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Fast and Furious scandal looks increasingly like a plot from a bad novel

“ATF officials didn’t intend to publicly disclose their own role in letting Mexican cartels obtain the weapons, but emails show they discussed using the sales, including sales encouraged by ATF, to justify a new gun regulation called ‘Demand Letter 3′. That would require some U.S. gun shops to report the sale of multiple rifles or ‘long guns.’ Demand Letter 3 was so named because it would be the third ATF program demanding gun dealers report tracing information.”

That’s what CBS is reporting today, in the latest news on the Fast and Furious scandal, in which ATF agents leaned on gun dealers to sell weapons to obvious criminals to … see what would happen? That’s what it seemed like at first, anyway. Of course, what happened is that some of the guns — whoopsies! — were used in murders.

Now, it seems, there was another purpose behind Fast and Furious. According to emails exchanged by ATF officials themselves, the ATF applied pressure to gun dealers to continue sales with which the gun dealers were uncomfortable so that they could point to the purchase of guns by Mexican drug dealers as evidence that further legal restrictions were required on the sale of firearms.

Y’know, if I wrote a novel with this as a storyline, I’d be accused of paranoia and unrealistic plotting.

You can keep your not-so-new nationalism

I’ve always found Teddy Roosevelt to be among the more repugnant of the already repulsive batch of grifters and autocrats we’ve been unfortunate enough to call “Mr. President.” He managed to combine militarism, authoritarianism and economic collectivism with a cult of the state that he called “new nationalism.” As presidential scholar Richard M. Abrams puts it in his discussion of the 26th president, “He spoke righteously for freedom but placed individual liberty in the context of a greater obligation to the nation. He acknowledged that most individuals probably preferred business as usual, to be left to cultivate their own gardens and to pursue modest livelihoods and comforts, but he viewed such an outlook with scorn.”

In economic terms, TR was obsessed with “national efficiency” — a principle he expounded in his (in)famous new nationalism speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. He called for powerful federal and state governments, with all-encompassing powers that allow for no “neutral ground” where people might hide from the government. Said he, “I do not ask for the over centralization; but I do ask that we work in a spirit of broad and far-reaching nationalism where we work for what concerns our people as a whole.”

People who disagreed with his views, he implied (or explicitly stated) were unpatriotic.

If he’d made his speech 20 years later, Teddy Roosevelt’s views could have comfortably clothed themselves in brown shirts (as could those of his cousin who was actually in office at that time).

So, when Barack Obama tramps back to Osawatomie to deliberately echo TR’s speech and views, color me nauseated. “[I]n America, we are greater together – when everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share. … [A]s a nation, we have always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed.”

Once again, the appeal to tribal identity, the call to submerge individual interests in the name of the greater good of the group — as identified by the speaker. And if you don’t agree with the speaker’s very specific idea of what’s good and right? Well, Teddy Roosevelt called you a “reactionary”; Obama, in our psychologized age, insists you and your co-dissidents have “collective amnesia.”

But we live in an age that’s not just psychologized, but fact-checked, and even the Washington Post called bullshit on much of Barry’s supporting evidence for his exhumed not-so-new nationalism.

On Obama’s insistence that “expensive” tax cuts for the “wealthy” are responsible for the current economic mess:

Obama certainly inherited an economic mess, and we have argued he does not deserve blame for the massive loss of jobs early in his administration. But it seems odd to keep blaming poor job growth on the Bush tax cut, especially because Obama himself pushed through a nearly $1-trillion stimulus and took other actions that have affected the economy, for better or worse.

Finally, Obama blames the Bush tax cuts for “massive deficits.” It is certainly true that the Bush tax cuts helped blow a hole in the budget. But they did not do it all by themselves. We looked at length at this issue earlier this year, assisted by new Congressional Budget Office data.

The data showed that the biggest contributor to the disappearance of projected surpluses was increased spending, which accounted for 36.5 percent of the decline in the nation’s fiscal position, followed by incorrect CBO estimates, which accounted for 28 percent. The Bush tax cuts (along with some Obama tax cuts) were responsible for just 24 percent.

