I'm going to kill that bastard...he's one dead armadillo.
Checkpoint character commenting on President George W. Bush
The administration works closely with a network of rapid responders, a group of digital brownshirts....
Former Vice President Al Gore
Such diversionary measures [Bush and Iraq] have been a popular method since Hitler.
German Justice Minister, 2002
On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod's law dictates he'll probably win.... John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr.where are you now that we need you?
Guardian, Oct. 23, 2003
Sometimes a book is so execrable that the reviewer is ashamed to buy it. If Checkpoint had been Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book, I might have slipped it into my coat pocket in good conscience.
As it stands, I had to shell out $15.95 for it, a slender, election-year book that has all the subtle, rhetorical heft of a brick through a window. Nicholson Baker, who has won a cult following with dialogue-based fiction that explores the minutiae of human quirks, constructs in Checkpoint a Vladimir and Estragon conversation between two men, Jay and Ben, about the merits of killing President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. As in Samuel Beckett's play, Godot never arrives; Ben talks Jay out of killing the president, though he seems to agree at every turn that Bush deserves the ultimate sanction. The novel, Baker has said, is an argument against violence, not for it. Checkpoint, however, is 115 pages of raw, breathless incitement to murder. Jay likens an attempt on President Bush's life to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's cooperation in the conspiracy against Hitler, saying, "I think we have to lance the f**king boil."
Early reviews in the United Kingdom and on the Internet excused the book on the grounds that Jay's homicidal visions were mostly fanciful (he does prattle on about remote-controlled buzzsaws, and smashing the president with a boulder directed by a giant ball bearing in its center). But there is nothing chimerical about Jay's gun or his desire for "a Bush-seeking bullet." Most of the book reads like a fatwa. Even Ben, the reasonable one, can think of only one good reason not to kill the president.
BEN: You want this wastebasket of a man to become a martyr?
But Jay's homicidal fantasies continue to pour out….
JAY: Imagine if somebody had the sense to kill him last year, during that speech. Imagine if somebody had wired up the leads from an electric chair to the podium. So he walks up, he lays out his papers, he takes hold of both sides of the podium in that authoritative way, and buzzap. Imagine how much death the world would have been spared. All that looting. The antiquities.
They condemn Dick Cheney to death, too. Colin Powell they consent not to killhe was "less enthusiastic" about Iraq, so they merely put him in a coma.
A book is more than just the musings of a writer, revealed. It is a public act; therefore it is a moral act. What Baker takes to be a postmodern riff, someone else is apt to take as an instruction manual for violence against America. What Knopf trumpets as Baker's "most audacious novel yet," others may be apt to see as a literary contract as real and deadly as the contract placed on the head of Salman Rushdie. Baker sees himself as a literary innovator. In truth, he and Knopf are one terrorist act away from becoming the author and publisher of the Turner Diaries of the Left.
JAY: Won't you think to yourself, Man, I hope that little peckerf**k gets it right between the eyes?
Nicholson Baker's moral idiocy is surpassed only by that of one Deirdre Donahue, who reviewed the "slim, compelling Checkpoint" for USA Today. She writes: "But reader be warned: Appreciation of this novel depends entirely on one's political attitudes toward the war in Iraq and the presidency of George W. Bush."
Read that sentence again, just to savor it in its full, rococo absurdity. Ms. Donahue is giving half of her readership a little cautionary note: "Warning, Republicans may be offended by repeated and graphic depictions of today's sitting president being shot between the eyes, electrocuted, and worse."
Shouldn't Democrats and Independents be offended by this? (Every one that I have talked to certainly is.) Does Ms. Donahue actually mean to suggest that if the book were about killing Bill Clinton or John Kerrybelieve me, I blanch at writing those wordsit would be considered must-reading in red-state America? Does she believe that partisanship has us so at odds that our citizenry should be reduced to slaughtering each other in print?
Imagine such a book about killing a real, live, sitting liberal president. First, no liberals would mistake such a book for an "audacious novel"they would call the Secret Service. Secondand this is something Baker and Donahue are probably incapable of understandingmost conservatives would be no less disturbed and outraged. Conservatives understand that taboos exist for a good reason. Anyone who is old enough to feel a shot of ice-water-in-the-veins from the words "Dealey Plaza" knows why there is a taboo against joking or fantasizing about killing a sitting president.
