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.
Since Wolf heard this story secondhand from an unnamed "citizen," it's hard to corroborate. But there was a story in Seattle—covered by the local press and picked up by the news wires and CNN—that bears a striking similarity to Wolf's twice-told tale. The "letter" in the Seattle case was a single line scribbled in the margin of the standard TSA inspection notice. A screener had taken exception to some Iraq war protest signs in a man's luggage: "Don't appreciate your anti-American attitude!" the annotation read.
While Wolf would no doubt see a conspiracy of dissent-crushing TSA thugs taking orders from on high for the precise language of their notes, a simpler explanation might be that the TSA has attracted a freelance would-be censor, with a Sharpie in his pocket and no common sense, and that story migrated from the mainstream press to her ears, with slight mutations in tow.
The official response to the incident, by the way: "We do not condone our employees making any kind of political comments or personal comments to any travelers," TSA spokeswoman Heather Rosenker told Reuters. "That is not acceptable." But they would say that, wouldn't they?
Mostly, Wolf's paranoia is good fun—yuppies freaking out about letters in their luggage, and a little feminine hysteria paired with computer illiteracy—but sometimes she meddles in more serious matters.
"Seven soldiers wrote op-eds in the New York Times critical of the war, three are dead, one shot in the head," she writes, implying the worst. A quick Google search reveals that two of the dead soldiers, colleagues and coauthors, died in the same accident—an overturned cargo truck. The soldier shot in the head was another coauthor, hit while on a combat mission when the article was still being composed. He survived, mercifully, yet tells no tales of a conspiracy to murder his comrades in dissent.
Wolf's use of their stories, and the stories of dissidents living under truly oppressive regimes, to make her loopy case for creeping fascism in America is a little tougher to take.
Finally, there's Wolf's personal persecution, related between cheers at a recent rally in Washington. Wolf is no stranger to odd alliances; after the publication of The Beauty Myth in 1990, for instance, she made common cause against pornography with social conservatives at the height of the culture wars. But strange indeed is the path that takes Naomi Wolf to Rep. Ron Paul's door.
At a Ron Paul Revolution March this past July, Wolf told the crowd—composed mostly of people waving banners with legends like "Read Atlas Shrugged" and "Mises Saves"—this story: "My daughter is 13 years old. She's in summer camp right now. She's writing me letters. I'm not getting her letters. I'm not getting half of my mail. And when my mail arrives, it's ripped wide open. I showed it to the Post Office and they said 'That's not possible.'"
When she retold the story at Borders last month, she mentioned that birthday party invitations for her daughter were now also being intercepted.
Explanation Number One: Thirteen-year-old girls are terrible correspondents and worse friends, and Wolf's daughter will be spending the next few months silently mortified that her white lies about letter writing and her social ostracism have taken the national stage as part of her mother's conspiracy theories. Explanation Number Two: The American secret police believe that vital information is contained in correspondence from teenage girls, and have confiscated all letters written in pink ink.
While the enemies of freedom are almost unbelievably sly and ruthless in Wolf's universe, the ordinary citizen is also an intellectual and organizational powerhouse, waiting to be unleashed. One can't deny that there's a certain kind of egalitarianism here, twisted though it may be.
"Are ordinary people smart enough to run America? The data is in. The answer is yes." The American people are currently apathetic and disengaged, Wolf says, because they "intuit" a maze around them "and do not want to spend their lives walking around with fake shiny keys fumbling with doors that will never open."
Hence one of the nuttier ideas Wolf endorses in Give Me Liberty, one that has nothing to do with conspiracies. Wolf is enthused about the idea of a National Issues Day, a day (or perhaps two) where many things would be debated nationwide but nothing decided. This would "mean substance, not trivia," she writes, "since local people are unlikely to put up with one another wasting time on boxers versus briefs."
Elsewhere in the book she finds evidence for her belief in the wonder-working power of ordinary citizen engagement when she meets and talks to a "real live pro-lifer" for the first time in her long career: "I had never entertained the remotest notion that a pro-life activist might have come to her or his position through motives recognizable to me—through sincere concern for poor women, or women's well-being, or for the sincere well-being of children as a whole," she writes.
Life outside of cable news, Wolf's previous natural habitat, is indeed a marginally better place. But boxers versus briefs? That's never going to go away.
In 2006, Wolf was in therapy for writers block. During one session she says she inhabited the persona of a 13-year-old boy and saw Jesus. "I absolutely believe in divine providence now, absolutely believe God totally cares about every single one of us intimately," she told Glasgow's Sunday Herald. These days, Wolf can't seem to stop writing. Her previous book, The End of America, which chronicles the "fascist shift" we are now experiencing in the United States, came out barely a year ago. It looks as if her faith has been rewarded.
Wolf has always sensed powerful unseen forces pressing in on her—the male gaze; the patriarchy; the state; in one memorable instance, the groping hands of Yale éminence grise Harold Bloom; and now Jesus. The democracy thieves (whoever they are) join this cast in a book much like her previous efforts: confusingly argued, historically illiterate, and yet strangely mesmerizing.
"The web sites that are supposed to teach citizens how to participate, how to lead, are in Latin, you know?" she said at Borders. "And I, like, speak the vernacular." And on the written page she does—fluently. After reading her colorful, rambling, paranoid account of her wrestling match with modern American democracy, the optimist in me can't help but wonder: If Naomi Wolf finds it almost impossible to successfully stage a rally or run for office, perhaps the system is working pretty well after all.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason. This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard.