By Nicholson Baker.
115 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $15.95.
THIS scummy little book treats the question of whether the problems that now beset our cherished and anxious country may be solved by the shooting of its president. Nicholson Baker's novel does not advocate the assassination of George W. Bush, to be sure. It is more cunning. ''Checkpoint'' comes armored in ambiguity about its own character. The protagonist of the novel, who is preparing to perpetrate the deed, is quite obviously an unbalanced individual, a misfit, a loser, a fantasist, a paranoid, and so his violent plan for rescuing the United States cannot be taken seriously, though of course this is true of all such conspiracies. And Baker includes another character, a sensible friend of the homicidal progressive, who tries to dissuade the man from acting so drastically on his alienation. So ''Checkpoint'' is not, strictly speaking, an incitement to a crime, and there is no need for the F.B.I. to pull people off the hunt for this summer's terrorists and open an investigation into the fictional devices of a certain Nicholson Baker. Except for its inflammatory theme -- Baker's novels have always been desperate to be noticed, and here he breaks new ground in his sensationalism -- Checkpoint'' could be dismissed as another of Baker's creepy hermeneutical toys. But this is no ordinary inquiry into obsession. The object of Baker's fascination this time is the murder of the president of the United States. And the fascination is genuine. Like all of Baker's books, this one is much too close to its subject. This novel whose subject is wild talk is itself wild talk, and so another discouraging document of this age of wild talk.
The novel consists in the transcript of a conversation in a room in a hotel in Washington in May of this year. Jay has summoned Ben to his room to explain what he is about to do ''for the good of humankind.'' We infer from what is said that Jay is a deeply unhappy man. His wife has left him, his girlfriend has left him, he has lost his job as a high-school teacher, he works as a day laborer and has declared personal bankruptcy, he spends his days reading blogs. (About the deranging influence of blogs Baker makes a sterling point.) He believes that the bullets in his gun are ''precision-guided missiles . . . with built-in face recognition'' -- Bush-seeking bullets,'' Ben mordantly labels them. Ben regards all this as ''delusional gobbledygook.'' He is a professor of American history working on a study of government censorship during the cold war. Ben is Baker's liberal. He understands that George W. Bush is all the terrible things that Jay says he is, but he deplores the means, and he fears that his friend wishes to destroy the president because he wishes to destroy himself. He hopes to trick Jay into catharsis by taking a hammer to a photograph of the president, but it is not clear that catharsis comes. He tries to persuade his ruined friend to abandon his ''mission,'' but the encounter ends inconclusively. It may be that Jay has been talked out of suicide. It may be that the president is really in danger.
Most of the novel is taken up with Jay's denunciations of the war in Iraq. He recalls attending a rally against the war: ''This war, Ben? Is an abortion. It's an abortion performed on a whole country. I mean in some ways I'm actually surprisingly conservative, if you get down to it. But there I was with my fist in the air, I'm sobbing, I'm screaming with these people because we all sensed and we knew, regardless of what we did or didn't have in common in other ways, we all knew that the war that the United States was waging on that patchwork country was, was -- it was ushering a new kind of terribleness into the world. And we knew that we had to do something.'' But peaceful protest is insufficient for Jay, and it is also inadequate to express the magnitude of the hatred that the president has inspired in him. Jay is unimpressed by the prospect that Bush will lose the election. ''No, this time, this war, that he imposed on the world, when the whole world said no to him so CLEARLY, in the streets, in every country, this war that he forced on humanity -- this war will be avenged!'' When Ben makes a tender animadversion about proportionality, and warns against adding to the bloodiness of an already bloodied world, Jay retorts: ''By causing a minor blip of bloodshed in one human being I'm going to prevent further bloodshed.'' And finally: ''I'm talking about direct action against the guy who's nominally in charge. George W. Tumblewad. If you as the guy in charge allow killing to go forward, if you in fact actively promote killing, if you order it to happen -- if you say, Go, men, launch the planes, start the bombing, shock and awe . . . that ancient city -- you are going to create assassins like me. That's the basic point I'm making. You are going to create the mad dogs that will maul you.''
The striking thing about Jay's analysis of the war -- that it is the consequence of George W. Bush's religiosity, and servility before American corporations, and alliance with neoconservatives who are ''not humble enough before the mystery of a foreign country'' -- is that it is not Jay's alone. The same account is familiar from newspapers and television shows and Web sites everywhere. In a sense, Baker has slandered the opposition to George W. Bush by representing it with a disordered mind bent on murder. In this season of ferocity, therefore, it is worth insisting that Bush-hatred is generally not a plot to kill the president. Yet the discussion of Bush-hatred, and of Baker's book, cannot be concluded with a polite absolution. For the virulence that calls itself critical thinking, the merry diabolization of other opinions and the other people who hold them, the confusion of rightness with righteousness, the preference for aspersion to argument, the view that the strongest statement is the truest statement -- these deformations of political discourse now thrive in the houses of liberalism too. The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left. The Bush-loving mob is being met with a Bush-hating mob. Liberals are forgetting why liberals are not radicals. When Jay demands to know how Ben would feel if Bush were killed -- won't part of you think, He's got it coming to him? Huh?'' -- the most that center-left Ben can muster in the way of principle is this: ''I don't -- I'm not -- I can't predict how I would react if the president were actually shot,'' followed by some sensitive mutterings about ''the simple sight of any human being stilled.'' American liberalism, in sum, may be losing its head.
