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.
“If I seem to have this kinda weird optimism in the people of this country,” Moore said, “it’s because I know that they’re the ones responsible for the success of this book.” Stupid White Men has since reached number one on bestseller lists in the U.S., Canada, and England, and has remained in the New York Times Top 10 for all 25 weeks since its release, placing it among the top-selling nonfiction books of 2002 thus far.
Following a four-city book tour organized by HarperCollins (the tour was increased to 12 cities once the book took off), Moore sensed an expanding chink in Bush’s unanimous-support armor. Soon after, Moore embarked on a 47-city American tour that he had assembled with his two sisters. In March, he addressed 7000 potential readers at the Austin launch of populist writer and radio commentator Jim Hightower’s Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour; in April, he spoke to 5000 people at a Ralph Nader rally at Tampa’s Sun Dome; and he attracted 3500 people to a solo lecture at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In May, Moore had bounced publishers to Warner Books, garnering a $3 million deal for his next two books. Last week, Variety reported that he was negotiating to make an animated movie based on Stupid White Men. Just a year after a sea of flags virtually drowned it out, political dissent is now a bankable commodity.
“My appearance in their towns gave them the opportunity to not be afraid to speak their minds, and to be there with thousands of other people who felt the same way,” Moore explained. “It was a great emotional and morale boost to those who believe that the strength of a democracy is built upon the willingness of the citizens to question what’s going on.”
It’s this sort of questioning that has turned Greg Palast’s The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, a collection of his most explosive articles about everything from what he calls the “Bush family cartel” to the purging of African American felons from Florida’s voter rolls by Republicans during the 2000 Presidential election, into a hot-selling book as well. Published in February by the small, London-based Pluto Press, the book has more than 40,000 copies in print, despite spotty U.S. distribution and scant mainstream review coverage. Nevertheless, in June, it managed to crack the Top 10 of the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestseller lists.
Palast, an American journalist who publishes mainly in The Guardian and reports for BBC TV’s Newsnight, told the Voice that many of his book’s sales have been driven by non-traditional media outlets. He credits Pacifica Radio Network, for instance, for plugging the book, as well as his appearances at places like Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose bookstore. Like Moore, but without the benefit of his name recognition, Palast cobbled together his own reading tour through 20 American cities, drawing crowds of more than 1000 over two March nights in Berkeley and 350 to Walker Studios in Tribeca in April. “What I’m happy about is that with no money, no marketing, and a completely amateur operation, you can get 40,000 copies sold in the U.S.,” Palast said, “if you’ve got something to say.” The Best Democracy Money Can Buy has now been translated into Spanish, Japanese, Croatian, Turkish, Italian, Korean, and Bulgarian.
His underground success caught the eye of Kelly Notaras, an editor at Penguin Putnam’s Plume imprint, which recently purchased the U.S. paperback rights to The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. “The way this book did so well in hardcover was almost exclusively through Greg’s events,” she told the Voice. The paperback will be updated with new information about Bush’s Enron connections for its February 2003 release. “It’s not the kind of book you have to be ultra-liberal to be interested in,” said Notaras, “because the things that he’s discovered are appalling, and there’s nobody out there right now doing the same thing.”
The rise of Palast’s media star—he’s putting his Observer column on hold to work on films and books, and will be contributing to Harper’s—is coinciding with the expanding of America’s appetite for unsanctioned perspectives. After joining the NAACP’s Voter Empowerment Tour through Florida in September (where he’ll also be filming Jeb and Kate Bush), he’s hooking up with People for the American Way in October, then Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader’s “democracy” tours in November. He is also scheduled to speak at the Apollo Theater in October (date to be announced). Palast responded to this explosion of attention and his jump from an indie press to a mainstream publisher by way of complimenting Michael Moore: “Apparently, this is the moment for the awful truth. No one wants to miss the next Stupid White Men.”
By Michael Moore
ReganBooks, 224 pp., $24.95
By Noam Chomsky
MBS Textbook Dist, Trade Paper., $8.95
By Greg Palast
Pluto Press (UK), 224 pp., $25.00