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A Thriller for Obama's Times

A Thriller for Obama's Times

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Book Review

"We need a wide movement based on a simple fundamental idea with high symbolic value, and that idea is vote. Not an Internet vote, or an electronic vote, but a real vote, with paper ballots, counted one at a time. That's something everybody in America can understand."

That's how Emily Cortright of the Democracy Northwest Network (DNN) begins her long argument with Lando of a resistance brigade remote from the battle of the ballot. The high-tension debate, loving and lacerating by turns, continues through a volume that captures the mood behind a historic vote. And, maybe, the post-vote mood as well.

"The Army of the Republic" (Stuart Archer Cohen, St. Martin's Press, New York, 2008, pp. 422) marches into a darkly uncertain future as the reader turns the last page. The debate does not end in a definite victory for electoral democracy. Neither, perhaps, has the presidential contest in America done so.

We will come to Lando's counter-argument in a while. A word, first, about the story that provides the setting for the debate that leads to a wary, difficult alliance between the two movements. As the publisher sums it up in a press release, it is about billionaire and "DC insider" James Sand as he stands "on the brink of his riskiest and most controversial deal ever: the takeover of the entire water supply of the Pacific Northwest."

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Sand "presses on over increasingly strident civil opposition and the objection of his wife, Anne, until the assassination of his partner by the shadowy Army of the Republic throws his empire into a tailspin. Desperate, he turns to Whitehall Security, the massive private intelligence firm that promises to hunt down and eliminate all opposition."

Meanwhile, in far-off Seattle, charismatic Lando leads the Army of the Republic "on a dangerous campaign against the alliance of big business and government," with Emily as his reluctant ally. "As the violence escalates, Lando, Emily, James and Anne struggle to both redeem and destroy those they love most."

The novel, published in September 2008, is not an unintended allegory. The book does without a Barack Obama by any other name, but no reader will wonder who the Mathews administration, which creates an economic collapse after eight years of rule through wars and repression, represents.

Nor should one puzzle over whom the Whitehall Security proxies, not after Cohen's recent and brilliant article on the arrival of Blackwater International in his hometown of Juneau, Alaska, presumably as part of the missile defense program.

He writes: "The Bush Administration has turned over an unprecedented amount of government functions to its cronies in private industry, always at a big premium to the taxpayers. More deeply disturbing, though, they have surrendered elements of the military and intelligence services that for two hundred years have been considered the sole prerogative of the People's government. Where once we had soldiers and spies loyal only to our government, we now have mercenaries and corporate spooks loyal to ... well, I'm not really sure."

Cohen adds: "It took a while for this new face of corporate government to get all the way to my home town, but it finally has. It's here, it's armed and it's wearing a Blackwater uniform." The fictional counterpart of this corporate power wears a Whitehall uniform as it funds its own paymasters and clients.

The Army of the Republic itself may remind many of the guerrilla group that William Ayers, victim of a shameful anti-Obama smear campaign, was associated with. In a moving newspaper article, "The real Bill Ayers," he writes: "In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village. The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices - the ones at the Pentagon and the United States Capitol were the most notorious - as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation."

A Lando in his later years may talk somewhat like Ayers: "The Weather Underground crossed lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense. Our effectiveness can be - and still is being - debated. We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism.... Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. So we issued a screaming response ..."

Profounder than these parallels is the way Cohen captures the pre-vote mood and the meaning of the November 4 achievement. (He did so even as experts were speculating on "swing states" and Republican hopes of late changes of heart.)

Emily articulates the mood as she tells Lando: "... Americans are decisively against this government and they're ready to stand up to it. They're sick of the corruption and the wars and they're sick of watching the country get parceled out to Big Business." Sand's son Joshua elucidates the meaning of the post-meltdown mandate, when he tells his father: "They (the protesters against the mega water project) don't want to be subjects in your empire. They don't want people like you .. .controlling their water or their roads or their government. They view these things as the common wealth, not as a market to be exploited." All this may make the book sound like a string of arguments, but that would be blatantly unfair. Cohen offers a thriller, and you can skip a page only at the peril of missing some major twists and turns. It is a thinking person's thriller, however, at least at this time of "change that is possible" but not certain.

Especially thought-provoking is the end of an individual's insurgency. Cohen proves a consummate mood-capturer again in a passionate passage: "I have lost faith, godammit! I put my faith in the People and that was a mistake! This is a shit people! They get stolen blind by their politicians and they lick their boots. They send their kids off to die for somebody's business deal and they celebrate it like they're doing something heroic! This great and glorious people! Lazy sacks of junk food and jingo!"

Renouncing his rebellion, the guerrilla raves on: "The god-damned brownshirts are killing my friends, they're after my ass - and I'm fighting to save ... who? People who cheer when they shoot demonstrators? People who, if you give them a choice between cheap gasoline and saving a thousand endangered species, will choose cheap gas over and over again?"

Is Cohen's a commentary on contempt of the people, ordinary people as distinct from dreamers, as the most fatal of an insurgent's flaws?

To revert to Lando's counter to Emily, he says: ""We've been watching the Regime neutralize groups like yours ... It's always the same. If they lost at the ballot box, they best you in the legislature. If they can't stack the legislature, they beat you in the courts. Steal a state election here, investigate an opposition governor there, You know the drill. We've had eight years of that crap." Will the years never return, only because a racial barrier has been broken once through the ballot box?

Lando also tells her: "You're right ...They have lost their majority. The problem is, you don't need a majority to control this country. You need maybe thirty percent, because forty percent of the people won't act. They're equally happy with a dictator or a president as long as you don't take away their guns or cut off their last little trickle of gasoline. That leaves thirty percent who might actively oppose you, and you've got the entire security and media apparatus to attack them with. It's like that in every country of the world."

Will the American people now prove this an outdated analysis?

An Indian reader and reviewer, too, can ask this question, and not only because "It's like that in every country of the world." India has its "terrorist" problem, its insurgencies, but not quite of the kind Cohen talks about. The victory of Obama, however, was greeted in India and elsewhere as a vote for change that was possible in the rest of the world as well.

Cohen - whose previous two thrillers, "Invisible World" and "17 Stone Angels," were set in Inner Mongolia and South America respectively and translated into 10 languages - is not writing only of and for Americans. In an e-mail to me, he confided: "I'd originally considered setting this one in Argentina. However, living in a country that has little idea what violent resistance is or its causes, I thought I should set it here." The backdrop has certainly lent the book a much larger significance than a Buenos Aires setting would have.

"The Army of the Republic" is a fantasy, of course. But it issues a dire warning about the future of democracy - and democracies - that very much deserves to be heeded even after the historic Obama vote.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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