(Please welcome Matt Taibbi, author of The Great Derangement, in the comments — jh)
Matt Taibbi writes beautifully. I really can’t think of anyone around today who can match his gift of language and political insight, his ability to gaze unflinchingly at the decay infesting the soul of the American body politic. It is something unique.
If his enfant terrible status wasn’t secured when he was forced out of Uzbekistan for writing critically of the country’s president, it certainly was by the time he departed New York Press in the wake of his article "The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope." Which would have been admirable sheerly for the fact that Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Michael Bloomberg and Matt Drudge all denounced it, but it was with the follow-up piece,"Keep Pope Alive" — an in-you-face "fuck you" to the PC police — that Taibbi in my book achieved icon status.
That took some stones.
(And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his canonical piece on Joe Lieberman, in which he referred to Lieberman’s mom as "Ernest Borgnine in pearls. Lieberhack Dan Gerstein sent spittle-flecked copies out in toto as a press release, an example of the deranged, cruel invective being hurled at Holy Joe. )
Sorry, that one was for me.
Anyway, to the current work. I was reading a dead tree version of the New York Times last week, where articles about food shortages, drought and peak oil were butressed with one which finds Inhofe railing about global warming. Evidently last year had the worst cold spell in Oklahoma in 30 years, ergo it doesn’t exist. "You can’t have it both ways," said Inhofe.
It was with this absurd juxtaposition in my head that I cracked The Great Derangement:
The best cover our corrupt politicians have for their behavior is the very banality of their crimes; to quote Tolstoy, their corruption is "most ordinary and therefore most horrible." To be robbed and betrayed by a fiendish underground conspiracy, or by the earthly agents of Satan, is at least a romantic sort of plight — it suggests at least a grand hollywood-ready confrontation between good and evil — but to be coldly ripped off over and over again by a bunch of bloodless, second-rate schmoes, schmoes you chose, you elected, is not something anyone will take much pleasure in bragging about.
That’s why people will think up all sorts of crazy things to explain what’s wrong, long before they get around to the actual truth. But it’s the simple, unvarnished reality right out in the open that’s most frightening.
Indeed. It is somewhat comforting to think that there is some grand order underlying everything — be it the hand of God or the miscreants on the Bush administration. And thus Taibbi hits the road to come face to face with the true believers, visiting the church of John Hagee and a group within the 9/11 truth movement. He sees them as respectively right and left wing manifestations of the same impulse, but also inhabitants of alternate universes which simply do not embrace a common set of facts. It creates the perfect petri dish for politicos like Inhofe who want to slap a "for sale" sign on the back of America (Inhofe received over $300,000 in campaign contributions from Big Oil between 2002-2007 and has somewhat unsurprisingly called global warming a "hoax.")
Would that such cynicism were the exclusive purview of Republicans, however. Taibbi looks at the failure of the 2006 Democratic majority in Congress to do just about anything they were elected to do, and wonders if they aren’t responsible for the popularity of the 9/11 Truth movement:
Hard as I try to get these concepts out of my head, terms like "the people" and "the ruling class" are always in my thinking, and in the case of 9/11 Truth and the peace movement, it was now very hard for me to avoid the simplistic notion of a voiceless subject population abandoned by its political parent class, i.e, "the people’ cut loose by the Democratic Party.
All along I couldn’t help but see the Truther movement as a symptom of a society whose political institutions had simply stopped addressing the needs of its citizens. When people can’t trust the media, and don’t have real political choices, and are denied access to the decison-making process, and can’t even be sure that their votes are being counted — when even their activist advocates are lunching with the Man in fancy restaurants in Georgetown — they will eventually act out on their own. And when they do, who can blame them if the cause they choose to pursue is a little bit crazy?
Much of Taibbi’s humor is derived from mocking his subjects, winding them up provoking them. It often comes across as condescending and uncharitable, but in reading the Great Derangement I felt like it didn’t spring from a sense of superiority — rather, he feels blame for the current state of affairs can’t be simply be laid at the feet of politicians and the media. That ultimately people have a choice in the matter. At one point, he looks at two little boys standing in the Capitol, "blank eyes, neither old enough or guilty enough yet to be villains in the American drama."
It’s increasingly hard for people to negotiate their own lives, and it’s awfully seductive to hand over the decision making process to some snake-oil salesman who promises to explain it all. But in the end, Taibbi has a fundamental respect for these people in his expectation that they are making choices that they need to take responsibility for. And those who make bad and feeble choices are, in his mind, villains in the story.
If I have a critique of the book, or of Taibbi’s work as a whole, is that he is often cast too rigidly in the mold of Hunter Thompson, either by his own design or external forces. I often feel like it pushes him into corners where he’s uncomfortable, or that he just gets lazy sometimes and reaches for the easy Thompson-esque phrase when he doesn’t know what else to do. I think he’s remarkably gifted and it’s when he gives himself the license just to be Matt Taibbi that he’s at his best.
Well, he’s written an amazing book and he’s with us today. Please welcome Matt Taibbi in the comments.