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The Year of the Naomis--Wolf and Klein--Both with Great Messages

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Naomi Wolf’s title, “The End of America: a Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot,” is an attention grabber.

End of America? Didn’t we just have Francis Fukuyama missing the cultural deadline (as well as reality) with “The End of History”?

If there’s one thing to be learned about predicted ends, it’s that they are not often true. Now, having said that (and thereby conserving my predictive powers for another day), Wolf is no alarmist, no stranger to writing about the current state of events and no neophyte researcher of historical archives. In a recent Op-Ed in my favorite rag, the Washington Post, she writes;
Is America still America if millions of us no longer know how democracy works?

When I speak on college campuses, I find that students are either baffled by democracy's workings or that they don't see any point in engaging in the democratic process. Sometimes both.

Not long ago, I gave a talk at a major university in the Midwest. "They're going to raze our meadows and put in a shopping mall!" a young woman in the audience wailed. "And there's nothing we can do!" she said, to the nods of young and old alike.

I stared at her in amazement and asked how old she was. When she said 26, I suggested that she run for city council. Then she stared at me-- with complete incomprehension. It took me a long time to convince her and her peers in the audience that what I'd suggested was possible, even if she didn't have money, a major media outlet of her own or a political "machine" behind her.

America certainly risks losing itself to sit-com status if we forget how it works, that’s for sure. I’ve wondered (often and in print) why there are no students in the streets as there were in the 60s and Wolf has an answer for me—one that is sobering—one that had never occurred to me because I am of an earlier generation.
. . . this distressing situation isn't just George W. Bush's fault. Young Americans have also inherited some strains of thought from the left that have undermined their awareness of and respect for democracy. When New Left activists of the 1960s started the antiwar and free speech student movements, they didn't get their intellectual framework from Montesquieu or Thomas Paine: They looked to Marx, Lenin and Mao. It became fashionable to employ Marxist ways of thinking about social change: not "reform" but "dialectic"; not "citizen engagement" but "ideological correctness"; not working for change but "fighting the man."
Just when we thought it was safe to go in the water after Joe McCarthy, Marx and Lenin and Mao come back out of the woodwork. I had to look up ‘dialectic,’ a contradiction of ideas that serves as the determining factor in their interaction. I'll admit to liking ‘reform’ better, as it has a somewhat less professorial ring to it.

If ‘ideological correctness’ doesn’t scare the sh*t out of you, I don’t know what will, but I was tied up in business and family during those days and not paying attention while the seeds of today's ennui were planted.
During the Vietnam War, the left further weakened itself by abandoning the notion of patriotism. Young antiwar leaders burned the flag instead of invoking the ideals of the republic it represents. By turning their backs on the idea of patriotism -- and even on the brave men who were fighting the unpopular war -- the left abandoned the field to the right to "brand" patriotism as it own, often in a way that means uncritical support for anything the executive branch decides to do.
Jesus. Wolf makes clear what has been driving me nuts—how those of us who disagree with the current administration became ‘unpatriotic’ and how any Congressional oversight at all was shriveled by the accusation of being soft on terror.
In the Reagan era, when the Iran-contra scandal showed a disregard for the rule of law, college students were preoccupied with the fashionable theories of post-structuralism and deconstructionism, critical language and psychoanalytic theories developed by French philosophers Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida that were often applied to the political world, with disastrous consequences. These theories were often presented to students as an argument that the state -- even in the United States -- is only a network of power structures. This also helped confine to the attic of unfashionable ideas the notion that the state could be a platform for freedom; so much for the fusty old Rights of Man.
In the 1990s and the early years of this century, theories that globalization is the ultimate evil found their ascendancy on college campuses. Young people, informed by movements against sweatshops and the World Trade Organization, have come to see democracy as a mere cosmetic gloss on the rapacious monolith of global capitalism.

All of these legacies have left the young feeling depressed, cynical and powerless.