And on the president’s insistence that the uber-wealthy are even more successful at tax avoidance than even the Occupiers have charged in their wildest fever-dream accusations:

“Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent — 1 percent. That is the height of unfairness.”

This is a striking statistic. But the only evidence that the White House could offer for it was a TV clip of a conversation on Bloomberg TV, in which correspondent Gigi Stone made this assertion during a discussion about the tax strategies that the very wealthy use to avoid paying taxes.  The TV clip was promoted by the left-leaning website Think Progress.

Stone quoted from a Bloomberg News article last month that reported on such tax strategies, which mostly involve complicated ways to defer paying capital gains taxes. But the article never made the one-percent claim. It also noted that the IRS had gotten more hostile to such transactions in recent years.

An administration official conceded the White House had no actual data to back up the president’s assertion, but argued that other reports showed that some of the wealthy pay little in taxes.

The Post even quoted Judge Learned Hand pointing out that “Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury.”

So, calls for authoritarianism founded on appeals to tribal identity, based on manufactured data. Thanks anyway, but I’ll pass.

Police officers overwhelmingly think I’m right. Or not.

Government officials are fond of deferring to the opinion of police officers when defending restrictive laws and intrusive procedures. Time and again, we’re told that “rank-and-file police officers overwhelmingly support this law banning the sale of X” or “police officers overwhelmingly favor the extension of this law requiring Y.” That’s supposed to be the conversation-killer. Cops want this or oppose that, and so the debate is finished!

The presumption, of course, is that it not only matters what police officers think, but that the preferences of the folks in blue (and plainclothes) should carry overwhelming weight. That’s a dubious premise, but one that goes, all too frequently, unchallenged in debates over public policy in the United States. To hear politicians talk, you might as well replace legislatures with random delegations from local police departments and scrap public-opinion polling in favor of whatever you can overhear at a neighborhood cop-bar.

But even for people who accept the unassailable value of the political and legal preferences harbored by the gendarmerie, the assumption is that we actually hear and know what police officers think — that we have been presented an accurate representation of their beliefs.

But what if what we’re hearing is bowdlerized to the point of being unrepresentative? What if many cops are afraid to speak their minds, so instead hold their tongues or feed us bullshit?

That’s the question raised by a New York Times article that tells the whole tale in a headline: “Police officers find that dissent on drug laws may come with a price.” The article features stories such as that of a Border Patrol officer who found his pro-legalization musings had pretty stiff consequences:

Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.

Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”

After citing similar cases, the Times quotes an anonymous police officer who sees such penalties for ideological non-conformity breeding a culture of closed-mouths among law-enforcers.

Among those not yet ready to publicly urge the legalization of drugs is a veteran Texas police officer who quietly supports LEAP and spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “We all know the drug war is a bad joke,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we also know that you’ll never get promoted if you’re seen as soft on drugs.”

It’s not only drugs, either. In 1994, the Free Lance Star of Virginia reported that the police officers who had publicly appeared in support of the just-passed federal “assault weapons” ban hadn’t been informed of the nature of the photo-op until they arrived. And they weren’t all on board with the gun ban to which they were supposed to provide a supportive backdrop.

Not all of the officers supported the ban, however, and one of them, John Donaggio, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria that claims [Chief] Stover violated his rights.

Donaggio, 29, said he was ordered to go to the Capitol, stand on the steps, pose for photographs, and keep his objections private. His lawsuit says that the chief and the county illegally forced him into political activity and violated his right to free speech.

It’s not hard to extrapolate from cases like this to others involving high political stakes. If police officers can be disciplined for opposing the received wisdom on drug prohibition and gun control, why wouldn’t they also face consequences for dissenting on search and seizure, SWAT tactics, immigration …

Police officers work under tight discipline in government agencies under leaders who are political appointees, or politicians themselves. That’s not a good recipe for the fair airing of unvarnished opinions that oppose those of people further up the hierarchical food chain.

