Monday, October 22, 2007

Brownshirts in Boulder?

Is it possible that we could see Blackwater Worldwide troops patrolling the streets of American cities? Will dissent be completely stifled, even in the Republic of Boulder, because the Bush administration will haul off a few activists and label them enemy combatants, terrifying other anti-war demonstrators? Will we even get to vote for a new president next year? As outrageous as these questions seem, they suddenly become possible when you consider the "f" word. Fascism.

In Naomi Wolf's new book, The End of America, she makes the case that the United States is very deliberately being moved towards fascism by the Bush administration. As a student of history (I was a history major at Allegheny College and still read a few U.S. history tomes each year), I was more than a bit skeptical as I began reading this book. Would the hysteria outweigh the history? Everything this administration has touched has gone wrong. We are mired in Iraq, Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low and mention the word Katrina and even staunch Republicans roll their eyes. Hardly a playbook for moving us into fascism with a demagogic leader.

Wolf's book, which is really more of an old-fashioned Thomas-Paine-style pamphlet, compares the Bush administration with Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy and an assortment of South American regimes. Interestingly, the Bush gang doesn't look too friendly even compared to history's leading henchmen. Wolf wades into this territory knowing the criticism she is going to get and tries to head off her critics with an explanation.

In the introduction she writes, "I am not comparing the United States in 2007 to Nazi Germany, or Bush to Hitler. The two nations and leaders inhabit different worlds . . . But certain threads are emerging that have connections to the past. I am calling your attention to important lessons from history about how fragile civil liberties are, and how quickly freedom can be lost."

Once you accept her framework, it is a frightening book. The single thing that has Wolf most upset is the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in September 2006. This act allows the administration to bypass the Geneva Conventions, it sets up a separate justice system, defines torture very broadly and gives defendants much less protection than we afforded Nazi leaders at Nuremburg. But all that is nothing compared to the fact that the administration's lawyers claim that it also allows the president to declare any one he wants, including United States citizens, enemy combatants. Once you are an enemy combatant and you fall into this secret justice system, good luck, because you won't have any rights or a lawyer.

In the midst of reading her book, I met Wolf at a dinner with a group of booksellers and a couple people from her publisher, Chelsea Green. (Did you really think that Random House, Simon and Schuster or Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins would publish this book?) When I attended the dinner in early October, I was about halfway through her list of the 10 steps that all fascist regimes undertake: set up secret prisons, check; invoke an external and internal threat, check; develop a paramilitary force, check; surveil ordinary citizens, check, check and double-check.

As I drove from Boulder to Denver with a co-worker for the dinner, I was feeling agitated about her premise. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sun glinted off the mountains in the distance to the right, while the grass of the plains, mostly covered with an endless sprawl of office building, condos, malls and warehouse clubs, waved in the mild breeze. We talked about the book, and my co-worker wanted to know who was really behind this fascist takeover. Where was the money? That seemed to be a good question to me, as we drove past billions of dollars worth of businesses.

I was restless because I felt that there was a flaw in Wolf's basic reasoning. America has had democracy for over 200 years, while the countries she studied were barely democracies when the fascist takeover began. Stalin's Russia really had no democratic history. Hitler's Germany had less than two decades of democracy. Maybe a few of the surface details warranted a comparison between these regimes and the United States, but the foundation of her argument seemed flawed.

By the time we got to the Mexican restaurant Tamayo on Larimer Square, we were ready to pounce. Well, it is impossible to pounce on Naomi Wolf, although once I nearly stepped on her. Years ago, she did a book signing at our store. I came back about a half an hour before the event and figured I'd go into my office to get some work done before heading up to the talk. I charged into my office, threw on the lights, and just before my foot came down there was a shriek. I screamed and backed up. It was Naomi Wolf meditating or relaxing in the dark before her event. That was our only previous meeting.

It's impossible to pounce on Wolf in an argument for a several reasons. She is incredibly well read on her subject, she anticipates your objections, she's open to hearing what you have to say and her smile makes you feel like you're a member of a special club. She has a wonderful sense of humor and she can disarm you with a witty retort or a self-deprecating remark. Dinner turned into an absolutely fascinating conversation, and everyone was able to voice both their support of the book and their reservations.

