Freedom City attacked by alt-right trolls

Søren Kierkegaard wrote of “leveling,” the process by which the “public” forms the basis of all decisions without any individual accountability. True passion and originality are strongly discouraged, and should any heroic soul take a stance contrary to the status quo they are immediately ostracized. My recent experience with a Facebook ad for my anti-Trump novel Freedom City shows how the concept of leveling is even more pertinent now than it was when Kierkegaard published Present Age in 1846.

Take Facebook user “Chris Altman” (Note the not-so-subtle play on Altman—as in alt-right), who wrote about the fact that I published a book he disagrees with: “This mother fucker needs bout 20 yrs in Leavenworth.” Another troll named “Peter Gentile” (Note: Gentile means someone who is not Jewish) commented that my book “… only exposes the fact that the far left is an entire horde of violent irrational foaming at the mouth wack [sic] jobs.”

Perhaps ironically, behold Mr. Gentile’s profile picture:


Someone else called me “this Jihad.” Another referred to one of my fans as “nibba,” a racial slur I had to Google. I could go on and on.

My point is that my novel has obviously hit a nerve with the Trump public, at least. I feel a bit like a nail sticking out too far, not yet fully embraced by the progressive majority and exposed to relentless hammering from the far-right’s lunatic fringe, who have even taken to leaving me negative reviews, like the above one-star review, which so poignantly states, “The author is out of his mind! Trump 2020.”

As I never expected the MAGA crowd to embrace a novel that ridicules them, I truly don’t care if they attack me online. I’m more interested in the spectacle of leveling from a sliver of the public that clearly feels threatened and by the futility of any sort of compromise under this phenomenon. I recently read Present Age and have been tentatively exploring Kierkegaard’s philosophy as it pertains to faith. I am an atheist, as anyone who has read Freedom City would undoubtedly guess, but a dear friend has been helping me see the other side of it. Although I still have a difficult time having faith in something I can’t see, I love how she describes her own faith: “To live as if there is more than what is, to live for a better place… is to live in the faith that [quoting Martin Luther King], ‘The arc of time bends toward justice.’”

My point is that, within the context of an intimate relationship, one can explore even the most divisive topics with openness and civility. But such debates with the amorphous public are not possible, particularly when the critics hide behind pseudonyms and engage in hate-speech.

The fact that I am experiencing the public’s wrath is proof to me that I wrote something passionate and original, and this is something that no horde of trolls can ever take away from me.



Birth of the MAGA Bedbug

Unlike many designers, Jason Anscomb likes to read a book before he designs its cover. He explained to me very early in the design process that he wants to make sure his art “truly matches the mood” of the writing. I recently reconvened with Jason about his inspiration for the cover of Freedom City and about his collaboration with renowned illustrator David Foldvari.

“[It] struck me that we needed a dark-edged, satirical feel to the jacket with a quick hit of irony,” Jason said of his initial impressions after reading some of the novel. “It also occurred to me that you had actually already hit on a very good symbol for your book: the bedbug. It just needed the eye of an expert illustrator and more of a hook to the design.”

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, bedbugs are an analogy for fascism and actually play a pivotal role in the novel:

Bedbugs mate through traumatic insemination. The male literally pierces the female’s body with its penis and injects its sperm into her abdominal cavity. A more evil creature Beach couldn’t imagine, except…

Jason happened to know just the right person to create the image, a highly sought after illustrator whom he met while studying graphic design and illustration at Brighton University. “David Foldvari is a very well respected illustrator and had just the right tone in his work for the job.”

At first Jason had a different vision for the design. “Initially we played around with the idea that the bedbug had the head of Donald Trump wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat,” he said. “Donald would be screaming… whilst burning over a flame.”

But David advised us to tone it down a notch. “[Freedom City] deserved to be seen in a more intelligent and restrained way,” Jason explained.

David’s brilliant illustration proved that his instinct was correct.

“The hat and the bug turned out to be enough,” Jason said. “David added a final touch of some bent-up, hillbilly-like teeth to the bug’s face. I can honestly say that this one of the best illustrations of a bedbug I have every seen.”

