Daily Archives: August 7, 2004

Teaching a Kapo To Sing Sondheim

This scummy little book treats the question of whether the problems that now beset our cherished and anxious country may be solved by the shooting of its president. Nicholson Baker’s novel does not advocate the assassination of George W. Bush, to be sure. It is more cunning.

But few Kapos are more cunning than Leon Wieseltier who in his New York Times Sunday Book Review piece ‘Checkpoint': Nicholson Baker’s Wild Talk, does more than throw shade on this most ostentatiously “eccentric” of writers. He drags the entire American left down with him.

No surprise in that. As a Kapo it’s his job.

”Checkpoint” comes armored in ambiguity about its own character. The protagonist of the novel, who is preparing to perpetrate the deed, is quite obviously an unbalanced individual, a misfit, a loser, a fantasist, a paranoid, and so his violent plan for rescuing the United States cannot be taken seriously, though of course this is true of all such conspiracies. And Baker includes another character, a sensible friend of the homicidal progressive, who tries to dissuade the man from acting so drastically on his alienation. So ”Checkpoint” is not, strictly speaking, an incitement to a crime, and there is no need for the F.B.I. to pull people off the hunt for this summer’s terrorists and open an investigation into the fictional devices of a certain Nicholson Baker.

Fictional devices not all that different from Bioy- Casares and Bartleme.

Just less interestingly used.

Except for its inflammatory theme — Baker’s novels have always been desperate to be noticed, and here he breaks new ground in his sensationalism — ”Checkpoint” could be dismissed as another of Baker’s creepy hermeneutical toys.

But surely not as creepy and hermeneutical as



or this

and that’s not to mention


But this is no ordinary inquiry into obsession. The object of Baker’s fascination this time is the murder of the president of the United States. And the fascination is genuine. Like all of Baker’s books, this one is much too close to its subject. This novel whose subject is wild talk is itself wild talk, and so another discouraging document of this age of wild talk.

Wild like who?

Henry James?

Joseph Conrad?



The novel consists in the transcript of a conversation in a room in a hotel in Washington in May of this year. Jay has summoned Ben to his room to explain what he is about to do ”for the good of humankind.” We infer from what is said that Jay is a deeply unhappy man. His wife has left him, his girlfriend has left him, he has lost his job as a high-school teacher, he works as a day laborer and has declared personal bankruptcy, he spends his days reading blogs. (About the deranging influence of blogs Baker makes a sterling point.) He believes that the bullets in his gun are ”precision-guided missiles . . . with built-in face recognition” — ”Bush-seeking bullets,” Ben mordantly labels them.

Most remindful of the pivotal scene in Performance where James Fox declares “I am a bullet” before killing an ex-lover turned adversary.

Ben regards all this as ”delusional gobbledygook.” He is a professor of American history working on a study of government censorship during the cold war. Ben is Baker’s liberal. He understands that George W. Bush is all the terrible things that Jay says he is, but he deplores the means, and he fears that his friend wishes to destroy the president because he wishes to destroy himself. He hopes to trick Jay into catharsis by taking a hammer to a photograph of the president, but it is not clear that catharsis comes. He tries to persuade his ruined friend to abandon his ”mission,” but the encounter ends inconclusively. It may be that Jay has been talked out of suicide. It may be that the president is really in danger. Most of the novel is taken up with Jay’s denunciations of the war in Iraq. He recalls attending a rally against the war: ”This war, Ben? Is an abortion. It’s an abortion performed on a whole country. I mean in some ways I’m actually surprisingly conservative, if you get down to it. But there I was with my fist in the air, I’m sobbing, I’m screaming with these people because we all sensed and we knew, regardless of what we did or didn’t have in common in other ways, we all knew that the war that the United States was waging on that patchwork country was, was — it was ushering a new kind of terribleness into the world. And we knew that we had to do something.”

Like writing a song for example?

But peaceful protest is insufficient for Jay, and it is also inadequate to express the magnitude of the hatred that the president has inspired in him. Jay is unimpressed by the prospect that Bush will lose the election. ”No, this time, this war, that he imposed on the world, when the whole world said no to him so CLEARLY, in the streets, in every country, this war that he forced on humanity — this war will be avenged!” When Ben makes a tender animadversion about proportionality, and warns against adding to the bloodiness of an already bloodied world, Jay retorts: ”By causing a minor blip of bloodshed in one human being I’m going to prevent further bloodshed.” And finally: ”I’m talking about direct action against the guy who’s nominally in charge. George W. Tumblewad. If you as the guy in charge allow killing to go forward, if you in fact actively promote killing, if you order it to happen — if you say, Go, men, launch the planes, start the bombing, shock and awe . . . that ancient city — you are going to create assassins like me. That’s the basic point I’m making. You are going to create the mad dogs that will maul you.”

Another great moment in Perfomance, when Moody (The seemingly gentle John Bindon, later to get life for murder) remarks off-handedly “I was bit by a dog once. A wire-haired terrier.”

