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Who needs literary critics or historians when we’ve got lawyers and courts?

February 4, 2011

Bad day, Mr. President?

In possibly the greatest advance in literary criticism since the invention of papyrus, former president Jimmy Carter has been slapped with a $5 million law suit over alleged inaccuracies in his controversial 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Oh my God: Think of the possibilities!

First the news: According to the Jerusalem Post, five American readers have mounted a class action suit in a New York court claiming Carter’s book is filled with falsehoods “intended to deceive the public and promote an anti-Israel agenda.” In a brilliant legal strategy, the suit attempts to sidestep the First Amendment by citing New York’s consumer protection laws.

“By claiming to be a Middle East expert” the JP reports,  “the suit claims, Carter and, by extension, his publisher, intentionally presented inaccurate information that was highly critical of Israel and therefore violated a New York law that makes it illegal to ‘engage in deceptive acts in the course of conducting business.’” (Here’s a copy of the actual complaint.)

Traditionally anyone with this kind of beef about a book would write a letter to the editor, or maybe a book review, or a corrective essay. In this way, a cultural and political back-and-forth is established that eventually sifts out –if not quite truth, that slippery ideal — then at least something akin to balance.

And, indeed, Carter’s book has been both lauded and criticized since the day it came out — sometimes in the same review. Israeli historian Tom Segev, for example, praised Carter’s thesis as “well-founded,” but cited numerous factual errors in the book.

But this process, no matter how time-honored and blah-blah, is clearly inefficient, especially when compared with the svelte U.S. court system, famed as it is for speed and nimbleness.

Best of all, not only does this suit sweep away that pesky First Amendment, it also shows John Milton the door: And take your “let the winds of doctrine blow” malarkey with you, pal! We got consumer protection laws in this country and courts to enforce ’em!

And this is only the first — give me a moment, I’m getting misty-eyed here–of many legal actions to enforce factuality in books:

For example, suits like this one will eliminate that pox known as the “political memoir.” What politician will write his autobiography if he has to stick to the facts?

I say let’s start this wave of legal literary criticism with Donald Rumsfeld, who has a new memoir out called Known and Unknown, the very title of which tells you he’s full of — oh, let us say baloney. “Tedious and self-serving,” sniffs Michiko Kakutani in yesterday’s  New York Times, full of “bold assertions with no pretense of substantiation.”

Anybody know a good lawyer? I sense low hanging fruit here.

All those global-warming deniers? Don’t bother arguing anymore — let’s sue ’em! Start with Newsmax, the right-wing online news site, where a whole nest of climate change skeptics like Marc Marano can be found.

What advocate of intelligent design will dare put pen to paper after this? And here’s the cudgel Barack Obama has needed to beat Fox News into submission. Call the prez a Nazi or a commie now, Hannity/O’Reilly/Beck, I dare you. Eric Holder will make you prove it in court.

Self-help books? Diet books? Astrology? Books on playing the stock market? Those will soon be nearly extinct genres.

A few years ago, I would have been worried about turning over literary criticism, fact-checking and other journalistic and cultural duties to lawyers and judges. But most book reviewers have lost their jobs, and newspapers and magazines no longer have the resources to employ enough reporters and copy editors for the remaining fraction of reporting they still do.

I say, more power to the judiciary.

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