So, police officers overwhelmingly support Policy X when they’re ordered to? Or, at least, when they fear for their job security if they don’t?

That’s a somewhat less compelling argument, don’t you think?

High Desert Barbecue — now without icky DRM

If I had it to do over again, I probably would have published the Kindle and Nook editions of High Desert Barbecue without digital rights management. After all, DRM has gone by the wayside for music, and people eagerly hand over their cash to Amazon and other vendors for mp3 albums that can be copies again and again. Honestly, I don’t think there’s an eager underground market salivating at the opportunity to pirate my novel rather than hand me a penny shy of three bucks.

But I used the DRM defaults on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and you’re locked in after you do that, unless you want to unpublish a book, republish it and start over from scratch. I’m not doing that.

So, perceiving that there is some demand for a DRM-free version of my book, as well as hostility to Amazon, I went to Lulu. Originally, I was going to publish an epub version of the book through Lulu, but after several hours of frustration, Lulu is still refusing an epub that is at least as meticulously formatted as the version Barnes and Noble is peddling with no difficulty (and Lulu’s in-house conversion of my doc files — which the company would, apparently, willingly sell — looks like somebody puked alphabet soup onto a page). So those of you seeking an alternative will have to settle, for now, for a pdf file of High Desert Barbecue. Lulu also sells its wares around the world, which should alleviate some of the frustration international buyers are having with Amazon and B&N.

High Desert Barbecue (No DRM)

The reviews are coming in

I’m happy to say that not only are the reviews starting to roll in for High Desert Barbecue, but they’ve all concluded, so far, that the book is worth reading. That’s not to say that I’m getting unalloyed praise, Two of the reviews, in particular, have pointed out what the authors perceive as flaws in the story, analyzed the pluses and minuses, and ultimately concluded that High Desert Barbecue is still worth buying and reading.

The reviews so far:

“[B]reezy tone and brisk pacing carry the reader along a novel that combines action and satire the whole way through.”
–Scott Stein, author of Mean Martin Manning, in When Falls the Coliseum

“[A] very polished novel. The plot rolls smoothly forward, propelled by multiple shifts of perspective, and by a careful balance between narrative and libertarian preaching.”
– Sean Gabb, author of The Churchill Memorandum and (as Richard Blake) the excellent Aelric historical-novel series, at the UK Libertarian Alliance blog

“I found the way his protagonists dealt with their dilemma quite easy to follow, and the story delightful.”
Joel Simon, author of Walt’s Gulch and Songs of Bad Men and Good

“This is a fun read. It’s lively. It’s funny. The protagonists are likeable, believable characters.”
– Claire Wolfe, author of Hardyville Tales, in Backwoods Home Magazine

I like praise as much as the next guy. Well, I probably like it more, actually. So my thanks to all of the reviewers for taking the time to read High Desert Barbecue, and then putting aside even more time to think about what they read and to write down their reactions. Extra special thanks because they all liked the book and recommended its purchase.

Sean Gabb raised an interesting point in his review when he wrote “the state socialists have had popular culture as their transmission mechanism, and our movement is filled with people who think that novel writing is somehow letting the side down. Of course, if we are to get anywhere at all, we need our Hoppes and we need our L. Neil Smiths. And we need Jerome Tuccille.” Needless to say, I agree with Dr. Gabb on this point (you need me, people!). Libertarians and conservatives often complain about the saturation of popular media with anti-freedom ideas, including hostility to private enterprise and excessive deference to the state. I think those complaints are often justified. But since the control freaks of the world show no inclination to give up movie-making or writing songs and novels, the burden falls to us to counter ideas we dislike with work of our own that (this is important) stands on its own artistic merits while incorporating an appreciation for freedom, small government, individual initiative and the like. And the DIY revolution has made the creation and marketing of music and books, in particular, easier than ever before.

