by Pat Holt
Friday, July 16, 2004
HUH? ANTI-SECTION 215 BILL WINS AND THEN IT LOSES?
I don't think I've ever been more outraged than when news hit about the outcome of Congressman Bernie Sanders' amendment to stop the most egregious aspect of the USA Patriot Act (see #361, #366).
To jump ahead a bit, the vote in the House WON, but then because of some (surely illegal!) GOP shenanigans, it LOST.
You may remember that the Patriot Act has this hideous Section 215 that allows, among other things, FBI agents to barge into libraries and monitor the reading, email and Internet habits of patrons. It also GAGS librarians from saying anything about such intrusions to lawyers, the press or the public.
[For a moment let's just remember that libraries were created in the first place to prove to the American people that the Bill of Rights had teeth, that the books people choose to read are nobody's business, and that Constitutional guarantees of freedom to read and right to privacy are SACRED.]
Okay. So Sanders' amendment - removing that little sliver within Section 215 that had gone too far by violating the sanctity of libraries - WON THE VOTE in the House by a 219-201 margin within the 15-minute time limit.
But then, in an astounding and surely illegal reversal, Sanders' amendment LOST THE VOTE by a 210-210 tie because Republicans 1) delayed the outcome and 2) sent House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) out to buttonhole GOP members who had voted FOR the amendment and convince them to switch their vote and come out AGAINST the amendment.
Now I am a citizen, as are many of you. I grew up on Roberts Rules of Order, as did many of you. And I want to know: How did it happen that the time limit of a Congressional vote could be extended for reasons of political partisanship - i.e., the Republicans were losing so they changed the rules?
And I want to know why Democrats sat there chanting "shame, shame" in an impotent manner as Nancy Pelosi kept trying to raise a "point of order" that never happened, when these same Democrats could have shown a little BACKBONE and stood up, walked out, called a press conference, gone on Oprah, gone on Larry King and USED THE PROBLEM AS A PLATFORM FOR DEMOCRATIC POSITIONING.
I'm just curious. This could have been the best "wedge issue" in the election. It's not about pushing swing voters to the wrong side. It's about standing up for free speech, libraries, right to privacy, the Constitution and the kind of freedoms you've got to fight for (apparently) to keep a democracy strong.
As the Attorney General himself has attested (see below) Section 215 has NEVER BEEN USED, even in the height of Amber Alerts. So dump it. (I don't believe Ashcroft either, but if he's gonna lie about it, that's all the more reason to get rid of it.)
Otherwise you get the kind of cockamamie rhetorical question asked by the likes of Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C.: "Should terrorists be able to use taxpayer-funded library facilities without fear they will be investigated by the FBI?"
Of course! Just as people used library facilities in the 1950s to meet with "known Communists" and "overthrow the government." Let them say or read whatever they want to! You capture evildoers on the basis of their acts, not their speech, not their thoughts, not the books they read.
But what about the matter of passing a bill one day and taking parts of it back on another? As we will see below, this was the POINT of the Patriot Act to begin with.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN EXPLAINS WHY SECTION 215 HAS GOT TO GO
During the fiasco above I kept thinking about Senator Dick Durbin's talk on the ABFFE (American Booksellers for Freedom of Expression) panel at BookExpo in Chicago.
Gad, it was refreshing. In less than 20 minutes, Durbin explained the history of the Bill of Rights and why it's important to understand that U.S. Presidents have *always* tried to abridge civil liberties at a time of war.
The important point to remember, Durbin explained, is that the Bill of Rights started out as a no-bones-about-it way to *restrain* government. "We said, 'We're going to make sure the government doesn't go too far in governing us, and we'll be very specific about it. We start with the premise that each item in the Bill of Rights is our right as an individual, and you as the government better have a compelling reason to take it away."
