America in the Age of Trump: Boycotts, Condonations, and 'The Divide'

From the cover of The Art of the Deal

Is AntiBookClub's call to Penguin Random House to drop The Art of the Deal from their catalog an effective form of resistance?

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Author: Matt Taibbi
Publication date: 2014-10

On 9 November 2016, Donald Trump won the electoral college both on the strength of and in spite of a campaign built upon bigoted, misogynistic, and racist rhetoric. In response, AntiBookClub -- a small independent publishing company operating under a progressive, reformist platform -- released an "open letter" to Penguin-Random House directly urging the company to stop representing Trump. In an eloquently stated passage, the letter advises:

As an influencer in the publishing world, your continued financial support through the sales of his book sends a message to your readers that you condone his racism, his misogyny, and his contempt for people of different nationalities and religions.

Compellingly, AntiBookClub's letter equates rhetoric to action, and in so doing, eschews the often abused practice of treating campaign language in a vacuum absent any post-Election Day accountability. Hateful rhetoric is a crippling, corrosive force which perpetuates culturally cancerous conditions. According to The Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been 437 reported acts of verbal and physical abuse during the week of 8-14 November 2016. That's more than one reported incident per hour since Trump has become the United States President-elect.

However, AntiBook club’s letter still implicitly flirts with the notion of a book publisher boycott insofar as it risks readers deciding to severely contract their book choices due to the Trump's name catalogued by the same publication company. This inherent risk forces one to decide which condonations are better for the democratic process, and which are not. In such a complex, protean society, the answer is often unclear.

Indeed, Americans dutifully pay taxes for wars and corporate bailouts we don’t necessarily agree with while working under a predominantly corporate capitalistic society, which heavily incentivizes self-serving behavior over public interest contributions. We tolerate taking massive financial gambles at young ages by paying six figures for heinously expensive Universities, and in so doing, by making deals with exploitative student-loan creditors who shackle basic liberties with unforgiving, compound-interest debt. Many people abide by these circumstances, among others, in the hopes that they will live financially productive and fulfilling lives. Certainly, however, disagreeable condonations are being made.

Matthew Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap explores this grim reality on a larger scale. The Divide, written with a combination of relentless beat reportage and righteous indignation, illustrates how America is tearing its democratic core asunder in two extreme, opposite directions. According to Taibbi's findings, the US government continuously indemnifies American banks’ “sophisticated” fraudulent behavior -- that which was responsible for the loss of billions of dollars to the American economy and the destabilization of both our domestic housing economy and global markets -- while at the same time zealously pursuing arrests and convictions of indigent black and Latino individuals for violations and non-violent misdemeanors. Inherent to these concurrent processes is the promotion of a culture in which wealth before systemic democratic values is the ultimate mandate.

The Divide's findings apply to Trump's presidential campaign. Absent Trump's absurdly marketable billionaire sheen and his reality TV star status, both his bigotry and his divisive, underdeveloped positions on domestic and foreign policy wouldn't have seen his campaign through last winter. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders -- presented as a hardscrabble populist who wished to forsake zero-sum capitalism for a wealth re-distribution scheme which would empower the middle class and scrutinize more closely the ultra-rich -- was heavily overlooked both by voters, the mainstream media, and even the Democratic National Committee, for lacking nuance. What explains "the divide", so to speak, is that Trump was considered "too big to fail", while a senator from Vermont who had an albeit imperfect but peaceful, respectful, and more feasible platform, was too small to succeed.

As it were, The Divide, with all its intellectually integrative powers toward highlighting corporate tyranny and pleading for reformism, was published by Spiegel and Grau. In turn, Spiegel and Grau is a publishing imprint of Penguin-Random House. So for those readers who opt to boycott Penguin-Random House for its continual distribution of Art of the Deal, they would have to condone the interminable self-deprivation of several other books which, like The Divide, is arguably an urgent must-read prior to the inauguration in January.

To condone Penguin-Random House's continued publication of Trump's The Art of the Deal is also to allow oneself to support other Penguin-Random House publications, such as The Divide. This particular condonation -- one made for the expansion of book-based knowledge to cultivate more considered, well-deliberated economic and political action toward an egalitarian ideal -- should rank highly among the several other condonations many make in their lives. Otherwise, even this famous passage from Kurt Vonnegut could be just as easily scrutinized if Trump's Art of the Deal were to rest next to Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed at a public library:

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

As a country, we deserve a higher political grammar, and this begins with the quiet, thoughtful absorption of a variety books: from those authors we love, we dislike, we wish to learn from or to criticize. In this regard, my own open letter to mainstream publishing houses and other promotional vehicles would be this:

Publish more well-reasoned, well-researched, compelling, strategically-sound reformist literature toward empathetic, inclusive solutions to the world's problems. Promote these works with the same vigor The Art of the Deal was afforded back in 1987. Seek and publish writers from increasingly diverse platforms who offer vivid worldviews as to why the importance of preserving a peaceful, yet self-critical multicultural environment in America is so necessary as we endure the corrosive effects of moneyed interests. Then advertise these works as the "Must Reads", even if they won't project the highest short-run profits. Because we don't need short-run profit projections, right now. We need to save the world -- and most urgently, this country -- from becomming an increasingly divisive and violent place.

In a sense, this strategy may also be considered a kind of boycott against works akin to Trump's campaign rhetoric: for when you expand knowledge, you vanquish hateful rhetoric and the violent divisions it engenders.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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