Angry White Men

Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Greg Palast Hit Bestseller List With Incendiary Books

The success of a handful of books that assail the Bush administration as hypocritical, incompetent, and corrupt has demarcated a groundswell of Americans who desire truth about their leaders amid the dearth of critical and official information that is today's mainstream media. It's a demographic large enough that any politician or pollster would identify it as pivotal in an election: Stupid White Men by Michael Moore now has 500,000 copies in print and is still number five on the New York Times Top 10; 9-11 by Noam Chomsky has 205,000 in print; and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by investigative journalist Greg Palast, published by an indie British press, just sold its paperback rights to American publisher Penguin Putnam for an undisclosed amount.

After griping extensively during interviews with the Voice about a media blackout of the viewpoints expressed in their books, each of these authors arrived at a similar conclusion: Their popularity as "dissenting" authors has extended beyond the liberal fringes and represents the fruit of a grassroots movement that corporate America, and potentially the government, can no longer ignore.

On Michael Moore's recent lecture tour, he became convinced that he was no longer just preaching to the converted. "I look out at the auditorium or gymnasium, and I don't see the tree huggers and the granola heads," he told the Voice. "I see Mr. and Mrs. Middle America who voted for George W. Bush, who just lost $60,000 because their 401(k) is gone. And they believed in the American Dream as it was designed by the Bushes and Wall Street, and then they woke up to realize it was just that, a dream."

In a September 19 interview collected in his latest book, 9-11, Noam Chomsky called America "a leading terrorist state," and he explained how September 11 will "accelerate the agenda of militarization, regimentation, reversal of social democratic programs [and] transfer of wealth to narrow sectors." This mix of unsettling and prescient commentary helped ignite the sales of 9-11, a paperback collection of interviews with Chomsky, in which he catalogs questionable U.S. government actions (the boycott of Iraq and the vengeful "terrorist attack" on Nicaragua in the '80s, for example) that have sullied its reputation around the world. The 205,000 copies in print place it among the bestselling titles of Chomsky's more than 30 books. It's worth recalling that Chomsky's early books criticizing U.S. policy in southeast Asia were bibles of the Vietnam anti-war movement.

Although its views are in many ways the most incendiary of the three books, 9-11 followed the most conventional promotional path. Chomsky's small but influential New York-based publisher, Seven Stories Press, took out full-page ads in liberal publications like The Nation, In These Times, and The Progressive; the book also received prominent placement in bookstores upon its release. When it started selling, the mainstream media came calling on the iconoclastic Chomsky. After profiles ran in The New York Times and The Washington Post in May 2002, he faced off with arch-conservative Bill Bennett on CNN's American Morning With Paula Zahn, an appearance that created a definite spike in sales, according to Greg Ruggiero, Chomsky's editor.

The public's hunger for an alternative analysis of America's role in inciting terrorism drove sales beyond expectations, surprising even Chomsky himself. He believes 9-11's strong sales suggest that, "for many people, the 9-11 atrocities were a kind of 'wake-up call,' which has led to considerable openness, concern, skepticism, and dissidence." For the September 11 "anniversary," Barnes & Noble has elected to display the book prominently, with no prodding from the publisher.

Skepticism and dissent have fueled the runaway sales of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men. But according to Moore, his publisher, HarperCollins's ReganBooks, saw these qualities as a liability after the WTC attacks. In the months following September 11, the book's original release date, Moore claims the publisher pressured him to revise Stupid White Men, threatening to pulp the book if he did not change the section that refers to Bush as a "threat to our national security" in a letter calling for his resignation. The book also calls Bush's election a "coup," making him a "trespasser on federal land, a squatter in the Oval Office." Moore said he was told by an executive, at a particularly contentious meeting, "We're united-we-stand behind George W. Bush . . . and we are asking you to tone down your dissent."

HarperCollins wouldn't comment on its discussions with Moore, but Lisa Herling, director of corporate communications, explained the publisher's revision request: "As with any political book, you want to make sure it hasn't become outdated or need any adjustment based on the events of 9-11." At a time when Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer was telling people to "watch what they say" such adjustments seemed Ashcroftian. But after steadfastly refusing to alter the content of Stupid White Men, Moore claims he was faced with the sole option of censoring himself and then paying for the reprint costs. He dropped the gloves—the book was finished.

Were it not for librarians, the story would have ended there, with a book by one of America's most popular liberals essentially suppressed by the publishing division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. However, on December 1, Ann Sparanese, an Englewood, New Jersey, librarian, heard Moore complain about Stupid White Men's untimely end in a speech to the annual New Jersey Citizens Action conference. Within days, librarian chat rooms and listservs were ablaze with rumors of censorship, and, according to Moore, HarperCollins was deluged with angry e-mails from librarians calling them censors and book-banners. Herling said the publisher was "not aware of [HarperCollins] receiving a large number of e-mails from librarians." Spectacularly, by December's end HarperCollins agreed to release the book without change in February.

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