It’s not paranoia if they are out to get you.

tn_roypeterclark.jpg tn_naomi-wolf-1.jpg He said. She said. What do you say?

Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark asks a provocative question in response to about The End of America, the new book by author Naomi Wolf — who hears boot heels and smells leather in contemporary America.

But in his commentary Clark asks:

“Is America on the road to becoming a fascist state? If so, what should journalists do about it?”

Clark answers “No” to the first question and offers a general homily about skepticsm toward all political rhethoric in response to the second – great advice which I wish the press would heed in coverage of the “war on terror.”

But I digress.

Clark characterizes Wolf’s use of the f-word as attention-getting hyperbole. Her polemic is so slanted, he says, it would only persuade “those who already believe.” In contrast he offers the “more persuasive . . . argument of . . .  Francis Fukuyama, who, in his book “America at the Crossroads,” argues against the abuses of the neoconservative movement he helped create.”

I have not read either book so I’m unable to compare or review them. But as a journalist I feel obliged to answer Clark’s two questions with a few obversations

What little I know about fascism I learned at UC Berkeley where I majored in political science from 1978 to 1980. During that time I read the book “Political Man” by recently-deceased scholar Seymour Martin Lipset. I have a copy in my garage as a keepsake but the section that is apropos I still remember after all the intervening years.

In his discussion of Hitler’s fascism, Lipset compared the election returns of 1928, when the Nazis did poorly, with those of 1932 when they took power and burned the Reichstag. His analysis showed that it was the movement of liberal voters to the Nazi ticket that swung the election. At a time of economic desperation and hyperinflation, liberals lost faith in an impotent government and endorsed Hitler’s extremist policies. I wonder about that in the context of our own times. Could a wave of foreclosures spark an economic crisis and precipitate a clamor for extreme solutions? Or another terrorist attack on the eve of national elections?

Of course that is speculative, and Clark rightly tells journalists:

“Be skeptical of all claims that the sky is falling. Ground yourself in American history so that you can compare and contrast your own times to other troubled times, such as the Civil War, the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights era, and Watergate.”

Clark’s remarks suggest that there’s no way America could slide into fascism because, well, it just wouldn’t be American, and I can’t argue with that. But let’s go back a little further in history, under the rubric of “Great Democracies Gone Bad” and check out the birthplace of democracy, the city state of Athens, and why it fell into military and political decline, and tyranny about 2,400 years ago.

Obviously I wasn’t around at the time but the historian Thucydides left a wonderful contemporary account of the Athenian slide into fascism in The Peloponnesian Wars. This tale happens to be reasonably fresh in my mind as I am homeschooling my 14-year-old son, Aeneas, in history and recently “tortured” him (his complaint, Roy Peter Clark, and I agree here that his use of such inflated language does not make it so) by making him read and write about that war. To make a long story short, Athens was then the world’s leading economic power, its leading naval power and the intellectual center of the world. To this day we revere the Athenians of that time for showing how people could rule the state instead of vice versa.

But, as my son learned, the Athenians got greedy. They became a democracy with an empire and, in order to keep that empire they, burned cities, slaughtered men, sold women into slavery and invaded faraway places. 

So the inventors of democracy also invented the abuses of democracy, and if I said earlier that the Athenians had slid into fascism technically that cannot possibly be true, since fascism isn’t invented until the 20th Century.

Nevertheless, after losing the Peloponnesian Wars, “democracy was replaced by the oligarchic rule of the Thirty Tyrants,” as puts it. If the United States is to freedom today what Athens was in its day, democracy clearly does not inoculate a nation or its people against imperialism, greed and perfidy.

Of course that was very long ago and I’d like to bring the discussion back to modern times by quoting a saying attributed to Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

But I learned a secret at my father’s funeral that makes me believe it’s hard to tell the good guys from the evil guys when it comes to figuring out this fascism thing.

I live in California and when my dad died I flew back to Brooklyn for the funeral. Afterwards I met all of my dad’s old friends. They had grown up together during the Depression, Italian kids whose parents spoke little or no English. The best thing in their lives was the Catholic Youth Organization baseball team. My sister Tina sent me a picture once of the whole crew of guys when they were about 18. And there I was on the day we buried my dad, listening with moist eyes as they told me about playing ball together. I remember one of the guys said something to the effect of, “That Benny, he was some ball player.” All of a sudden I was not the grieving son but the suspicious reporter. See, my name is “Tom Abate” and as a child everybody called me “Baby Tommy” to distinguish me from my dad, “Big Tommy.” I caught my father’s pals looking guiltily at each other and made them reveal the secret he had taken to the grave.

My grandfather, who had came to America from Naples as a young man, was proud of the leader who seemed, during the 1920s and 1930s  to have restored Italy’s greatness. Grandfather was so proud in fact that he named my father Benito Mussolini Abate. I had heard, growing up as a kid, that my grandfather had had his gold fillings extracted and melted down and sent back to Italy. But such remarks were always with a laugh and I had discounted them. But that day I learned how my dad had gone into the Army toward the end of World War II, and had eventually changed his name in humiliation. He chose Tom, I was told, hoping to appease my grandfather by taking the name of his first son, the eldest of the 13 siblings in the family, who had died long, long before all of this occurred.

So I don’t know whether America is sliding toward fascism or what journalists should do if they thought it was. But I am thankful that Roy Peter Clark dignified the question. And I’ll will say this:  good people may not recognize the evil of their times. They may even help it in some small way, or be otherwise stained by it. That does not make them evil. But it does shame them to the end of their days.

P.S. The original blog was written in the wee hours and I have since corrected some grammatical errors and missing words without changing the meaning.