Monday, February 04, 2008

The End of America?

I've been reading The End of America by Naomi Wolf in preparation for next week's sermon on Democracy. While it has some good points about America's founders and their constitutional reasoning, a great list of how governments can subvert freedom, and some good history of how that has been done all over the world in the past hundred years, her object is to frighten Americans into thinking that their democracy has toppled, and in service of that goal, she is repeatedly misleading, evasive, and manipulative.

I've been trying to make myself read this book for about two weeks now, and was becoming more and more aware of either sloppy writing or writing that is misleading, evasive, and manipulative, so I started checking footnotes and the internet.

Here's the thing she does in this book.

She tells the beginning of a scary story about the subversion of rights in America these days. Then she moves on to talk about why this sort of thing is dangerous and how it has been done before by Nazis or other totalitarians. Then she moves on to the next scary story. But she doesn't finish her stories. It's implied that the scary things that were threatened in part I of her story resulted in harm to people, but she never quite says it. She supplies us with reassuring footnotes, and I'm sure that most people get her point and skip the fine print.

She tells a story, for instance, about a lecturer on Islam at U-Wisconsin at Madison, who "disputed the official facts of the 9/11 attacks and planned to spend 1-2 weeks of a 16 week course on Islam and Society on post-9/11 matters, raising the hackles of the Right. She talks about the University response, the right-wing media firestorm, and pressure from some legislators, and quotes the president as saying that he doesn't want his faculty exposed to political tests.

Then she drops his story, and speaks generally about how governments moving towards totalitarianism often target university professors, talks about extreme views in America currently against academic freedom, and talks about how in Germany and Italy before WW II, dissenting professors were targeted.

What she never gets around to saying is that the Madison lecturer, who had been hired to teach for one semester, was on leave for a year and has not been hired back, is not simply a teacher who doesn't toe the administration line. He believes that 9/11 was engineered by the US government and has been outspoken to the point of disruptive to make his point. And while the university was pressured to fire him, they didn't do so. It carefully reviewed his work for the previous 10 years as a teaching assistant, and his course outline, reminded him that his job is to teach Islamic culture, not his opinions about the American Government, and let him teach the course. That's a triumph of democracy, not its swan song.

I researched another similar claim before laying the book down. If I can't trust an author to tell me the whole truth, I don't read. Anybody know a better source of information about our post 9-11 constitutional situation?


Liz Hill said...

You should write to Chelsea Green (the publisher) and tell them what you think of this book. They're the ones who failed to do their homework before publishing and they need to know you noticed.

I assume you've read Al Gore's Assault on Reason. That one covered the demise of the Constitution pretty well, I thought. Good luck with the sermon.

Liz Hill

Kelsey Atherton said...

It's academic, so I'd trust Political Science Quarterly ( to have solid facts. Doing a search on constitutionality, a few articles turn up, the one that seems worthwhile being "Global Security and Legal Restraint: Reconsidering War Powers after September 11". It'll be a bit technical, and a bit focused, but it should be good. Send me an email and i can get it to you for free.

Also, good luck on the sermon on democracy. I look forward to checking it out online.

Robin Edgar said...

If you have a policy of not reading something if you can't trust an author to tell you the whole truth, perhaps you should stop reading the UU World magazine, other UU propaganda and "marketing" materials, no shortage of questionable sermons by UU ministers, and a good number of UU blogs etc. etc. ad nauseum.