But "laws are silent in time of war," he said, quoting Cicero, and so the most frequent "compelling reason" for taking civil rights away has been the risks to national security. Here's how the specter of war was used to cripple these rights for over a century:
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, essentially telling the American people, as Durbin put it, "we're going to capture spies and put them in prison, and basically not tell you why." In World War I, Alien and Sedition Acts were used to crush dissent. In World War II, Japanese Americans were interned "simply because of ethnic status." Then there was the "witch hunt" initiated by Joe McCarthy during the Cold War, the "enemies list" of J. Edgar Hoover during the Vietnam War, and another suspension of the writ of habeas corpus that occurs today, "when the Attorney General puts American citizens in prison without charging them with a crime or allowing them right to counsel." No wonder Bush keeps exclaiming, "I'm a war president!"
Durbin was not saying any of these suspensions of the Bill of Rights were right or wrong - he was simply showing how an atmosphere of fear about the safety of the country can open the door to laws that would not be tolerated in time of peace.
So here is Durbin on September 11, 2001, having the classic Capitol Hill experience of most D.C. lawmakers - looking out a window to see smoke rising from the Pentagon, hearing the call to evacuate because of a bomb threat and glancing at TV screens endlessly rerunning the image of airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York.
No wonder, when the President so quickly "created new authorities and powers to fight terrorism, so something like 9/11 would never happen again," Congressional leaders were ready to back him.
But this is the important part: Even then, even when the USA Patriot Act was passed in a bipartisan spirit, and even though the Act was very lengthy and complex, "both parties understood this was temporary - that at the end of this exercise, we would put a sunset on virtually all major provisions," Durbin said.
"We just knew instinctively that we were acting in a time of high emotion, and that we needed to reserve the right to return and look at it again in a matter of a few years, to NOT make it permanent."
Well, I must say I never heard the consensus about the Patriot Act vote expressed that way, but boy, do I want to believe it's true.
"Now with nearly three years of hindsight," he continued, "there is widespread concern that the Patriot Act has given too much power to the government to literally spy and eavesdrop and seize materials on innocent Americans.
"We want to now go back to our foundation, our premise of civil rights. If the government does spy and eavesdrop and seize materials, that is a violation of our right to privacy. The government has to tell us why that right has not been compromised. Because our fear is that in one case after another, that right and others have been *very easily* compromised.
I thought Durbin would end there (isn't this bad enough?), but the situation gets worse:
"You may not know that in addition to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, we now permit something called the John Doe Roving Wiretap, a sweeping authority never before authorized by Congress. The government can ask to use this wiretap without specifying either the person or phone that's going to be tapped. That means the FBI can obtain a wiretap without telling the court who will be the target, or where it plans to wiretap. So this is another aspect of the Act that has virtually limitless power."
"The Patriot Act has also introduced the 'sneak and peek search,' in which the FBI can search your home without even telling you. This is NOT limited to terrorism cases. In a recent poll, 71% of Americans think this is a bad idea." No kidding.
So it was in this context that Durbin talked about Section 215 of the Patriot Act, to show that not only libraries but bookstores are places where FBI and other government agents can now go to demand records on the books people read, the emails they send, the places on the Internet they go.
It's true, these government agents must obtain a court order, he said, but "simply because they claim they're seeking records for a terrorism investigation, a court must - a court MUST - issue a subpoena. That is unprecedented. The court order is nothing more than rubber stamp, a waste of government resources."
And here's something that surprised me (as referred to above):
"It's important to note that in the nearly three years since the passage of the Patriot act, John Ashcroft and others are quick to tell us, 'Oh, we've never used these powers to seize such records.' This leads us to the next question: 'Why, then, do you need the authority to do so? If we are in Amber Alert or worse, if we have entered the age of terrorism, and you never had to use this power, why is it necessary to compromise our rights and liberties now, or in the future?"
