Our Hour

November 25, 2009

If you’re a publisher of serious books these days, it can be wise to stay out of bookstores–unless you don’t mind searching for your own books and not finding any copies because there’s no room for them after the store has laid in its order of YOGA FOR DOGS.  I often cringe after surveying the shelves.  I recognize that we don’t have the distribution muscle of Simon and Schuster or Penguin, but I feel that certain of our books ought to be there anyway.

The other evening I was in the Archicenter on Michigan Avenue, a lovely and interesting shop devoted largely to architectural fancies, including several shelves of books.  On two shelves of publications about Chicago architecture I found, alas, not one copy of Ann Slavick’s HOUR CHICAGO.  This is a wonderful little paperback that we published last year.  It includes twenty-five tours of Chicago’s great architecture and art.  Each one takes about an hour and concentrates on the buildings in a specific area of the central city, with a few sorties farther out.  And it covers the major things to see in the leading museums.  There are easy-to-follow maps and lots of illustrations.

If HOUR CHICAGO is available anyplace (and it is), the Archicenter shop should be a slam dunk.  So who failed the customer in this case?  Was it the shop’s buyer or our own salesperson?  We’ll gladly take the blame, but it’s just another instance of how difficult it is these days to make sure that the right book is in the right place for the right audience.

In the Words of the People

November 19, 2009

Just the other day, I was breezing through Charlie Madigan’s idiosyncratic yet incisive election history Destiny Calling while waiting for the Red Line to pick me up at the Jackson and State subway station. “Do you mind if I take a look at that?” the person next to me—a slightly plump, baby-faced African-American woman around 24 or 25—asked. “Huh? Oh, yeah, of course,” I mumbled groggily. She took her time looking it over—reading the back carefully, lingering a moment on the cover photo—then handed it back to me with an earnest grin. “That seems like the type of book I would like,” she told me.

As I got on the train, I felt myself let loose a little smile, too. I was reminded of the feeling of genuine connection I had in the summer of 2007, when I hitched a ride to Dubuque, Iowa with a lawyer from Wheaton and went door to door, talking with—not to—its citizens and, more importantly, just listening to them. I was reminded of the giddy feeling I had a few months later, taking the train back home after the AFL-CIO-sponsored debate between the Democratic candidates, when first one, then another fellow college student heard me and my friend discussing the election and excitedly sat down to go over everything with us. I was even reminded a little bit of the euphoria I felt last November, when the election was announced in Obama’s favor and seemingly every student and townie on my Boston-area campus flooded the streets to chant, sing, weep, and simply celebrate as a group.

It’s easy to forget about those feelings now, when every time you turn on the TV you hear about Obama’s struggles thus far and the apparently growing disenchantment with him. Of course, if you had only turned on the TV during the last election cycle, you might not have been aware of how strong and genuine those feelings were, and not only in me. You might even have been surprised by the outcome, having assumed—or, rather, been told—that Obama had no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, not with veteran juggernauts like Hillary Clinton around.

But as Madigan—whose forty years in journalism seem to have given him not only a sense of narrative, but also something much more rare these days: a sense of clarity—writes, “So much of what we pay attention to in media coverage of politics is meaningless, a drumbeat of name-calling, polling results, speculation, endless strategy, and gamesmanship.”

In a recent bit on the off-year elections, The Daily Show provided a typically brilliant, pitch-perfect satire of this insubstantial political coverage. People sometimes lament the fact that many of us young people trust Jon Stewart more than traditional newscasters. As though we’re dumber than they used to be. As though flipping the channel would somehow make us smarter. But maybe—just maybe—we trust him because, like Madigan, he’s a media figure who’s all too aware of the ridiculous discourse we’re too smart not to see before our eyes.

A lot has been made about words ever since Obama started campaigning. Not long ago, he had too many of them, and that meant too little substance. Now he has too few, and that means too little substantive progress. That makes sense, I suppose, so long as you remain within the mindset of the political media and the Clinton-era politicos who function as their “expert” guests. For them, it’s always about the strategy, the gamesmanship, about what plays, what sells. It’s about drawing us in with a catch phrase, about finding a more effective ad campaign for each demographic. Even the president’s nominal allies tend to function in this mindset. Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times recently asked the president to frame his agenda with a narrative. Friedman’s suggestion? “Nation-building at home,” which isn’t so much a narrative as a clumsy slogan. (Cue black screen on the TV: Friedman, Inc: Nation-building….at home.) And don’t forget that Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist is perhaps best known for analyzing politics through a marketer’s paradigm—“microtrends,” as he termed his focus.

To them, Obama is special because he has a unique skill with words. That’s true, but it’s not everything: he also has an understanding of the way they support and shape our political and civic culture, and so he works to revitalize that culture by shifting our discursive framework in a way that many in the media can’t comprehend. Too white vs. Jeremiah Wright took place in the media’s discourse; a forty-minute talk with over 6 million YouTube hits took place in Obama’s. For them, this summer’s town hall meetings were about anger and guns; for him, it was about genuinely bringing people into the process outside of the media echo chamber. He may have blundered in taking on Fox News, but he didn’t do it just because they speak for the right; he did it because they’re the most egregious example of this faulty political discourse. There is a reason, after all, that one of the more rousing parts of his health care address focused on discrediting the current debate (“The time for games has passed,” etc.)

So when I turn on the TV and see the media talking about Obama’s failings—yet again—I can’t help but be a bit skeptical. I can’t help but think that they still miss the point: they continue to focus on the meaningless drumbeat of day-to-day Washington while ignoring the flowing melodies he’s conducting around it.

