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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Addressing Byron York's confusion

(updated below)

When I was on Air America last night with the excellent interviewer Sam Seder, he asked me why I thought my book had gone to #1 on the Amazon Best Seller List and stayed there for what has become virtually the entire week (it first went there Monday night and hasn't moved) -- even though the marketing campaign for the book hasn't begun and it's not even released yet. I didn't have a good answer -- in fact, I really didn't have much of an answer at all, and so I just spat out a few cliches about its being a "testament to the power of the blogosphere," which, while true, is now clearly only part of the story (albeit a big part). I thought about it more afterwards and this morning and developed some thoughts about it, but I don't want this blog to become some annoying, neverending promotional venue for the book, so I decided not to blog about those ideas.

But this morning, Byron York published a rather odd (and strangely amusing) article in National Review Online about How Would a Patriot Act?, in which, with great bewilderment, York asked the same question -- why has the book gone to #1 and stayed there:

There's something interesting happening on the best-seller list these days. A new book, How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok, by the left-wing blogger (sic) Glenn Greenwald, is number one on Amazon.com's top sellers list. It has been there for several days after having shot from somewhere in the 50,000 range to number one earlier this week — all in less than 24 hours and without the benefit of any high-profile radio and television publicity campaign. And it hasn't even been released yet — the official publication date for How Would a Patriot Act? is May 15, 2006.

The promotional material for the book suggests that it is an indictment of George W. Bush of the sort that has become commonplace on the Left in the last
few years . . . Indeed, Greenwald's blog is filled with such stuff. Nevertheless, How Would a Patriot Act? appears to have become something of a (quiet) publishing phenomenon, outperforming — at least in the early stages — other, higher-profile anti-Bush books, not to mention all the other best-sellers on the list these days. Why? No one seems to know. "We're often caught by surprise by these," says Tom Nissley, senior books editor for Amazon.com.

Originally, I thought that one reason for the book's initial surge might be that many regular readers of this blog bought multiple copies of the book, due to a desire for the book to do well so that the administration's expressly claimed lawbreaking powers would finally be discussed in a clear and prominent way in our national political dialogue. But multiple-book purchases apparently isn't a factor:

Nissley says a book's Amazon ranking is based on "a running 24-hour total" computed by a complex algorithm that also factors in past sales. He says he does not believe it is possible to game the system to highlight a particular book. Specifically, he says that the Amazon system is designed to overlook bulk orders for books, in which a person might order, say, 1,000 copies of a single work. "We rank by orders, not by sales," Nissley says. "We only count orders — we count an order of 1,000 copies the same as an order of one."

And, while it is definitely true that the book was prominently talked about by many bloggers, including some of the blogosphere's largest and most influential, that would explain the initial ascent but not its stay at #1. And, as York notes, this is not the first book to be heavily promoted in the blogosphere:

In the case of How Would a Patriot Act?, sales appear to be the result of word-of-mouth in the blogosphere, although the book has soared higher than books written by other, more prominent, bloggers.

The day after the book rose in the Amazon rankings, I wrote a post explaining how that ascent reflected the very under-appreciated power of the blogosphere generally, and the liberal and/or anti-Bush component of the blogosphere in particular. The influence which the blogosphere has developed was clearly the prime and original cause of the book's surge, and that should be -- and, I am sure, will be -- noticed by all sorts of publishers and others.

But blogger promotion alone does not explain why the book went to #1 (as opposed to, say, #50), nor does it explain why it has stayed there. What I have come to believe is the book's principal appeal is its subject matter and its approach to that subject matter. Contrary to York's somewhat sloppy claim that the book "is an indictment of George W. Bush of the sort that has become commonplace on the Left in the last few years," the reason I wrote the book is precisely because the issues it discusses have been largely (and inexcusably) ignored in our national political discussions.