Those contributions to the culture have to be good, though, not just “correct.”

Claire Wolfe and Joel Simon (who wrote his review based on a book he bought, may I add!) were tougher on Higher Desert Barbecue than were Stein or Gabb, but I think their reviews are very thoughtful and fair. In both cases, their criticisms may come from the style to which I aspired, and which I, perhaps, did not execute with complete success.

Wolfe wrote, “Tuccille stuffed this book with such a huge crew of villains I only began to be able to tell them apart halfway through the story, and some remained vague blurs all the way to the end.” Simon similarly criticized my bad guys as “almost uniformly one-dimensional and whose actions often descend into slapstick.”

Well … I admit it. I had fun with the villains in the book, but I liked the protagonists. Rollo, Scott and Lani are constructed as real people (yes, I knew a guy like Rollo, and he lived for a while in a tent I loaned him after he was cut off from his campsite by a wildfire), while Jason, Van Kamp, Greenfield and company are types, drawn from people I have met, but pushed to extremes. Although, to be honest, some people can seem awfully cartoonish even in real life — because, I think, they themselves aspire to be more types than to be fully developed people. That’s especially true of “followers” who … Never mind; this takes me in a more psychological direction than I ever intended with High Desert Barbecue.

Wolfe also wrote, “it mostly lacks a feeling of peril (until near the end) … [a]nd the ending is just too pat; no way would things have come together so neatly.” This squares with Simon’s point that “[t]he ending is rather pat, and smacks of deus ex machina in a way I wish Tuccille had been able to find a way around but honestly I can’t think of a way to improve it …”

Simon also wrote, “Because HDB treats its subject matter lightly but it is really not a light subject, the book sometimes veers rather unevenly between drama and comedy.”

As I said above, I think the criticisms of both Claire Wolfe and Joel Simon stem from my effort to write a farce that’s both absurd and a bit dark. Tom Sharpe handled that balancing act well, I think, in The Throwback and, especially in his South Africa novels, such as Riotous Assembly. There’s quite a bit of that to Harry Crews’s writing as well.  I’m thinking “grenade” in the book Body.

But I don’t want to argue “they didn’t get what I was doing” because it’s up to the author to clearly transmit what he’s doing. Intending to write dark comedy isn’t the same thing as doing it well. I don’t think I blew it, but I think it’s quite likely, on this first outing into fiction, that I didn’t handle the story and the style quite as deftly as I would have liked. It is very likely true that, as Claire Wolfe says, High Desert Barbecue is “very much a first novel, with all the imperfections of that breed.”

In the end, I’m very pleased that, even after dissecting the flaws in the novel both Claire Wolfe and Joel Simon agreed with Gabb and Stein that High Desert Barbecue is worth buying, reading and keeping in your library. Wolfe writes, “Its very unseriousness, its wackiness, its ‘gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ bad guys, even its over-simplification, would make it a terrific movie,” while Simon says, simply, “[y]ou should buy it.”

I’m quite proud of what I accomplished with the book, and I’m pleased that the people reading it seem to be enjoying it so far.

And, of course, I’m going to take Claire Wolfe’s and Joel Simon’s criticisms into account — along with others to come — so that my future work is that much better.

But, remember, folks. You can’t know if the critics are on the mark unless you buy the book (only $2.99 for the Kindle and Nook ebooks and $11.99 for the trade paperback) and read it for yourselves!

Attempted murder isn’t good enough for him

Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, the man accused of shooting at the White House, will be charged with attempting to assassinate the president or a member of his staff, says CNN.

This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, since I had assumed that blasting away at people of whatever station was pretty well-covered by attempted-murder laws, but there it is: 18 USC Sec. 1751, PRESIDENTIAL AND PRESIDENTIAL STAFF ASSASSINATION, KIDNAPPING, AND ASSAULT. It’s a statute that seems to pretty much take all the pre-existing legal definitions and penalties for unprovokedly killing, snatching or stomping people, and restate them for the special cases of the president, veep and the busy bees swarming around them. The penalties seem to be the same for the run-of-the-mill versions of murder, kidnapping and assault — even referring directly to the generic murder penalties in the case of assassination. That’s not much of a surprise, since the U.S. Constitution doesn’t really allow much latitude for penalties beyond “death or by imprisonment for life.”

