Naomi Wolf has diplomas from Yale University and New College, Oxford, but as another feminist once noted, she is “an intelligent woman ill-served by her education.” If Wolf is a serious thinker, then Terry Pratchett has never written a great fantasy novel and Dean Koontz knows nothing about suspense.
A few years back, Wolf was best known as the image consultant who told a wooden politician that a wardrobe makeover would further his political ambitions. Earth tones, she said, that’s the ticket, and while her client eventually reverted to navy blue suits, he also turned her advice into a high-profile second career as an environmental activist.
Most observers realized even at the time that a wardrobe makeover would not by itself turn scrap lumber into presidential timber. If earth tones did everything that this brunette implied they could, then the people who wore them to most stunning effect would have powerful positions to show for it, yes? Unfortunately for that thesis, and for those of us who grew up with certain actresses, neither the chestnut-haired Jaclyn Smith nor the raven-haired Angie Harmon has ever been appointed to a Cabinet position.
Not that Wolf would appreciate the mischief in that riposte. She is, among other things, the architect of a closed system where earth tones bow to the malicious whimsy of a beauty myth foisted upon all women by patriarchal societies which they might otherwise rule. More to the point of her new book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Wolfe now retails what one blogger describes as “the Ike Turner model of patriotism,” i.e., “you know I wouldn’t beat you every day if I didn’t love you.”
The problem, she says, is that George W. Bush has us sliding toward fascism in ten easy steps. You can absorb her argument even without reading her book, because she outlined the whole thing in an article for the Guardian this past spring: To hear her tell it (and these are just the lowlights), enemies have been invoked. A gulag has been created. Thugs have caste status. Citizen harassment is on the rise. Justice seems arbitrary. The press is controlled. And dissent has been redefined as treason.
There are any number of ways to argue with items on that list, not least because it is riddled with half-truths (enemies have been invoked, but only after they declared themselves first, and the whole thugs-above-the-law meme seems not to be working for exactly the people whom Wolf meant, else the CEO of a private security company whose SEAL-inspired name has been in the news would not have had to answer pointed questions from the U.S. Senate).
Still, Wolf knows how to make a splash. She and her publisher say the new book is nonfiction, although its major premise about presidential motivation makes even that debatable. Some bloggers have taken up the cudgels with a speed that would impress even the trolls in a Terry Pratchett novel. Others think Wolf is right to fear for civil liberties with the same dread that flavors Dean Koontz novels about the perils of Franken-science.
Notice this curious thing: the list Wolf made implies a surprising indifference to any distinction between competence and fascism.
Functional societies that have been attacked defend themselves as best they can, whether clumsily or with precision. Defense devolves into chaos or surrender if a society cannot identify the people who mean harm to its citizens, deputize others to hunt them down, find or build places to hold miscreants who have been apprehended, and prevent further attacks of the same kind.
Yet everything in the ten-item list that Wolf fears could close down “our experiment in democracy” by “a process of erosion” fits the aforementioned logic. Moreover, everything looms larger and darker in her mind when done well. This is a skewed calculus that equates freedom with bumbling incompetence, and fascist oppression with skill.
Wolf has taken what Otto von Bismarck once said about how God seems to look out for fools, drunks, and the United States of America, and turned that from a bemused indictment into a rationale for acting as though the world had already outgrown its need for soldiers and police officers.
By the touchingly utopian standard that Wolf implies, the competence radiating from a Mercedes-Benz makes that vehicle a fascist icon, while Pinewood Derby models raced by Cub Scouts are exemplars of freedom, even when the boys and their fathers (my son and me included) are not free to define “torque” correctly on a lost bet.
I reject any implied equivalence between competence and fascism, and broad-brush attempts to paint defense as inherently fascist, which is why this is not a “buy the book” kind of review, at least not for that book. Better to spend money allotted to thought-provoking literary entertainment on Thud! (Terry Pratchett) or The Taking (Dean Koontz) than on a misconceived letter from Naomi Wolf.
After all, nothing says “earth tones” like pulped fiction.