Over the last five years, our country has been gradually though incessantly changing in fundamental and radical ways. The things we see and hear our government doing are squarely at odds with how we perceive of ourselves as a nation and the values which Americans, by definition, universally embrace. We have watched while this administration imprisoned U.S. citizens on U.S. soil and claimed the right to keep them there indefinitely with no trial, no charges and no access to lawyers; routinely used torture as an interrogation tool; created secret gulags in former Soviet Eastern European prisons in order to detain people beyond the reach of the law or monitoring; and eavesdropped on American citizens, on U.S. soil, without warrants or oversight of any kind in patent violation of a 28-year-old law which makes warrantless eavesdropping on Americans a criminal offense.

Those scandals have received their fair share of attention, but this critical point has not: all of those scandals stem from the fact that we have a president who, expressly and out in the open, claims that he has the power to act in the broadly defined area of national security (which includes measures taken against American citizens on U.S. soil) without any "interference" from anyone -- including Congress, the courts, and even the law. In sum, we are radically changing our system of government, and, in the process, have transformed ourselves from a country that, for decades, was widely respected as a restrained and principled superpower into an amoral, highly militaristic and aggressive state which is widely feared and despised. As Digby, who has read the book, recently said when discussing its themes:

I'm not naive about American history. I know that the last two hundred plus years are rife with examples of our government failing to live up to its ideals. But for many of us who have grown up in the post World War II world of American dominance, watching our country casually discard its hard-won moral authority in favor of a childish insistence on "might makes right" is beyond disturbing. It hurts.

I genuinely believe there is a hunger to talk about what is happening to our country and why it is happening. The media is capable, at best, of talking about scandals and issues in day-to-day isolation. The fact that this administration has expressly embraced theories of presidential power which are entirely unprecedented and plainly alien to our most basic political values and traditions is something of unparalleled significance and yet also something that we have barely discussed as a country. I think Americans know there is something deeply amiss and are receptive to attempts to talk about what that is.

Moreover, the conditions are ideal to have a real discussion about the abuses and excesses of this administration. One thing which administration supporters such as York have failed to sufficiently appreciate is just how many people who previously supported this administration have now turned on it and have irrevocably abandoned it. The president's approval rating didn't plummet from 60% to 33% because "liberals" changed their minds. That has happened because people who were open to standing behind the president -- and who, for several years, did support him and his policies -- have changed their minds about his competence, his likability, his trustworthiness, and the overall wisdom of his world-view. That is an extraordinary shift. The group of people who believe that the Bush presidency is a failure extends far beyond "the Left" and includes virtually every group on every point on the political spectrum.

George Bush isn't just an unpopular president. He is close to reaching historic levels of disapproval. Richard Nixon's approval rating at the time he resigned his office after two years of the Watergate scandal was 25% -- only 8 points below the lowly level to which Bush has tumbled. As is clear, the vast majority of Americans believe that the Bush presidency has taken us down a very ill-advised and destructive path and attempts to explore how and why that happened -- and what can be done about it -- are naturally going to find a receptive audience.

York's main source of bewilderment seems to be that this book is simply a garden-variety "left-wing" attack on Bush -- hence, I'm a "left-wing blogger," the book contains arguments that have "become commonplace on the Left," and - as York said in a Corner item today -- the book (which he hasn't read) contains "little more than the standard anti-Bush boilerplate." For years, that's been the standard dismissive tactic for any criticisms waged against the "Commander-in-Chief" -- that such criticisms, by definition, are merely the by-product of left-wing hatred of the President and can therefore be ignored.

That tactic simply isn't working any more and that, more than anything else, is why people like York are so confused about what's going on. As indicated, most of the people who have turned against Bush - and the war in Iraq - are not "on the Left." It no longer works to equate anti-war opposition or anti-Bush sentiments with radical left-wing derangement because most Americans now share those sentiments.

More to the point, people know intuitively that objecting to the specific extremist policies of this administration is not a by-product of a liberal or conservative political ideology. The book's subtitle refers to a defense of "American values" because the principles which it defends and which this administration has been eroding and assaulting -- the rule of law, the guarantee of due process for Americans, the need for checks and balances, prohibitions on the use of torture and other lawless tactics which are the hallmarks of the lowest authoritarian regimes -- are not a function of liberal or conservative ideological beliefs. They have nothing to do with partisan allegiance. Instead, these values comprise the core, defining principles of who we are as a nation and the ideals that have guided us for 220 years.

