All But the Shouting 

Books by political icons are preaching to the choir.

It goes without saying that in his new book, conservative radio host Michael Savage will, well, savage the left. Due out in mid-April, The Political Zoo (Nelson Current, $25) features nearly fifty famous liberals caricatured as what Savage — who earned his Ph.D in epidemiology at UC Berkeley — calls "the reptiles, rats, and birds of prey they most resemble ... uncivilized, snarling, rapacious beasts,"; with faux-Latin names. Alec Baldwin as Notalentus anti-americanus. Jimmy Carter as Marxius peanutfarmera. It will be Savage's twentieth book.

But when new books by three other Berkeleyites, leftist icons all, also rip leftism, that's news. In Not One More Mother's Child (Koa, $15), Cindy Sheehan puts sneer quotes around the word "Democratic"; preceding John Kerry's name, and asserts that Dianne Feinstein has no brain. In Crashing the Gate (Chelsea Green, $25), Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and coauthor/fellow blogger Jerome Armstrong mourn the infighting, identity politics, and anachronisms that amount to "Why Democrats Will Never Win."; In The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia, $24.95), sociologist Todd Gitlin — who spent sixteen years on Cal's faculty after his own student career as an SDS star and anti-Vietnam War activist — guts liberals as delusional, "marginal scoffers who have painted themselves into a corner"; and whose navel-gazing is a form of cultural suicide.

The left eats itself, like a cafe full of Kilkenny cats. Now that's a conundrum for the history books — although Gitlin wonders whether the future will yield any history books at all, as the best minds of his generation shun the classics and teach courses on queer porn and Lil' Kim. ("It is better to study The Brothers Karamazov than to study General Hospital,"; Gitlin insists, like a man in an echo chamber.)

You can almost hear Michael Savage braying, Ha ha. But not for long, actually, because as he laughs, he despairs. It's a constant refrain, bellowed on-air with almost medieval abandon: "I'm losing my country."; And — to borrow Sheehan's favorite phrase — you know what? That's exactly what Sheehan, Moulitsas, and Gitlin mourn too. Right and left, these authors all lash and rail, thrusting lacerated fists skyward like characters in Kagemusha mourning a country, a culture, lost or nearly so. Diametrically opposed sort of, but sort of not. Mortal enemies, sure. Given to ad-hominem assaults: Sheehan calls Michelle Malkin and Sean Hannity "despicable human beings"; who "have no truth."; Moulitsas and Armstrong loathe "the odious Ann Coulter"; and call Republican Senator Rick Santorum a "bona fide wingnut."; Whip out the Nazi allusions: Sheehan snarls at the "reich wing,"; Moulitsas and Armstrong at "Republican shock troops."; Savage notes that "Nazi"; stands for "National Socialist"; and that if not for an accident of history, Hitler might now be remembered as a left-wing dictator. Decrying "the destruction of a country,"; Sheehan calls the Bush administration "a pack of cowards and murderers"; and "murderous thugs"; and "the biggest threat to our safety ... and our way of life in America."; "America is going to hell,"; proclaim Moulitsas and Armstrong. Understatedly, Gitlin muses: "The nation is deeply troubled."; Savage bemoans "uncivilized, snarling, rapacious beasts that, like untrained mutts, raise their legs and urinate on everything we hold dear."; It's like a polyphonically dissonant Greek chorus, really.

But the question is, who's listening? That fence has been pretty vacant for five years. Never has rhetoric on either side of it been so partisan, sets of talking points so hermetically sealed. This is an era without subsets or even overlaps. With the exception of Gitlin, whose big-picture approach is deep, wide, lyrical, and invective-free enough to attract readers from both sides — who might actually adopt his new definition of patriotism as love and education rather than nay-saying and bombast — the other authors, right and left, write for their already-clamoring fan bases and no one else. What's the point, and what do they hope to gain? Umm, their nation — no, our nation. Yours. But who are you? "We will take our country back,"; Sheehan proclaims to a select group, then admits that "we're preaching to the choir."; Moulitsas and Armstrong apply furious titles to their chapters and subsections: "CIVIL WAR."; "TAKING OVER."; "REVOLUTION AND REFORMATION."; These authors position their books as how-to guides for wresting America out of enemy hands. Except that the enemy lives next door, or runs the corner shop.