In Mr. Ortega-Hernandez’s case, the operative penalty would appear to be “imprisonment for any term of years or for life.”

So, the question then is … Why? I mean, murder is already illegal. So is attempted murder. The penalty is already set at the allowable maximum. So why create a new law to address circumstances covered under an old law, and impose penalties that are already in place?

The answer is clear, and depressing. The law exists merely to separate the leaders from the proles. Kill one of the herd, and you’re a mere murderer. Kill el jefe, and you get charged under a special law as an assassin, because the generic law isn’t good enough to cover acts against the leadership. A different law must be created to cover what is officially viewed as a different class of crime, not because of the act, but because of the elevated status of the victim.

I’m absolutely certain that the penalties would have been jacked up if they weren’t already set at the maximum, as they have been at the state level for police officers (where a victim’s status as a law-enforcement officer is generally considered an aggravating circumstance during sentencing), and even police dogs.

Theoretically, I imagine that Ortega-Hernandez could be charged under both the attempted murder and assassination laws, and punished independently for the same act. Especially if the attempted-murder law of the separate jurisdiction of D.C. are brought into play.

You have to love our fearless leaders, They’re so important that they need to be protected by a special category of laws kept untainted by our own grubby statutes.

In ‘The Churchill Memorandum,’ freedom comes with trade-offs

I’ve always had a weakness for “what-if” or “alternate-history” fiction — stories turning on random accidents removing people who would otherwise have become the major figures we know, or important decisions made in a way other than what history records, culminating in worlds very different from the one we inhabit. Of course, as with all books, some such efforts are more worthy of my time than others. I would very much like back the several hours I once spent on a Harry Harrison alternate Civil War novel that left me wishing I could scrape literary residue off my eyeballs and that the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind could bleach the plot from my memory.

Other alternate-history books, happy to say, are much better.

Sean Gabb’s The Churchill Memorandum (Kindle version here) is one of the more sophisticated, cynical and well-written takes on the alternative-history theme that I’ve read. Imagine a version of the 1950s in which Nazi Germany still exists, as a superpower, but has followed a path similar to that taken by China in our world: some political loosening, a lot of economic liberalization, and a complete about-face on anti-semitism (Hitler died before implementing the Holocaust, or embarking on World War II). The other major superpower is Great Britain, which remains mostly free, prosperous and still settled in its colonial ways and attitudes.

In this alternate world, America is a second-rate power under the rule of Harry Anslinger, of alcohol- and, later, drug-prohibition fame. While almost a laughable figure now, Anslinger at his height was a dangerous and fanatical creature, and his fictional regime strikes me as a likely extrapolation of the real man’s style, if he’d succeeded to such power. The reason for that twist is the driving force for this novel, as young historian Anthony Markham — more snobbily English than thou as he compensates for his frowned-upon homosexuality and ethnically mixed heritage — is drawn into an international conflict over the possession of a document penned by the (in alternate reality) obscure Winston Churchill, revealing just how the world was divvied up and the U.S. pushed into totalitarianism and international irrelevance.

Markham technically violates one of my rules for fiction, which call for a main character with whom I can identify, or is at least likable. He’s too cowardly and self-involved to satisfy that requirement. But he’s written with such humor, and required to run such a gauntlet of trying circumstances, that it’s easy to forgive his flaws — especially when he longs for another shot of morphine to carry him through the inevitable next set of tribulations.

Familiar twentieth-century figures abound in this world — though in appropriately skewed ways. German prosperity can be attributed to the political ascendancy of economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Ayn Rand is an imprisoned dissident in the U.S., and young Margaret Roberts is being groomed for an unprecedented future as a woman prime minister.

