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Does That Make Us Crazy?

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Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review published a silly and mildly deceptive review of It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush by a writer named Jacob Heilbrunn. While scarcely bothering to describe the book's content, he complains that I substitute "hyperbole" for insight about the present danger to constitutional freedoms and democratic values, and proves this to his own satisfaction by ripping a few brief phrases from the text.

The gist of his attack is that I  exaggerated the threat posed by such doctrines as the "unitary executive" -- and a Supreme Court that could someday endorse them -- with all the partisan mania of Karl Rove. He goes so far as to accuse me of comparing the Bush administration with the Nazis, although I explain in the introduction that no such comparison is appropriate - and carefully avoid identifying the administration as fascist or totalitarian throughout the book. (I do quote a few traditional conservatives who make such comparisons, however, including Paul Craig Roberts and Bob Barr.)

In short, he tried to portray me as a slightly hysterical leftist. This dismissive treatment isn't surprising from a writer who has described himself as a "neoconservative fellow traveler," a term that in his case might be better stated as "neocon publicity agent."

What struck me as mildly ironic was the appearance in that same Sunday Times of a powerful editorial lambasting the Bush administration's "assault on some of the founding principles of American democracy," which urged Congress to confront the White House on a long list of issues from the full restoration of habeas corpus to a real ban on torture.

I wouldn't attempt to claim an iota of credit for that excellent editorial; the Times now consistently protests the worst abuses authored by Bush and Cheney. Still, that list and especially the editorial's conclusion sounded as if someone who had recently read It Can Happen Here might have written them.

In one of its penultimate paragraphs, the Sunday editorial prodded Congress to "halt the federal government's race to classify documents to avoid public scrutiny -- 15.6 million in 2005, nearly double the 2001 number. It should also reverse the grievous harm this administration has done to the Freedom of Information Act by encouraging agencies to reject requests for documents whenever possible. Congress should curtail F.B.I. spying on nonviolent antiwar groups and revisit parts of the Patriot Act that allow this practice."

That editorial may well have been written by someone who had read the book - for example Adam Cohen, a member of the paper's editorial board who joined a panel discussion of It Can Happen Here sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice and The Nation Institute at New York University on the evening of March 2, where he was kind enough to say he thinks the book is "important." (Joining us at that event were Representative Jerrold Nadler, the new chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Liberties and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel.)

On February 22, incidentally, the Times published an editorial with an even more outraged headline, "American Liberty at the Precipice," which warned of the "dangerous" and "frightening" consequences of the Military Commissions Act. If my book is "alarmist," as Heilbrunn complains, then the same can be said of the Times editorials on this subject. 

Does protesting this government's sustained assaults on the Constitution make us crazy?

I don't think so -- but then I don't share Heilbrunn's opinions on most things.

Leafing back through a few of his relevant works, I see that the kind of book he admires is Midge Decter's ridiculous, booty-licking biography of Donald Rumsfeld, which he reviewed for the Los Angeles Times a few years ago and pronounced "excellent." (He also adored Unholy Alliance:Radical Islam and the American Left, a wacko screed by right-wing extremist David Horowitz, which Heilbrunn praised in an obsequious letter to the author as "a fabulous job of chronicling the nonsense emanating from certain precincts on the American Left about the war on terror and the Bush administration."

Heilbrunn's columns for the LA Times heartily endorsed the appointments of John Bolton to the United Nations ambassadorship and Paul Wolfowitz to the World Bank presidency. He has been a great enthusiast of the Iraq war and the neocons' overall approach to foreign policy - as he explained in a 2004 essay hailing their power in the White House:

"Will the continued sway of the neocons lead Bush into fresh disasters? Hardly. I predict Bush will successfully stabilize Iraq, and that the election there will surprise the world by being conducted openly and fairly. In all, he is far better off relying on the neocons than a crabbed, amoral realist doctrine....No doubt the new conventional wisdom will be that the longer Bush sticks to his hawkish course, the more disastrous his second term will become. But that prediction may prove just as false as the conviction that the neocons were headed for the ash heap of history..."

Ah, Trotsky's old ash heap of history! Not a bad place for Heilbrunn's defunct predictions and inane paeans to his neocon pals.