Many readers of this blog will recognize the name of Rolling Stone writer and journalist Matt Taibbi. A gonzo investigative journalist in the style of Hunter Thompson, he was a regular correspondent on Real Time with Bill Maher during the 2008 election. He routinely cracked up the panel with his witty and savage comments, and has also appeared frequently on The Rachel Maddow Show. Famous for his lacerating political commentary and analysis, he has a long track record covering not only U.S. politics, but also he was embedded with the troops in Iraq (described in the book reviewed here), spent a number of years in Moscow as a correspondent, and has worked all over the world as a journalist. He even played professional baseball in Moscow and professional basketball in Mongolia, and had to flee Uzkbekistan after offending the president.
Even though it is now a few years old, I finally got the chance to read his 2008 book The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion, which spent many weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. The events described in the book occurred from about 2005-2008, so they seem a bit dated in the perspective of what has happened since the 2008 elections. But in most respects the same groups are saying and doing the same things, and in some cases, the actions of people and the events since 2008 are even more deranged and unhinged than they were when he wrote his book, so his wickedly funny analysis is even more apropos.
The premise of the book is that American politics is so dysfunctional, and the American people are so disillusioned and jaded about the political gridlock in Washington, and its inability to respond to the needs of everyday Americans, that we have turned to all sorts of false prophets and bizarre notions in order to find comfort and comprehend a complex world that defies simple explanation. Taibbi begins the book by covering the way the U.S. Congress acts today, and it’s a disgusting portrait. During the daytime a few politicians in the nearly empty House and Senate chambers waste the taxpayers’ money and time doing meaningless business, bloviating about naming post offices and honoring police officers or firemen to get their names in The Congressional Record. That’s why watching CSPAN these days is a sure cure for insomnia. The real business of running the country goes on after hours and behind closed doors, when powerful committee chairman of the majority party get to write the bills that favor their biggest donors, and stick in their pet projects and earmarks where there is no oversight. The bills are often written to accomplish the exact opposite of their official purpose, as when Taibbi describes how Texas Rep. Joe Barton (infamous for calling President Obama a liar during a speech) pushed a bill ostensibly for Hurricane Katrina relief that had nothing for the victims or hurricane safety and readiness. Instead, it was a thinly disguised effort to give polluters a big break from taxes, regulation and emissions controls. The minority party tries to challenge some of it, but as long as the majority party has the votes in place, no one has the time or inclination to read the fine print on bills once they emerge from committee with no warning and only minutes on the House or Senate floor before they are voted on. That’s how our great democracy works, folks, and the hypocrisy and sleaze applies to both sides. Taibbi starts by describing how slimeballs such as Tom DeLay and Barton got away with it before they lost their majority in the 2006 elections, but after the Democrats took over, it was almost as bad.
Given the American public’s justifiable loss of faith in Congress, it’s Taibbi’s premise that they turn elsewhere for answers and comfort. The heart (and best part) of Taibbi’s book is when he puts on his undercover chameleon disguise and “embeds” himself as a new member of fundamentalist Reverend John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. Hagee is famous for being the fundie preacher who founded “Christians United for Israel”. His pro-Israeli stance is not based on any real love of Jews, but because having a Jewish state in place is important to End-Times prophecies. Taibbi provides a hilarious, snarky description of the contradictions and bizarre thinking of a typical Hagee sermon, which has the usual fundie demonization of secularism, evolution, science, homosexuality, and abortion. Then, with no apparent connection, Hagee rails against anti-Semitism or attacks on Israel. But the funniest part of the book is Taibbi’s detailed account of pretending to be a convert in the Hagee Empire, where cult-like indoctrination is a big part of the process. He goes through the motions and prayer meetings and confessionals, gets anointed and baptized, and “speaks in tongues” (actually, instead of babbling the meaningless gobbletegook of “tongues,” he chants song lyrics in Russian). He even attends a fundamentalist boot camp, where they break down your connections to your family and former friends, and force you to accept their church cult as your only source of comfort and community. (Here the infamous Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort make their appearance, peddling creationist nonsense). Throughout the entire exercise, Taibbi’s snarky comments and witty analyses point out the absurdity of the entire process. Even more disturbing, when he says something to his new church friends that is sarcastic or might make them think or question their absurd beliefs, they completely miss the point and cannot comprehend what he is talking about. To me, that is the scariest part of the whole book. These lonely, broken people who are simply looking for answers or comfort or some sort of community that accepts them get sucked into this huge political machine which indoctrinates them into believing that anything they hear outside the Church is the work of the devil. Not just the usual villains, like homosexuality and abortion and evolution, but even science and—believe it or not—philosophy are the work of Satan, too. When you come to think of it, that shouldn’t surprise us, because these church dogmas must be believed without question or reason, and anything that might allow the individual to challenge the dogma is diabolical to their way of thinking.
