Two weeks ago, I responded to an internet invitation to be in the audience of a videotaped presentation by writer Naomi Wolf, who is apparently making a movie to accompany her book, “The End of America.” Borrowing from the examples of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, Ms. Wolf argues of ten warning signs for “fascism” dawning in America.
Ms. Wolf fascinated me when she first became something of a celebrity in the 1980s as a Yale-educated feminist writer. She was a strikingly beautiful and articulate 20-something. In 2000, she got some negative media attention for advising Al Gore on how to look the part of “an alpha male,” by wearing “earth tones.” Maybe her advise was more consequential than that, but she was an unwitting source of ridicule for Gore, with a news media focused upon such trivia as more important than seriously evaluating the relative merits of his candidacy versus that of George W. Bush. We’ve been living with the results ever since.
I attended a talk by Naomi Wolf about two years ago at the Manhattan JCC. Like during this recent taping, she engaged with her audience, then about the nature of Jewish identity. She sees Jewishness as a matter of high ethical consciousness, moral behavior and idealistic aspirations. I think these expectations, while worthwhile, are too much to expect of what is mostly a cultural and biological inheritance. Think for a minute: do Irish people have to conform to a set of high ideals in order to fully express their Irishness? I think that people should do right because it’s right, but (aside from the fact that knowing what’s right is not always simple) Jews should not be saddled with an obligation to do so simply because they are Jews.
The other week, Ms. Wolf made much, in a light-hearted way, of her Jewishness, and clearly, she’s no Neo-con. This Jewish thinker draws inspiration from an older woman she calls her “mentor,” who was a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor. “It was just like this [in the beginning] with Hitler,” this woman has told her.
To me, the biggest flaw in her argument that there are compelling parallels between us and 1930s Germany is that there is no clear fascist party to seize power in this country the way that there was with Mussolini and Hitler, or a nominally left-wing party that became the terrorist instrument of a totalitarian police state under Stalin. It’s a stretch to me that this would be the Republican party today. The GOP has currently nominated a maverick senator with moderate social views as its standard bearer, and is falling all over itself not to be sucked into the maelstrom of popular rejection summoned by their incumbent president. There is also an energetic minority of Republicans rallying to the libertarian anti-war banners of Ron Paul, Bob Bahr and Pat Buchanan.
But I left with some profoundly unsettling bits that, if true, are cause for concern. One is that the Patriot Act apparently empowers the President of the United States to declare any one of us “an enemy combatant” and to incarcerate us, virtually without recourse to a legal defense. There is also supposedly a “list” of security suspects – writers with sharp pens, ACLU lawyers and others who stick in the craw of the powers that be – who are subject to travel delays and other forms of harassment. Ms. Wolf says that she is on the “list” and that its length is growing precipitously, to over 700,000 names today. At the same time, there are supposed to be a large number of detention camps under construction under contract with everybody’s favorite Haliberton subsidiary, KBR. Moreover, there is supposedly a domestic contract with Blackwater, the private security contractor of Iraq infamy, to provide security for these camps and who knows what else.
Ms. Wolf paints Blackwater as the equivalent of Mussolini’s Blackshirts or Hitler’s Brownshirts. Another such parallel were the mobs of Republican activists (she claims that they were dressed identically) demanding that the Florida recount in 2000 be stopped.
Finally, she claims that there is a Presidential executive order ready to be acted upon which would dissolve Congress and the courts in the event of a major national emergency. On this, as on the matter of the “list,” I am ignorant, but I’d like to see some good dispassionate research to establish the existence of these phenomena. If any of these things are out there, Naomi Wolf is right that they need to be exposed.