Politics & Policy

The Fevered Delusions of Naomi Wolf

(Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
Liberals surprised by her latest conspiracy theories seem to forget the Bush years.

Herewith, for your betterment and diversion, are a handful of dispatches from the dark depths of the digital front.

‐Driven by a desire to crack down on the people it serves — and to justify its actions abroad — the United States military is inventing crimes against humanity and attributing them to the Islamic State.

‐In Australia, a grateful government has jumped on these fabrications, and is employing them to justify a “draconian loss of freedoms.”

‐Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, America’s interest in the international Ebola outbreak has little to do with concerns about a lethal pandemic and more to do with the country’s establishing a convenient pretext for the imposition of martial law.

‐And, finally, the true results of September’s Scottish independence referendum were suppressed by that country’s electoral commission.

So sayeth the writer and activist Naomi Wolf on her Facebook page.

It should come as no surprise that these missives have attracted attention and condemnation from critics on both the left and the right. And yet the rank astonishment that has accompanied the criticism has been a little disconcerting. Compiling the most “unhinged, damaging, and dangerous” examples into a pseudo-explainer yesterday, Vox’s Max Fisher expressed bewilderment that Wolf would peddle such nonsense. Many Americans, Fisher proposed, continue to operate under “the assumption that Wolf is a respected and authoritative figure to be taken seriously.” This is a problem, he noted, because her “record of respectability gives her a platform and helps advance her conspiracy theories further than they would travel otherwise.” Later, Fisher attempted to set Wolf’s folly in context:

I was taught parts of Wolf’s 1990 book “The Beauty Myth” in school and admit that, until researching her more recent views more fully for this post, still mostly associated her with this and other well-respected work. . . . I can only assume that I was not alone in this.

“It is important for readers who may encounter Wolf’s ideas,” he concluded, “to understand the distinction between her earlier work, which rose on its merits, and her newer conspiracy theories.”

That we should examine individually each example of a person’s output strikes me as an eminently sensible rule. Nevertheless, I might quibble a little as to where we should draw the line of demarcation between Wolf’s earlier offerings and her newer theories. I understand that it has become something of a cliché for critics on the right to observe that, for many within the political press corps, modern history began with the election of Barack Obama in November of 2008, but, at the risk of playing to type, I cannot help but notice where Fisher’s analysis stops. Indeed, had he taken a little more time to research his post, he’d quickly have learned that, far from being a development of the last couple of months, Wolf’s considerable talent for delirium has been on display for years now. Of course she’s accusing President Obama of faking beheadings and coveting domestic military rule. Of course she believes that the Scottish referendum was faked. This is what she does.

Back in 2008, before Obama had been inaugurated, Wolf was touring the country warning anybody who would listen that the republic had fallen and that the citizenry should be preparing a resistance movement. “Americans are facing a coup, as of this morning, October 1st,” Wolf told Seattle’s KEXP, before promising listeners that she would soon be posting to her website a comprehensive set of instructions outlining “how to arrest the president.” “I’ve been saying for months,” Wolf insisted, “that leading up to the election you’re going to start seeing instability, hyped threats, hyped emergencies, hyped crises in order to create an atmosphere of urgency in order to justify a crackdown.” “I feel,” she explained, “like this is my one chance to alert America.” She wasn’t joking. Adopting a hysterical tone that would have prompted even Alex Jones into a period of self-reflection, Wolf warned that “we have almost no time” to push back against the “emergency.” And then she hawked her book to the audience.

