Here's a koan for America in most of 2004: If a tree falls in the forest and is ground up and made into a copy of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and a registered voter isn't there to hear it, does it still make a sound? More importantly, will it change anybody's vote? Well, to answer that question, why not traipse down to the Federal Building and see whose picture is on the wall? One hint: It ain't John Kerry.
In the go-go '90s, right-wing authors possessing varying degrees of sanity -- and Richard Mellon Scaife's money -- claimed that Bill Clinton flew C-40s full of cocaine into Arkansas to slake his prodigious habit; used state troopers to rape, loot, and pillage his way across the South; had Ron Brown shot in the head before crashing his plane; killed Vince Foster just to watch him die; kidnapped the Lindbergh baby; and introduced Kurt Cobain to Courtney Love. Yet it was only with the ascent of George W. Bush that government insiders such as Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill began taking aim at a sitting president. And, while far less sexy than nailing every third woman in Arkansas or running a Murder, Inc.-type operation within his own party, this president was accused by Clarke in Against All Enemies and O'Neill (via author Ron Suskind) in The Price of Loyalty of taking a stunning disinterest in the day-to day running of the nation, completely bungling counterterrorism efforts, and manipulating and misleading us into a disastrous war. You know. Kinda important stuff.
These books -- and many, many others of the same stripe -- sold, and sold well. They dominated the Express best-seller list every month this year: Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack; Chalmers Johnson's Sorrows of Empire; Kevin Phillips' American Dynasty; Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command; Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire; Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat; Robert Reich's Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America; Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?; MoveOn's 50 Ways to Love Your Country; and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (the Book). They also racked up sales in red states aplenty. In those thousands and thousands of pages, the president and his right-wing enablers were pilloried as ruthless, yet inept. Corporations were revealed to have regulated their own regulatory bodies. The neocons lurking behind George W. Bush's curtain like the Wizard of Oz were characterized as fanatical ideologues whose inability to conceive that maybe, just maybe, everything wouldn't go exactly as they'd foreseen led to thousands of American deaths and billions of dollars down the hole in Iraq. And, once again ... who's in the White House?
Luxuriating here in our indigo Bay Area bubble atop blue California, cups of organic fair-trade chai gripped in our left wings, we can use the above information to condescend a bit about our fellow Americans. So -- were red staters too busy being pelted by automotive debris at NASCAR events to read Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? Were they too preoccupied with ambling barefoot down to the Piggly Wiggly for some Schlitz Tall Boys to crack Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose's Bushwhacked? And maybe that hardback copy of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival fell out of the canoe when those lusty hillbillies ruined the weekend rafting expedition.
Yet writing off 51 percent of the nation as fools and illiterates too stupid to understand a Paul Krugman column is not unlike addressing a crisis by hunkering down with a gargantuan slice of chocolate-chip cheesecake: It makes you feel good for a while, but when the cake is gone, your problems are still there.
Your typical Express reader thumbing through Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them resembles nothing so much as a New Englander watching the 2004 Red Sox season-highlights DVD. Yes, yes, FOX News is the Republican Party's Ministry of Propaganda. Yes, Ann Coulter is a lunatic, and her legs aren't even that good. And yes, Bill O'Reilly needs a dermatologist.
There's no denying that Franken, Moore, Ivins, and the rest have produced compelling works that motivate the liberal base. Then again, there's no denying that chocolate-chip cheesecake tastes good. So?
In a recent article for The Atlantic, the very conservative -- and very funny -- journalist P.J. O'Rourke lamented that ultra-rightist talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, with whom O'Rourke often agrees, have never changed a mind. One could beg to differ: Overwhelmingly conservative voices blaring from the nation's airwaves are like the noxious gas that seeps under the door and through the vents in spy movies, knocking rats off rafters and birds off poles. It's so easy to listen. And the message gets out fast: Karl Rove's showertime epiphany is Limbaugh's drive-time thesis.
Books, however, are quite the opposite. You can't inadvertently start reading a book without realizing it. You can't read a book while you're driving or trying to get any work done. And, unlike radio, books aren't free or even cheap. If you listen to Sean Hannity for ten minutes and don't like it, all you've lost are a few moments of your precious life. If you think Lies is a dud, you're out that much life and $24.95 -- $37.50 in Canada.
So if the battalions of Bush-bashing books were unable to make a dent in the election results, what purpose will they serve? What good came of the authors' blood, sweat, and tears? Well, perhaps these volumes will serve as the references for future Americans who will condescend a bit about us.
Clutching their fair-trade organic chais in a brave new world, scanning the library shelves, tomorrow's scholars will wonder, "What were they thinking?"
Hey, tell us when you find out.
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