“Away from the set stages and the cell-phone updates and the laptops, there was a much more intriguing version of America,” Madigan writes in Destiny Calling. “The nation is filled with interesting, thoughtful people who have a lot to say if only you just shut up and let them say it for more than a few seconds.”

Shutting up might be tough for the bloviators who fill our TV screens. But by allowing the voices of normal people to fill the page alongside the polls, Madigan reminds us that there are manywonderful stories we’re not getting, and that those stories—those people’s words—are, in the end, the ones that matter.

Authors, bloggers, news show hosts, that irritating guy in the bar—whether being factual or misleading or just plain warped—they, and we, all take daily (or nightly) protection from the First Amendment, and in particular this staunch excerpt: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

And yet, as illuminated by Laurence W. Levy’s Emergence of a Free Press, the First Amendment was overtly disregarded by Congress just seven years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, when it passed the Sedition Act of 1798. Amongst other things this made illegal:

“writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” (Section 2)

“Happily,” even then, pretty much no one expected it to be a constitutional law—it was given a three-year expiry date when it was brought in and was out in 1801, along with the Federalist party government who had pushed the bill through Congress. Rather less happily, even at that stage, those most opposed to the Act, such as Madison (yes, the Madison who drafted the Bill of Rights), only took issue with the Federal government prosecuting anti-government protest: state-based action against the same crime was considered just fine at the time. Fortunately times change, but not always as much as you’d think.

A small jump, and we come to the 1918 Sedition Act pushed through Congress under Woodrow Wilson, which was actually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and had to be specifically repealed in 1921 after a number of high and low profile abuses. It bears some similarities to the 1798 Act, prohibiting, “When the United States is at war, [to] …willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States” (Section 3). Oh, and it permitted the Postmaster General to prevent the delivery of mail to any known dissenter, which would be returned to sender (Section 4). One is reminded of a modern day email firewall that monitors one’s activity, one that can’t be disabled…

Of course, you might say that each of these acts only lasted a few years, and was at the time justified by the need to deal with apparent international and domestic threats. In 1798 these were the Undeclared Naval War with France, as well as the vicious political sparring between the Federalist party in power (ancestors of the Republicans) and the Republican party in opposition (ancestors of the Democrats) that makes some modern partisanship look almost civilized. I particularly enjoy the exchange in Congress on June 21, 1798 where John Allen of Connecticut (a Federalist) accuses Edward Livingston of New York (a Democratic Republican) of having ‘“vomited” falsehood on “everything sacred, human and divine,”’[1] for having spoken out against apparent Federalist plans for reducing civil liberties.

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson had to deal with a Great War he didn’t know was almost over as well as the Red Scare—it was only a year after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 after all and communism was still only partly tarnished and attracting serious consideration as a social philosophy. Then again, take another look at these threats: two centuries ago or so, an “Undeclared War,” fought at sea and strong political dissent at home in a country still not entirely comfortable with its constitution provided the threatening atmosphere; almost one century ago it was again a war fought offshore, and fear of revolutionary communism. Whilst these threats may be rationalized, they are hard, even today, to quantify, and one can perhaps understand the sense of general threat that must have fostered the two Sedition Acts and the other illiberal legislation that partnered them. After all, when you are feeling out of control, faced with something dangerous but amorphous, what more representative thing in the ether to try to pin down and punish, than words?

These days, ironically enough, it is often as not the federal government that one feels inclined to be sorry for when perusing the latest edition of sedition with one’s cornflakes. For example, one might read about Obama’s speech to schoolchildren in September being compared to indoctrination in the style of Chinese communism and the Hitler Youth. It’s not too far away from a similar story in a Federalist journal in 1800 about the threats those sympathetic to the French (i.e., American Catholics) posed tEmergence of a Free Presso American children, spreading their evil in print:

“‘the diffusion of Jacobinical principles, thro’ the medium of children’s Books,’ [corrupts] young minds by making them ‘imbibe, with their very milk,’ the poisons of atheism and sedition.’”[2]

Yet, back in 1800, this story was propagated by a newspaper effectively allied with the government in power. In the end, maybe, the only answer seems to be to ensure that there are always at least two sides to the story to be heard, seen, or read.

[1] Annals of Congress, 5th Cong., 2nd sess., pp. 2017-18, June 21, 2095 (Cited by Levy, Emergence of A Free Press, p299).

[2] Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia), June 4, 1800, (Cited by Levy, Ibid, pp298-299).

Al Jazeera English – The Berlin Wall – Spy chief: My defection to the West.

Brando’s Memorable Line

November 5, 2009

ON THE WATERFRONTIn January we will publish a new edition of Budd Schulberg’s novel of ON THE WATERFRONT.  It’s not actually based on the screenplay for the classic film; in the novel Schulberg felt he was able to give Terry Malloy and other characters greater dimension than he could in the movie.  “The film’s concentration on a single dominating character, brought close to the camera eye, made it esthetically inconvenient, if not impossible, to set Terry’s story in its social and historical perspective,”  Schulberg wrote.  “In the novel Terry is a single strand in a rope of intertwining fibers, suggesting the knotted complexities of the world of the waterfront that loops around New York.”

In a story told at Schulberg’s memorial service last month in New York, Elia Kazan, who directed the film of ON THE WATERFRONT, tried to convince Schulberg to cut “I coulda been a contender,” leaving only “I coulda been somebody.”  Fortunately Schulberg resisted.