Except for the twisted conclusion that he draws from his dissent, Jay is not, as I say, a stranger in contemporary America. Late in the novel he explains that ''we've reached a point beyond the normal -- we've reached a point of intolerability.'' The opinion that these are not normal times, that the Bush years are apocalyptic years, is quite common. ''We are no longer in the ordinary times we were in when the conservatives took out after Bill Clinton,'' Janet Malcolm recently explained in a letter to this newspaper. ''We are in a time now that is as fearful as the period after Munich.'' Life in South Egremont, Mass., may be excruciating, but Malcolm's knowledge of the period after Munich has plainly grown dim. And who, in her ominous analogy, is Hitler? If it is Osama bin Laden, then she might have a little sympathy for the seriousness of this administration about American security, whatever her views about some of its policies. If it is George W. Bush. . . . Well, she continues: ''Those of us who are demonizing George W. Bush are doing so not because of his morals but because we are scared of what another four years of his administration will do to this country and to the world.'' So whether or not Bush is Hitler, he is a devil. This is what now passes for smart.
The signs of the degradation are everywhere. In a new anthology of anti-Bush writings by distinguished journalists and commentators and a senator (Kennedy) and
a congressman (Dingell), the pages are ornamented with exhilarating anagrams such
as ''The Republicans: Plan butcheries?'' and ''Donald Henry Rumsfeld: Fondly handles murder.'' The back cover thoughtfully calls Rumsfeld a ''war pig.'' In an advertisement that proudly lists ''recent contributors,'' The New York Review of Books suddenly names Noam Chomsky, who has not appeared in its pages in decades; but this is the glory in which the journal apparently wishes to bask again. Al Gore denounces Abu Ghraib as ''the Bush gulag,'' and Moveon.org publishes a huge ad instructing that ''The Communists had Pravda. Republicans have Fox.'' And so on. All this is not much of a height from which to fall to the juxtaposition of pictures of Bush with pictures of Hitler in a recent concert by Black Sabbath, to gloss a song also called ''War Pigs.''
It is true that the Bush campaign recently ran an advertisement on the Internet that mixed Hitler's image with the images of various Democrats. But so what? Even if the Republicans are reaping what they sowed, these weeds should be allowed to die in the field. (Even Jay concedes about Bush that ''of course he's not as bad as Hitler.'') Liberals must think carefully about their keenness to mirror some of the most poisonous qualities of their adversaries. It was never exactly a disgrace to American liberalism that it lacked its Limbaugh. But demagoguery now enjoys a new prestige. Thus, a prominent liberal thinker writes a book against George W. Bush that refreshingly prefers ideas to innuendoes, and a sympathetic reviewer in this newspaper laments that ''instead of 'Reason,' which the left already has too much of, the Democrats need a book titled 'Brass Knuckles.' '' The argument for liberal demagoguery is twofold, tactical and philosophical. There are those who believe the Democrats cannot succeed without the politics of the sewer. These are the same people who believe it is the politics of the sewer to which the Republicans owe their success. This view significantly underestimates the depth and the nature of George W. Bush's support in American society, and significantly overestimates the influence of the media and its pundit vaudeville on American politics. Rush Limbaugh did not elect a president and neither will Michael Moore. All the professional manipulation of opinion notwithstanding, reality is still more powerful than its representations. If it is not, then all politics is futile.
The philosophical argument for liberal demagoguery is that it is merely an expression, or an exaggeration, of American democracy. But then this must be true also of conservative demagoguery, which also claims to speak (but rather less plausibly) in the voice of the common man. It is when politics becomes a competition in populist credentials that demagoguery, and the sophistry of the slippery slope, flourishes, and the voice of the common man is stolen. The demagogue's gravest sin is not incivility, it is stupidity. Does the Bush administration love capitalism too much? But it is also possible to love capitalism too little. The greatness of capitalism, after all, is that it may be politically corrected. Was American power used improperly, or for ill, in Iraq? But it is also possible for American power to be used properly, and for good. Is the friendly opinion of the world a condition of American security? Often, but not always. The incompetence of the Bush administration in world affairs, too much of which was ideologically ordained, does not alter the fact that the United States must sometimes deploy overwhelming force against extreme wickedness. It will be disastrous, for liberalism and for America, if the indignation against George W. Bush becomes an excuse for a great simplification, for a delirious release from the complexities of historical and political understanding that it took the American left decades to learn.
The good news is that the politics of Bush-hatred may
be at odds with the culture
of Bush-hatred. Neither John Kerry nor John Edwards appears to live in the universe
in which ''Checkpoint'' was set or in the universe in which ''Checkpoint'' was written. Whatever the merit of their opposition to the Bush administration, the spirit of their opposition is not dark. They are not taking the radical bait. This is admirable not only
on strategic grounds. When
the Democratic candidate for president criticizes the conduct of the American war in Iraq but recognizes the catastrophic consequences of an American withdrawal, he is practicing the lost art of opposing two errors, two evils,
at the same time. There are many good reasons to wish to be rid of George W. Bush, but there are no good reasons to wish to be rid of intelligence in our public life.