These churches violate all sorts of tax laws, since they are openly political when they endorse certain candidates and demonize others. During Taibbi’s stint, Hilary was The Great Beast that struck fear in their hearts, but it’s easy to see now why so many conservative Americans believed garbage (back during the Bush years) about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and yellowcake uranium or (more recently) about Obama being a Kenyan Muslim—and they still do, even though all of these things have been shown to be patently false. These people don’t need to get it from Fox News. They don’t even watch the news or read the papers in the first place. They learn everything they know about the world from their church community, so when their church leaders demonize the President and tell lies about him, they don’t have any other source of information to provide a reality check. Likewise, when they’re told lies about evolution and science for their entire lives, it should not surprise us that no amount of proper coverage of evolution in the schools or books and blogs by us “secular atheists” do not even reach them, let alone influence them. On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher and Keith Olbermann made fun of the conservative “information bubble” where people only heard news as distorted by Fox-Limbaugh-Beck conservative echo chamber. They had an “typical Republican voter” sitting in a large lucite sphere, eyes glazed over and unable to hear Maher and Olbermann shouting demonstrably true statements at him. But if Taibbi is right, that “bubble” is even more hermetically sealed, since these conservative churches are the only source of information about the outside world for most of their followers. Most things they encounter are considered to be Satanic and should be shunned. In some ways, they are like the Amish of Pennsylvania: sheltered, isolated, adhering to an outdated dogma, yet shunning anything about the modern world that their church does not condone.
As a counterpart to the insular world of fundamentalist churches, Taibbi provides an interesting insight into the looking-glass world of the “9/11 Truthers.” Instead of going undercover, Taibbi attends their meetings, reads their blogs and literature, argues with many of them, gets deluged with their hate emails and death threats, and gets deep into the intricate and strange debates over minutiae of 9/11. Like the fundies, this group is a dedicated extreme subculture with its own peculiar dogmatic view of the world that cannot be shaken by outside reality, and bizarre notions (that the Bush Administration was competent enough to carry off such a great conspiracy; that all the conspirators have managed to keep their silence after a decade; that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not a passenger jet, while C-130 transports rained jet fragments and body parts down on the Pentagon lawn in broad daylight—and no one saw them; that the passengers of the Pentagon jet are being imprisoned somewhere) that are not even remotely plausible when subjected to any kind of common sense or scrutiny. But plausibility and reality have no meaning in the deranged world of 9/11 Truthers. The bizarre stories they concoct, and their conspiratorial view of the world as run by the Trilateral Commission/ Illuminati/ Freemasons/ “black helicopter” set fits their paranoid conception of the globe controlled by mysterious unseen forces. These weird ideas make sense to them in a world where everything else is equally deranged to their point of view. Apparently, Taibbi views the 9/11 Truthers as a leftist counterpart to the fundamentalists, but the parallel doesn’t run true. Certainly during the Bush years it appealed to some with leftist sympathies, but the 9/11 Truthers are stronger than ever in the Obama years. They don’t have a clear political leaning, but the entire idea mostly appeals to people who view the world as controlled by big, unseen government forces. This is a right-wing nightmare, not a leftist fear.
Even though the events of the past three years have changed the political landscape a bit since the book came out, so much of it (Congressional gridlock and ineffectiveness; the Fundamentalist echo chamber; the 9/11 Truthers) still remains relevant today. But Taibbi continues to write about the foremost political and social events of our time, including his new book on the financial meltdown, Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the most Audacious Power Grab in American History. Typical of his prose is a description of Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”. In addition, there are his stories in Rolling Stone, and his continuous blog posts. Perhaps his best recent writing is his coverage of the Tea Party movement during the 2010 elections. He argues that the Teabaggers have no coherent leadership or message. In Taibbi’s view, they are merely older middle-class white folks who fear the demographic and social changes that are coming to this country, and resent the idea of minorities getting any government aid (even as they cling to their own Medicare and Medicaid). Taibbi suggests that this is why they parrot meaningless ideas like shutting down the Federal Government as a solution to complex economic problems, or radically cutting the Federal Government (not realizing that most of the federal spending is for Social Security and Medicare, which they don’t want cut). Or they fall for ploys like the flat tax or Cain’s “9-9-9″ plan, which are regressive rather than progressive, and will raise their own taxes but radically reduce the taxes of the rich.
So if you enjoy reading a sarcastic, snarky, extremely witty and perceptive gonzo journalist analysis and insights into the world of Congress, Fundamentalists, and 9/11 Truthers, I heartily recommend The Great Derangement.