The French Shock-Jacques. That description leaves me feeling pretty depressed as well, but it’s a dead-on definition of why no one gives a damn among the young and their parents, who were those 60s believers in Marx, Lenin and Mao. The End of America is a must-read, before the last true patriot is dead.

Naomi Klein, on the other hand, dispels any notions you may have had about the CIA and its usefulness as a tool in the belt of American democracy.

A Canadian journalist, Klein ruthlessly and in agonizingly researched detail, carries us through Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of nation building. Klein has done the legwork, so we needn’t tromp our way up and down the dusty corridors, lined with closet after closet, ringing with the cries of the tortured, the disappeared, the silenced witnesses to grand theft of their countries.
Countries in social upheaval, surely countries in need of help. Not on your life. Countries that were making amazing progress economically and socially, where life each year was better and the growing middle class had but one problem—it failed to recognize the seniority and primo status of American business. These sovereign citizens of Uruguay, Chile, Brazil and Argentina failed to realize that their prosperity must come second to Ford, GM and ITT.
Friedman first learned how to exploit a shock or crisis in the mid-70s, when he advised the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Not only were Chileans in a state of shock after Pinochet's violent coup, but the country was also traumatized by hyperinflation. Friedman advised Pinochet to impose a rapid-fire transformation of the economy - tax cuts, free trade, privatized services, cuts to social spending and deregulation.

It was the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere, and it became known as a "Chicago School" revolution, as so many of Pinochet's economists had studied under Friedman there. Friedman coined a phrase for this painful tactic: economic "shock treatment". In the decades since, whenever governments have imposed sweeping free-market programs, the all-at-once shock treatment, or "shock therapy", has been the method of choice.

This, from the introduction to The Shock Doctrine and it pretty much hit me between the eyes, as I have been a life-long admirer of Friedman. Who knew? The whole dirty business had been cloaked in secrecy and propaganda.

I gingerly read further, a skeptic, but at this moment an intrigued skeptic. It was like reading that Mother Teresa was actually a long-time doubter of her faith—such things are not meant to come along and shock our sensitivities, much less our doctrine.
I started researching the free market's dependence on the power of shock four years ago, during the early days of the occupation of Iraq. I reported from Baghdad on Washington's failed attempts to follow "shock and awe" with shock therapy - mass privatization, complete free trade, a 15% flat tax, a dramatically downsized government. Afterwards I traveled to Sri Lanka, several months after the devastating 2004 tsunami, and witnessed another version of the same manoeuvre: foreign investors and international lenders had teamed up to use the atmosphere of panic to hand the entire beautiful coastline over to entrepreneurs who quickly built large resorts, blocking hundreds of thousands of fishing people from rebuilding their villages. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was clear that this was now the preferred method of advancing corporate goals: using moments of collective trauma to engage in radical social and economic engineering.

. . . Until recently, these conditions did not exist in the US. What happened on September 11 2001 is that an ideology hatched in American universities and fortified in Washington institutions finally had its chance to come home. The Bush administration, packed with Friedman's disciples, including his close friend Donald Rumsfeld, seized upon the fear generated to launch the "war on terror" and to ensure that it is an almost completely for-profit venture, a booming new industry that has breathed new life into the faltering US economy. Best understood as a "disaster capitalism complex", it is a global war fought on every level by private companies whose involvement is paid for with public money, with the unending mandate of protecting the US homeland in perpetuity while eliminating all "evil" abroad.

Add to Don Rumsfeld's Friedman enthusiasm, the names of Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams and Douglas Feith; Friedman disciples all and the main architects of the Iraq disaster.

Just 135 pages in to the 465 total, I find Naomi Klein's treatise so absorbing, well written and carefully researched (60 pages of footnotes) that--believe or not believe--it’s a wonderful exploration of what has gone wrong along the route to globalizing American business.

If you read two books this entire year before election day, make them books by the Naomis—Wolf with The End of America and Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

You're not really well informed unless you do.
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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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