JAY: This guy is beyond the beyond. What he's done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons. It's too much. It makes me so angry. And it's a new kind of anger, too.
A new kind of anger, indeed. Late last year, an outraged Democrat recently tried to run down Rep. Kathleen Harris. Milwaukee GOP poll workers found the tires slashed on their get-out-the-vote vans. Democratic Party leaders celebrated a Michael Moore film that has the documentary honesty of Leni Riefenstahl in her Nuremberg phase. The American Left has exploded into an ugly rage unseen since the days of the Black Panthers and the SDS. Why do so many see President Bush as the living embodiment of evil and therefore, as Baker says, worthy of the most extreme of all sanctions? What are the origins of such rage? And what do those origins say about our common future?
One explanation is that the Left's hatred for Bush is stylistic, a reaction to his Crawford persona, the way in which he draws lines in the sand, and sets down markers for moral behavior, speaking with the certitude and plainspoken command of a coach at half-time. Though Iraq may not become "another Vietnam" in foreign policy terms, it is very much a cultural Vietnam. It is a convenient focal point for a reignited culture of protest, a way to transform George W. Bush into the same object of rage as his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson. Bush is even more provocative because, unlike LBJ, he doesn't try to placate his screaming critics or negotiate with the nation's enemies.
But there is a deeper explanation. Quite simply, after 300 years of agitation, the Left is finally played out. It long ago achieved, or abandoned, its reasonable goals and really has little constructive work left to do.
What, then, is left for the Left?
There is no next act, no great civil rights revolution waiting in the wings. Thus the Left's culture of permanent protest is emotionally unsustainable in today's Americaunless one views American society through a dark and distorted lens. While the Right renounced its extremists decades agono Republican Administration would knowingly converse with the Liberty Lobby, John Birch Society, or radical militia groupsliberal luminaries from Tom Daschle to Jimmy Carter embrace (sometimes literally) the Left's more extreme elements. Indeed, they find their extremists' crackpot theories to be great entertainment and useful in fundraising.
Increasingly, the Left moves only in strange directions, cannibalizing its ideals in search of a future. Once the advocates of the outermost limits of expression, liberals have become politically correct censors, passing legislation to regulate campaign speech, and preventing free discussion on the university campus. Once the champion of the individual and the enemies of racialism, the Left has now become the avatar of group rights, even to the point of embracing the odious "one drop" standard of the Jim Crow South to qualify racial applicants for affirmative action. Once the standard-bearer of world unity, the Left is now violently opposed to the easy movement of people and goods under free-trade regimes. Once the eloquent champion of human rights campaigns, the Left is now trying to assign constitutional rights to animalsa move that, if successful, could only dilute the value of every human's rights. No less a figure than Laurence Tribe, Harvard law professor and an eminent man of the Left, is struggling to get courts to recognize 13th Amendment protections against slavery for chimpanzees.
As the Left flails, searching for a new crusade or rationale for social controlglobal warming, globalization, the dire threat of McDonaldsold contradictions come to the surface. Even as a generation of Depression-era American intellectuals found inspiration in the regime of Joseph Stalin, so today's Left blinds itself to the true character of regimes like those of Saddam Hussein. Thus Susan Sontag cannot make a moral distinction between the actions of the United States and those of the Taliban ("a lot of kids," she says, who should not have been bombed).
In 2005, the American Left has not yet shed its utopianism, traces of a European tradition, invented by Rousseau and popularized by Marx, that regards man as infinitely plastic and perfectible. For this religion of social progress, any one who stands in the way is, by definition, evil. Thus President Bush remains one of the Left's leading enemies of progress precisely because he dares to take definite moral stands. He is hated because he invokes an absolute standard by which to elevate one set of rights and duties over another.
For the Left, in other words, politics is less and less concerned with Americans' reasonable disagreements. Instead, it is, or has become, a new kind of war of religion. And religious wars can be the bloodiest, and angriest.