by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ack in 1776, as the American Revolution was coming to a head, writer Thomas Paine issued a small booklet, a pamphlet -- a common form of publication at the time -- called Common Sense. In it, he enumerated the ways in which the American colonies had been injured by King George III of Britain and called for the colonists to rise up against the king's imperial rule.
Like many books of the day, Common Sense had a plain and simple cover -- the title, the author's name and an extended subtitle. Naomi Wolf's latest book, The End of America, published by Chelsea Green in September 2007, shares many of the same characteristics. By 21st-century publishing standards, her book is sparse -- no slick design, no flashy colors, less than 200 pages, and released in paperback only. She quotes from Paine and uses his story as an example of someone who had the courage to speak out against governmental abuses of power at a time when speaking out could mean being accused of treason. It's clear she sees herself in the same role.
The book is written as a letter of warning to a young friend. Drawing from American history, from the founders of the Republic and from the history of the last century, Wolf argues that, thanks to the Bush administration, the United States is well along the road from democracy to dictatorship. She lays out 10 steps commonly followed by 20th-century despots and dictators -- from Mussolini and Hitler to Pinochet in Chile and most recently by the leaders of Thailand -- when they seek to close down a previously open society. After following the historic antecedents, she goes on to describe how she sees these very steps unfolding right now, right here.
In her recent interviews and lectures (available on YouTube), Wolf explains how her thoughts on the topic evolved. Over the last few years, she says, in response to actions by the Bush administration -- the Military Commissions Act, warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary renditions -- a friend who's the daughter of Holocaust survivors frequently commented, "They did this in Germany," referring to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. At first, Wolf says, she ignored her friend's comments, thinking of them as hyperbole, but then she began to study the history of 20th-century dictatorships and totalitarian states, especially those -- like fascist Italy and Nazi Germany -- that arose out of democracies.
"Italy and Germany ... were the two great examples of modern constitutional democracies that were illegally closed by people that were duly elected," Wolf told AlterNet online news last fall. "Most Americans don't remember. Mussolini, a National Socialist, came to power entirely legally. And they used the law to shut down the law. So that's what I call a fascist shift."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he End of America isn't Wolf's first foray into the world of government and politics; she famously worked for Al Gore's campaign in 2000, coming on board as a consultant to help rehabilitate his public image. In hindsight, though, she told Huffington Post in December that she considers the episode her greatest professional mistake -- not because of the political involvement, but because she felt constrained. "Writers shouldn't be political operatives," she said. "Writers have to stay unaffiliated."
In The End of America, Wolf sounds an alarm, hoping to awaken Americans of all ideological persuasions. We need to defend the founding principles of the country, she says, before it's too late.
"History is particularly instructive in the early days of the fascist shifts in Germany and Italy, when things were really pretty normal," she told AlterNet. "People go about their business, just like we're doing now. It's not like goose-stepping columns of soldiers are everywhere. It looks like ordinary life. Celebrities, gossip columns, fashion ... People kept going to movies, worrying about feeding the cat."
Wolf says she had to study civics as well as history in the research for the book, and she worries that most Americans have a laissez-faire attitude about their own democracy.
"We really don't know what democracy is anymore," she has said. "I had to do a lot of learning to write this book -- I'm not a constitutional scholar. I'm just a citizen. And we've been kind of divorced from our democracy. We've let a pundit class take it over."
Naomi Wolf discusses The End of America on Saturday, April 19, at 7:30 pm at the Bing. Tickets: $15-$25. Call 325-SEAT.