Doing the Right Thing

By Lee Hill

end-of-america-ann-sundberg-ricki-stern-3.jpgThe End of America, 2008

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.

Wolf’s popularity and influence grew over the nineties and into the post-911 era of “the war on terror”. In addition to being a popular guest on American television programs such as Oprah and Charlie Rose, Wolf also appeared on networks like CNN and Fox News (on the latter, as a lightning rod for the barely sublimated rage of an increasingly reactionary white middle class males). This was, as few of us with any sensitivity can have failed to notice, a time when the liberal consensus of good-natured debate was replaced by something more heated and in many cases, less constructive.

In an America, largely influenced until very recently by the “circle the wagons” mindset of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Administration, Wolf, regardless of some of the contradictions and weaknesses of her books, was one of the few impassioned liberal, as opposed to neo-liberal/neo-conservative voices in mainstream American media. While her critics had found some of her specific arguments trivial or shallow (in part because Wolf for better or worse shifted back and forth from her personal experience to wider generalisations on the gender wars), only the most uncharitable could say that Wolf took the easy route as a social commentator.

end-of-america-ann-sundberg-ricki-stern.jpgThe End of America, 2008

End of America 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.

end-of-america-ann-sundberg-ricki-stern-4.jpgThe End of America, 2008

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.

Through its US distributor, Indiepix, The End of America is using a combination of the web, DVD sales and screenings through various community groups and political organisations to circumvent the normal channels of distribution. The same grassroots campaigning that fuelled the presidential campaign of Barack Obama is being used, on a smaller, but not less effective scale, to reach an audience possibly more engaged than the traditional cineaste.

naomi-wolf.jpgNaomi Wolf

In the version of The End of America screened to this writer and other UK writers and journalists in January 2009, the film ends just before the overwhelming victory by Barack Obama as the new US president and apparent end of Bush-led repression. Until a few months ago, the war on terror seemed so simple. Now in these credit crunch times, it is not hard to suggest that a generation of overeager bankers and investors have caused the kind of economic damage on the global economy that Al-Qaeda could only have dreamed of. The End of America is the first chapter in this new post-post-911 universe. Knowing what we know of Naomi Wolf, I doubt it will be her last.

Lee Hill is a writer based in London.