What Naomi Wants…

Can you say that an intelligent, dynamic, progressive feminist is hot?

Ok, there, I just said it. Naomi Wolf is my kind of intelligent, dynamic, progressive feminist. And if I weren’t married, and if she weren’t completely out of my league…but why daydream? There are other much more important matters at hand.

I knew Wolf only by reputation, and publicity stills, until her 9/23 talk at the Chicago Public Library. She was there promoting her new book, Give Me Liberty, and trying to assure her audience that there is still hope: We can have true democracy in this country. But time is running out, and only direct action by people who care about the Constitution and the vision of the Founders will head off the encroaching fascism we’ve seen the last eight years.

Wolf did not directly call the current administration fascist (well, she kinda hinted at it), but she noted many parallels between what happened in Germany during the 1930s and what has happened here since 9/11. She had argued this point fully in her previous book, The End of America.

Wolf began her talk outlining some of the ten steps would-be dictators take – using legal means –  to end the rule of law and slowly, almost imperceptibly, seize control of a  country. These include designating internal and external threats, which leads to a call for enhanced security measures and secret prisons, along with what the Nazis called “enhanced interrogation” – what you and I call torture. (And oddly enough, the Bushies have reintroduced the Germanic metaphor.) Then, the government creates a paramilitary force not governed by laws – think Blackwater. Wolf noted these homegrown Brown Shirts are not just a foreign force. The U.S. government has already made plans to use them in the event of domestic disturbances.

You might argue that Wolf is way overstating the case. The Bush measures have only targeted – with a few notable exceptions – foreigners, those darn terrorists and enemy combatants. At least so far. But she noted how the president has the power to brand just about anyone a terrorist or enemy combatant, and that poor soul has almost no legal recourse to challenge it. At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, eight people were arrested and charged as terrorists. For protesting. Or what some of us might call exercising their constitutional right to free speech and assembly.

Branding protesters/activists as traitors is another of the bullet points in the dictators’ how-to manual for building a better police state. Next come press restrictions. We haven’t seen them yet, not like with locking up journalists and burning books and such (though Wolf noted the arrest of Democracy Now correspondent Amy Goodman in St. Paul. And the orchestrated, if not-government sanctioned, burning of Dixie Chicks CD’s after they dissed the president a few years ago). But certainly the messages that are broadcast through the mainstream media do not reflect the views of Wolf and other activists. An example: Wolf’s last two books have sold well, but no major paper has reviewed them.

Saying that we are on our way to tyranny does more than make you a pariah in the MSM. It can, as Wolf has found out, put you on the airport “watch list.” A friendly TSA agent finally explained why a certain, mysterious code always showed up on her boarding passes, leading to extra scrutiny whenever she flies. She joked that she must fit the criteria of a particularly threatening class of Americans: short Jewish woman from New York. And there must be a lot of them; the watch list, she said, is now at 1 million and counting, with another 20,000 names added every month.

So the TSA explained the airport hassles, but the post office couldn’t explain why her mail was getting ripped open before it was delivered. Not the occasional mangling we all swear about and then dismiss as “that frigging post office,” but systematic opening. And Wolf couldn’t explain to her 13-year-old daughter why all the letters she sent the kid when she was at camp never arrived. Imagine how the scrutiny of folks the president deems threatening will only get nastier under the revised FISA (which Barack Obama said he opposed, but voted for anyway…).

This first half of her talk, Wolf allowed, was a trip “down into darkness.” The second part, and the thrust of her new book, outlined how Americans can combat the subversion of the rule of law and true democracy.

She turned to the Revolutionary leaders for inspiration, and noted in particular the lesser-known sentences in the Declaration of Independence that come after “When in the course of human events…pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson wrote, and the other rebels agreed – rebels who knew, as Franklin put it, they would all hang separately if they didn’t hang together – that governments exist because of the citizens’ consent to be governed. But if the government abuses the power the people give it, the people – the source of that power – have the right “to alter or abolish it.”

Wolf says it’s not just our right to alter the government when it flirts with despotism. It’s our obligation. And she believes that many Americans know in their hearts, their souls, that torture is wrong. Surveillance of innocent people is wrong. Waging wars against people who do not threaten us is wrong. Trying to subvert the rule of law is wrong. The bubbling sense of injustice starting to rise in more and more Americans must lead them to wage war – not literally, though Wolf does believe in civil disobedience – against the forces that seek to make the Constitution irrelevant to their governing.

Delivering her somewhat somber message, Wolf never came across as a pedant or a wide-eyed anarchist. She appealed equally to the progressives and the Ron Paul-loving libertarians in the crowd. (She professed a lot of respect for Paul, while acknowledging she doesn’t support all his aims). She was funny, she was inspiring, and at times she came across as the concerned mom she undoubtedly is. I have some quibbles with her interpretations of a few historical fine points, but most of the time I found myself saying, “Amen, sister!” (When I wasn’t admiring that thick mane of hair, which she tossed so seductiv – stop that!)

Lousy picture, great message

But at times, she seemed a little too New Agey, or put a little too much faith in positive thinking and feeling what’s right deep in our soul. Maybe that optimism is what she’s had to cultivate to keep doing her work. It’s an antidote to the gloom that can easily overcome someone who has immersed herself in the perversions of justice we’ve seen since 2001. She admitted that some of her research has led her to some depressing views of what could lie ahead. But she still has faith in Americans to do the right thing. I am more cynical. The powers-that-be are really into keeping the gig they have going. Most people are too numbed by popular culture or consumerism or just trying to pay their bills to become activists. I am as guilty as they are.

But Wolf did have one demand that I can obey (anything, Naomi, anything). She told bloggers to do more than merely opine. They should get out and report, offer alternatives to the MSM, light a fire of resistance to the creeping fascism. So, in the future, I hope to use this space for more recaps of events like this one, interspersed with musings on the crisis and the move and the trip. Maybe getting out to these events will lead me to take more direct action. Or prod others to do the same.

Thanks for bearing with me on such a long post. But it seemed like some good stuff.

For more on Wolf’s endeavors, check out

  • the Woodhull Institute (named for one of the most fascinating Americans of the 19th century  and, I hope,  the subject of my next historical drama)
  • the My America Project
  • a video of an earlier talk based on The End of America.

Also see Chicago NPR’s Amplified for an archived recording of her Chicago talk (not posted as of 9/25 but should be up soon).

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~ by mburgan on September 25, 2008.

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