That just left designing the rest of the cover’s components around David’s art. The hotdog colors were Jason’s touch, as were the orientation of the design and the text. The result is a striking indictment of American fascism and the perfect cover for an anti-Trump novel like Freedom City.



Artist or political operative? Facebook’s new ads policy makes no distinction.

Ahead of a reading for Freedom City in Chicago this month, I opted to “boost” my event page on Facebook to reach a wider audience. This is standard stuff for authors and anyone trying to increase the turnout for an event. You pay $30 or so, and Facebook “suggests” your event to people in the demographic you choose. I’ve done this for all my readings. It works swimmingly.

What a surprise, then, when this time Facebook rejected my ad, deeming it “political.”

No shit. Freedom City is a tragicomedy set in the year after Trump dies from a stroke and features an eclectic band of rebels who wage a guerilla war against American fascism.

I appealed their rejection, citing the clearly satirical nature of my novel. They responded with a link to their new policy whereby advertisers posting ads with any political overtures must provide proof of both their identity and their residency in the United States. Furthermore, the ad must have a disclaimer, explicitly labeling it as political content.

A recent article from The Verge explains Facebook’s new policy best:

The company’s policy on political advertising applies not just to candidate-based ads, but ‘any national legislative issue of public importance in any place where the ad is being run.’ A separate page lists the broader categories expected to require authorization, which includes hot-button issues like ‘abortion’ and ‘guns’ alongside broader concepts like ‘health,’ ‘environment,’ and ‘values.’

Obviously, by setting a higher bar for political content, Facebook is trying to address the scourge of fake news. I applaud their effort. After all, if not for the Russian government’s disinformation campaign, our fascist buffoon never would’ve been elected.

However, isn’t the truly insidious thing about fake news its fakeness masquerading as reality—not its political-ness, per se? By sweeping all “political” ads into the same pile, Facebook is missing the more obvious delineation between content that claims to be factual and that which does not. Fiction and art do not claim to be reality—they are unabashedly “fake” in that sense—and therefore their content is beside the point. Who cares if a novel is political if it makes no effort to conceal its inherent fakeness? I suppose a meme could be news if it contains a factual assertion, but a painting can’t be fake news because its not news.

These arguments were wasted on Facebook, which responded to my appeal by simply sending me another link to their polices. I caved. What else could I do? My Chicago event is looming. I sent Facebook my driver’s license and Social Security number (cringe). To confirm my physical address, I had to wait a week for a letter to come via snail mail. I’m now authorized to run political ads on Facebook, and my humble event is being “boosted” as I type this post—albeit with a disclaimer flagging it as political content.

I would like to go on record by predicting that Facebook’s well-intentioned but Kafkaesque effort to police its sizable slice of the internet is doomed to fail. Under their expansive definition, virtually all content is political. They can’t differentiate free speech that mocks fascism from the fake news that promotes it. Restricting artists, authors, and others whose content is “merely” imaginative will bowdlerize the entire site into nothing but staid, Facebook-approved political ads and Tide Pod memes.

The good news, however, is that Facebook’s death will undoubtedly be good for America. Perhaps it will encourage more people to get offline and to read more newspapers and books.

By the way, if you live in Chicago, come hear me read from my book* at 7 p.m. on June 22ndat Quimby’s Bookstore. Quimby’s is located at 1854 W North Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60622. You can find more information here.

* Disclaimer: Freedom City is a work of political satire. Certificate on file with the Ministry of Facebook.



Enter to win one of 100 signed copies of Freedom City!

Freedom City, a biting and hilarious attack on post-Trump America, is getting a new cover, designed by a famous illustrator [name withheld for now]. To make room for the new books, I’m giving away 100 signed copies of the first edition with its hip, indie cover. Enter to win between May 27, 2018, and June 11, 2018 at Goodreads. These books are bound to become collectors’ items!

About Freedom City:

Freedom City hilariously ridicules the current kakistocracy (government run by the worst people) in a gripping satire that pays homage to The Monkey Wrench Gang.

After President Trump unceremoniously dies from natural causes, four misfits from Washington, D.C. who call themselves the Fearless Vampire Killers sever the heads of Confederate statues and wage a comedic guerrilla war on post-Trump America. When President Pence enlists droves of fascist volunteers to crush the “alt-left” uprising, the rebels must risk their lives to run the fascists out of D.C.