The striking thing about Jay’s analysis of the war — that it is the consequence of George W. Bush’s religiosity, and servility before American corporations, and alliance with neoconservatives who are ”not humble enough before the mystery of a foreign country” — is that it is not Jay’s alone. The same account is familiar from newspapers and television shows and Web sites everywhere. In a sense, Baker has slandered the opposition to George W. Bush by representing it with a disordered mind bent on murder. In this season of ferocity, therefore, it is worth insisting that Bush-hatred is generally not a plot to kill the president.

Thanks for the “generally,” Leon.

Yet the discussion of Bush-hatred, and of Baker’s book, cannot be concluded with a polite absolution. For the virulence that calls itself critical thinking, the merry diabolization of other opinions and the other people who hold them, the confusion of rightness with righteousness, the preference for aspersion to argument, the view that the strongest statement is the truest statement — these deformations of political discourse now thrive in the houses of liberalism too. The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left.

So that left and right are absolutely equivalent? That’s the cant we’ve been fed by the shovel-full for several years now. Ever since the center found its voice and began to fight back its been lectured too by the right that “levelling the playfield” risks rank imitation.

In other words, Debbie Boone and Johnny Rotten are quite literally the same person.
Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

The Bush-loving mob is being met with a Bush-hating mob. Liberals are forgetting why liberals are not radicals. When Jay demands to know how Ben would feel if Bush were killed — ”won’t part of you think, He’s got it coming to him? Huh?” — the most that center-left Ben can muster in the way of principle is this: ”I don’t — I’m not — I can’t predict how I would react if the president were actually shot,” followed by some sensitive mutterings about ”the simple sight of any human being stilled.” American liberalism, in sum, may be losing its head.

Really? I remember whn Kennedy was shot. Not having cared all that much for him, thanks to his ringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation during the trumped-up “Cuban Missile Crisis” my regrets were minimal.

As for Reagan, had the Jodie Foster fan nailed him I can’t say I would have felt anything at all.

I was far more upset by the passing of Paul Wellstone.

Except for the twisted conclusion that he draws from his dissent, Jay is not, as I say, a stranger in contemporary America. Late in the novel he explains that ”we’ve reached a point beyond the normal — we’ve reached a point of intolerability.” The opinion that these are not normal times, that the Bush years are apocalyptic years, is quite common. ”We are no longer in the ordinary times we were in when the conservatives took out after Bill Clinton,” Janet Malcolm recently explained in a letter to this newspaper. ”We are in a time now that is as fearful as the period after Munich.” Life in South Egremont, Mass., may be excruciating, but Malcolm’s knowledge of the period after Munich has plainly grown dim. And who, in her ominous analogy, is Hitler? If it is Osama bin Laden, then she might have a little sympathy for the seriousness of this administration about American security, whatever her views about some of its policies. If it is George W. Bush. . . . Well, she continues: ”Those of us who are demonizing George W. Bush are doing so not because of his morals but because we are scared of what another four years of his administration will do to this country and to the world.” So whether or not Bush is Hitler, he is a devil. This is what now passes for smart.

No, what passes for smart are right-wing hacks like Wieseltier who claim to be “reformed” leftists, when in fact they’re little more than becalmed Christopher Hitchens clones
like Ron Rosenbaum.

The signs of the degradation are everywhere. In a new anthology of anti-Bush writings by distinguished journalists and commentators and a senator (Kennedy) and a congressman (Dingell), the pages are ornamented with exhilarating anagrams such as ”The Republicans: Plan butcheries?” and ”Donald Henry Rumsfeld: Fondly handles murder.” The back cover thoughtfully calls Rumsfeld a ”war pig.” In an advertisement that proudly lists ”recent contributors,” The New York Review of Books suddenly names Noam Chomsky, who has not appeared in its pages in decades; but this is the glory in which the journal apparently wishes to bask again.

And at last The Great Satan is named– Noam Chomsky. A man whose devotion to reason and truth, whose attention to what the United States actually does rather than says has made him a pariah among Kapos like Wieseltiers — and a hero increasingly larger segments of the actual left.

Al Gore denounces Abu Ghraib as ”the Bush gulag,” and Moveon.org publishes a huge ad instructing that ”The Communists had Pravda. Republicans have Fox.” And so on. All this is not much of a height from which to fall to the juxtaposition of pictures of Bush with pictures of Hitler in a recent concert by Black Sabbath, to gloss a song also called ”War Pigs.”
It is true that the Bush campaign recently ran an advertisement on the Internet that mixed Hitler’s image with the images of various Democrats. But so what?

See? “So what?” Democrats are supposed to take it. Democrats are supposed to get spit at, pissed and shat upon 24/7. But if they dare to defend themselves? Well that’s going too far and must be stopped!

Even if the Republicans are reaping what they sowed, these weeds should be allowed to die in the field. (Even Jay concedes about Bush that ”of course he’s not as bad as Hitler.”) Liberals must think carefully about their keenness to mirror some of the most poisonous qualities of their adversaries. It was never exactly a disgrace to American liberalism that it lacked its Limbaugh. But demagoguery now enjoys a new prestige. Thus, a prominent liberal thinker writes a book against George W. Bush that refreshingly prefers ideas to innuendoes, and a sympathetic reviewer in this newspaper laments that ”instead of ‘Reason,’ which the left already has too much of, the Democrats need a book titled ‘Brass Knuckles.’ ” The argument for liberal demagoguery is twofold, tactical and philosophical. There are those who believe the Democrats cannot succeed without the politics of the sewer. These are the same people who believe it is the politics of the sewer to which the Republicans owe their success. This view significantly underestimates the depth and the nature of George W. Bush’s support in American society, and significantly overestimates the influence of the media and its pundit vaudeville on American politics.

