Naomi Wolf on the Tea Party
The Democrats and their liberal apologists are so oblivious to the profound personal and economic despair sweeping through this country that they think offering unemployed people the right to keep their unemployed children on their nonexistent health care policies is a step forward. They think that passing a jobs bill that will give tax credits to corporations is a rational response to an unemployment rate that is, in real terms, close to 20 percent. They think that making ordinary Americans, one in eight of whom depends on food stamps to eat, fork over trillions in taxpayer dollars to pay for the crimes of Wall Street and war is acceptable. They think that the refusal to save the estimated 2.4 million people who will be forced out of their homes by foreclosure this year is justified by the bloodless language of fiscal austerity. The message is clear. Laws do not apply to the power elite. Our government does not work. And the longer we stand by and do nothing, the longer we refuse to embrace and recognize the legitimate rage of the working class, the faster we will see our anemic democracy die.
The book was lauded by liberals under Bush: the Independent Publishers gave it the Freedom Fighter Award; John Nichols at the Nation named it the most valuable political book of 2007. Now, under President Obama, Wolf’s book is providing ammunition for the Tea Partiers, Patriots, Ron Paul supporters and Oath Keepers, who also warn of impending tyrannical government. Even when the book first came out pre-Obama, Alex Jones, Michael Savage and Fox News invited her on their shows, and agreed with her.
It’s not just her message. She speaks their language, referring to the Founding Fathers and American Revolution as models, admitting to a profound sense of fear, warning of tyranny, fascism, Nazism and martial law. When Glenn Beck warns of these things we laugh. When Wolf draws those same connections, we listen. How can both sides be speaking the same language, yet see things so differently? Or are we just not listening to each other? I telephoned Wolf to ask her what it means when your book ends up bolstering policies you oppose.
Justine Sharrock: First off, is your book still relevant under Obama?
Naomi Wolf: Unfortunately it is more relevant. Bush legalized torture, but Obama is legalizing impunity. He promised to roll stuff back, but he is institutionalizing these things forever. It is terrifying and the left doesn’t seem to recognize it.
JS: Did you realize that your book is being lauded within the Tea Party and patriot movements?
NW: Since I wrote Give Me Liberty, I have had a new audience that looks different than the average Smith girl. There is a giant libertarian component. I have had a lot of dialogue with the Ron Paul community. There are [Tea Partiers] writing to me on my Facebook page, but I figured they were self-selective libertarians and not arch conservatives. I am utterly stunned that I have a following in the patriot movement and I wasn’t aware that specific Tea Partiers were reading it. They haven’t invited me to speak. They invited Sarah Palin.
JS: If they did invite you, would you speak at a Tea Party?
NW: I would go in a heartbeat. I’ll go anywhere to talk about the Constitution. I believe in trans-partisan organizing around these issues. When I went on Fox News people asked me why I was going on those shows. Are you kidding? You have to go, especially to people you don’t agree with. We need to get back into grappling with people we disagree with if we want to restore the Republic.
I was invited by the Ron Paul supporters to their rally in Washington last summer and I loved it. I met a lot of people I respected, a lot of “ordinary” people, as in not privileged. They were stepping up to the plate, when my own liberal privileged fellow demographic habituates were lying around whining. It was a wake-up call to the libertarians that there’s a progressive who cares so much about the same issues. Their views of liberals are just as distorted as ours are of conservatives.
JS: Why do you think the sides don’t understand each other?
NW: Frankly, liberals are out of the habit of communicating with anyone outside their own in cohort. We have a cultural problem with self-righteousness and elitism. Liberals roll their eyes about going on “Oprah” to reach a mass audience by using language that anyone can understand even if you majored in semiotics at Yale. We look down on people we don’t agree with. It doesn’t serve us well.
There is also a deliberate building up of two camps that benefits from whipping up home team spirit and demonizing the opposition. With the Internet there is even more fractioning since we are in echo chambers. With so much propaganda it is hard to calm down enough to listen.
JS: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Tea Parties?
NW: The Tea Party is not monolithic. There is a battle between people who care about liberty and the Constitution and the Republican Establishment who is trying to take ownership of it and redirect it for its own purposes.
JS: In your essay, “Tea Time in America” you said that some of the Tea Party’s proposals are “ahead of their time.” What are some examples?