The performance was a tour de force. Funnily enough, though, Wolf did not discuss what had become of her previous exhortations. She never does. Instead, she just keeps on going: warning of a coup here; predicting martial law there; and, all the while, heralding a glorious resistance movement that never quite needs to be arranged. There are, Wolf argued in the Guardian in 2007, ten inevitable steps that serve as the prerequisites to fascism. Fair enough. And yet precisely how these are playing out in America seems to depend upon her mood. Sometimes, she argues that these steps have already been taken: If voters were only “willing to look,” she proposed in 2007, they would see that “each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.” At other times, they are just around the corner: In the last days before the 2008 election, she claimed to have noticed that the United States was coming to resemble other “closing societies” in which “the leader or the president will send military — especially during an election — to beat or harass or arrest voters and opposition leaders.” And, on occasion, she has even argued for both propositions at the same time, contending simultaneously in September of 2008 that the election was going to be canceled and that, if John McCain beat Barack Obama, Americans would be swiftly subjugated under a tyranny run by Republican mastermind Karl Rove and the “designated muse of the coming American police state,” Sarah Palin. Such, I suppose, are the burdens that our modern-day Nostradami bear.

Worse, perhaps, was her tendency to drop the abstract talk of “closed societies” and instead to unabashedly accuse President Bush of channeling Adolf Hitler. Americans, Wolf advised earnestly in 2007, should be on the lookout for the Nazi “tactics and strategy” that were “being reproduced exactly right now by the Bush administration.” “When I saw the recycling of so much Nazi language, Nazi tactics, Nazi strategies, Nazi imagery in the Bush White House,” Wolf exclaimed, she was moved to investigate further. Sure enough, she found her smoking gun. “Belatedly,” she revealed, “people brought to me this history of Prescott Bush’s attempted coup and Smedley Butler’s revelations”:

There was a scheme in the 30s and Prescott Bush was one of the leaders of this scheme, an industrialist who admired fascism and thought that was a good idea — to have a coup in the United States along the lines of the coup they saw taking place in Italy and Germany.”

More recently, Wolf has transcended political prognostication and ranged into self-indulgence, too. In 2012, having suffered a diminishment in her sex drive, she wrote an entire book about her vagina. The experience evidently wasn’t easy. After attending “a dinner party celebrating her book deal where a male chef [prepared] ‘vagina-shaped pasta,’” the Los Angeles Times recorded, Wolf was afflicted by “six months of writer’s block.” One can only suspect that it would have been better for everybody if this incapacity had been permanent. “Naomi Wolf,” a science blogger for The New Statesman concluded in a review, “you sound like you’re on crack.” Almost to a man, the neuroscientific community concurred with the assessment, prompting the publication of some startling headlines. “Neuroscientists take aim at Naomi Wolf’s theory of the ‘conscious vagina,’” readers learned from io9. “Naomi Wolf’s ‘Vagina’ Gets More Public Criticism And Faint Praise Than Any Vagina We Know Of,” declared the Huffington Post. The tech website, Wired, meanwhile, lamented the pernicious influence of “Naomi Wolf’s ‘Vagina’ and the Perils of Neuro Self-Help.” Even Slate’s Katie Roiphe — no prude she — announced that Wolf’s book was “as ludicrous as you think it is,” representing an explosion of “faux academic language, and science, and personal confession mingled with a new-age idiom.” “I doubt the most brilliant novelist in the world,” Roiphe wrote, sticking in the dagger, “could have created a more skewering satire of Naomi Wolf’s career than her latest book.”

At what point, though, does the satire become the reality? Over the last eight years, Naomi Wolf has written hysterically about coups and about vaginas and about little else besides. She has repeatedly insisted that the country is on the verge of martial law, and transmogrified every threat — both pronounced and overhyped — into a government-led plot to establish a dictatorship. She has made prediction after prediction that has simply not come to pass. Hers are not sober and sensible forecasts of runaway human nature, institutional atrophy, and constitutional decline, but psychedelic fever-dreams that are more typically suited to the InfoWars crowd. I understand well that the gentle among us would prefer to shine a kind light on the descent, casting Wolf as having had an illustrious career blighted by a few giddy indiscretions. But we have probably now reached the point at which it would be more honest to conclude that the opposite is true. How should we respond when see a Naomi Wolf byline? By noting that she is an eccentric who was once involved in politics and rode the third wave of feminist thought, or by muttering under our breaths, “there goes that lunatic who once wrote a critically acclaimed book”?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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