Naomi Wolf has for many years now been claiming that a fascist coup in America is imminent. Most recently in The Guardian she alleged, with no substantiation, that the U.S. government and big American banks are conspiring to impose a "totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent." Many of her arguments rely on what she styles as rigorous historical research and analysis of current events. But if you compare her characterizations of the historical sources and current news accounts that she cites with the sources themselves, it is possible to discern a pattern of serious misstatements and errors in her political writing.
Skeptics have been raising serious questions about her books and articles since Caryn James called The Beauty Myth (1991) "a sloppily researched polemic" in her otherwise generally favorable New York Times review. Most recently, Wolf's book Vagina: A New Biography has been roundly criticized for overly creative interpretations of scientific research -- most pointedly by scientists she herself cites (though one, Jim Pfaus, also argued to Wired a case for granting Wolf latitude: "Can't we allow an accomplished writer and social critic a little poetic leeway to make a point?"). But it is when she ventures into matters of politics, history, law, and society that her failures become most apparent.
In her bestselling book The End of America, Wolf does not merely distort her evidence to fit her theses; she thoroughly twists its meaning and ignores its context. Many of her biggest distortions have gone mostly unnoticed as she has worked to segue from feminist analyst to left-wing political Cassandra in the international conversation.
Wolf asserts in The End of America that democracies are overthrown by dictatorships employing a "playbook" that allows them to execute a "fascist shift" against the will of the populace. She proceeds to argue that such a "shift" is underway in America, and builds her thesis on a lengthy list of analogies between the history of fascist and totalitarian regimes and events in contemporary America.
For example, she reports a 2002 incident where a woman boarding a flight at JFK International Airport was "forced" to drink her own breast milk from three bottles. According to Wolf, "a state agent -- some agents are armed -- forcing a citizen to ingest a liquid is a new scene in America." She then compares this seemingly odd event to an episode where Nazi S.S. storm troopers "forced Wilhelm Sollman, a Social Democratic leader, to drink castor oil and urine."
According to Richard Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich, the source Wolf cites for that incident, the opposition leader was indeed forced to drink castor oil and urine, though only after he was first tortured for two hours. And this was merely a small part of the orgy of violence unleashed by the Nazis after the March 1933 elections, in which political opponents were beaten and even murdered in the streets. According to the USA Today story Wolf cites, the woman at JFK was asked to sample the milk if she wanted to carry the bottles onboard, not "forced" involuntarily to drink it. And immediately afterwards, the TSA changed its guidelines to explicitly forbid security employees from asking a passenger to drink anything they wanted to bring on board.
In 2001, both houses of the Congress passed the Patriot Act by wide margins. According to Wolf, "After September 11, 2001, we Americans learned in dramatic new ways that we were facing a terrifying external threat .... By October 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act -- that in the end, when it became law, topped 400 pages -- rushed through Congress. Lawmakers passed it overwhelmingly -- though many said they had scarcely read it. Some remarked that it would have been unpatriotic to resist passing the law."
Wolf compares this to the passage in 1933 by the Reichstag of the Enabling Act, which gave Adolf Hitler sweeping powers to rule entirely by executive decree, effectively giving all state power to a one-party dictatorship. The act was proposed by the Nazis in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Reichstag building by arson. And Wolf has this to say about the circumstances in which the Enabling Act was passed: "Appalled at the terrorist threat, and not wanting to be seen as unpatriotic, there was little debate: lawmakers of all parties passed the Enabling Act by a wide majority: 441 to 94."
However, Wolf omits significant details that render this comparison obscene. By the time the act was passed, the Communist Party had already been banned, the moderate-right Center Party had been cowed into submission, and only the 94 deputies of the center-left Social Democratic Party dared cast their votes against the legislation.
The vote took place in the Kroll Opera House in an atmosphere heavy with violence and intimidation. Evans quotes one deputy: "Young lads with the swastika on their chests... made us run the gauntlet, and shouted insults at us like 'Centrist pig,' 'Marxist sow.' In the Kroll Opera it was swarming with armed SA and SS." Otto Wels, the leader of the Social Democrats, gave the last opposition speech to be given in the Reichstag for twelve years. He concluded with the words, "Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not honor."
"Wels was not exaggerating," Evans writes. "Several prominent Social Democrats had already been killed by the Nazis, and he himself was carrying a cyanide capsule in his waist pocket as he spoke, ready to swallow should he be arrested and tortured by the brownshirts after delivering his speech."
Wolf also draws parallels between Stalin's totalitarian gulag system of prison camps and the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which she says bear "fingerprints from other systems." According to her, one of these fingerprints is "the use of water." She proceeds to compare the three confirmed instances of waterboarding to Soviet penal practices. Wolf blithely states that "the NKVD poured icy water on uncooperative prisoners held on shipboard prisons." Again, she leaves out vitally important details.
Here she refers to Let History Judge by the Russian historian Roy Medvedev. He describes the miseries and death concomitant with transporting people by cattle car, such as 200 women who were shipped across Siberia in a wagon made for eight cows before arriving at Vladivostok for transport by ship to Magadan. He describes prisoners dying of starvation and being thrown overboard. "A riot or an organized protest was met with icy water, poured into the hold from the Sea of Okhotsk. Thousands of prisoners died after such a bath, or were delivered frostbitten to the hospitals of Magadan."
Wolf writes that "all dictatorships and would-be dictators strategically target key individuals." She goes on to list these "key individuals": outspoken university professors, entertainers, and public figures. She then nominates former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill as the primary "key individual" targeted by our "would-be dictators." This is how Wolf describes Churchill: "He wrote an essay that argued metaphorically that many of the 9/11 victims were not 'innocent.' Ill-timed. Callous? Certainly. But in an open society, hearing offensive language is the price we pay for open debate."
Here again, Wolf omits some highly relevant facts. In his essay, Churchill blamed the people working in the World Trade Center for Iraqi deaths due to U.S. and UN sanctions: "If there was a better, or more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd be interested in hearing about it." Moreover, Wolf quotes Churchill's lawyer who claimed he was fired for "political speech," but she fails to note C.U. administrators' explanations in the same New York Times article she cites that he was actually fired for plagiarism and fabricating research. (Subsequently, the courts have upheld Churchill's firing.)
In her various books, articles, and public speeches, Wolf has demonstrated recurring disregard for the historical record and consistently mutilated the truth with selective and ultimately deceptive use of her sources. All of this might have little real-world import when she writes about her orgasms or her weight problems. But when she distorts facts to advance her political agenda, she dishonors the victims of history and poisons present-day public discourse about issues of vital importance to a free society.
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