Reclaiming Patriotism

Naomi Wolf, a former Rhodes scholar who graduated from Yale, has taken on the diet and cosmetics industry (The Beauty Myth) and the travails of motherhood (Misconceptions) in her career as a writer. In her latest book, The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, she examines the current U.S. government, comparing it to tyrannical governments of the past. In an interview at The American Prospect office in Washington, Wolf talked about Nazi Germany, the Internet, and a new organization she has co-founded with Moveon.org's Wes Boyd, the scientist-entrepreneur Dr. William Haseltine and communications guru David Fenton.

How did you get your idea for the book?

I started to have this disquieting sense of echoes -- images, moments -- and it was a little startling. For instance, people were burning CDs. I'm Jewish and that has some historical resonance for me. There were people unloading coffins at night [of soldiers slain the Iraq war]. Journalists were embedded with the army.

That's an echo, and it's not an American echo. I would talk about events with my friend -- she is a Holocaust survivor -- and she would say, "They did this in Germany."

It's a pretty strong statement.

At first, I thought it was crazy. It seemed like one of those marginal Internet things -- to say that these things that are happening now are from Nazi Germany. I just thought she couldn't be right.

Then [my friend] insisted I read histories of the early years, 1930 to 1933, and I saw how many echoes and repeating tactics there are. There is a social taboo that says you're not supposed to compare anything to Nazi Germany. You're not allowed. But the National Socialists came to power with a series of tactics. And tyrants learn from each other. Hitler studied Stalin. Despots really do the same ten things if they are interested in closing down a society.

So I continued to read history. I read about the moments when a leader wanted to close down an open society -- and then did so.

Can you talk more about the taboo of comparing events today to Nazi Germany?

Yes, there is one for good reasons -- but the reasons are now out of date. I lost relatives two generations ago in the Holocaust. The Holocaust was so beyond words that it was a form of intellectual courtesy to treat is as sui generis. Unfortunately, that meant you weren't allowed to talk frankly about how people came to power legally.

How have people reacted to your book and to the comparisons you've made?

In my book, I'm not talking about the Nazi outcomes. I'm talking about their tactics. I'm looking at Berlin in 1931 -- a city that had gay-rights organizations, human rights lawyers, Bauhaus modernist architecture, Paris fashion. Two years later, it had a legally dismantled constitution and intellectuals living in terror. There are many misconceptions about closing down society. The truth is that is done through multiple assaults.

You say you wanted to reach for a younger generation with your book.

Yes, I was disturbed by the fact that the young people I teach were not well equipped to fight this fight, and they have very little grounding in history. I wanted to write in a language that was completely accessible to any American, and I wanted to show how democracies are closed down.

Today, young people are not being taught to understand how to engage in a democracy. The left is kind of responsible for this. The left made a lot of mistakes - we yielded the field of patriotism to the right.

When do you think that happened?

In the Vietnam War. The 1970s were about the Marxist discourse. Young people were not taught that democracy was the most important thing. Today, they're very pessimistic at a time when we need them to be engaged. Young people who call themselves progressives tend to be very, very discouraged.

Derrida had something to do with this. Young people today don't feel powerful, and that's heartbreaking. I think it's the fault of Marxist post-structrualism, which has crowded out the romance in the democratic process. We in America suffer from what I call a democracy myth. They myth is that, somehow, democracy is magically self-replenishing and we don't have to do anything.

So you've started an organization ...

Yes, David Fenton [chairman, Fenton Communications], Wes Boyd [co-founder, Moveon.org], Dr. William Hazeltine [ and I have put together a group called the American Freedom Campaign. The idea is to create a war room. We now have a dozen partner organizations with almost five million members.

As these issues -- such as FISA and so on -- come up, we will work to help drive the agenda in a way that is more than any one of us could. It's going to take an American democracy movement to restore this system.

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