Friday, April 17, 2015
A friend posted this to me on social media. I've seen it elsewhere, of course, if never in such fancy calligraphy before. To put it plain again, it reads:
"If you must steal books steal from a richly stock'd Corporate Bookstore."
First, it's that word, "must" that just does my head in. Who exactly, in a country with the largest system of public libraries in the history of the world "must" steal books?! Jean Valjean stole from necessity. Bread. He stole bread. He stole to feed his widowed sister and her seven children, remember? Hunger and the suffering of others are compelling reasons to steal. (And keep in mind, it didn't really work out all that great for him. The consequences of his theft were monumental, measured in plot or pages, and the suffering? Prisoner 24601. Chapter One, Book One. Need I go on?) Nobody has to steal a book in this country. Nobody.
Then there's the second fallacy in this argument, nearly as bad as the first. The "richly stock'd Corporate Bookstore" is very much a thing of the past, but even when Borders and Barnes and Noble were still going concerns, the idea that the harm done by shoplifting was to their corporate bosses was ridiculous. Those losses were written off, it's true, but not by the managers and staff, the honest booksellers who worked for low wages and who were made to suffer for not controlling their inventory. Trust me, the consequences were felt by the very people least able to afford them.
So, where does this come from, this persistent lie that somehow petty theft can be justified by politics? And just why does it still exercise me so?
When I was young, I read Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy. I called myself an Anarchist, now and then. True, I never "liberated" books as a contribution to the coming Revolution, but I understand the urge to strike a blow here and there. And when AIDS came along and defined my generation, I marched with the rest. I even got arrested a couple of times. (I was not a very committed activist though. I once begged a policeman to let me go pee after I'd been arrested, promising I would come straight back and go to jail with the rest. He cut my zip-tie and told me "don't come back," and I didn't.) Still, I marched against Apartheid, and for a woman's right to choose. I was there when we shut down the Capital in Sacramento once, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I was there when we surrounded a drug company's headquarters because they wouldn't sell AZT at a reasonable price. I blocked traffic. I shouted "The Whole World Is Watching" and knocked over police-barriers when the cops were beating Delores Huerta. I marched on Washington. I didn't actually join much, or organize anything. I put out the chairs a couple of times for meetings at the Women's Building. I was an "emotional support" volunteer, briefly, for the Shanti Project. I learned that I hated consensus building, cold-calls and sharing.
So maybe I'm not the best example. Still, I was there, kinda.
Fight the power.
I also learned that the idiots who broke out the windows at the Wendy's on Market Street every single time we went marching by inconvenienced no one but the developmentally disabled employee who invariably came out to sweep up the glass. I learned that the kids in Berkley who invariably tried to turn over the cop cars were always going straight back to their fully-paid dorm-rooms and supper on a meal-plan at the cafeteria after.
Working in bookstores nearly my whole adult life, I've learned that for every street kid who shoplifts to get a fix or a meal, there are two shoplifters who work as part of an organized gang and three more who steal art supplies or textbooks with the money to buy these things in their pockets --money from their parents who can afford it. It's that last sorry lot who most often subscribe to the silly sentiment expressed in the sign above -- at least until Security catches them. They always cry when they're busted. They're always more afraid of what Dad will say, and how this might affect their transcript than of actually getting arrested. None of them has ever expressed, in my hearing anyway, how it will all be worked out, come the Revolution. It seems there are no committed revolutionaries ever handcuffed to the bench in the Security office.
It's a dodge, plain and simple, a way to avoid doing anything meaningful by assigning meaning to something done for the thrill of being bad, or sounding cool. Sentimental anarchism of this kind has all the political veracity of "compassionate conservatism," or 'market communism." It's just another way of being dishonest without feeling so bad about it.
So. If anyone under twenty-five should ever happen across these words, and the mood should come upon you to steal a book from the independent bookstore where I work, should you want in this way to stick it to the Man, or whatever the phrase is nowadays, just come find me. I'm almost always right there, on the sales floor. Easy to spot: the little fat man with the big white beard. Just stop by and say "hi." We can talk about Slovoj Zizek and I'll tell you about the time we scared the Secretary of the Interior so bad he refused to get out of his armored car. I can recommend a great book by Errico Malatesta.
And, hell, kid, I'll buy you the fucking book.
Just don't be such a jerk.