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This nineties feminist kills fascists! April 24, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Media and Journalism, Republicans, United States, US Media, US Politics.

Anyone to the political right of the remnants of the Baader-Meinhof gang will likely have raised eyebrows on reading Naomi Wolf’s piece in the G2 section of today’s Guardian, where she explains to us why and how the United States is headed toward a fascist tyranny.  While it’s not yet a dictatorship, it’s apparently only a matter of time.  Unless, of course, Naomi can save the world (in her new book).
Wolf first came to attention in the early nineties as a ‘Third Wave’ feminist, writing about The Beauty Myth and profiled in a large number of pieces in which her own looks featured prominently.  Since then she’s been attacked by Camile Paglia (score one for Wolf), advised Al Gore on how to be an ‘Alpha Male’ during his Presidential campaign (score one against her) and accused Harold Bloom of making unwanted sexual advances when she was an undergraduate at Yale (no score draw).

While some of her work is interesting, her recent writing is, it must be said, decidedly pedestrian and unstimulating and lacks any kind of real intellectual rigour.  The piece in the Guardian is a case in point.  Even leaving aside, for a moment, the entire concept – the Bush regime is proto-fascist – is so predictable, so unoriginal, so … well … easy, that the reader is tempted to shrug their shoulders and sigh “Yeah, okay, whatever” and move on.

But the content is important and it’s on the content that Wolf’s argument really falls down.  She essentially takes a series of random criteria for determining fascism (i.e. “Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy”, “Develop a thug caste”, “Dissent equals treason”), picks some tenuous examples of these from the actions of the U.S. administration and – hey presto! – we’re on the road to fascist tyranny.

Except, of course, we’re not.  Nowhere in the piece does Wolf exhibit any kind of understanding of what fascism actually is or was (I’d recommend Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism for a serious and informative discussion of the subject).  Rather she picks the definition that fits the examples she can find which, while certainly to credit to Bush and the rest fall far short of the kind of tyranny Wolf seeks to invoke.

What’s worst about Wolf’s analysis is that by failing to get to grips with the real nature of U.S. politics she completely ignores the rot at the heart of that state, and exculpates the current (and previous) regimes.  The truth is that political power in the United States, certainly at federal level, is so determined by business interests that there’s no need to establish a tyranny.  There’s no danger of any threat to those interests emerging anyway.  Someone, I can’t remember who (it might have been David Aaronovitch on Little Atoms) recently made a very valid comparison.  While it’s accepted that the veto the Iranian mullahs have over political candidates is inherently undemocratic.  However, less obviously but just as actually undemocratic is the effective control that business exercises over U.S. political candidates.  Even though, strictly speaking, anyone can run for public office (Gary Coleman step forward), the reality is that unless you’re able to amass a huge amount of money, you’ve no chance of ever being elected.  And unless you pose no real threat to those with money, you’re naturally never going to raise enough money to amount an effective campaign.

This kind of more nuanced analysis seems to be beyond Wolf.  By talking about the way the government ‘controls’ the press, she completely misses the point. The government doesn’t need to control the press.  If anything, it’s the other way round.  The press (or, rather, the mass media and the business interests which it broadly facilitates) determines who the government is, a point made in Chomsky and Herman’s somewhat overstated but essentially correct Manufacturing Consent. Once you start throwing half-baked concepts of fascism around, though, any chance of a serious debate along these lines is lost.
Another annoying thing about Wolf’s piece is that it seems intent on playing up to a rather ignorant and kneejerk anti-American worldview.  That’s not, of course, to say that criticism of the U.S. government and of American society more broadly is illegitimate.  Rather, by never once comparing the actions of the government (particularly domestically) to the actions or the political systems of any other contemporary state, Wolf’s piece seems to suggest that the United States is the be-all and the end-all of global politics, a view as insular and uncurious as that of any much-ridiculed Middle-American red-stater.

The fact remains that the United States remains, in theory at least, a strikingly free society by any standard.  That’s not just in comparison with genuine dictatorships like North Korea, Belarus or Zimbabwe.  If you look at the protections for freedom of speech enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and upheld by law, they’re much stronger than anything we enjoy in Ireland.  Indeed, many of examples of steps on the road to tyranny Wolf presents would be unremarkable in many European countries.  Are we, therefore, all living under tyranny?

Of course, life in most Western European countries is, in many other ways, more appealing than life in the United States (if it’s even possible to speak in broad terms of such an heterogenous entity) and, it could be argued, civil society is far healthier in certain respects on the Eastern side of the Atlantic (although there are strong arguments to the contrary as well).  This is the stuff of a real debate about the nature of U.S. politics and of the Bush administration, but all of it is lost to Wolf who prefers to present an argument that would even shame Rik from the Young Ones.  Again the narrowness of Wolf’s political interests (even, perhaps of her knowledge) means any debate is going to limited at the outset.

At the risk of generalisation and of setting up straw men, I also get the feeling that the kind of people who would nod along with Wolf on this point, and agree with comparisions between Bush’s America and Germany of the 1930s (the “while it’s not exactly the same, it’s moving in that direction” kind of approach) would be the same people who would balk at the phrase “Islamofascism”, or at comparisons between Iran, Ba’athist Iraq or Taliban Afghanistan and genuine fascists states of the past.  And while the latter comparisons are, in many cases, highly suspect and rather stretched, they’re certainly a lot more accurate than anything Wolf puts forward in her piece.

The piece ends by telling us that “Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot will be published by Chelsea Green in September”.  Forgive me, but I think I’ll give it a miss.  For all his faults, I’ll stick with Hitchens’ Letter to a Young Contrarian.  Better a smidgeon of intellectual honesty and a dash of rational thought, even if it is latterly associated with the phenomenal stupidity of the current U.S. administration that the kind of lazy, predictable and, ultimately, inaccurate piece that the Guardian has seen fit to treat us to today.


1. simon - April 25, 2007

anti-americanism sells books


2. Wednesday - April 25, 2007

her recent writing is, it must be said, decidedly pedestrian and unstimulating and lacks any kind of real intellectual rigour.

Her writing has always been like that, I’m afraid.


3. ejh - April 25, 2007

I tend to think that “Anti-Americanism” as a term is even lazier than “Islamofascism” or, indeed, than the piece which is the subject of the posting.

Of course it’s true than the aggressive Right is very powerful in the US and that there are many members and supporters of the present government who would be perfectly happy with fascism. (Indeed, sundry of its personnel actively worked to support fascist regimes in Central America around twenty-five years ago.) That doesn’t make it fascist or anything like fascist or “moving towards fascism”.


4. WorldbyStorm - April 25, 2007

I keep meaning to reread the Beauty Myth, but weirdly just can’t do it. I know Paglia is irritating beyond belief, but at least she’s entertaining. Look, am I just going to have to keep on reiterating how Mary Daly is where it’s at?

Completely agree ejh (incidentally, like your blog).


5. Starkadder - November 21, 2007

Margaret Atwood said the same thing in “The Handmaid’s
Tale”-the U.S. might become an anti-feminist fascistic
state in the future.


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