Last month, Tony Blair’s memoirs hit the book store.
Almost immediately some copies got reshelved.
A Journey got moved out of "Politics" into "Fantasy."
Into "Fairy Tales."
Into "Dark Fantasy."
As political protests go, this is something for nothing.
A lively and effective point is made at no cost.
Someone need only pick up the book in one section and move it to another.
Those who dislike Blair have made a point. In a public place. At no real expense. And at no risk. (Moving books between sections isn’t actionable. Not even in Britain.)
And of course, none of this is possible without the new media. Someone created a Facebook group called "Subversively move Tony Blair’s memoirs to the crime section in book shops" and in almost no time it had 13,000 members.
"A Journey" cost Blair months and months of difficulty to write. It cost agents, editors, and publishers fair sums to bring to market. And all the protester needs to do is to walk the book from here to there. The gesture is easy. The coordination effortless. The point quite damaging.
But of course in a democracy we don’t want to police debate by costs of entry. We don’t want opinion confined by the obscurity of speaker or the expense of the media at his/her disposal. But it is not always pleasant to see what surfaces in public discourse now that there is virtual no barrier to entry. (Me, I think, Blair is probably an honorable man who served the British body politic at some personal expense. We vilify or mock him at our peril. Unless of course we don’t mind driving honorable people out of the political pool. We may not like Blair, but there’s a good chance we will hate the alternatives even more.)
But there is a cost here that’s not obvious. It is the intelligence with which the gesture is conceived and the skill with which it’s executed. And in this case, no complaints. The idea of reclassifying Blair’s book was fun, interesting, witty. It found a way to use the structure of the bookstore, and to the extent it mirrors the categories in our head, the structure of thought, to make a point. Well done.
Of course, the bookstore and those categories were just sitting there waiting for someone to seize the opportunity. And I don’t remember this happening before. So the anti-Blair campaigners get credit for the act of intelligence with which they saw what they could do.
Wit gives message a certain credibility. To be sure, it’s not exquisitely clever, but it is much better and more winning than graffiti scrawled on posters. And this gives it a place in discourse. People note it. The Times writes about it. I blog about it.
Even in the "wild west" of the new media, we earn our way in. And in this case, we earn our way in by grasping the structure of our culture and the opportunities it opens up.
Look, there’s a bookstore.
Look, they shelf books by category.
Look, some of these categories capture what I think is true about this book.
Something for nothing. But not something out of nothing. We have to know our culture to make it speak.
Enrich, David, and Paul Sonne. 2010. “Bicycle Mischief Targets Barclays.” wsj.com, September 18 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704858304575498031387359768.html?KEYWORDS=barclays (Accessed September 19, 2010).