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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.

High Desert Barbecue is now available!

The trade paperback version is still a few days away, but with ebook sales now outstripping dead-tree editions, I don’t feel premature in announcing that High Desert Barbecue is now available for sale. If you have a Kindle or a Nook, or have downloaded the free readers for those formats to the portable device of your choice, you can now have a copy of the novel for a screaming deal: $2.99. The trade paperback will be $11.99.

I’m extremely happy with the final story, though you will have to judge for yourselves, of course. Whatever your reaction, don’t be afraid to review the book at Amazon, B&N or the forum of your choice — hey, if I’m going to put myself out there, I have to be able to take the bad reviews with the good ones, right?

A tale of suspense, pyromania and sexual tension, coming to an Amazon near you!

For those of you wondering just what I’ve been up to (let’s count hands! That’s one, two, three of you!), the fact is … I’ve been writing a novel. Final revisions to the manuscript are pending, and the book will be published in paperback and Kindle (and probably Nook) format in November.

High Desert Barbecue

High Desert BarbecueLiving as a squatter on public land, Rollo has long waged a personal war against the Forest Service, so it’s little surprise when rangers burn him out of his latest shack. But when Rollo is subsequently blamed for a disastrous wildfire, he seeks help from his close friend, Scott, an anarchically minded outdoors enthusiast, and Scott’s girlfriend Lani, who dislikes Rollo but shares his distaste for authority. While investigating a suspicious new forest fire, the trio interrupts a bizarre but vicious gang of environmental terrorists. Chased through the canyon country of northern Arizona, Rollo, Scott and Lani must rely on their wit and skills to survive. Just steps behind, their pursuers compensate for incompetence and sexual eccentricity with fanaticism and official connections. Hanging in the balance is the fate of human habitation throughout the West — or maybe just peace and quiet in downtown Flagstaff.

This book is a bit of an experiment for me — and not just since it’s a venture into fiction for a writer established as a columnist and blogger. I was raised in an era when self-publishing — known as “vanity publishing” back then — was a sure sign of crappy writing by a self-indulgent author. That was sort of still the case a few years ago when I bounced early chapters of the book off of New York literary agents — only to receive enthusiastic responses for the writing, along with heartfelt assurances that the story was too regional to be picked up by publishers.

So I put the manuscript aside.

But recently — over the past year in particular — the do-it-yourself ethos has revolutionized the publishing industry. E-readers and print-on-demand have made it very attractive to bypass the traditional publishing houses. In fact, I no longer see a reason to go the traditional route at all. So, out of the drawer (well, an old folder on my laptop) the manuscript came, and I set to work revising and finishing the story. The biggest surprise may have been the extent to which technology has changed in just a few years, necessitating an important plot revision.

Then an old friend who works as an editor and knows my fiction from long-ago days in a Boston-based writers group offered to review the manuscript. And here we go. The Kindle version will be priced at $2.99. Paperback pricing has yet to be set.

I’ll post news of the novel, links for purchasing, and reactions thereto, here and on High Desert Barbecue‘s Facebook page.

If the upcoming book piques your interest at all, please feel free to pass along the information.

No free speech, for the children

You know the most annoying thing in poorly executed pro-freedom novels? It’s how the villains often overtly state their hostility to freedom and their intention to strip rights away from the populace in favor of government control. Real villains are more subtle than that. They couch their incursions into liberty in soft language, justifying it as– What’s that? You say …

Oh. Never mind. The bar has apparently been moved. Carry on.

This, from a New York State Senate Independent Democratic Conference report on “cyberbullying” (crazy person caps in the original), Cyberbullying: A Report on Bullying in a Digital Age (PDF):

THE CHALLENGE LIES IN PROTECTING TEENAGERS FROM CYBERBULLYING WITHOUT TRAMPLING ON THE FREE SPEECH PROTECTIONS AFFORDED BY THE FIRST AMENDMENT. THIS PROPOSED LEGISLATION ACCOMPLISHES THAT IN THE FOLLOWING WAY:

PROPONENTS OF FREE SPEECH HAVE LONG ARGUED THAT A SOCIETY THAT PUTS PEOPLE ON TRIAL FOR THINGS THEY HAVE WRITTEN OR SAID IS NO LONGER A TRULY DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY. THE POWER OF THE WORD HAS BEEN UNDISPUTABLE; IT HAS BEEN ESSENTIAL TO PRESERVING DEMOCRACY AND, IN FACT, ITS FOUNDING PREMISE WAS TO PRESERVE THE EXCHANGE OF IDEAS: A “MARKET PLACE” WHERE CITIZENS COULD SORT THROUGH BELIEFS AND IDEAS WHICH BEST RESONATED WITH THEM AND DISCARD THOSE THAT DID NOT,74 THEREBY ALLOWING FOR THE CREATION OF AN EVER-EVOLVING, OPEN SOCIETY. MOREOVER, THEY CONTEND THAT FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS RECOGNIZED AS A HUMAN RIGHT UNDER ARTICLE 19 OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS,75 SO IT CANNOT AND MUST NOT BE LIMITED.

AND YET, PROPONENTS OF A MORE REFINED FIRST AMENDMENT ARGUE THAT THIS FREEDOM SHOULD BE TREATED NOT AS A RIGHT BUT AS A PRIVILEGE – A SPECIAL ENTITLEMENT GRANTED BY THE STATE ON A CONDITIONAL BASIS THAT CAN BE REVOKED IF IT IS EVER ABUSED OR MALTREATED. BRITISH PHILOSOPHER JOHN STUART MILL LONG ARGUED THAT “THE ONLY PURPOSE FOR WHICH POWER CAN BE RIGHTFULLY EXERCISED OVER ANY MEMBER OF A CIVILIZED COMMUNITY, AGAINST HIS WILL, IS TO PREVENT HARM FROM OTHERS.”76 HIS “HARM PRINCIPLE” WAS ARTICULATED IN AN ANALOGY BY OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR. (1841-1935), AND STILL HOLDS TRUE TODAY: “THE RIGHT TO SWING MY FIST ENDS WHERE THE OTHER MAN’S NOSE BEGINS,” OR, A PERSON’S RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH ENDS WHEN IT SEVERELY INFRINGES UPON THE SAFETY AND WELL-BEING OF ANOTHER.