What follows is not only a battle for survival-but a desperate search for remnants of what once made America great.

Know a resister who would love my book? Please help spread the word! All U.S. residents over 18 can register for the giveaway. There is absolutely no cost to enter.

Again, a link to the giveaway will be available here once the contest opens.

Good luck!



Only at the Gaithersburg Book Festival: $10 copies of Freedom City!

You read it. The paperback retails online for $14.99, and I’m marking them down to $10 for the Gaithersburg Book Festival on Saturday, May 19th.

“Why is he doing this?” you ask. “Is Philip Becnel insane?”

Yes, but that’s not the reason, which is actually trifold.

First, my two teenagers will be helping me at the fair, and since I’m not paying them (it builds character) I can afford to be generous. Don’t worry about the kids. I’ll buy them some ice cream. They’ll be fine.

Second, Freedom City is in the midst of a cover re-design by none other than famed illustrator David Foldvari, known for his work in The New York Times and The Guardian, among other places. I therefore need to lighten my inventory of books bearing the indie cover. These first editions are bound to become collector’s items, so it’s a bargain any way you look at it.

Third, the Gaithersburg Book Festival will be my first foray as the author of a vehemently anti-Trump novel outside of New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Although Freedom City has sold online throughout the world, I’ve done exactly zero outreach or advertising beyond the major metropoles east of the Mississippi River. I therefore thought it fitting to humble myself before the book-loving masses of exurban Marylanders. Besides discounting the book a bit, I plan on dialing back my natural hipster aesthetic to an unpretentious “6.”

Besides a great novel and a couple sullen teenagers, I’ll also bring a few copies of the non-fiction books that helped make me a name in the investigations community: Introduction to Conducting Private Investigations and Principles of Investigative Documentation.

Anyway, I’m super excited about the Festival and am looking forward to shaking a few hands, signing a few books, and otherwise rubbing elbows with many interesting folks.

See you there!



Back to investigating

I published my anti-Trump satire Freedom City back in December, after about a year of being on a sabbatical from my private investigations business. The buzz over the book has been amazing, the reviews phenomenal. Just in the past few weeks, bloggers have written:

“… a truly unique and one of a kind novel…” – Anthony Avina

“… following in the footsteps of giants…” – Michael Jay Tucker

“Richly descriptive, blunt, poignant, funny, complex, beautifully textured, and brilliantly scripted. How many more adjectives can I throw at this fine novel?!” – Bradley Knox

Despite these amazing accolades, sales haven’t yet afforded me the luxury of prolonging my sabbatical indefinitely, which means it’s back to the grindstone until this book or the next one takes off. In the meantime, I figured it might be fun for fans of Freedom City to know a bit more about what I do when I’m not writing fiction.

I began working as a private investigator in 1999, the year I graduated from college. At that time, I mainly worked court appointed cases for indigent criminal defendants under the Criminal Justice Act. That work primarily involves finding and interviewing witnesses. You meet lots of interesting characters and there is a ton of writing too, as everything must be meticulously documented.

As I gained experience, I stopped accepting court appointed cases and over the next decade or so worked as an investigator on civil cases, primarily plaintiff-side employment litigation and qui tam (whistleblower) claims under the False Claims Act. These cases are fundamentally the same from an investigator’s standpoint: find people, interview them, write reports. I formed a partnership with some other great investigators in 2004, and my little business grew into perhaps the most esteemed private investigations firm in Washington, D.C.

Over the past several years, I returned to working court appointed cases, specifically death penalty defense in Virginia. After nearly 20 years as a private investigator, I know I’m well suited for these high-stakes cases, which are both extremely challenging and also very rewarding. I’m at the top of my game, and I love the work.

But I won’t lie. I’d rather write books and pass my company onto my more junior investigators. I’ve worked on more murder cases than I can remember, not to mention countless other cases involving people doing shitty things to each other. It’s taxing on the soul.

So, I’m hoping that enough people will love my book, review it kindly, tell their friends, and that ultimately I can turn this writing gig into something of a livable wage.

