The Bookworm: Give Me Liberty

Give Me Liberty, by Naomi Wolf. 376 pages. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2008.

The founders had made it clear that we were not supposed to see ourselves only as constituents, voters, or recipients of the leadership of our representatives. We, ordinary people, were also supposed to run things ourselves (p. 33).

This weekend was quite productive. I did a lot of cleaning and finally finished Naomi Wolf’s Give Me Liberty, a book I had been chipping at for way too long.

I have thought a lot about becoming a better citizen — getting more involved in the community, supporting the causes I believe in, and becoming active in local and state government. Democracy and community improvement require participation and I have begun to feel the need to participate. However, being quiet and shy, I still have yet to do that, to take those first couple steps. “How should I do that?” I’ve wondered. “What is the best way for me to get involved?” I hoped that reading Give Me Liberty, a self-proclaimed “handbook for American revolutionaries,” would help me figure that out.

Though I have yet to do that (that’s my fault, not the book’s), Give Me Liberty offered a dose of patriotic enthusiasm alongside helpful guidance on how to become an engaged and empowered citizen. Wolf stirs her readers awake by highlighting the threats to Americans’ basic constitutional rights, the obstacles placed by the political establishment to keep ordinary citizens from running for office, and the co-option of debate and discourse by politicians and the major media outlets. She then stokes the flames of discontent and activism with rousing reminders of the spirit and core values that founded the United States, then outlines ways in which every American can, and should, participate in their democracy. She imparts the advice, experience, and opinion of “true patriots,” and, with the help of many others, provides an informative “user’s guide” on how to organize a group of “democracy commandos,” petition, drive a boycott, change laws through initiatives and referendums, and organize a protest. She concludes with a wish list for the future, things she and the book’s other contributors feel would allow for better citizen engagement.

Give Me Liberty is an insightful and interesting read. Early on, Wolf tries to get involved herself, do the things she plans to tell her readers to do. Ultimately, though, she ends up being frustrated by the barriers she encounters. Wolf runs into a mountain of permit applications to exercise her First Amendment rights in public and tries to navigate a seemingly endless maze of online links to figure out how she or a friend can run for public office.

That was probably one of the most surprising revelations of Give Me Liberty: the “vanishing entry points for citizen leaders.” She finds it incredibly difficult to find information, at the federal, state, and local levels, about how ordinary Americans can run for public office. Granted, she only searches for information online and does not make inquiries in person or over the phone (an egregious oversight on her part), but the dearth of official, online sources is something everyone can see for themselves. I checked Iowa City’s website and found a PDF Candidate Packet for city council candidates, but it pertains to the election last November. Though the packet does offer a lot of information, which I assume is applicable to all council elections, there is no webpage explaining how Iowa Citians can run for council. Also, an “Affidavit to Commence Initiative” is available for download, but there is no information regarding the initiative process (what to do, how to do it, when to do it). A “Timeline for Initiative” is also available for download, but all it says is, “For initiative timeline information Please contact the City Clerk’s Office 356-5041” The link is obviously a little misleading, but there does seem to be a way to get the necessary information. However, it is not readily available online; one needs to — gasp! — get off his ass and actually go to city hall. (Like I said, democracy requires participation.) Regarding Iowa, the Secretary of State’s website says on its Candidate FAQ page, “Nomination papers are available at the Secretary of State's Office and on its website. They are also available at county auditors’ offices.” There is no easy link to the papers available on the Secretary of State’s site and it passes the buck with a link to county auditor contact information. A Candidate Guide PDF is available for download, but one has to search for it. There is no banner or tab at the top of the page that says, “Hey! Click here if you want to run for office.” On the state’s official webpage, there are links about registering to vote and finding ones legislator and polling place, but no links about how Iowans can run for office. According to Wolf, the US Senate has published a forty-nine-page document titled “How Our Laws Are Made” since 1953. But:

Buried on page 3 in the midst of a mass of impenetrable language is a single paragraph acknowledging that a voter can play a direct role in the process, that an individual has the right to (not the obligation or duty to) petition the “member” to get a law passed, changed, or repealed. But there is no practical explanation whatsoever of how an ordinary person can find out in his or her state how to drive an issue for his or her congressman, let alone how to help the representative draft a bill himself or herself (pp. 42–43).

(To contrast the lack of information about running for office and citizen engagement at the legislative level, Wolf sought information about joining the military. A nearby recruiting office welcomed her with open arms and she was given all the information she wanted. A recruiter gave her his landline phone number, his cell phone number, and email address so she could contact him with any other questions. “When I had knocked on the door to this avenue of my possible public service, I found that the entry point could not have been clearer, better guided, or better designed to help me through the process (p. 61).”)

When she finally tracked down enough information, Wolf began a theoretical campaign for a friend in Virginia. Based on her account, it seems almost impossible for an ordinary American to run for office without the help of a consultant, or team of consultants, to navigate the thicket of rules and regulations that govern campaigns. (She even includes portions of the actual legalese. Different documents cover different aspects, and definitions for the exact same terms often differ from one document to the next.) That was a surprising revelation for me. Despite the perceived benefits of campaign finance reform, it seems to have created a mountain of regulations that no ordinary American can easily, or afford to, conquer himself — ironically creating a massive barrier to public service.

Though insightful and useful, Give Me Liberty is not the best book in the world. Wolf is prone to making overgeneralizations. She lobs accusations and conveniently fails to produce evidence. The inclusion of at least one of the “true patriots” seems a little pointless and politically motivated. (This book was published during the George W. Bush administration, so there were a number of references to war protests and perceived police aggression and overzealousness.) I hated the fact she did not dig deeper for information about running for office. And when she wrote about citizens seeking election, she only focused on party nominations. I do not think she mentioned write-in candidacy once — a shameful omission. The copyediting was also very sloppy. On page 340 is this line: “In addition to the Bill of Rights, the most significant of the amendments followed the Civil War (1861–1856).” Ouch.

The wish list items at the end of the book were very interesting and agreeable. A national system of direct democracy, through voter-initiated referendums, was (presumably) Wolf’s. Curtis Ellis wished that voting was made mandatory, as it is in Australia. He wrote, “Make voting mandatory, with fines for not voting. When you renew your auto registration or file your taxes, you should have to show that you voted in elections (p. 344).” Ellis also recommended a national election law to standardize election systems across the country. (They are currently funded and managed at the county level, which results in county-by-county differences.) On Mark Crispin Miller’s wish list were “Make it illegal for the TV networks to declare who won before the vote count is complete,” “Set up an exit polling system, publically supported, to keep the vote counts honest” (“Only in America are exit polls results not meant to help us gauge the accuracy of the official count”), and “Get rid of voter registration rules by allowing every citizen to register, at any post office, on his/her eighteenth birthday” (Either we believe in universal suffrage or don’t”).

Words I learned/still can never remember what they mean: All definitions are courtesy of my MacBook dictionary. Statecraft: “the skillful management of state affairs; statesmanship.” Apoplectic: “overcome with anger; extremely indignant.” Scrim: in theater a scrim is “a piece of gauze cloth that appears opaque until lit from behind, used as a screen or backdrop.” Forelock: “a lock of hair growing just above the forehead.” Raffish: “unconventional and slightly disreputable, esp. in an attractive manner.” Ossified: adjective of “ossify,” and in this sense it means “cease developing; be stagnant or rigid.” Opprobrium: “harsh criticism or censure.” Temerity: “excessive confidence or boldness; audacity.” Suasion: “persuasion as opposed to force or compulsion.”

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