Durbin discussed abuse after civil rights abuse under Section 215, including the gag order that keeps librarians and booksellers from talking about FBI agents barging in in the first place. "The ACLU couldn't even reveal the existence of its own lawsuit until recently, thus prompting this headline in Washington Post: 'Patriot Act Suppresses News of Challenges to Patriot Act.' "
And here is the heart of the matter, he said:
"In our democracy, the government is supposed to be open and accountable to the people, while people are supposed to have the right to keep their personal lives private. Under the Patriot Act, this is reversed. The government's actions are kept secret, and our private lives are opened up. That is the difference."
Thank heaven, following the mess of the House vote, that Durbin is co-author with Larry Craig (R-Idaho) of S-1709, the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act in the Senate that seeks to restore rights taken away by Section #215. "Larry Craig and I are about as far apart on the political spectrum as possible," Durbin said candidly, "and yet we've come together on this issue, along with an amazing bipartisan coalition."
S-1709 has a chance, thanks to ABFFE and a "Get Off the Fence" movement called the Campaign for Reader Privacy (see #384), supported by wonderfully like-minded groups ranging from the American Library Association to the American Civil Liberties Association as well as religious organizations, schools, writers groups and businesses (see http://www.readerprivacy.com/?mod%5Btype%5D=contact_congress).
So let's hope that in the Senate, Republicans will not dare to pull a time-extension on this vote, or try to intimidate senators to switch and vote against it. But if that does happen, Durbin will be somebody to watch.
As he says, "the government has the burden to prove the need to take away our civil liberties, and in this case it hasn't met the burden. What is clear is the American people want us to strike a balance. We want a safe and secure America. We want to give FBI the power that is necessary to fight terrorism, but no more."
Bush, of course, has threatened to veto the bill "before it even had a hearing, which is unprecedented." So watch out - if Republicans got away with extending the time limit for the House vote, they might decide terrorists are lurking *right outside the Senate* and postpone or rig the whole thing.
You thought the idea of the Bush administration postponing the Presidential election was out of left field? This is how they could lead up to it.
AND NOW THE NEWS: READING IN AMERICA IS ... WHAT IT IS
I had to laugh while reading that depressing story in the New York Times and PW about American reading habits gone to hell yet again.
According to these reports a study of U.S. Census data conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts says that nearly 50% of Americans never read books, don't go out much, rarely do "charity work" and sit around, probably watching TV. Those laggards.
Laughter came a'bubblin' because way back in the mid-1980s, the Book Industry Study Group conducted a similar poll, and here's how they announced it (paraphrased after all these years): "The news is good for American readers! More than half of all Americans are still reading books despite the pressures of television and other nonprint information sources."
Of course the story was equally disastrous, but for different reasons. The BISG's poll said that using a recipe in a cookbook counted as one book that you had "read." If you consulted page 248 of Lonely Planet during your trip to Greenland, ditto. If you read a page from a children's book to your kids, ditto. And these were the stats to be happy about.
Oh, but today's NEA study is much more dependable because it comes from the ever-dependable U.S. Census. You remember filling out that Census form, don't you? It was quite a family event at our house, everyone sitting around the table arguing about our precise racial makeup and current number of adults per household - or no, wait, I'm sorry, that was the Publishers' Clearing House form.
Then, too, since we know the Census Bureau is so thorough about getting all the data from all the houses and apartments in every neighborhood, we can rely on the "fact" that the percentage of adult readers of "literature" fell from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 54 percent in 1992 to 46.7 percent today. These exact numbers offer comfort in times of world stress, when we still don't know if 16 million or *64 million* Americans are functionally illiterate. No sense splitting hairs.
I'm sure everybody's right: Reading has declined as TV viewing increased, lately bringing VCRs and PCs and PS-2s along with it. This is hardly news. Nor is the idea of "two distinct cultures" (one reading, one not).
And the irony is, we know how to fix it: More schools, more libraries, more teachers, more literacy outreach. An "education president" who means it. Helping parents understand the value of reading to their children every night, even for only 15 minutes - even if they themselves can't read. Creating more really good after-school and summer programs. Turning off computers and TVs and reading to each other - adults, too - if just for an hour a night.