The values under attack by this administration are the values which Americans believe in almost by definition. Defending them and opposing the attacks on them has nothing to do with liberalism and everything to do with an impassioned belief in the principles which have made our country strong and free and great since its founding. Again from Digby:

This is an issue with which every American, regardless of party, should be concerned. The founders knew that relying on the good will of men in power is stupid and we are seeing their predictions come true before our very eyes. The modern Republican leadership may currently have a monopoly on authoritarian impulses, but they are by no means the only people in this country who could be seduced by this Republican notion of executive authority.

The constitution is what protects all Americans from the dark side of human nature when it has power over others, regardless of party or political philosophy. Those of us who worry about this usurpation of the constitution and degradation of the Bill of Rights know that this is not a passing fashion that will easily be tucked back into its former shape. Once you allow powerful men to seize power it's awfully hard to persuade their successors to give it back.

The sources on which I rely in my book are primarily news accounts demonstrating what the administration has done and the theories it has embraced, along with the words of the founders regarding what our country was supposed to be and what it was designed to prevent. But to the extent the book relies upon contemporary political sources to make its arguments, those sources are Bob Barr, Bruce Fein, George Will, Antonin Scalia and others like them -- all of whom have eloquently argued that the administration's conduct is contrary to the most basic American values and poses a direct threat to the fundamental liberties which our constitutional republic was created to preserve. Attempts to dismiss these critiques away as "left-wing boilerplate" is as false as they will be ineffective.

Since I started this blog, I have said over and over and over that Americans may not pay close attention to political developments on a daily basis, but we all have instilled within us the belief that our country is great because of these core political values and principles of government that were created at its founding. And when those values are threatened with sufficient gravity, Americans will notice and will take a stand in defense of them.

That is why I wrote the book, and although this book would never have received the attention it has received without the energetic promotion from liberal bloggers, I believe it is having resonance because it condemns the extremist and un-American conduct of the Bush administration based on facts that have been virtually ignored by an attention-deficit media. It also resonates, I believe, because the book's objections to the administration's conduct transcend partisan allegiance and the liberal/conservative dichotomy, and are grounded purely in the values and political traditions that have long defined what America is.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum thinks he has a clever answer for York:

This is what passes for a mystery these days? On Tuesday, big liberal blogs started pushing their readers to pre-order Greenwald's book on Amazon, with the specific goal of driving up its Amazon ranking. And it worked. Mystery solved.

I will be the first to acknowledge - and, actually, was the first to acknowledge - that the discussion of the book by liberal blogs caused its initial surge. But -- as York pointed out -- in the last several months alone, bloggers with a much larger daily readership than my blog has have published books, accompanied by an equally large, if not larger, blog push for those books -- including books by Instapundit, Hugh Hewitt, National Review's Kate O'Beirne and Ramesh Ponnuru. None of that resulted in this level of ordering activity. Blogosphere promotion will definitely boost a book's sales, but there is obviously something else going on here.

I don't want to be in the weird position of arguing that there is something unique about my book that accounts for its initial success rather than just blogospheric promotion, but I also don't want what I think is the substantive significance of the the book's initial appeal to be obscured by incomplete explanations.

I really believe that its significance lays in the fact that the extremist and dangerous theories of lawlessness expressly adopted by the administration have received virtually no attention, and the fact that our national character and fundamental values are being radically changed -- through fear-mongering, exploitation of the terrorist threat, efforts to quash dissent, and plainly lawless and un-American policies -- is a discussion people want to have. And, the way in which that discussion has been conducted here over the past few months is, I believe, also a factor in why the book is being ordered.

There are also, I'm sure, more pedestrian factors influencing the ordering (the price, its paperback format, the connection of the book's themes to today's headlines). But trying to explain away the entire event by simply noting that the book was heavily promoted by blogs, aside from being illogical, also insults the intellegence of the people ordering the book. Lots of things are heavily promoted which people don't want. The reason I wrote the book is because I believe these issues are uniquely important and yet are not being discussed anywhere; that's the same reason I believe the book is finding an audience.

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