Naomi Wolf, bestselling author of The Beauty Myth, lover of earth tones, and speaker of truth to power, was recently found crumpled on the floor in Newark airport between a T.G.I. Friday's and a World's Best Yogurt, sobbing into her cell phone. How do I know about this embarrassing episode? Private detectives? Security camera footage? Nope. Wolf tells me, and anyone else who cares to know, all about it in the first section of her new book.
"I am not ashamed of this abasement," she writes, "because I was actually heartsick."
What could possibly be so terrible that it would overcome the powerful natural instinct to minimize contact with the floor of Newark airport at all costs? Apparently, it is difficult to run for office in America.
In Give Me Liberty, subtitled A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, Wolf lays out what she calls a "battle plan" for taking democracy back from the "thugs," a guide for rising up in "self-defense and legitimate rebellion." Wolf is modeling herself on the American Founders, she says; and we should, too. But the going won't be easy.
"Even with a research assistant, a graduate education, and with the privilege of this project being my only full-time job," Wolf finds a variety of the basic tasks of democratic life difficult. Things like getting a permit for a protest, finding a decent source of news, and filing the forms to run for office. (It's this last task that reduced Wolf to a quivering mess down amongst the yogurt cups.)
She's right, of course, that none of these are easy tasks, and there's a case to be made that, in a well-functioning republic, they should be simpler. Wolf is rightly troubled, for instance, by the Catch-527 of running for office: It's almost impossible to raise money legally for a campaign without a lawyer, and it's hard to pay a lawyer before you've raised money.
Some might blame specific campaign finance regulations, or the ongoing abysmal state of federal bureaucracy for this little trap, but Wolf sees something larger at work: "The materials seemed designed to make you conclude that democracy was just too complicated for ordinary people to take charge of," she writes.
Which brings us to Wolf's guiding principle for understanding American politics: Never accept an explanation of incompetence or coincidence when a conspiracy will do. In an earlier version of Give Me Liberty, there's a passage where Wolf discovers a government website with a "set of random dates floating mysteriously in space"—deadlines with no action steps attached for running for office in Virginia.
The dates were random, unyielding, self-censoring—yet silently guaranteeing disharmony and ensuring that someone, somewhere, will, with the greatest hopes and best of intentions, mess up their application and have no recourse to fixing it. This was starting to feel to me like a cosmic, almost sublime, yet thoroughly straight-faced mockery of the electorate.
This particular passage has wisely been removed from the final edition, but Wolf's sense of cosmic injustice and personal affront in the face of such indignities as malfunctioning Internet browsers remains robust. In Wolf's world, the floating dates aren't the result of bad programming or an innocent formatting error by some government minion; it's all part of a massive digital conspiracy.
"I'm so used to interacting with people who say, 'this is weird' and then describe some crazy thing with the technology," Wolf said at an underpopulated talk at a Borders in Washington on the day her book was released. Elsewhere, she relates another chilling tale of technical malfeasance: Rep. Dennis "Kucinich's website was jammed when he tried to move forward with impeachment."
Wolf associates with only the cream of the conspiracy theory crop. There's Kucinich, of course, who sponsored a bill in 2001 banning jet trails on the grounds that they could be used as exotic space weapons. Wolf also gives the last word in Give Me Liberty to Mark Crispin Miller, author of Fooled Again, a book exhaustively documenting how the last two presidential elections were rigged, and a signatory of the 9/11 Truth Statement, which demands an investigation into the U.S. government's role in the events of September 11, 2001.
Like all the best conspiracy theorists, Wolf has given up on the media establishment.
"I came to this reluctantly," she said at Borders, "because all of my friends run the mainstream media." She hasn't given up appearing on television, of course, but she has been forced to give up consuming her friends' efforts because they're simply not running the kind of amazing stories that Wolf is hearing every day from "ordinary citizens."
I heard from a citizen—but never read in the suburban press—that people he knew had opened their luggage after a flight to find letters from the Transportation Security Administration that said that they did not "appreciate" the reading material, critical of the administration in power at that time, that these Americans had carried in their personal possessions.