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Steal it, Mr. Nordlinger

By Lawrence Henry
web posted May 7, 2001

Back in the sixties, Abbie Hoffman published a book called Steal This Book, a kind of icon of the era. Looking back on it, it seems kind of namby-pamby. What passed for "transgressive" in those days was stealing books from the college book store - at many schools an expulsion offense; heaven knows what colleges do to bookstore thieves nowadays.

Today, there is a book actually worth stealing, and I am going counsel that it be stolen, in a fashion calculated to make a bigger bang than Abbie Hoffman ever set off. It's called The American Citizens Handbook, by Joy Elmer Morgan, first published to mark National Citizenship Day (September 17) in 1941, then reissued six times. The last edition was published in 1968.

National Review managing editor Jay Nordlinger, writing in that magazine's current print edition (May 14, 2001), in an article titled "Hand It To Them: Rediscovering American Scripture, " describes the Handbook as "a great treasury."

"It is a compilation of just about everything that is significant and outstanding about the United States," Nordlinger writes. "The work is serious, earnest, heartfelt…I was startled by the power it carried…It puts forth an American creed…We have in this book the evidence of a nation, and a civilization. Here, the bond holds firm; the salt retains its savor."

Not for small purpose does Mr. Nordlinger employ that pointed Biblical reference. For, of course, in the United States today, the American creed, the American idea, the unalloyed commitment to the American nation, has lost its savor. More to the point, its savor has been deliberately diluted and corrupted. We can taste this corruption clearly in the current controversy over Senator Bob Kerrey's Viet Nam war experience, or , more correctly, in the accounts of his account of that experience. (See how we remove our gaze from the truth, layer by layer?) In what passes for serious discussion nowadays, a "good" man did a "bad" thing because he was a "victim" of a "bad" war. Or, no, maybe this "bad" man is now "good" because he is "coming to terms" with something in his past so he can "heal."

This new, ironic, doubly self-conscious, simultaneously shallow and fearful America, a seeming combination of sissihood and bullydom, is hard to describe. It's slippery. It's meant to be. It's the product of deconstruction, mockery, evasion, cheating, and outright lies. What's left? The American Spectator's Bob Terrill calls it the "Kultursmog." In the best speech he ever delivered, Bob Dole (in Mark Helprin's line) said, of the American before the Kultursmog, "I remember it, and it was better." The Clinton campaign made fun of him, of course.

More than any other institution, America's schools have created this ironist fake morality in which we live today. Which makes it all the more astonishing to find out that The American Citizens Handbook was originally published by the National Education Association, the now completely radicalized teachers' union.

The NEA buried - yes, actually buried - the last 10,000 copies of the Handbook. The few copies that remain are in private hands, like Jay Nordlinger's, thank Heaven. He is not alone in hailing the Handbook's virtues. When he was education secretary, William Bennett challenged the NEA to reissue it, or to allow another publisher to do so. The NEA essentially mumbled and changed the subject.

In conclusion, describing his treasured copy of the book, Mr. Nordlinger writes, "It is sick, though - positively sick - that I should feel this way. That I should feel that I possess something rare and talismanic, something quasi-forbidden, almost underground. This stuff should be as common as water - and it was. It should be again."

No, Mr. Nordlinger, you feel exactly as you should. We are the dissidents now, and America's heritage is our samizdat.

So here's what you do: Steal this book. Steal it as an intellectual property. Get together a group of like-minded dissidents - William Bennett, Mark Levin, Grover Norquist, and Henry Regnery come to mind - and scan The American Citizens Handbook into a computer. By way of challenge, announce your intention to publish it again, and offer to buy the rights from the NEA. (I suspect Mr. Levin could make a heck of a case that the NEA had renounced its interest by burying the last copies of the last edition.)

If the NEA refuses, you've got a great publicity campaign. If they consent, they consent. Either way, you've got a great book.

Sell copies by subscription, raise enough money thereby to handle the printing costs, then go to town on it: mass sales through conservative organizations, home-schooling associations, and the like.

But first, in a small way, hand it to us. Put your article, "Hand It To Them," on the National Review Online website so we can start creating an Internet wave about it.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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