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Dissent from left to write

Public ideological debate has experienced a resurgence led by books about politics.

August 03, 2004|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

Politics, it's often said, is a cyclical phenomenon; what goes around comes around. Just five years ago, pundits liked to claim that we lived in a post-ideological society; now, ideology has reemerged as fundamental to daily life. With Michael Moore and the Fox News Network, Aaron McGruder and Rush Limbaugh, it is an essential aspect of our cultural infrastructure, as elemental as the air we breathe.

Even in bookstores, it can't be ignored. "There has been double-digit growth in political titles every year since the 2000 election," says Charlotte Abbott, Book News editor of Publishers Weekly. "We haven't seen this kind of environment in the publishing industry since Watergate."

In many ways, this renaissance of political writing only makes sense; it's been a tumultuous four years, after all. More interesting, though, is how the orientation of these books has slowly shifted, moving from right to left and from the confrontational bluster of, say, Al Franken to more nuanced arguments.

Certainly, you can still find conservative titles. L. Brent Bozell has written "Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media," while the new anthology "Thank You, President Bush: Reflections on the War on Terror, Defense of the Family and Revival of the Economy" will be distributed later this month to delegates at the Republican National Convention in New York.

Yet in stark contrast with the first year or so after Sept. 11 -- when conservative ideologues such as Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity effectively owned the bestseller lists -- the majority of new books are critical of the Bush administration and its policies, and seek to engender public debate.

"What we're seeing," says Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine and the author of "Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy," "is a reawakening of political consciousness, an understanding that freedom is made by politics. To some extent, this has to do with the debacle in Iraq and the squandering of American goodwill, but even more, I think, there's a growing realization of just exactly what kind of people and ideas we have in power."

Lapham is no newcomer to politics; his Harper's column has been a model of intelligent engagement for years. With "Gag Rule," however, he means to up the ante by addressing, in four direct and impassioned essays, the importance of protest in the marketplace of ideas. He's not the only one: This summer, James Carroll has collected 88 of his columns for the Boston Globe into "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War," a withering moral indictment of the president's Mideast policy, while John Powers offers up "Sore Winners: (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America," a kaleidoscopic take on the peculiar dynamics of what the author dubs "Bush World."

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg presents "Politics: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004," which gathers nearly 40 years of commentary, including his trenchant and insightful writings on Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Then there's Thomas Frank, whose "What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" has become a surprise bestseller after having been touted by Barbara Ehrenreich on the opinion page of the New York Times.

"The Frank book," says Abbott, "is the most astonishing, because here you have someone who is not a household name writing about electoral strategy, which is a whole new thing."

The question all this raises is how, in a culture that seemed almost entirely silent barely a year ago, dissenting voices have now risen to the fore. According to Carroll, it's all part of a developing awareness that things may not be as they appear.

"In the last six months," he says, "people have finally begun to face hard facts that have been evident for the last three years, that the great organs of government and the press looked aside while horrors were unfolding. Since Sept. 11, we've seen a failure of the political system. There has been no significant opposition to the radical policies of the Bush administration, so you're seeing writers grappling with that instead."

Carroll's book is almost a moment-by-moment account of what he sees as our collective slide down the rabbit hole; the earliest piece dates from Sept. 15, 2001, and the most recent from March 16, 2004, around the first anniversary of the Iraq war. His central argument is that the president made a fundamental error in framing terrorism as a military, rather than a law enforcement, issue.

"I'm often misunderstood," he says, "as a traditional pacifist, but law enforcement is not pacifism. The difference is that with law enforcement there are limits, while with war, as we've seen, there are not."

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