The American Protest Tradition
Naomi Wolf is an author and essayist whose works have appeared in The New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Ms., Esquire, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. She also speaks widely to groups across the country.
Her first book, The Beauty Myth, was an international bestseller. She followed it with Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change The 21st Century; Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood; Misconceptions, critique of pregnancy and birth in America; The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot; and Give me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.
Wolf is also co-founder of the Board of The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, an organization devoted to training young women in ethical leadership for the 21st century. She is a graduate of Yale University and completed her graduate work at New College, Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
Question: Have we lost our legacy of protest?
Naomi Wolf: Protest is an American legacy that each one of us is supposed to engage in; core value. We’re supposed to not have an established God. We’re supposed to have freedom of religion; core value. We’re supposed to have a reverence for the rule of law; a core value that’s been subverted.
But when you go back to this founding generation, their vision of what we’re supposed to be is, as you say, so much greater than the messaging to us about how we’re supposed to behave, like even protest. We’re supposed to have First Amendment Rights where we can be free to assemble anywhere in United States of America. That’s what the Constitution says. Freedom of assembly; Congress shall pass no law restricting it.
But for 30 years, we’ve seen the space for protest getting smaller and smaller and smaller. So that some students on some campuses are dealing with the protest plazas, or rather freedom plazas, free speech plazas; some little part of the campus where you can go back and forth and speak.
Even big marches; if you ever gone to march these days, you feel like it was kind of a wasted effort. Well, your intuition is right, because the nature of the over-permitization [sic] of the last 30 years guarantees that freedom of assembly in America will be ineffectual.
How do I say this? I studied the kind of protest that actually changes outcomes; that brought down the Soviet Union; that restored people power in the Philippines; that liberated the Baltic States. And it’s all illegal in America. It’s protesting; which people stop traffic. In France, everywhere, Mexico city, people at Pakistan, people stop traffic, and that protest, if it’s big enough, always, always, always works.
In America, you’re not allowed to stop traffic, that’s the definition. So they moved us from hither to yon, and we have these permits, and we think we’ve done something, and we ended up thinking, well, that didn’t make a change.
It’s designed to keep us from engaging in a kind of assembly that makes a change. In order to change an outcome, you have to be able to bring business as usual to a halt. Those were examples of how we’ve been trained to accept the situation that makes us ineffectual.
There other examples. I have this whole chapter, called “Fake Democracy,” in which I went on this journey and tried to use all my rights, as the founders intended me to.
I tried to get a friend to run for Senate in Virginia and I discovered that two clicks; and to process the information, we need is in the Latin. So legally dense you can’t possibly understand it; and no hints as to whom you can hire to help you understand it and no translation, no reference for translation.
I tried to think about registering my neighbors to vote. And I discovered I’m risking a $5000 fine if I make one bureaucratic error--because these lawsuits against voter registrants.
I tried to hold a rally in Union Square [NYC] in support of the Constitution. And 15 minutes in, I’m informed that what I’m doing is illegal because it’s illegal to use a bullhorn in Union Square without a permit, right? Meanwhile, in all this retail stores there are sound blaring out into the street.
Over and over again, I tried to use my rights and powers that the founders intended me to have, and I find a wall put up making it a fake democracy. And I think people intuit that that’s there, and they don’t want to break their hearts, so they don’t plunge in to the process.
Now, flipping it around more hopefully, I have found that when people know their rights and have the tools to make a difference, it’s so energizing. If right now, you think, well, that’s really overwhelming too; she tells me how to start my own political movement, I’m really tired and cranky and over scheduled anyway. You might feel that way now, but what does happen; I’ve seen this, that when more and more people have the knowledge of making these changes, it’s very energizing to people around them.
And they see, well, my best friend just wrote an op ed and placed it. The book teaches people know how to do that; maybe I can write an op ed and place it. Or Jean, my friend, just set up this democracy team and they’re confronting their representative and getting these meetings and having it an outcome maybe, maybe I can set up my own team. It’s actually very exciting.
Things that seemed incredibly boring to me; I’m not even interested in politics. I’m not. I’m interested in poetry and my kids and. I’m not really interested in process, like initiatives and referenda. Like who’s interested in that? But I discovered that the more buy-in I had, and the more role I could play, the more exciting the whole idea became. And people I’m talking to are feeling the same way.
Recorded Oct 17, 2008.
Naomi Wolf laments that spontaneous, change-making mass protest is illegal in the US.
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