Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lefty Thrillers: Whatever Happened to Them? by Erec Stebbins

LEFTY THRILLERS: Whatever happened to them?

According to my parents, when I was a toddler, I was left handed. But traditional schooling forced me to write with my "right" (as opposed to "wrong") hand. Ever since then, I've been able to be ambidextrous with many tasks. Righty tennis, lefty racquetball. I switch hit in varsity baseball my junior year. I even tried to impress girls in high school chemistry class by writing out equations with both hands simultaneously but mirror-imaged. Didn't seem to get me many dates, sadly.

What I think it did do was allow me to see multiple sides of an issue, which is, IMO, the core of what being "liberal" should mean. A lefty tends to see from multiple perspectives, and that is why they often identify with the oppressed, the poor, the immigrant, and the "different", whatever that might mean in a given context. Whatever his many faults, Bill Clinton symbolized that aspect of liberalism: he felt your pain.
In the context of America's long "war on terror" (whatever that means), it allows me to viscerally understand the general conservative response, which has been one of fear, suspicion, and circling the wagons. I understand that response because liberals feel it, too.  
Liberals Don't Forget Either

I was in New York City when the towers fell. People in my community died. Toxic dust blew over us all. I saw the legions of gray zombies flood from lower Manhattan. I knew what it was to be locked down on the island like some version of I am Legend.  My kids' school had walls full of airplanes crashing into flaming buildings colored in crayon.
It's hard not to get angry when I hear certain idiots who call themselves conservatives blabber on about how liberals don't get it. It is the liberal bastions of places like New York that are most at risk of more terrorist attacks by a good margin. We get it, believe me, but we're ambidextrous. We see a bigger, more nuanced picture.  In the long-term picture of where this nation is headed, conservatives ignore us at their peril.
It is in fact this primitive response to being attacked that gave birth to key characters and the core plot of my debut novel,The Ragnarök Conspiracy. And I can promise you, that response as captured in certain characters and plot elements is far beyond anything any "reactionary" conservative has ever dared say in public.
On the other hand, I keep firmly in my mind what I hope to be as a person, and what I desire America to be.  The desires are for nothing new, but instead to live up to the bedrock of unalienable rights that is the foundation of this nation: commitments to societal and personal decency and respect hardwired into the Constitution.  These values also are integral to the characters and choices in the narrative of my books.
It is concerns like these that motivated my second thriller, Extraordinary Retribution. In this novel, I focus on the evils our efforts to protect ourselves can cause – have caused. I ask the question: For the wrongs we have committed, what would happen if there were payback?
Because I focus as much on American morality as terrorist evils, my novels have been labeled by some conservatives as “Moral Relativism at Its Worst” where I “play up the myth that the greatest threat to world peace is an America that stands up for itself”. Such reviewers mischaracterize my work because they prefer a less ambiguous view of our post 9/11 actions as a nation. They believe many, if not most, means necessary to protect the nation are justified. They don’t like an ambidextrous view, a “liberal thriller.” They want a conservative one. 
And they have many authors to provide such thrillers. More liberal books by writers such as Robert Ludlum, David Baldacci, John Le Carre, and John Grisham are in this age vastly outnumbered.
Generally, these "conservative thrillers" center on existential threats to America and "the American way of life" (how that is defined is a critical aspect of my response to this movement) involving extremist Islamic villains, at times aided and abetted by villainous "liberal" Westerners who are either truly evil or, more generously in some examples, woefully misguided.
In Full Black, the axis of evil centers on a liberal billionaire named James Standing (think George Soros), who advocates for higher taxes for the rich, more generous wages for the poor, and greater government spending. In private, Standing is bankrolling terrorist networks and plotting the assassinations of those who seek to expose him."- Newsweek, "The Right’s Thriller King"
All well and good: there are some nasty Islamic extremists out there, and plenty of corrupt and nasty liberal politicians or tycoons to make use of. I don't find such use necessarily political in nature: it depends on the author and how things are presented.
However, there is a definite political agenda that has entered. As the piece "The Beck Supremacy" makes clear, some of the more extreme and influential conservative media outlets have worked in concert with several of these "conservative thriller writers" to promote their books.
When Vince Flynn recently finished writing his eleventh novel, Pursuit of Honor, he sent an advance copy to Rush Limbaugh, along with some special reading instructions. Upon arriving at Chapter 50, he told the radio host in a note inscribed on the chapter’s first page, “open one of your bottles of Lafite and grab a cigar and savor these words.” Limbaugh, not surprisingly, was impressed. On October 9, he told his listeners that, although he hadn’t yet read all of Pursuit of Honor, “it’s going to be the best [Flynn book] ever.” And Rush wasn’t the only conservative talker offering an aural blurb. On October 12, Glenn Beck hosted Flynn on his Fox News TV show and lavished praise on his new book--one part in particular. “Let’s just say Chapter 50, I don’t want to give anything away, but let me just say it’s almost conservative porn,” Beck gushed. - The New Republic, "The Beck Supremacy"
Still, no harm, no foul. Conservative commentators can promote whatever they like to, just as their liberal counterparts can do the same. I have no ax to grind here, even if my politics lies in a different wavelength range of the spectrum.
There ARE elements to the Far Right's response to the terrorist threat that I do have major issues with, however. These involve the violation of basic and taken-for-granted legal rights the American system has always enshrined (if not always consistently supported).
This response from a vocal segment of the conservative crowd (and, via Obama, recently more liberals as well) is in the suspension of rights, the use of torture, the secretive accusations, renditions, imprisonments, "enhanced interrogations", and assassinations without a shred of due process. This response is considered part of the "eye for eye", or "practically necessary" approach to dealing with bad guys that, as I'll admit freely, don't play by our rules.
As thriller novelist Brad Thor notes:
“I don’t even think President Bush went far enough in taking it to our enemies, Al Qaeda doesn’t abide by the Geneva Conventions, so in my opinion, they should not be afforded the protections of them." - Newsweek, 07/17/2011 
My heartfelt, indeed, angry response is: since when did right and wrong depend on what our enemies do?  


