Monday, March 02, 2009

Lee Hill: Doing the Right Thing -- Naomi Wolf's The End of America (2007)

Doing The Right Thing
By Lee Hill
Vertigo Magazine

Published in 2007, Naomi Wolf’s book, The End of America: A Letter of Warning to A Young Patriot is, unsurprisingly given the author’s previous work, both polemic and investigation. Since the publication of the bestselling The Beauty Myth in 1991, Wolf has done a great deal to reinvigorate the discussion of women’s issues in the mainstream culture. Her subsequent books, Fire With Fire (1994) and Promiscuities (1998), deepened her unique take on the challenges facing American women in a seemingly post-feminist culture where choice now seemed infinite and yet in many ways, illusory. Wolf’s approach moved back and forth between the personal and the political combining both the best and sometimes the worst aspects of social criticism, the personal essay, and cultural history. Not since the days when Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer were media stars in the late 60s and early 70s had the mainstream found a commentator on women’s issues so passionate, charismatic and articulate.


[The] End of America [is a] brave, well-researched and sometimes unwieldy book about the near collapse of the verities of democracy many American took for granted before Bush came to power and that quickly got pushed aside in a never ending fight against an ill defined enemy called “terrorism”. The book is now a brash, somewhat overstuffed documentary by Annie Sundberg and Rikki Stern in collaboration with Wolf. It is not a great documentary like Marcel Ophuls’ Memory of A Justice that tells us something revelatory about the hidden psyche of a nation, or a Swiftian roar of disgust like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, but it is probably doing a lot more to galvanise people to action than either film. Instead of creating an easy visual companion to the book, Wolf and her collaborators have made a film that has generated not just an impassioned audience response, but actual grassroots activism.

Shot and produced during a brief funding window over the summer and autumn of 2008, The End of America began screening in various forms to audiences in community centres, universities, schools and the proverbial church basement across the US during the same period. These work-in-progress screenings, usually introduced by Wolf, help to centre the growing restlessness and dissent among ordinary American citizens towards the worst excesses of George Bush Jr. and Co. The screenings also became convenient ways to raise additional funding to complete this independent film and also gather contributions from citizen journalists (in one memorable instance, footage of one peaceful demonstration disrupted by a violent riot squad intervention was only captured by a camera hidden in the grass). As documented in both book and film, the Administration’s steady and calculated erosion of civil liberties had disturbing echoes of rise of Nazism in Germany. It takes a brave writer to make such a connection given the way such a comparison has in recent years become devalued and trivialised, but the film’s biggest strength (as well as its flashpoint) is how well it made this point. For those readers who are uncomfortable with such comparisons, I suggest they run not walk to a good bookshop and order The Nazi Seizure of Power by William Allen, a seminal study of how easy it is easy to kneecap a liberal democracy.

Like An Inconvenient Truth, there are times when The End of America resembles the world’s most expensive powerpoint presentation. Yet for all its superficial earnestness and lack of polish, The End of America, like An Inconvenient Truth, represents a new kind of documentary. It is a form that is unabashedly polemical, but also rooted in vigorous research (albeit research skewed to a view of a new American Reich that may not seem as ominous to every viewer out there). Yet it is a form that despite its bias does not see the audience as a passive receiver of information.


To Read the Entire Review

To View the Film and Learn More About it


Brainwise said...

How does this book compare with THE POST-AMERICAN WORLD by Fareed Zakaria? I realize they have differing targets (Domestic versus Abroad), still I can't help but see a connection.

Michael Benton said...

I have not read Zakaria's book, but I have listened to a few of his interviews/lectures on the themes of the book.

I would say that Wolf's book/film is a more direct investigation of the increasingly restrictive/controlling process of the state of exception invoked by Bush administration post 9/11 and how it compared to the development of earlier forms of fascism.

Zakaria, on the other hand, is exploring how American empire is being displaced by the rise of other countries/regions as superpowers/players...