Dixie Chicks, preventive detention of "enemy combatants")

10. Suspend the rule of law. (the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act of 2007, which gave the president the ability to utilize state militias in any way — and in any state — he sees fit, as long as there's a "national emergency" declared, of course, by the president)

While Wolf's thesis wasn't that the United States had suddenly turned into Mussolini's Italy, her point was that it could. All that flag-waving and loyalty that so many folks saw as pure patriotism could, posited Wolf, easily transform into collectivist nationalism. An entire free nation could decide that the interests of the state, as defined by its head, were more important than their own. Scarier still was that an entire sublegal framework had been established that would easily allow such a renovation in the event of another catastrophe.

Attempting to transform this kind of polemic into an engaging piece of cinema might seem the height of folly. However, filmmakers Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern (who were also responsible for The Trials of Darryl Hunt and the shocking Darfur documentary The Devil Came on Horseback) are more than up to the task. Wisely, they crafted a film version of The End of America that let Naomi Wolf do most of the talking; the meat of the film comes from Wolf delivering a lecture enumerating the 10 points. Interspersed with a clutch of interviews with everyone from generals and intelligence officers to peaceniks and the occasional incidental casualty of Bush's policies, the film is incredibly engaging.

Wolf's delivery helps give the subject matter real clarity and context; instead of coming off like a left-wing nutball, she cogently and directly addresses what she sees as a very real threat to the American way of life, but frames it in the context of civil rights and historical truths, rather than simply as a bomb-throwing bit of "Bush sucks." While some — OK, most — people breathed a heavy sigh of relief when that green helicopter carried Dubya away from D.C. for the final time, many of the policies he implemented are still in place. It's up to the citizenry to ensure that our new president diligently undoes as much of it as possible. This film is a brisk reminder that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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