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From ISIS to Ebola, What Has Made Naomi Wolf So Paranoid?

She was the third-wave feminism firebrand, famous and lauded. But the author of The Beauty Myth has become a nonsense-garbling conspiracy theorist.

10.11.14 10:55 AM ET

It wasn't really meant for me, considering the contours of my own midsection. But I nevertheless tried to read Naomi Wolf's excruciatingly bad 2012 book Vagina: A New Biography, more to confirm the unanimous critical opinion that it was an excruciatingly bad book than to explore the historic journey of the female sex organ.

But I surrendered rather quickly, hurling the book across the room when Wolf capped her introduction with this observation: “The vagina may be a 'hole,' but it is, properly understood, a Goddess-shaped one.”

No thank you.

But unlike so many other readers of Vagina, I never scratched my chin wondering when Naomi Wolf, Rhodes scholar, presidential advisor, and feminist icon, transformed from an unreasonable writer to an unreadable crank. That's because I had reviewed Wolf's previous book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, a slim volume brimming with the sort of crankery most of us stopped noticing during the Bush-era.

According to Wolf’s heavy-breathing, best-selling book (over 100,000 copies), America's leaders-cum-putschists were secretly being fitted for brown shirts, snazzy jodhpurs, and shiny jackboots. We had gone from late-Weimar period to the 1933-torchlight-parade stage of fascist takeover. Washington D.C. was our Welthauptstadt Germania.

The End of America was an astoundingly lazy piece of writing, full of historical reference points that Wolf thought clever but clearly didn't quite understand. But because the warning was so important–Nie wieder Krieg! Nie wieder Faschismus!–a dumb book was made into an even dumber documentary film, which a deeply serious New York Times reviewer judged to be occasionally overblown but with “enough here to make you shiver. Could it happen here? Maybe. A little fear — not the collective panic that followed 9/11 — can be a useful thing." (Let's pause to observe that invocations of impending fascism by film reviewers and polemicists who once skimmed William Shirer are not unlike those who know nothing about science waffling on about climate change conspiracies.)

Wolf produced another little media ripple this week when she posited on Facebook that those harrowing, terrifying videos of ISIS murdering Western hostages may have been faked. “It takes five people to stage an event like this - two to be 'parents' - two to pose for the cameras... one in a ninja outfit... and one to contact the media that does not bother checking who ANY of these four other people are...”

There was plenty more like this--every epistle dumber than the previous--but you get the general idea. When the online mockery turned to disgust, Wolf backtracked, claiming she only wanted the videos “confirmed” by “two sources” because this is what “reporters are supposed to do,” while failing to understand that this is what reporters actually did.

It’s quite something for Wolf to blather about journalistic sourcing. She regularly posts stories to Facebook from extremist conspiracy websites like, the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV, and the Holocaust denial outfit Veterans Today. And beneath all of these stories, in the comment swamp, her fans obsess over Israel ("ISIS = Israel Secret Intelligence Service," one recently wrote) and “our fascist Nazi loving government.”

The halcyon days of Wolf, the third-wave feminist revolutionary and author of The Beauty Myth (1990), seem far, far away. Indeed, Wolf's journey to the crackpot fringe was completed a long time ago. Even when power was peacefully transferred from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, Wolf didn't back down from her grim predictions and remained vigilant against the new crop of Little Eichmanns entering the White House.

"Obama has done things like Hitler did," she muttered to some poor journalist who, just hours before, had mistaken Wolf for a serious person.

This time, Wolf’s former allies of the mainstream left (she was an advisor to both Bill Clinton and Al Gore, once upon a time) took more notice.

Soon Wolf was indulging soft-headed conspiracy theories that the Obama administration was operating “FEMA camps,” a theory popular on the fringe right, because if proven true would go some way towards demonstrating her prescience about fascist America. She told Alternet that "with the FEMA rumor, I have heard some suggestive first-person accounts that some good reporters should follow up on."

Those who dream of a post-partisan future should note that paranoia has a habit of erasing traditional political boundaries. And it wasn’t long until Wolf was appearing at Tea Party rallies and fringe libertarian events, popping up on the Alex Jones show and paleo-conservative podcasts, making wild claims that the government was reading her teenage daughter's mail.

The mind was conspiratorial and cloudy but active. She confessed to harboring a “creeping concern that [Edward Snowden] is not who he purports to be.” In 2006, Wolf babbled something to a Scottish newspaper about Jesus appearing to her while she was inhabiting the body of a young boy. (“I was a 13-year-old boy sitting next to him and feeling feelings I’d never felt in my lifetime”). And speaking of Scotland, Wolf claims she is flying to Glasgow to “deliver spreadsheets” showing that the country’s referendum on independence was rigged.

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Ebola? "Ebola here or 'here' means excuse for mass lockdowns.” The White House intruder? “This story is likely to be messaging a threat/intimidation from the effective coup in the US.”

Wolf’s path from respectability to conspiracy theory isn’t uncommon. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, recently suggested that Bashar Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons in Syria might be an Israeli “false flag” operation.

Paul Craig Roberts, a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, has migrated from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the world  of 9/11 conspiracy theory and Putin worship.

Or take NYU media professor Mark Crispin Miller--stories in Harpers, reviewing for the Washington Post, pontificating in PBS documentaries, positively cited by Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman in the New York Times--who has gone from conspiracy theories about stolen elections to 9/11 trutherism and a conspiracy website that hits all of the Naomi Wolf notes.

“While I don’t buy the claim that [murdered ISIS hostage James] Foley seems to have two different sets of parents (both couples look the same to me),” Miller wrote on his website, “I do agree that the ‘James Foley’ (seemingly) beheaded in the video is simply not James Foley; and that neither of these two beheadings is convincing.”

Like Miller, Wolf suffers from the radical self-delusion that mistakes bonkers political views for uncommonly brave opinion. As Toni Bentley wrote in her brilliantly caustic Times review of Vagina: A New Biography, Wolf “has rendered herself less than unreliable over the past couple of decades, with one rant more hysterical than another.”

And that was before she was just asking the media to do its job and investigate claims that ISIS’s Western victims might be actors or CIA agents or Mormon missionaries. “Of course a new British hostage has been allegedly beheaded in a video with no media skiing [sic] if it is a real video,” Wolf recently wrote on Facebook. “The propaganda is coming too fast for me to keep up with. Tempting to throw in the towel...”

Note to our fascist overlords in Washington: make the propaganda go even faster and let’s make Wolf’s temptation a reality.