IN THE CASE OF CYBERBULLYING, THE PERCEIVED PROTECTIONS OF FREE SPEECH ARE EXACTLY WHAT ENABLE HARMFUL SPEECH AND CRUEL BEHAVIOR ON THE INTERNET. IT IS THE NOTION THAT PEOPLE CAN POST ANYTHING THEY WANT, REGARDLESS OF THE HARM IT MIGHT CAUSE ANOTHER PERSON THAT HAS PERPETUATED, IF NOT CREATED, THIS CYBERBULLYING CULTURE. BUT “HATE SPEECH” THAT CAUSES MATERIAL HARM TO CHILDREN SHOULD HAVE CONSEQUENCES.

IN SUMMARY, ALTHOUGH SPEECH IS GENERALLY PROTECTED UNDER THE FIRST AMENDMENT, THERE ARE INSTANCES IN WHICH RESTRICTIONS ARE WARRANTED. …

Add ten more “bad novel” points for couching the proposal to redefine rights as privileges in “for the children” language.

Truly, the novel can not keep up with reality.

Power brokers must love the street theater

Sigh.

If nothing else, the Occupy Wall Street protests provide (yet another) reminder that the political “Left” can be just as incoherent, unrealistic and authoritarian as the political “Right.” Compare all of the snickering over tricorner hats and overheated verbiage at Tea Party gatherings to wacky signs and this prominent (unofficial) list of demands at the Occupy Wall Street website.

I think both groups have legitimate grievances — overgrown government on the one hand and corporatist cronyism on the other — but the fact is that grassroots political movements are messy. And, in reality, real people on the streets don’t always know what the fuck they’re talking about, even when expressing heart-felt outrage.

So you end up with movements that, at their fringes, compare elected officials to genocidal totalitarian dictators, and demand the destruction of industrial civilization.

Unfortunately, the net beneficiaries of grassroots lunacy are the powers-that-be, who can simply sit back, point at the street theater, and say: “Would you really prefer to put the crazies in charge?”

The real answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t want anybody “in charge”. Because, so long as somebody is in charge, they’ll inevitably accumulate ever-more power on behalf of themselves and their cronies — the root complaints of both the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers.

Could Europe end up more free-market than the U.S.?

The United States has its problems, but at least we can make a living here more easily, without going hat in hand to a bureaucrat and begging “mother may I,” than our cousins across the pond, right? Well … by and large, that has been the case over the course of our history. But the fact that something was true in the past is no guarantee that it will remain so in the future. The U.S. government, under the mis-rule of both major parties, has tried over the past decade(s) to spend the country into somebody’s disturbing fever-dream of a rule-bound “paradise.” Those efforts continue even as Europeans reach the end of that same dodgy path and discover that, with bank accounts barren and populations too smothered in red tape to fill them up again, they may have to free up their economies out of pure necessity.

There may be no more convincing evidence that the finances of the Greek government are a shambles than the insistent claims of the German chancellor (whose government constitutes Europe’s financial fire brigade) that the Greek books aren’t so bad after all — and so members of her own government should shut up already.

This comes as Italy’s latest attempt to borrow yet more money to pay its bills met with a less-than-enthusiastic response, leaving the already-strapped European Central Bank as pretty much the only serious customer. That is, unless China decides to unload some of that cash surplus on a risky investment in the Mediterranean.

And Ireland is under heavy pressure to address its own cash-strappedness by paring the welfare state and trimming compensation for government workers — advice being implemented elsewhere, amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

All over Europe, governments are running out of money, and have all put the touch one time too many on flusher neighbors who no longer have much to spare for their domestic concerns, let alone to bail out spendthrifts across the border. Much of the speculation by observers watching Europe’s financial troubles is over whether or not the multi-nation euro currency can survive, but does it really matter whether the shrunken European governments of the future pay their reduced bills with the euro, or with revived versions of the drachma and the lira?

“Shrunken,” I say, because it’s pretty clear that European governments in the foreseeable future will spend less money, provide fewer services and intervene less in private economic matters. Governments from Dublin to Athens are cutting back on generous social programs, paying bureaucrats less than in the past, privatizing businesses and deregulating some important aspects of their economies. Ireland has reduced its minimum wage, Greece has eased the process of hiring and firing workers and other countries are doing much of the same — haltingly, it’s true. Taxes are rising in the process, unfortunately, but that may do limited damage among populations accustomed to treating tax rates as little more than suggested contributions, especially if markets really do enjoy reduced regulation.

And all of this as the United States moves closer to very-expensive welfare-state status with the imposition of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And, while the Obama administration has backed off a bit on EPA regulations, and has ordered federal agencies to review regulations to make sure they’re not too burdensome, the White House has also engaged in high-profile enforcement of red-tape, including an armed raid, against companies such as Boeing and Gibson Guitars.

I can see a time not far in the future when Europeans, climbing their way back to prosperity, engage in their traditional entertainment of heaping scorn upon Americans — but now for clinging to outmoded statist economic policies and bloated government institutions. If it happens, it will be an historic turn-about — though not completely unprecedented.

Hmmm … It might be time to polish up your language skills. For what it’s worth, Spanish and Italian are pretty easy to pick up.