To my question about the histories of the countries she studied and the United States being dissimilar, she agreed in part. But she brought up the fact that fear doesn't know boundaries and historical distinctions. If they could get away with labeling just a few activists or celebrities or authors as enemy combatants, it could completely silence dissent. Sure, it is far-fetched at this point, but they have put the legal levers into place. Also, look at what they are doing on college campuses. In Boulder, one doesn't have to look far. Ward Churchill was pushed out of a tenured job, technically for plagiarism, but really for saying controversial things about 9/11.

Wolf's answer to my co-worker about who would benefit from a fascist state was not as satisfying. We talked about how surveillance has become a multi-billion dollar industry that feeds off of the state. But when pushed about next year's election and questioned about the logic of the Bush administration trying to form a dictatorial government just to hand it over, to Hillary Clinton of all people, she responded quickly, "How can you be so sure that they'll have elections? They're capable of coming up with a reason to cancel them. Look at everything else they've done. You can't trust that there will be elections."

Wolf is an agitator. She is trying to wake people up to how much our civil liberties have been broached. At each stop on her tour she hears horror stories from people about how they've been questioned or detained at airports. At one point, she looked at me and asked "Do you really want to ruin this beautiful meal," as she gestured towards my halibut, "by hearing about all this really depressing stuff?" It's true, her book will make your blood boil and it will make you sad for our society. But it will make you want to get out there and march in protest. Most of all it will make you want to vote in the next election. This whole country is dying to get Bush out of office. Cancelling elections is about the one thing that would ensure that the key members of this administration would end up on trial like they deserve.

I believe that Wolf is onto something that perhaps she can't even articulate. It seems to me that we are moving towards a new type of fascist state. One in which it doesn't really matter who is president or even which party is in power. The military-industrial complex combined with the surveillance industry will rule regardless of the political persuasion of the president. Our computers, televisions, sports and Xboxes will keep us distracted and happy as our freedoms wither away. It's far more depressing than just having to defeat George Bush. The march towards fascism -- economic fascism -- will continue, and not even Barack Obama can stop it. Now that's what really scares me.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Phillies Win & A Killer's Kiss

I was humming with energy last Thursday night. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my entire body. A room, any indoor space could hardly contain me, I was so excited: the Phillies were vying for a playoff spot. What was I to do with all this nervous, pepped-up energy? I felt like I could run a marathon, swim the English Channel.

Unfortunately, I had to sit and eat and talk about literature. Just put me in a straight jacket. I was committed to a dinner with some HarperCollins people and a few of their authors at the Mountain & Plains show down in Denver. Author dinners can be dry affairs. The food is almost always excellent, the wine free-flowing, but the conversation can be a bit stilted. If the author's exhausted, or if you haven't read the book, the words can dry up fast.

But pennant-race baseball is always thrilling. My Phillies--yes, my beloved team that has lost a record-setting 10,000 games--was playing for a share of the National League East Division lead with the hated New York Mets. My biggest concern as I headed out to dinner was simply whether I would be able to escape to the restaurant's bar and watch some baseball on television. Or would I be stuck in between two authors discussing literature?

My co-worker--an extremely gregarious and energetic woman attending her first author dinner--and I were to meet the Harper party in the Marriott Hotel's ballroom before proceeding to Undici Ristorante a few miles away. We spotted our boisterous Harper rep as soon as we entered the room. I took a deep breath to try and calm myself down for the evening. In preparation, I'd read the first 100 pages of William Lashner's new novel A Killer's Kiss. I read it, despite an aversion to mysteries, because the Harper rep had virtually assigned it to me.

"Do me a favor, Bub," he said a few days before the dinner. "Give Lashner's book a try. He's from Philadelphia, a lawyer, you guys can talk about Philly. Besides, it's a good book. You'll like it."

Fat chance I'd like a hard-boiled mystery. I can't stand the cliched characters and predictably unfathomable plots. But as I entered the ballroom, I had to admit Lashner's opening had certainly grabbed me. I also admired the way Lashner created some of his scenes and wasn't afraid to let his characters sit in those scenes as interesting details were laid out and a natural dialogue developed. I was about as hooked as I can be on a mystery.
But really, what did any of it matter, the novel, the author, the dinner, when the Phillies beckoned? No mystery novel, nothing in literature, can match the drama, the tension of a tight pennant race. "Put the book down and watch the game!" I wanted to scream.