Boileplate Kapospeak. Go along, get along. Don’t make a fuss and they won’t throw you in the ovens.

As if.

Rush Limbaugh did not elect a president and neither will Michael Moore. All the professional manipulation of opinion notwithstanding, reality is still more powerful than its representations. If it is not, then all politics is futile.

The philosophical argument for liberal demagoguery is that it is merely an expression, or an exaggeration, of American democracy. But then this must be true also of conservative demagoguery, which also claims to speak (but rather less plausibly) in the voice of the common man.

But Michael Moore is not Rush Limbaugh. Michael Moore is a filmmaker, dependent on theatrical attendance, and in the case of his books, an alert readership, to get his points across. Rush Limbaugh spews his bile across the airwaves nationwide almost every day of the week. And unless I’m much mistaken Michael Moore isn’t an oxycontin addict. But Moore=Limbaugh must be promulgated as it’s central to Kapospeak.

It is when politics becomes a competition in populist credentials that demagoguery, and the sophistry of the slippery slope, flourishes, and the voice of the common man is stolen.

Oh really?

“Hey, pal- feelin’ blue?

Don’t know what to do?

Hey, pal-

I mean you-

yeah. C’mere and kill a president.

No job? Cupboard bare?

one room, no one there?

Hey, pal, don’t despair-

You wanna shoot a president?

c’mon and shoot a president…”

The demagogue’s gravest sin is not incivility, it is stupidity. Does the Bush administration love capitalism too much? But it is also possible to love capitalism too little. The greatness of capitalism, after all, is that it may be politically corrected.

“Some guys

Think they can be winners.

First prize often goes to rank beginners

Hey, kid, failed your test?

Dream girl unimpressed?

Show her you’re the best

If you can shoot a president-

You can get the prize

With the big blue eyes,

Skinny little thighs

And those big blue eyes…”

Was American power used improperly, or for ill, in Iraq? But it is also possible for American power to be used properly, and for good.


Got the right

To be happy.

Don’t stay mad,

Life’s not as bad

As it seems.

If you keep your

Goal in sight,

You can climb to

Any height.


Got the right

To their dreams…”

Is the friendly opinion of the world a condition of American security? Often, but not always. The incompetence of the Bush administration in world affairs, too much of which was ideologically ordained, does not alter the fact that the United States must sometimes deploy overwhelming force against extreme wickedness.

“Hey, fella,

Feel like you’re a failure?

Bailiff on your tail? Your

Wife run off for good?

Hey, fella, fell misunderstood?

C’mere and kill a president…


What’s-a wrong, boy?

Boss-a treat you crummy?

Trouble with your tummy?

This-a bring you some relief.

Here, give

some hail-a to da chief-“

It will be disastrous, for liberalism and for America, if the indignation against George W. Bush becomes an excuse for a great simplification, for a delirious release from the complexities of historical and political understanding that it took the American left decades to learn.


Got the right

To be different

Even though

At times they go

To extremes.

Aim for what you

want a lot-


Gets a shot.


Got a right

To their dreams-“

The good news is that the politics of Bush-hatred may be at odds with the culture of Bush-hatred. Neither John Kerry nor John Edwards appears to live in the universe in which ”Checkpoint” was set or in the universe in which ”Checkpoint” was written. Whatever the merit of their opposition to the Bush administration, the spirit of their opposition is not dark. They are not taking the radical bait. This is admirable not only on strategic grounds.

“Yo, baby!

Looking for a thrill?

The Ferris Wheel is that way.

No, baby,

This requires skill-

Okay, you want to give it a try…

Jeez, lady-!

Give the guy some room!

The bumper cars are that way..

Please, lady-

Don’t forget that guns can go boom…


Got the right

To be happy.

Say, ‘Enough!’

It’s not as tough

As it seems.

Don’t be scared

You won’t prevail,


Free to fail,

No one can be put in jail

For their dreams.”

When the Democratic candidate for president criticizes the conduct of the American war in Iraq but recognizes the catastrophic consequences of an American withdrawal, he is practicing the lost art of opposing two errors, two evils, at the same time. There are many good reasons to wish to be rid of George W. Bush, but there are no good reasons to wish to be rid of intelligence in our public life.

“Free country-!

-Means your dreams can come true:

Be a scholar-

Make a dollar-

Free country-!

-Means they’ll listen to you:

Scream and holler-

Grab ‘em by the collar!

Free country-!

-Means you dont have to sit-

-And put up with the shit.


Got the right

To some sun shine-

Not the sun

But maybe one

Of its beams.

One of its beams.

Rich man, poor man

Black or white,

pick your apple,

Take a bite,


Just hold tight

To your dreams.


Got the right

To their dreams… “

Except Kapos.