As a paid consultant for Howard Dean's campaign, a populist on the payroll of a doomed contender, Moulitsas has a lot of 'splainin' to do. This and his abysmal 0-for-15 track record of backing liberal candidates, all of whom have lost, makes the blogger — skewered by the right in 2004 after responding to the murders of four American contractors in Fallujah with the words, "Screw them"; — an odd go-to guy for tips on winning. He and Armstrong write doggedly of loss, analyzing the failures of everything Democrat from candidates to work habits to advertising strategies. Well, he should know. And clearly, many believe he does, because the lawyer recently realized his longtime dream and bought a house in overpriced Berkeley. He and Armstrong contradict themselves by explicating myriad "lessons we can learn from Republicans"; about funding, mentoring, campaigning, and more, then celebrating the strategy of "boldly fighting Republicans, not imitating them.";

Sheehan is furious too, but offers herself less as a strategist than as a saint. Call her a "tool"; or not — the right skewered her for calling Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world"; while embracing Venezuelan president Hugo Ch‡vez, for railing against "occupied New Orleans,"; and for speaking at World Can't Wait events hosted by the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party — but Sheehan is a deft handler of what she calls the "icon status that I have achieved."; Religious imagery shimmers through her book: Last summer's stint in Texas was a vigil. Dead soldiers are angels. Sheehan calls her activism "my holy war."; She calls her popularity "miraculous"; and mentions miracles frequently. Urging readers to join her, she declares "Amen!!!"; Like a biblical figure, she is hailed by one supporter for "enduring ferocious heat, torrential rains, and frightening thunder-and-lightning storms."; She calls Jesus, honorifically, "the Christ,"; and tells us her soldier son, Casey, was so devout that — would he want us all to know this? — he was saving his virginity. Martin Sheen declared Camp Casey "holy ground"; after a young couple got married there. ("They also made a generous donation to the tour.";) Neocons are a cabal — that word derives from kabbalah, BTW. "I am apparently the sacrificial lamb of the peace movement,"; Sheehan muses, then adds with Catherine-of-Siena-like mortification, "I don't care about myself.";

Remembering Camp Casey in her introduction to this book, Code Pink cofounder Jodie Evans recalls: "Cindy's presence transformed everyone in every moment"; — echoing that old goddess chant, She changes everything she touches and everything she touches changes. "Cindy can lead us home,"; Evans purrs. Stoking the potent pyres of martyrdom and motherhood, Evans also delivers one of the strangest, most startling lines you'll see in a nonfiction book this year: "I lost my daughter Lala twenty years ago to a tsunami."; (But is it more or less strange and startling than Sheehan's evocation of "my sweet boy who never passed up a chance to kiss my behind";?) Comprising blog entries, letters, and speeches, this book will be viewed by future generations as a missal from a time and place, forging its own brand of fire and brimstone, for a denomination whose adherents shared key beliefs: that Bush stole two elections, that he was forewarned about 9/11, that he is stupid and sophisticated, that there were no WMDs, that wars only exist in order to make industrialists rich.

Michael Savage calls Sheehan "Cindy Shame-ham."; To her mind, Savage is part of the "reich-wing smear campaign"; against her. Both of them criticize Bush. Both claim to love America and certain Americans, yet both lambaste the silent and ignorant hordes. Both use the same word for those hordes: sheeple. "I ache,"; Sheehan writes, "for the millions of sheeple who have had the wool pulled over their eyes by ... hypocritical, bad shepherds."; For his part, Savage claims to have coined sheeple in the first place. Nyah, nyah. Warheads loom. Tick, tock. Is it really all over but the shouting? Into the echo chamber skulks performance artist and NYU professor Karen Finley. In 2003, she puzzled Berkeley Rep audiences with a post-9/11 piece that featured the line "It's all about me!"; Due out the same week as Savage's book, Finley's George & Martha (Verso, $15) imagines a hotel-room sex romp between Martha Stewart and the president, who is alternately called "George"; and "Bushie."; It's horrible in ways that Finley doesn't want it to be horrible. The excitement you feel is Finley's frisson at thinking she is freaking out the squares with bits like: "My mouth is full of his coconut smoothie and there is no way I am going to swallow his protein shake. His cream is drooling out of my mouth like a bungee cord."; Sloppy, spangled with misspelled proper nouns: "Hilary Clinton,"; "Sergeant Shriver,"; "Arnold Schwarzeneggar,"; "Witchita."; And word salad: "Make Mohammed a mouse. The Moslems need a mouse. A Moslem mouse. A Mouslem."; Did she write this under the covers, in the dark? Did she write it dazed from eating Oreos, or in a deadline-racing rush? All we know is who's supposed to laugh. And whoever doesn't is a knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping neocon Neanderthal, both stupid and satanically smart.


By Michael Savage

Nelson Current, $25


By Cindy Sheehan

Koa, $15


By Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and Jermoe Armstrong, Chelsea Green, $25


By Todd Gitlin, Columbia, $24.95


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