I confess to being something of a fan of Matt Taibbbi's writing. In his blogs, his pieces for `Rolling Stone' Magazine (of which he is now editor) and his numerous TV appearances he never fails to entertain as he reveals some of the truly astounding levels of corruption in the badly dysfunctional process of US Government, and the way moneyed lobbyists buy legislators with campaign donations in order to gain special favours. Taibbi's public stance against the criminal practices on Wall Street which almost bankrupted the world's economy, and his open support for the `Occupy Wall Street' protestors, has revealed an understanding of the complexities of the banking scandal way beyond the knowledge-level of most `economics journalists' in the mainstream media. All this is done with clear, lucid explanations and a biting humour to sweeten the medicine.
`The Great Derangement' is Taibbi's 2007 book describing how the corruption of the American political process on Capitol Hill has now degenerated to the point where many citizens simply don't understand what is going on or how the system really works, because big business lobby groups and the congressmen and senators who work to forward their interests bury the process of getting what they want in procedural complexity largely hidden from public scrutiny. As a reaction to this sham, large sections of American society have become so disconnected from the political process that they retreat into either fundamentalist end-times religious movements led by far-right political cheerleaders, or ignorant delusional conspiracy theories about the government either knowing about or organizing a vast conspiracy behind the Salafi-Islamist attacks on NYC & Washington DC in September 2001. Taibbi reveals these differing flavours of mass idiocy to be essentially the same phenomenon; a useful distraction which serves the interests of the prevailing administration and their various paymasters, in the case of the `truthers' by leading them away pied-piper style into delusional paradigms where they waste their energies and have no effect on the political process, and in the case of the end-times evangelical churches by - among other things - delivering a powerful political lobby for the neo-con right wing and indirectly for the hard-line policies of the State of Israel.
Through detailed examinations into the daily business of government, Taibbi patiently and forensically dissects the manipulative and dishonest practices at the heart of the legislative process. By way of illustration, Taibbi focuses on bill HR 3893 championed by Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX). For public consumption, the bill is supposed to champion the rights of the consumer and make available cheaper gasoline and heating oil to the cash-strapped and destitute survivors of Hurricane Katrina. In reality, we are shown with great skill and in great detail how the more arcane procedures of Congress are exploited to repeal provisions of the Clean Air Act and so relieve polluters from annoying legislation which curbs toxic emissions. The price of gas remains unaffected by the new law and oil-company profits continue to roll in: political cynicism in action. In a later chapter, Taibbi illustrates how the congressional budget is constructed to ensure political paymasters from industry are rewarded by the complex process of `earmarking' which, if you have little knowledge of these arcane procedures, may come as an unwelcome revelation as to the degree of corruption in the broken political system.
The saddest (and funniest) chapters are those where Taibbi adopts the undercover persona `Matt Collins' and joins the Cornerstone Evangelical Church in Texas to discover for himself how such institutions operate. Chapter 3 `The Longest Three Days of my Life' details an `Encounter Weekend' at the Church which becomes progressively laugh-out-loud funny as Matt is slowly taken over by his alter-ego and gets swept along by a process organized with military precision, a textbook example of how to generate `group-think.' However, Matt also feels empathy for other attendees who befriend him; we sympathise with their plight as they try to fill the void of their broken lives with new religion which offers them family-belonging, certainty and salvation. Largely abandoned by the political class, a new `family' is embraced with religious zeal and belief that `the rapture' will take them to Heaven. The casting-out-of-demons ceremony ("I cast out the demon of the intellect...I cast out the demon of anal fissures...I cast out the demon of astrology...of philosophy") is beyond comic absurdity - especially to the 21st century sensibilities of a European reader.
Chapter 4 `The Derangement at War' sees the author in Iraq, where he goes out on patrol with a US Army platoon in Bagdhad. The pointlessness and financial profligacy of US policy in Iraq is brought into sharp focus, as the well-meaning but ineffectual young recruits go about their duties but are in reality no more than Aunt-Sally targets for insurgents. Says Taibbi:
"Sometime later, when I'd find myself in Texas with ex-military preacher Phil Fortenberry - talking about enemy aircraft and arterial breaches with somewhat older men and women, many of them ex-soldiers moved on to a different but no less confusing stage of life - I wondered if the Army, with its same tireless belief in American can-doism and its same sit-in-a-circle get-to-know-you rituals, doesn't prepare some of these kids for future encounter weekends" (p97).
Two chapters of the book deal with Taibbi's encounters with 9/11 `truthers' and `the derangement of the American left.' Initially a small bunch of `truthers' picket his NYC office in protest at a comment about their `movement' in a blog (Taibbi called them "clinically insane"), and subsequently deluge his email inbox with obscenities and hate-mail. Later, Taibbi attends some `troofer' meetings incognito, and we see here the same kind of dysfunctional, delusional disconnect with any kind of meaningful reality as earlier revealed in the Cornerstone Church meetings. If you have ever been exposed to the deranged rantings of a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, these chapters are well worth the price of admission:
"The movement is distinguished by a kind of defiant unfamiliarity with the actual character of America's ruling class. In 9/11 truth lore, the people who staff the White House, the security agencies, the Pentagon, and groups like PNAC and the Council on Foreign Relations are imagined to be a monolithic, united class of dastardly, swashbuckling risk-takers with permanent hard-ons for `Bourne Supremacy'-style `false flag' operations, instead of the mundanely greedy, risk-averse, backstabbing, lawn-tending, half clever suburban golfers they are in real life...
"The truly sad thing about the 9/11 Truth Movement is that it's based on the wildly erroneous proposition that our leaders would ever be frightened enough of public opinion to feel the need to pull off this kind of stunt before acting in a place like Afghanistan of Iraq. At its heart, 9/11 Truth is a conceit, a narcissistic pipe dream for a dingbat, sheeplike population that is pleased to imagine itself dangerous and ungovernable...the adherents flatter themselves with fantasies about a ruling class obsessed with keeping the terrible truth from the watchful, exacting eye of the people...whereas the real conspiracy of power in America is right out in the open and always has been, only nobody cares..." (p189-191) - and so on.
For all the merits of `The Great Derangement' - and there are many - one can't help but feel Taibbi might have given us an even better book; a punchier, more coherent essay about the current state of the political landscape in the USA. Editing is good but not exemplary, there are no illustrations or photos, and the argument is made in episodic cameos from pulling together loosely connected strands. These minor shortcomings might simply be down to the author's journalistic credentials as editor/author of magazine articles; book-writing is a slightly different skill-set.
Matt Taibbi is still young. Let's hope he continues to fight the good fight, and offer us more of his intelligent, scathing, right-on-the-money insights in the future.
on 3 August 2008
Taibbi commendably takes his journalist spotlight off the corrupt actors on Washington's center stage, and instead investigates the most disaffected ordinary Americans. But to do so he goes undercover, posing as a believer in far right-wing Christian-Zionism, or far-left 9/11 conspiracy theories. He basically plays Borat, inventing oddball past experiences to play his part, and letting the unsuspecting locals make fools of themselves for the camera. Later Taibbi gives his real opinions of what idiots they are, and asks what America is coming to.
Only slowly does Taibbi's basic compassion for these people rise to the fore. These are people, he reasons, both conservatives and liberals, who feel so conned by the political rip-off system that they can't tell who to trust. And maybe, Taibbi suspects, part of the con has been to get them to blame and hate each other.