Saturday, January 9, 2010

Great Derangement - A Review

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. If you don’t know who he is, take a little time to get to know him. His blog is a good place to start: A number of YouTubes are also available. He appears frequently on Bill Maher’s Real Time and shows up on all the usual news shows.

I saw him recently on Bill Moyers’ Journal and was totally taken by him. He has a sense of humor to match Molly Ivins. He also has what your grandmother would tell you is “quite a mouth on him.” He describes Thomas Friedman as “a genius of literary incompetence," for example, and David Brooks simply as “an asshole.” He wonders if Michelle Bachmann can write her name with a stick in the sand.

He has been called a “gonzo journalist,” one who mixes fact and fiction, chooses style over accuracy, and writes from first person experience. I think this is both unfair and inaccurate. In anthropology, this is called “participant observation,” and it is a given that your perspective is infinitely richer if you write from the inside rather than describe what you see through a window or on a television screen.

Taibbi has been a brick layer in Siberia and a born-again in Texas, but his interests are chiefly political. I’ve just finished Great Derangement, his latest (2009) look at the United States as a crumbling empire. The government is up for sale and in Taibbi’s view we are caught between a radical right of morons who blame the country’s ills on homosexuality and a radical left who see 9/11 as a Bush Administration plot to seize Iraqi oil. Taibbi covers some of the same ground here as in his 2006 book, Spanking the Donkey, where he describes Americans, once naïve idealists, as people now motivated by hatred and contempt for folks at the other end of the political spectrum. We vote not so much for our guy as against the other guy. And more of the same stuff as in his 2007 book, Smells like Dead Elephants, about corrupt politicians. The previous books were comprised of essays. In Great Derangement he makes a case that there is a unity in the dysfunctionality of our two wacko political extremes.

People who argue the country is in the toilet have to contend with the fact that this is nothing new. Remember the Teapot Dome Scandal? Remember New York’s Mayor Walker and his twelve years of open and extravagant corruption before FDR and LaGuardia took over and cleaned the place up? Remember Watergate? What’s the point of beating this dead horse?

For one thing, Halliburton’s profits from the war really are bigger, our media seem to be on their last legs and there is evidence everywhere that Americans are dumbing down as never before. A critical reader will wonder why he is focusing on the fanatical extremes and passing over the center, where most of us live, but he makes the case that Jeff Sharlet makes in The Family, that we’re in the clutches of a self-serving oligarchy on the right, while 36% of the folk on the left, according to a Scripps Howard poll taken in the fall of 2006, are persuaded 9/11 was either fostered, or at least allowed to happen, by the U.S. government. The fringe has become the mainstream, in other words. Whether the almost complete lack of faith in government started with George Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction or whether that was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back, we have now become a nation of folk running around like chickens with our heads cut off. As Time has pointed out, if it’s an idea held by over a third of the population, it’s a mainstream notion.

To make his point, Taibbi chose two groups to investigate, the dysfunctional Congress now running loose and unobserved, and the born-again idiots who follow John Hagee and his Cornerstone Church Christian Zionist ministry.

Even hardened cynics long familiar with the ways Congress sells its ass to its corporate donors will have trouble keeping their cookies down at Taibbi’s description of Texas Republican Joe Barton, who uses his position as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to build refineries the country no longer wants or needs and works to dismantle the Clean Air Act as part of the Republican agenda. And you’d be seriously challenged to find in fiction an example of brainlessness more hilarious than the sight of a group of people huffing and puffing demons out through their mouths at a revival meeting, the demon of cancer, the demon of human intellect, the demon of anal fissures.

Taibbi reveals a passion for his work when he goes undercover as a born-again and lets himself get sucked in, lulled by the hypnotic effect of the assurances of a community of lonely people seeking connection and measuring success by the degree of emotionality they can generate. One can find descriptions of the lack of discussion and critical thinking among these groups in any number of places. Taibbi lives the sadness even when he is being derisive and explains the attraction better than I’ve seen it explained before.

You yuck it up, you feel superior to the losers and their trailer park religion. And then you realize this John Hagee is a multi-millionaire welcomed with open arms by every Israeli prime minister, sought out by John McCain, the recipient of awards by U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Texas Governor Mark White and countless others, for his blind and unquestioning support of Israel. His influence extends far beyond a few sad nutcases in South Texas.

Taibbi braids together the Hagee story with the 9/11 Truth Movement, those committed to the notion that the government blew up the World Trade Center, and faked the plane crashes. For a time, because so many of these folk had decent lefty credentials, they drew in the likes of Ed Asner, Ralph Nader, Van Jones and many members of the families of 9/11 victims. In the end, Taibbi writes, the “Truthies” and the Christian End Time wackos are “both basically crude parodies of the same old left/right canned media Holy War.” (p. 302) Taibbi’s goal, he tells us, is to get us to back away from these extremes.

Amazon reviewers have criticized Great Derangement for being very funny at first and slow going afterwards, but that’s only because people like to see people lash out better than they like listening to reasoned argument and close analysis. Taibbi pulls no punches. “Reagan was the first president who was rewarded at the polls for the quality of his fictions.” Bill Clinton was “a bullshitter of Shakespearean dimensions.” If we don’t turn ourselves around, we’re going to end up being a “Bangladesh with fat people.” But to wish his biting wit went all the way through the book is to sell short the parts where there is some serious informative journalism going on. The book should be read for his description of how earmarks and “continuing resolutions” are written, as well as for the belly laughs.

After lashing out at corrupt politicians and religious Pied Pipers, Taibbi saves his strongest invective for his fellow Americans and their lazy self-indulgence. “No creature on earth,” he writes, “is more inclined to public verbal diarrhea than a modern American; whether it’s the AA culture, or the post-Me Generation emphasis on “finding yourself,” or all those neo-Woody Allens confessing to their therapists, or just too many damn people fantasizing about telling the audience of Oprah what influenced their latest album… we live in a country where people believe implicitly in their right to bore the living shit out of absolutely everybody within haranguing distance with tales of their miserable, lonely, and inevitably self-deluding searches for personal fulfillment in the emotional desert that is our crass commercial culture.” (p. 251)

OK, so he was having a bad day.

He’s still right. We’re not very civil, we don’t work collectively to fix things, we allow ourselves to be jerked around, we give corrupt and incompetent government a free pass, and we’re suckers for conspiracy theorists and almost anybody who tells us what we want to hear. We need to get our bullshit detectors back in working order, and get back in the swing.

My only problem with Taibbi is my problem with anybody who sets up the left and the right as if they were simply two poles of equal standing. Ever since I saw Donahue put concentration camp survivors on the stage alongside neo-Nazis, I have marvelled at how simplistic we can get in thinking “there are two sides to every story.” The right has the Ministry of Republican Propaganda in Fox News and the team of Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. The left took a while to respond to the steady flow of disinformation, but eventually came back with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher and a number of others. Both sides slant. But the right actively misrepresents and keeps the left on the defensive. To say, simply, that we need to find a place in the middle is to assume both sides are equally interested in engagement.

Taibbi, while he admires Obama’s attempt to embrace both sides, is not urging we find the middle. He’s clearly more at home on the left than on the right. His point is that the center has decayed, and what once might have been a reasoned response to madness is now more than likely to be just more madness. And yet, American that he is, for all his cynical invective, he is remarkably upbeat at the end about our ability to face our fears and get to work.

Right. What’s the alternative?

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