When I speak at college and high school graduations (it happens! they invite me), I tell the graduates to watch out: The minute you leave school, the pressures will be enormous *not to read.* You'll feel it the instant you leave this ceremony today, and hang on to your money when you do. "They" are watching your habits, your buying patterns, whether you purchase People or Newsweek or Star in the supermarket line. They follow you around the Internet picking up tips on your interests and spending inclinations, and they're sending little "cookies" to retrieve personal data you think is hidden in your computer. Read? Are you kidding? You think they want you to have an independent mind? To view their "promotions" with a critical eye?
I don't know why the NEA is spending what little money it has on projects that only guess at reasons behind everyday realities. I would like to hear the NEA supporting a diversity of artists and arts programs, including writers and small publishers, that we might not see otherwise.
Just do that, and stop making judgments about the audience.
HOW (NOT) TO GET YOUR NEWS IN IRAQ AND THE UNITED STATES
You may have heard that the United States in its attempt to offer a diversity of viewpoints to the Iraqi people, has introduced two brand-new TV stations, Al Hurra and Al Iraqiya, to balance the steady diet of pan-Arab news from Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.
How are the new TV stations faring? Hannah Allam, the Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder, was asked if the United States has " had any success in getting out its own message." Here's a transcript of her answer.
HANNAH ALLAM: "I really haven't watched Al Hurra or Iraqiya very much, simply because as a journalist I, I don't find it very useful. Most of the broadcasts are taken up with gardening shows, home improvement programs, and other light fare for the viewers. There are only -- something like, you know, 40 minutes of news allowed each day, and most Iraqis that I've interviewed have told me they turn to the pan-Arab stations, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, in particular, for news of what's really going on in Iraq.
Hannah Allam is the Baghdad bureau chief for the Knight Ridder newspapers.
Thank you, Hannah Allam. And now let's turn to a new station in the United States, Spike TV, to see how the news is handled at a "the channel for men." Here we have programming aimed at "guydom," as Spike TV calls it - booze and babes, loudmouth sports, car tinkering, "MacGyver" reruns, power tools and the best part - the news.
Only Spike TV brings an international perspective with a recent segment called BRAWLS IN PARLIAMENT. In this story, we see fights breaking out among elected officials in governments all over the world. This was followed by RACETRACK EXPLOSIONS in which Spike earns its feminist points by following a gorgeous blond bombshell who barely escapes her flaming race car.
Then on to VICTIMS OF GIANT TREES - more than scared kittycats, I assure you! - and SKYDIVER IN TROUBLE (even the unopened chute has a camera) or for the gals, PUPPY STUCK IN A PIPE.
And finally, across the band, other precedents are being set. You've probably heard about the White House sending out "electronic press releases" to TV news producers in which a bogus "reporter" named Karen Ryan finds nothing but good news about the president's Medicare plan.
Some TV stations have run the release as as though it *is* the news, so viewers don't realize it's just an advertisement like rigged press conferences, but that's another story.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I've appreciated your list of "10 Mistakes" that authors make. As my category is historical romance, I decided to read (for me, that's listening to Talking Books, as I have a visual disability) many of the "best-sellers" to discover how the "experts" do it. Though I am convinced that these writers are impressive, I find common errors that slipped by, undetected either by them or their copy editors.
Some of them are simple, like the case errors: I / me, who / whom. But the ones that seem to have been written when the author had either stayed up too late or gotten up too early are like this example by Christina Dodd, when she has a female character using a shotgun that becomes a rifle, then changes back to a shotgun, then to a rifle again, and finally back to a shotgun, and all in the space of a page or two.
In "The DaVinci Code," Dan Brown has his antagonist threatening to smash his fist through the canvas of a valuable painting in the Louvre. But the painting Dan Brown chose for this scene happens to have been painted on wood. Ouch!
