Borders bookstore, which recently ended a
labor dispute with its employees fighting for a “living
wage,” is now experiencing a new problem stemming from the
same source. On Sept. 15, the online forum for Borders employees
encouraged union members to deliberately hide, damage and forget to
stock John O’Neill’s New York Times best-selling book
“Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against
John Kerry.”

D.C. Lee

Naturally, the Borders union disclaimed responsibility for the
posts, which have since been deleted from the union’s online
forum. Responding to nationwide inquiries into the whereabouts of
“Unfit for Command,” Borders headquarters explained
that people are not having a hard time finding the book because
politically overzealous employees are hiding it, but because
it’s been on back order for weeks.

Both the Borders union and its headquarters spin a plausible, if
not likely, explanation. Of course, as anyone who’s been to
Borders in the last three years can tell you, it’s just as
likely that self-proclaimed “progressive” employees are
in fact hiding, damaging and refusing to stock
O’Neill’s best-seller. Politicking as usual, surely,
but shouldn’t the politicking take place in the marketplace
of ideas, not the actual marketplace?

If Borders employees are in fact hiding, damaging and refusing
to stock “Unfit for Command,” this conduct would amount
to an egregious breach of political, ethical and corporate
standards. The unilateral blacklisting of O’Neill’s
wildly popular book cannot be reconciled with any amount of
progressive thinking. Moreover, even if Borders employees could
reconcile the unilateral blacklisting of “Unfit for
Command” with the absurd notion that they know what’s
best for other people, the consequences of their actions would be,
in all likelihood, counterproductive. Once word gets out that
Borders employees are unilaterally hiding, damaging and refusing to
stock a certain book, news of this egregious breach of political,
ethical and corporate standards creates a buzz. In time, more
people are purchasing and reading the ideas these employees seek to
suppress.

Again, though, it’s also possible that the Borders union
and headquarters are right. In other words, there may still be a
conspiracy — just not one organized by Borders employees.
Borders as a company has an interest in selling as many books as
possible, and perhaps people aren’t finding copies of
“Unfit for Command” because there really aren’t
enough copies to go around. Alternatively, the lack of copies could
be an issue of local preference. According to Borders Customer
Care, “Our inventory is based primarily on what Borders
shoppers have shown they are interested in purchasing — only
50 percent of the titles in our stores are common to every store
and the other 50 percent is driven entirely by the shopping habits
of our customers.” As a result, inventory varies greatly from
store to store. This policy likely explains why the Borders on East
Liberty has four of five liberal bestsellers on its racks, but only
one of four conservative bestsellers, “Unfit for
Command,” on the same displays.

Additionally, the Borders union might be telling the truth when
it claims that the poster boasting about hiding, damaging and
refusing to stock O’Neill’s book is not a Borders
employee. Until the Sept. 15 debacle, the union did not moderate
the Borders employee online forum. Thus, the union concludes, the
poster could have been a troll attempting to make Borders look bad
while generating buzz for the book. Forget hippie booksellers, they
say – this is another vast right wing conspiracy. Possible?
Sure. Likely? Who knows.

All we know for sure is that the Borders controversy speaks to
the larger issue of how heated the presidential election has
become. With new campaign finance laws in place, agitators are
looking for new and innovative ways to sling mud. Forget
suggestions that the Democrats have given up on ’04 and that
they’re setting their sights on ’08. This election,
Democrats from John Kerry to Borders employees are doing their
damnedest to beat George W. Bush. And regardless of whether the
Borders controversy was caused by Borders employees or members of
the vast right-wing conspiracy, with Kerry’s poll numbers
steadily falling, Democrats can ill afford to let
O’Neill’s book gain any more traction.

 

Lee can be reached at
“mailto:leedc@umich.edu”>leedc@umich.edu.

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