In her 2007 book The End of America, published in the waning days of George W. Bush’s time in the White House, the social critic and journalist Naomi Wolf warned of a “fascist shift” in American society that was eroding constitutional rights. Four years and one presidential administration later, Wolf told Elmhurst students in the Frick Center on October 20, the situation has only become more dire.
“America is becoming a closed society,” she told several dozen students gathered in Blume Board Room. “Our rights have been shredded since the Patriot Act and they continue to be systematically eroded” under President Barack Obama.
In The End of America, Wolf outlined a 10-step dictator’s playbook that she argued has been used repeatedly around the world to shut down open societies. Among the strategies she cited: Creating secret prison systems outside the rule of law; leveraging the fear of internal threats; and intimidating academics and journalists. Wolf wrote that many of the strategies already were in use in the United States. At Elmhurst, she said that the process of shutting down society was now accelerating.
“It’s worse than ever, and it has happened more quickly than I imagined when I wrote the book,” she said. “There are financial incentives to maintaining a hyped-up terror state and police state. I knew that a change of presidents wouldn’t change this but I didn’t expect the capitulation to be so dramatic. Four years ago we didn’t have a president claiming a right to preventive detention without trial, which Obama has done.”
Wolf was at Elmhurst to lecture and lead discussions as part of the College’s Democracy Forum, a yearlong series of events focused on political and civic engagement. Wolf gained international acclaim with the publication of her 1991 book, The Beauty Myth, about the marketing of unrealistic standards of beauty. The New York Times called it one of the most important books of the 20th century. She was later a political consultant to Al Gore during his 2000 run for the White House. Her 2008 follow-up to The End of America, called Give Me Liberty, offered practical advice for articulating dissent and more effectively participating in democracy.
Her visit to Elmhurst came just two days after her highly publicized arrest on October 18 during an Occupy Wall Street protest in lower Manhattan. She was detained for failing to obey a police order to clear a sidewalk where protesters were waiting to petition New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Americans acting like Americans again
“I didn’t intend to get arrested, just as I never intended to become an activist,” Wolf told the students. “But being an American means standing up for your rights.”
Wolf said she was heartened by the rise of activist movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street: “It’s all good when citizens start to organize. I am excited to see Americans acting like Americans again. That’s how citizens are supposed to behave, demanding transparency and asking questions.”
In her lecture in Hammerschmidt Chapel, “Citizen Empowerment 101,” Wolf dispensed practical advice for would-be activists and protesters. Sing, she urged, instead of chanting, an activity that she described as “quasi-militaristic.” Instead of marching, she suggested that protesters “sit down” and “disrupt business as usual.” And she urged the audience to dispense with “the bias toward consensus and against leadership that we’ve inherited from the New Left.” Trying to reach consensus, she said, produces only torpor. Effective activism requires what she called “a leadership of love.”
In her pre-lecture session with Elmhurst students, Wolf offered a crash course in creating a campaign stump speech. “In the next 56 minutes I’m going to teach you to run for president of the United States,” she told them. She then called a series of students to the front of the Blume Board Room to stand and deliver improvised addresses explaining why they should lead the country. Wolf stood by, sometimes adjusting a student’s posture, other times demonstrating how to communicate authority and create a bond with an audience.
During one exchange, a student challenged Wolf on her criticism of the military contractor Blackwater, now called XE. After Wolf explained that she thought that relying on private military companies created a dangerous precedent, the student responded, “I’m still not persuaded but thank you.”
Others were more convinced by Wolf’s presentation. As she paced at the front of the room, urging the students to defend their rights, one student could be overheard whispering to a friend, “I want to be like her. She’s ballsy.”