NW: I used to think “End the Fed people” were crackpots. The media paints them as deranged. But it turned out we had good reason to have more oversight. Or take their platform about states’ rights. Demographically, I’m a hippie from San Francisco and I’m not culturally inclined to be sympathetic to states’ rights. My cultural heritage is FDR and Medicare and federal government solutions. But if you think through the analysis, strengthening state rights is a good corrective of the aggregation of an over-reaching federal power. Take California’s challenge of the Patriot Act or states like Vermont leading the way with addressing the corruption of the voting system. It’s a good example of the Tea Party thinking out of the box on how to address a problem.
JS: That’s interesting because strengthening states’ rights is key to their entire platform, including protesting health care reform. Would you call yourself pro-Tea Party?
NW: Even though I’m appalled when racism surfaces, and I personally don’t agree with certain policy solutions and a lot of what they believe in, as someone who is very concerned about reinvigorating democracy the Tea Parties are an answer to what I asked for.
I was basically saying don’t sit around waiting for the two corrupted established parties to restore the Constitution or the Republic. The founding generation was birthed by the rabble of all walks of life that got fed up and did risky things because they were captivated by the breath of liberty. There is a looming oligarchy and it is up to the people to organize a grassroots movement and push back. You guys have to do it yourself. Their response is the most visible and the initiative they show is the most recognizable. People of all kinds are waking up. Even people passionate for Obama realize even that knight on a white horse isn’t enough to roll back the oligarchy. I’m seeing a lot of action on the left as well that is never reported. But the Tea Party response is the most visible and the initiative they show is the most recognizable.
JS: How do you feel about your books bolstering a fight for policies you don’t agree with?
NW: If people are taking my book seriously and organizing, getting into office, caring about the constitution, and not waiting for someone else to lead them, I think, God bless them. All of us should be doing that. The left should be doing that. There is always the risk in advocating for democracy that the first people to wake up might not be your team, but that is a risk worth taking. I would rather have citizens I don’t agree with organized and active than an oligarchy of people that I agree with.
JS: These days the kinds of comparisons you make in your book between America and Nazis and fascists are mostly coming out of the mouths of people like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones. What do you make of the commonality of the rhetoric?
NW: There is no question that the right-wing idea machine saw how that message was resonating in the run-up to the last election. A YouTube video of a speech I gave went viral and got 850,000 hits. I’m not saying that is the only thing that caused this, but there is no question that the Republican and the right wing are quick to co-opt the strategic language that’s resonating on the other side and turn it against itself.
JS: How is your comparison of Obama to Hitler any different from someone at a Tea Party holding up a placard of Obama with a Hitler mustache?
NW: Those signs are offensive. If only the Holocaust was just about imposing health care on my people. Obama has done things like Hitler did. Let me be very careful here. The National Socialists rounded people up and held them without trial, signed legislation that gave torture impunity, and spied on their citizens, just as Obama has. It isn’t a question of what has been done that Hitler did. It’s what does every dictator do, on the left or the right, that is being done here and now. The real fight isn’t left or right but between forces of democracy across the spectrum and the forces of tyranny.
JS: People criticize Beck’s use of that kind of language as incendiary and hyperbolic. Why is your use any different?
NW: Every time I use those analogies, I am doing it with a concrete footnoted historical context. When people like Glenn Beck throw around the word Nazi without taking that kind of care, they are engaging in demagoguery. There’s an important difference.
JS: What about your warnings about concentration camps and martial law? How do they compare to conspiratorial fears about FEMA concentration camps?
NW: With the FEMA rumor, I have heard some suggestive first-person accounts that some good reporters should follow up on. But until I see two well-documented sources of it, I can’t speak to it at all.
JS: Well, more generally, you talk about the possibility of concentration camps and martial law.
NW: I think we have gone very far down that road. I met Muslim immigrants in Brooklyn who were swept up in 9-11 raids, held in abusive conditions, beaten, denied rights. That’s how things started in Germany. Guantanamo was modeled after what Stalin developed for the Gulag. Why are we engaged in psychological denial that it’s not a concentration camp? In terms of martial law, my god. Since the book came out they deployed a brigade in the U.S. and suspended the Posse Comitatus Act. There is no question that it’s something to take seriously. People have a histrionic view of what martial law will look like.