A Fox News Anchor and the Amazon Pirates
The start of a new year is a time of checking stocks and settling accounts. Not just through optimistic resolutions and fresh annual plannings, but also by wrapping up last year and digesting the holiday season’s last remains. As December is a month of gifts, at least on the fortunate end of globalized production chains, many face an array of thoughtful and senseless presents and need to decide what on Earth to do with them. There are books to be read, socks to be stored away, and kitchen utensils to be put to use. Judging by national sales figures a lot of Americans found the same gift stored under their Christmas trees: a work of non-fiction on the USA’s First Barbary War (1801-1805). And so, this January, a nation begins to read Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. The Forgotten War that Changed American History.
A bestseller on nineteenth-century piracy
For weeks now the book has featured in the higher echelons of the New York Times Best Seller list. Though never making it to the actual top of the non-fiction rankings, this indicates that plenty of copies have been sold stateside. Sales must have spiked over the holiday season as the book jumped from third place on 20 December to second place on 3 January.
The First Barbary War is a historical episode packed with action. The conflict with Tripoli saw plenty of naval battles, diplomatic trickery, and even a secretive military expedition through the desert. But then again, these books do not write themselves. An interesting story does not in itself make for a publication that a large audience is willing to read or give to someone else for Christmas. How then does one write a bestseller on nineteenth-century piracy? Kilmeade and Yaeger adopted a snappy style, kept chapters short, and refrained from too much historiographical nuance. They do focus plenty on details of naval battle, in true Master and Commander form.
Part of the book’s success might also stem from the tone and larger narrative of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. The authors, thinking their readers patriotic US citizens, are keen to call every heroic commander or diplomat ‘a true American’ and every liberal ideal to be imbued with ‘American spirit’. In this sense, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is not so much of interest as an account of a nineteenth-century international conflict but rather as an illustration of how this history is presented and perceived in the America of the twenty-first century.
What would Jefferson do?
The manner in which the book was pitched and marketed is therefore much more interesting than its contents or style. Brian Kilmeade, a presenter of Fox News not abstained from controversy, states that he wrote the book (with help of Don Yaeger, one of the greats in the genre of American sports writing) because it became clear to him ‘that the only way to truly appreciate how special this nation is is to understand our past and the hurdles we had to clear to even exist’. The book is dedicated to history’s ‘unsung patriots’, ‘because without Americans fighting in the trenches and on the seas, we would not be able to enjoy life as citizens of the world’s greatest economic and military superpower’.
The review excerpts that are meant to help boost sales echo the patriotic sentiment. Kilmeade himself also has done much to present his book as possessing great contemporary relevance. In an interview he draws stark analogies, claiming that Jefferson had to deal with ‘the same kind of Islamist extremism’ that Obama is facing today. Unlike the ‘Yale and Harvard people’, Kilmeade says in another media appearance, he tries to understand what ‘our founders’ would do about current affairs. The lesson to learn from Jefferson here is that a land war is the way to deal with ‘Islamist extremists’ in power.
Security without history
In a way, the public appearances of Kilmeade are an extreme example of non-historicized security. To look at the ‘Tripoli pirates’ as a nineteenth-century example of the ‘Islamist extremist mentality’ and equate them with ISIS is, after all, the exact opposite of historicizing security. Without paying attention to context or allowing for historical change, Kilmeade is quick to see an old Muslim adversity as a reflection of America’s current ‘Islamist’ enemies.
Security threats and the means to counter them thereby gain a sort of transcendent quality. It no longer matters in which historical era they were rooted: what worked then should work now. One can fear the consequences such appropriations of the past can have when they are taken to their logical extreme – say, by one particularly hotheaded presidential candidate. Such non-historicized security suspends thinking: if ISIS is just like the Tripoli pirates then there is no need to try and understand the situation in Syria, Iraq or, for that matter, today’s Libya – it would simply suffice to do what Jefferson did.
Furthermore, this notion of security outside of history directs attention away from pirate-like brigands closer to home. On the digital bookshelves of Amazon Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates stands next to an item with a deceptively similar cover and title. Issued by Summary Reads, an abbreviated 38-page version of the NYT best seller is offered for $7,-. Unsuspecting customers looking for a bargain may not pay attention and find themselves ordering an overpriced synopsis of a book. It is a deal so bad that it vaguely resembles robbery. At least the disclaimer at the start of the Summary Reads ‘edition’ kind of rings true: ‘No historians were hurt in the writing, editing and publishing of this volume’.