And one of the classic ones is when Nora Roberts has a girl sitting on the bluffs at Monterey, watching the sun rise over the ocean - the Pacific Ocean, as you know. Miraculous!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It's funny to hear people on the West Coast complain that politicians like Bill Clinton seem inaccessible (at the BookExpo/ABA meeting, as you wrote in #386).
To those who live in Washington D.C., many of whom work for powerful people and organizations, complaints like these sound a bit naive. These [high-ranking] people have so many minions, and so many are willing to work for them for nothing or next to nothing, that hey, maybe it's not that different from publishing!
As a speaker yourself, you must know that lights are often very bright on stage and tht you can't always see the audience in any case. I met Clinton at a small fundraising dinner when he was in office, and he couldn't have been more accommodating. So I suspect the large venue at the ABA had something to do with the lights, if he seemed aloof. Not his reputation at all. Just ask the Secret Service.
In any case, people in Washington are used to large events that seem staged primarily for TV rather than the audience at hand. The big concerts at the Capitol on Memorial Day and July 4th, for instance, are staged so they're good for broadcasting, but it is difficult for the live audience to see the stage. Hence the Jumbotron TV monitors in use.
Welcome to politics on the national stage.
Holt responds: Perhaps I was so taken aback by the indoor plumbing that I failed to realize the stage lights were *all* electric when Clinton finally got up there to speak. It's true that in every other situation except the two I mentioned - BookExpo and "60 Minutes" - Clinton proved to be as warm and direct in person as he is knowledgeable and open. Perhaps that's why he's such a heartbreaker for many.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
At the risk of sounding smarter and more prudish than I am (I am low on both scales), I would like to discuss your use of the word "snafu" in column #386, relating to Mr. Clinton's new book.
As you probably are aware, the word "snafu" is an acronym from the phrase "Situation Normal, All Fucked Up." My Air Force friends say that this word and several others were originated within the military (the Air Force will claim the good ones), mostly to make fun of the frequently illogical day-to-day activities associated with wearing a uniform.
I have a good friend, a career Army private, who after a few beers can talk for five minutes using military acronyms, and his listeners do not have a clue about what he is saying. He is great at parties, especially if you are with him at the back of the room, out of earshot of the host or hostess.
Anyway, if you meant to use "snafu" in the way it was intended originally, more power to you. If you didn't, please don't hold it against me for bringing this to your attention.
Holt replies: Heavens, I didn't know, and I wouldn't have used it if I had, having learned my lesson the hard way after using the word "schmuck" in a newspaper column. Generally I don't like to offend readers unknowingly.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I am not a gushing fan of Bill Clinton, but I too saw the interview with Clinton on "60 Minutes," and I believe that he went on to say that his attitude about doing it because he could [being involved with Monica Lewinsky] was distressing to him, which puts a whole different light on his comment about why he did it. In view of the current choices, If Clinton could run again, I believe that I would vote for him.
Carroll Leslie, Volumes of Pleasure, Los Osos, California (a town of 14,000 where we are an independent bookstore that sells about 50 percent sidelines in order to continue our passion for selling books!)
Holt responds: I think Clinton felt terrible about getting caught, and wished he hadn't put Monica L. and Hillary and Chelsea and you and me through this, and is sorry he ruined the election for Gore, who should have won handily. But he knows "I did it because I could" is going to resonate among many as an authentic statement, so he left it at that. Maybe it's similar to Vice President Cheney's use of the phrase, "Go F- Yourself," which almost but not quite got him into hot water. I thought that awful little prude, Michael Powell of the Federal Communications Commission, would order an investigation of the incident, as he did with Janet Jackson, or levy a heavy fine, as he did with Howard Stern. I thought Congress would demand an independent investigator like Ken Starr to dig up Cheney's personal history and grapple with his sexual issues. But then Cheney said he just "felt better" having said it, and suddenly the only link that could ever join Cheney and Clinton surfaced. It's the last vestige of D.C. power and of male entitlement, and I'll be glad to see it go.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
About your column on bigness in publishing: As a book designer to mostly small and mid-sized publishers, I have to say that while it might be easier to work for the art directors at larger publishing houses, I also enjoy the energy and excitement of the small publisher. I like helping them, through a well-designed product, compete on slightly more level ground with the large houses in their niche. Theirs is an uphill battle.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
All the talk about individuals and institutions doing things "because I can" reminded me of Lily Tomlin's wonderful shtick of past years, when she portrayed a telephone operator. Didn't she say that the telephone company didn't do anything it didn't feel like doing, "because we don't have to?" Or is my memory failing? Of course the telephone company didn't have to do anything it didn't want to because it was a monopoly. Once it was broken up and competition was introduced, things started to change. But now, of course, the telecommunications industry is moving back toward monopoly, via a series of mergers and take-overs. Kinda like publishing, don't you think?