Immediately upon being introduced to Lashner, I told him that I was reading his book. He told me that the Phillies were up 6-0 in the fourth inning. Obviously, he'd been informed that I was also from Philadelphia and he was trying to be polite and play up to me a little. I stayed the course, refusing to get sucked into the baseball talk, and mentioned that I was about 100 pages in and had just completed the scene that takes place in a Jamaican restaurant. That didn't seem to sway him, because he was so excited he was about to jump out of his sports jacket as he related that the Phillies had taken apart the great Braves pitcher John Smoltz in the first inning.

I'd fallen into the perfect author event. Lashner is as rabid a Phillies fan as I am. Heck, he's a season ticket holder. The best I can do is listen to the games on XM radio. We soon found a bookseller with a blackberry who could constantly check the score for us. We waxed on and on about how the Phillies could tie the Mets, if only the Mets would cooperate and lose to the woeful Nationals. We spoke of our hopes that the Phils would slug their way into the playoffs and our fears that the Phils would pitch their way out of contention.

Then I noticed my co-worker. Here was her first author dinner and she was stuck with two guys who should have been in a sports bar. I quickly apologized and Lashner and I agreed that once we got to the restaurant we couldn't go on talking about the Phillies. It would drive everyone else nuts.
We actually did okay except for two instances. When Lashner found out the Phillies had won and the Mets had lost, he came over to my table and shouted it out exuberantly. A high five over a bookseller and a Harper publicity person was not enough to show our enthusiasm, we actually did a high ten. I don't think that I've done that since the Phillies went to the World Series in 1980, when I was 14.

Later, Lashner was sitting at my table with me and four other booksellers. Luckily, my co-worker was at another table where the conversation was more on books and less on baseball. My table mates and I had been told by a helpful HarperCollins marketing maven to ask Lashner about Shakespeare. In response to our open-ended question, "Tell us about Shakespeare?" Lashner talked at length about how much he admired the self-made quality of the Bard. Shakespeare wasn't college-educated; he was an outsider in London just trying to make a living and he ended up writing these amazing plays. He created art even though he hadn't set out to do so. The conversation lasted for awhile and when there was a lapse, Lashner and I just looked at each other with big grins on our faces.

The Phillies were in first place with three games to play and that was enough to bring a smile to any Philadelphian's face. "Who was your favorite player? If you had to name one guy, who would it be?" he asked me.

I thought about it. My heroes flitted through my mind in those few seconds: Mike Schmidt and his booming homers, Lenny Dykstra and his dirty uniform, Tug McGraw slapping his glove on his thigh after another Phillies' win, Bake McBride earning his nickname Shake & Bake by hustling around the bases.

I settled on my first Phillies hero. A player barely remembered by most baseball fans. He was a hot dog, flipping his bat like a baton, snapping his glove like a fly swatter at balls and just walking around the field with a swagger that captivated a seven-year old. "Willie Montanez," I said.
Lashner paused a second and told me he wasn't surprised by my choice. "After his rookie season you really thought he was going to be something. He had style. But it didn't pan out after that."

No, it didn't. They traded Montanez for the slick-fielding center fielder Garry Maddox, nicknamed the Secretary of Defense, when I was nine years old. It was a great trade. The Phillies went to the playoffs six times in eight years with Maddox in center. It was said of the speedster that "two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, the other third by Garry Maddox."

I spent the next couple of days (between ballgames) reading Lashner's A Killer's Kiss to see if it would pan out. I'm happy to say that, like this year's Phils, it delivers. Lashner's hero Victor Carl is a likable but quirky guy with some real interesting faults and he's complemented by a cast of eccentric characters including a bizarre Russian mobster, a sniveling lawyer and a man who cuckolds him, despite not having a penis.

As usual, I couldn't figure out who the murderer was and where the money was hidden until it was completely spelled out for me. It's funny, because I always complain about the scenes where everyone blabs as they are holding people at gunpoint, but the truth is I wouldn't know what the hell was happening if it wasn't for all the blabbing. Lashner has a scene like that, but mercifully, it is short and it's better written than most I've read.

In between comments about the Phillies we did talk a little about writing mysteries. Lashner told me that people don't really read mysteries for the plots, they read them for everything else. Well, I enjoyed the dialogue, the setting, and characters in A Killer's Kiss. The plot was a great bonus, except for the part when the mobster's henchman tries to cut off Vicor's nipple. But the true measure of Lashner's book is that the Phillies won the division while I was reading it. Like most baseball fans, I'm just a bit superstitious, so I'll be reading Lashner's books as long as the Phils keep winning. Hostile Witness, Lashner's first novel, is next up on my list as the Phillies take on my adopted Colorado Rockies.