Why don't we listen to sometrue war heroes about this issue:
“How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”
“As he ever has judged,” said Aragorn.“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves, and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” –World War I Veteran J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
"I don't mourn the loss of any terrorist's life. Nor do I care if in the course of serving their ignoble cause they suffer great harm. They have pledged their lives to the intentional destruction of innocent lives, and they have earned their terrible punishment in this life and the next. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we allow, confuse or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength--that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king, not a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion, but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights." - John McCain, Torture's Terrible Toll
Regardless that as McCain also says, it's unclear whether torture provides generally useful information, the question to me is not one of practicality, but of identity.
Are we as a nation prepared to do ANYTHING our enemies might? If so, how are our morals different from theirs? Do we have the courage of our convictions? Or, when the times get ugly, so do we, and we throw our principles under the bus?
Personally, I believe in a certain kind of America, an America WORTH fighting and dying for, that is symbolized by our Bill of Rights, due process, and decency. If we are willing to throw that away because the bad guys are, well, BAD, they've defeated us in the worst possible way, by turning us into hypocritical versions of themselves who wave the flag but trample on what it has always stood for.
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. For when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." 
- Friedrich Nietzche

Liberals also fight for their families, their nation, their ideals. But I don't want to become malignant myself. Before I shoot, I'd better damn well know the bastard is guilty. I'd better act as if I believe in the laws and principles we claim to be defending from those monsters. I'd better walk that walk. At the very least, that should be the target, the values we aim for.
In the end, in the worst case scenario, where our adherence to honor is a form of courage that would get us killed, or cause us to lose the war, I say it's a damn site better to die a free and honorable man than to survive tarnished by dishonor.

And you can bet my books, in addition to telling the most compelling stories I know how to tell, will be informed by that ethos.
--Erec Stebbins
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