Americans unfamiliar with British political or journalistic life should keep Google handy to look up the names of conspirators willing to use the most brutal means to win or keep political power in this alternate U.K. Gabb’s treatment of his characters suggests a well-informed insight into the personal failings of their real-world counterparts.

As you might guess from some of the names dropped above, Gabb is a libertarian — director of the Libertarian Alliance in the U.K. He’s also an accomplished novelist; as Richard Blake, he’s authored the excellent Aelric series of historical novels set in the later Roman empire. And he’s a historian. The combination seems to have made him an author who cares about freedom, but is too aware of the realities of world events to believe that a world that he (and other British libertarians) might find more attractive than our own could have been achieved without important trade-offs.

The result is great entertainment and very much worthy of a read.

The Churchill Memorandum (Kindle)

The Churchill Memorandum (paperback)

Free-range publishing

Well, the creative and technical aspects of writing and self-publishing my first novel are now nearly at an end, and I’ve now entered the marketing phase during which I alienate family members, friends, acquaintances and people I run into at restaurants. While I’m bombarding bloggers, magazine editors and the denizens of media email lists in which I’ve barely participated for years with PR material, I’ve begun assessing my experience with self-publishing. By and large, I like what I’ve seen.

I put off self-publishing for several years because of the stigma I’ve long associated with the practice. I was taught long ago that “vanity” or “subsidy” publishing was a route for self-indulgent scribblers who didn’t want to admit their work was second-rate. “Serious” writers approached agents, hats-in-hand, convinced those agents to represent their books for a share of the proceeds, signed deals (if lucky) with publishing houses who got to keep the lion’s share of cover price, and waited, often years, for royalties — if any ever materialized. Because that’s what “real” authors did.

Meanwhile, of course, musicians won high praise for bypassing the industry and starting their own music labels to put out DIY albums — and for eventually selling their music in digitized form on the Web and uploading videos to YouTube. Movie-makers got kudos for financing independent movies on credit cards or with checks from rich friends and relatives.

But serious authors were expected to continue courting the attention of publishing houses if they wanted to remain respectable.

Well … the dichotomy between the treatment of musicians and movie-makers on the one hand, and writers on the other, has become increasingly silly. And it really no longer makes any sense, if it ever did.

Honestly, publishing houses no longer have much to offer, unless you’re one of the rare authors approached with a truly mind-boggling advance. Marketing? They really only put sales effort behind anticipated blockbusters. Other authors are expected to push their own books. Distribution to bookstores? There are really only two bookstore chains left: Barnes and Noble, and Books-a-Million. There are still, thankfully, a few independent bookstores left, but with ebooks outselling paper books as of this past summer, the real action is obviously in making books available online.

And that’s now very easy.

So, what, exactly, is the remaining attraction of begging for the attention of agents and editors, so you can share the proceeds of book sales with them? Assuming they’re not tempting you with a huge advance, that is.

Forget vanity publishing. If self-made and self-marketed music is “DIY” and the equivalent films are “independent,” then I’m welcoming myself to the world of free-range publishing.

I like the ring of that.

Buy High Desert Barbecue

High Desert Barbecue paperback now on Amazon

This is all happening rather faster than I anticipated …

The paperback version of High Desert Barbecue is now available on Amazon, with free super saver shipping (you’ll have too add another purchase to your basket to reach the $25 minimum for free shipping since my novel is sold at the low, low price of $11.99!

Oh, and Claire Wolfe of Backwoods Home Magazine (and The Freedom Outlaw’s Handbook) has come in with an early rave for High Desert Barbecue:

“[A] rowdy, rollicking adventure in the best tradition of Edward Abbey (think The Monkey Wrench Gang but … well, turned on its head).”

High Desert Barbecue now in paperback

I spoke too soon when I said you’d have to wait for a paperback! Amazon may still be working the book into its listings, but High Desert Barbecue is now available at the CreateSpace bookstore.