Friday, June 6, 2008

Naomi Wolf & The End of America

By identifying ten steps in The End of America that all dictators and would-be dictators take in order to close down an open society, Naomi Wolf is able to argue convincingly that all ten of these steps are underway in the United States today. She argues convincingly that citizens need to rise up and challenge the powers that be to insure that our country as we know it isn’t lost to us.

Is easily digestible chapters, Wolf compares the current political climate in the US with the conditi
ons in other free states before or as they turned totalitarian. Most often the analogy is drawn with Hitler and the National Socialist Party and Mussolini’s Italy. This resonates especially in chapters on the development of a paramilitary force answerable only to the ruler and restriction of the free press. What struck this reader was how easily the current climate towards the press has shifted to intimidation factors that make outright control unnecessary.

But her presentation is not without its flaws. Wolf never adequately demonstrates that these ten steps are used by all dictators as they attempt to achieve power. Her examples are selected so as to be relevant to her arguments about the US, and while the book is meant to be a short cri de coeur, I believe a firmer grounding in history might have served her better. At times Wolf also fails to show a causal link making her examples relevant. For example, in a chapter arguing the point of surveillance of citizens, she drops in that Condoleeza Rice is ‘an expert on a least one surveillance society, which she analyzed in a book she coauthored, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed.’ The fact that a political science professor seeking tenure published such a book should surprise no one, and Wolf fails to make this one sentence relevant to the rest of the passage. Though almost all statements are sourced, more than one slipped through without providing a reference.

The brevity of the piece often makes one wish that she had gone into more detail, even if only to mention texts for further reading. One of Foucault’s most recognizable societal criticisms involved the Panopticon, a prison in which one guard could monitor hundreds of prisoners and maintain order because none would ever know when he or she was being watched. Yet Wolf never mentions this in her arguments on the surveillance of citizens. Perhaps such a connection is unnecessary, but Discipline and Punish is the type of text that would support her argument, giving her a solid appeal to authority.

Despite these criticisms, The End of America should serve as a jarring call to arms for people who believe that it can’t happen here. The parallels are eerie and prescient. And while America is unlikely to be subject to a violent closing down of our open society; we are vulnerable erosions in democracy that will look very American on the surface yet leave us less free.

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