Dear Holt Uncensored, Can you advise me how I might check the credentials of a professional editor? A publisher who liked my first novel suggested I hire an editor to "work out the rough spots" of my manuscript. I agree with him that I need the assistance of a professional editor. He later recommended a specific editor whom I have contacted by email. She provided me with an extensive explanation of her rates and how she works, but I don't really know anything about her - her qualifications, her experience, etc.
Hiring an editor is an expensive proposition, particularly for a first-time novelist. How do writers choose the right editor for their work?
Holt replies: Oy! You're so right; this is a tough issue for writers. Here are a few ideas:
First, - the manuscript consultant should have a general introductory statement on his or her website that's specific enough to let you know whether this is the person for you. If you don't find the perfect match, move on.
Second, in your own reading, check the Acknowledgments pages of the books you admire and see if you can start making a list of the manuscript consultants who are thanked by the author, and *how* they are thanked. Sometimes it's hard to tell, but after a while certain patterns will come up, and the names will be familiar.
Third, if you're not sure, ask the consultant if you can do an introductory trial - like the first 50 pages - and if you like what the consultant says, you can go on for the whole package, deducting the introductory fee.
Fourth, take a look at http://www.editorsforum.org - this is mostly a listing of Bay Area editors, and there are hundreds of them so the selection is good, and you can learn a lot about what they do and how they do it; also on the resource page, links to other cities' editor discussion groups are listed. New York manuscript consultants and a couple of my own Bay Area picks are listed in an article I wrote in column #248 at http://www.holtuncensored.com/members/column258.html .
Fifth, check with other writers. If you're not a part of a writers' group, you can find a number of them on the Internet. It's a little risky because you don't know these writers, but sometimes the love of helping other people, especially colleagues, compels more honest evaluations online than in "real" life.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
In your "10 Mistakes Writers Don't See," at
" 'I sat down and ran a finger up the bottom of his foot, and he startled so dramatically .... ' Egad, 'he startled'? You mean 'he started' "?
No, the passage is valid. Merriam Webster, for instance, has:
"startle, intransitive senses : to move or jump suddenly (as in surprise or alarm) (the baby startles easily) "
Holt replies: Good point, and thank you, although I think this is an example of pushing the definition too hard. Perhaps the problem is one of emphasis: "the baby startles easily" means "the baby can be easily startled," which I prefer. But "he startled so dramatically" rams contradicting words down our throat. I can see "he gave a start," which allows for a range of responses, from the body finding itself jerked awake to hitting the ceiling. Maybe "startle" as an intransitive verb should be reserved for babies! When the Homeland Security agents come barging into my local library demanding to see my reading history, do I say, "I startled at the thought" (ick) or the better "Oh, you startled me," or the restyled Cheney Response, "Get the !@#$%^&*! out of my library."
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I wonder how much praise you'll continue to spiel for gay marriage when we see the first gay divorce?
Holt replies: Wow! How much time do you have? I hope the world will have as much compassion for the first gay divorcee as we do for Britney Spears. Except for the pain of the people involved, I kind of look forward to the first gay divorce so we'll all know that gay people are "normal."
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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