If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. That’s what Mom said. But she didn’t say you couldn’t write a book.
If you check the non-fiction best-seller list on Amazon.com, you’ll find that fully 7 of the top 20 are attacks on George Bush and his administration. “Stupid White Men”, “Worse than Watergate”, “House of Bush, House of Saud”, “Bushwhacked”; this is not nice.
And worse is yet to come: Get ready for “Checkpoint,” in which Nicholson Baker has two characters spend 115 pages imagining elaborate assassination plots for the killing of George W. Bush. In between plots for killing, they give reasons why the killing is just, and perhaps even necessary to save the world. Knopf has “Checkpoint” timed for release just before the Republican National Convention, on August 24.
Then there are two genuinely phenomenal works of personal justification. Bill Clinton’s “My Life” is turgid and mawkish in places, but it is consistent in its “My side is good, the other side is evil” story of politics over the last fifteen years. Michael Moore’s movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11” shows no more logical or thematic consistency than Clinton’s book but it is playing to packed movie theaters, breaking the record for total ticket sales for a documentary in just one weekend of showings.
Let’s be fair. On that same best-seller list, there are also five hard-core conservative attacks on the left, including “Rewriting History”. This is an absolute screed, in which Dick Morris berates Hillary Clinton for everything imaginable. Maybe the good news is that people are reading books again. But such books! Fully 60% of the top 20 nonfiction best-sellers are vicious attack pieces, using dubious facts and strained arguments in service of extreme partisan positions. Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?
Hardly. There are two reasons to pay attention, though. First, the idea that books, or newspapers, should be objective and neutral is of recent vintage, dating from the Progressive Era. Before that, things were a little more open. In 1800, the Hartford Courant famously predicted that, if Jefferson won the 1800 election, “...murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” Several times since, including the 1920, 1932, and 1952 elections, “nonfiction” writings took on the aspect of pure partisan polemic.
The most recent wave of bile came from conservative ducts. In 1992 and 1993, the overall best-selling non-fiction books were by Rush Limbaugh, both of them over-the-rail, knife-clenched-in-teeth attacks on the Democrats. In 1996, Bob Dole chirped his way through the campaign like a baritone parrot: “Where’s the outrage? Where’s the outrage?” In the Clinton era, as now, opposition partisans just could not believe that their outrage wasn’t universally shared. “It’s just so obvious that _____ is an evil guy!”
And there is the second point: the big difference in 2004 is that the most effective partisan meat axes are being wielded by liberals. Why are these books, and Moore’s movie, so popular? I said mean-spirited attacks are always with this, but they are not always best-sellers. What is going on?
The troubling question is one we can’t answer: are these books cause, or effect? Is the media, and publishing industry, a microphone that directs public opinion, or simply a mirror that reflects it? Conservatives have been outraged that Baker’s “Checkpoint” is a partisan provocation, financed by Knopf publishers. But it seems just as likely that this version of “Kill George, Part I” is motivated by nothing more than hunger for profits. Given the public mood, fantasies about getting rid of the President through murder are going to sell books. Republicans shouldn’t blame the messenger. Or, in this case, the authors.