Until then, I’ll continue investigating. There are certainly worse ways to make a living.



I reject thee, fake history

In a recent blog article titled Daddy issues in the Trump era I explained my surprise at realizing how much the estrangement from my father had seeped into my anti-Trump dystopian novel Freedom City.

FD’s father, who he idolized, died from cancer. Joe simply rejected his abusive father, who he loathed. The common denominator is that both their dads were irrevocably gone. In retrospect, it’s plain how this theme found its way into my story, because I haven’t talked to my own father since before Trump’s inauguration.

Last week I was interviewed on Takoma Radio WOWD-LP as part of the “Walking on the Moon” show hosted by Dr. Danny Griffin—a clinical psychologist—who asked me about the impetus for writing Freedom City. Talk veered to my upbringing in New Orleans, and Danny asked some probing questions, which unearthed memories I had long ago buried.

It was only after I read the following passage from Freedom City, and after Danny asked about my personal relationship with Confederate statues and whether compromise between those who revere and those who detest them is possible, that a troubling memory returned to me:

On the day his father’s eyes closed for the last time, FD spent the night clandestinely painting a mural beneath the John Philip Sousa Bridge. It was a portrait of his father as FD remembered him in the days before his death, before his raspy breathing stopped and the machine keeping him alive began its wailing, futile alarm.

When a cop on the bridge yelled and shone a light down on him, he dove into the Anacostia River. Submerged in the currents that whisked him away, he screamed beneath the water in the agony of sorrow—and continued screaming, barely attempting to swim, until the river dumped him, like a corpse, at Anacostia Park. There, he pulled himself onto the grass, stared up at the sky, and tried to imagine what life would be like without his father. It was unfathomable.

Two years later, it was still unfathomable.

The following day, FD skipped school. He continued skipping for two weeks. His professors called him. He had been on the dean’s list, on his way to becoming a brilliant engineer. Encouraged by his father, FD had once yearned to build something important and beautiful. He ignored his professors’ calls. With his father gone he couldn’t imagine anything more important and beautiful than a simple mural honoring his memory. And he didn’t need to go to school for that.

Now, clad in a white Tyvek suit that covered him from head to toe, he admired his first engineering marvel. Was it beautiful? It was certainly not art, even in a loose sense, but there was beauty in its purpose. Was it important? Well, that depended on whether it worked or not. He was about to find out, for Stanley Congdon’s confirmation hearing was scheduled to start in ten minutes.

Also in a Tyvek suit, mopping perspiration from his forehead with a rag, Beach read off an inventory of their captured Confederate heads. “Four Robert E. Lees, a Jefferson Davis, a John S. Mosby, two Stonewall Jacksons, a JEB Stuart, and a Nathan Bedford Forrest—”

“The Klan’s first goddamned Grand Wizard,” Clare said from atop the wooden ladder, which reached all the way to what had once been the attic.

“Right.” Beach rolled over one of the Robert E. Lees with his Tyvek-shod toe.

“Don’t forget the six anonymous soldiers’ heads,” FD said.

For the past week, Joe had meticulously hollowed out the inside of the heads with a Dremel tool, so each would weigh exactly twenty pounds. This decreased the counterweight they needed. It was Clare who realized, once she climbed the ladder, that from the roof they could see the tip of the slave-built “Statue of Freedom” standing atop the Capitol dome. Using a laser distance finder and a surveyor’s theodolite, they aligned their trebuchet perfectly with the crest of feathers on the statue’s helmet and knew the distance down to a few feet.

“Jack, you copy?” Clare said into the radio.

“Copy,” Joe’s voice replied into their earpieces. “I’m in position. Just give me a heads up—harhar—and fire away.”

FD took another moment to admire his masterpiece. As a counterweight they had used nearly fifty flat, iron plates strapped into a metal harness he had welded together himself. The plates were the kind commonly found in gyms, each weighing forty-five pounds. Altogether their counterweight was over two thousand pounds, which (he thought) was heavy enough to propel the bronze heads into the Capitol dome. The harness was designed so they could take out or add weight, as necessary, to make their missiles fall farther or shorter.

They couldn’t, however, change the trajectory, since the trebuchet was built into the shell of the house. In order to align their payload beam—a repurposed, thirty-foot light pole—with the dome, they had had to build it slightly off kilter from the frame of the house. If any part of his calculations were wrong, they would miss the dome every time, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Clare came down the ladder. “Are you guys sure these things aren’t going to hit someone?”

FD loaded one of Robert E. Lee heads into the trebuchet’s sling. “I’m not sure of nothing, but the dome’s made of cast iron and we’re a long way away.”

“If we kill anyone it will be God’s fault,” Beach said.

“You don’t believe in God.”

“All the same.”

Clare shrugged and walked to the backdoor. Unlike FD and Beach, she was wearing workout clothes. “I’ll take my place now.” She disappeared behind the plywood.

As Clare got settled into her lookout spot down the block, FD and Beach turned the trebuchet’s wench. The arms of the wench were six-feet, steel stop-sign tubes, providing the leverage to lift the great weight. With one person using his bodyweight to pull downward, and the other pushing upward on the other side with all his strength, they painstakingly lifted the counterweight until it was at a forty-five-degree angle from the payload beam. Once there, FD placed a hook onto the end of the beam, which spanned the length of the house.

“Queen in position,” came Clare over the radio. “All clear.”

“Copy that,” Joe said.

FD held the sledgehammer out to Beach. “This was your idea, so you should take the first swing.”

Beach waved his hand. “Please, this is your creation. You go first.”

FD hefted the hammer over his shoulder, preparing to swing and knock the hook loose from the beam. At that, the counterweight would drop, the payload beam would shoot through the roof, and the sling would release the head, which would then soar nearly eight hundred feet—hopefully straight through the Capitol dome…

Danny’s question about compromise over Confederate statues vis-à-vis my family triggered a memory of my grandmother, who died some years ago. When I was around nine years old, she spoke to me with great adoration for the once-prominent statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans. The fact that it faced north, she claimed, was controversial, since it appeared Lee was “turning his back” on the South. However, she disagreed with this viewpoint, because to her he appeared to be standing up to (fight) the North. Besides, if they’d constructed it the other way, it would look like he was running away.

If you’re perplexed about how something so ridiculous could be more of a controversy than the fact that Lee fought an armed rebellion against the United States over the right to own human beings, I’m totally with you. The point is that this statue obviously meant a lot to my grandmother and the rest of my family, some of who still jerk off about the Civil War.

Before this statue was ultimately removed last year, after being declared a “public nuisance,” I’d passed by it a thousand times. I took it for granted, never connecting it to my grandmother’s lesson or caring which way it faced. To me it was simply a hunk of metal I passed on the streetcar that signified just a few more blocks to the French Quarter. It was there long before I was nine, and I assumed it would remain there forever.

I don’t want to pick on my grandmother, who was otherwise a warm and amazing woman, but when I think back on that interaction now, as a (somewhat) rational adult, it enrages me that this fake history, unbeknownst to me, occupied real estate in my brain for so long. How many similar statues—and streets, and schools, and other monuments to the Confederacy—do we pass every day, believing that they’re imputable, just part of the landscape? How many other children were indoctrinated to believe that the only controversy is which way the inanimate object faces, and not that it’s an overtly racist symbol?

At Danny’s highly perceptive question, I faltered. It was a lot to process on live radio. As someone partially raised (raised partially?) in the South, I recognize that the topic obviously has deep roots. Thinking about it after the show, however, I regret not simply echoing the sentiments expressed by the courageous characters in Freedom City. No, I don’t think compromise is possible, because white Southerners have had their heads up their asses on this topic since at least 1865. And by “white Southerners,” I’m including my grandparents, just about every member of my father’s family—even me. Fuck those statues. Tear them down.

There’s no reason to equivocate.

The next time I’m asked about Confederate monuments, I’ll paraphrase the words of Beach Sands, notorious King of the Fearless Vampire Killers.

Beach stood clear and held the radio’s button down: “One head of Robert E. Lee, traitor, notorious human trafficker, failed general—we reject thee, fake history. Return to sender!”