We seriously need money. Anything. A buck. Come ahhhn!
By Matt Taibbi
Spiegel & Grau, 2008
“Man, at his best, remains a sort of one-lunged animal, never completely rounded and perfect, as a cockroach, say, is perfect. If he shows one valuable quality, it is almost unheard of for him to show any other. Give him a head, and he lacks a heart. Give him a heart of a gallon capacity, and his head holds scarcely a pint.”-H.L. Mencken, The Smart Set
What do you do if you’re a no-talent starveling squatting Gollum-like in the stagnant, flyspecked mud puddle of Matt Taibbi’s colossal footstep?
There’s no way for me to come out of this looking good. Whatever obtuse misreading I make of this book will be attributed wrongly to either idolatry or envy. When I drew this assignment, during a BEAST staff meeting, I felt my chest tighten; and hoped silently that this weight of expectation was actually some undiagnosed heart defect auspiciously revealing itself. I feared no intervention of mouth-to-mouth from my unhygienic colleagues, who I knew would simply continue smoking and web surfing for the duration of my death rattle. Alas, my body—as an elite number of female unfortunates can attest—possesses a limitless capacity to disappoint. I went on respiring.
We had to buy this book. No review copy was wedged between the bundles of anthrax-laced fan letters in our mailbox. That should tell you how over us Taibbi is.
Worse, the book opens with Taibbi’s panting flight from the BEASTly demimonde, a full-bore sprint toward the respectable, hells belles lettres of Rolling Stone journalism. He laments, in the introduction to The Great Derangement, the succession of editors urging him to make his follow-up to 2005’s Spanking the Donkey a bestiary of political villains. “I was a little depressed about the number of requests I was getting from editors to whale on people in print,” he writes, “and was somewhat afraid that I was going to be buttonholed, professionally, into a role as a kind of lefty/alternative hatchet man—a liberal Ann Coulter. It didn’t help that I was secretly afraid that this very thing was my only salable skill in the American media market.”
Reading his expat work in the eXile, I often found myself ruing a misspent youth. Now, Taibbi had me reconsidering my unwise career choices—and this was only on page one! Once more, I felt my hero worship reciprocated as a sensation of rapid, irrevocable aging. This thoughtful shedding of youthful indiscretions is perfectly fine for him: he just won a National Magazine Award for his RS columns. I might very soon be selling magazine subscriptions. For a brief moment, I hoped our ruthless and relentless pimping of Taibbi’s fleeting (but superabundant) association with Buffalo would inflict on him a psychic horror commensurate with the fate of uninflected opprobrium to which his departure has consigned us.
At times like this, especially, a drugless existence is a squalid thing. I rifled manically through the medicine cabinet—the barren oasis of American domestic sobriety—and quaffed a psychedelic admixture of liquid antacids. This distasteful and inefficacious remedy notwithstanding, the book quickly improved. Reading Derangement, I felt for once I wasn’t the nation’s biggest loser—or, at least, that I was in good company.
The America portrayed in The Great Derangement is one massive, recumbent, joylessly overfed shut-in. Our elected leaders and the mass media have commodified objective truth over the last 50 years, cutting it with ideological and commercial adulterants, selling the nation numbing, low-grade doses of competing subjectivities. Now, at the peak of our gangrenous bedsore delirium, a population unfamiliar with itself, the outside world or the workings of its own government has succumbed to a sepsis of egoism and superstition. Taibbi compares it to the end of the Roman Empire, whose barbarian conquerors “found the upper class paralyzed by lethargy and inaction and addicted to the ramblings of fortune tellers.”
It probably won’t surprise BEAST readers to learn Congress has been the greatest beneficiary of our debilitating sloth. Or that things haven’t meaningfully improved since the Democrats took over. But even I was struck by the degree to which it is a fundamentally cooperative affair. When Texas Republican Joe Barton manages to smartass his pork-laden energy bill, disguised as Katrina aid, past the scrutiny of the Rules Committee—eliciting laughter from even his staunchest Democratic opponents—Taibbi observes, “A well-timed inside joke is the Get Out of Jail Free card of congressional debate.” It’s notable, too, that while our vacuous, ad nauseam presidential election coverage commences with disorienting prematurity, these crucial cameral proceedings often take place before empty press galleries.
Of course the highlight of the book is Matt’s undercover stint in Pastor James Hagee’s Cornerstone Church, excerpted recently in Rolling Stone. Taibbi identifies most of the attendees as essentially decent folk who have wandered in seeking a cure for their loneliness and disaffection and who thereby take great comfort in the belief that God knows “the number of hairs on our heads.” But the church offers little more to the truly needy than spiritual fast food and six-dollar “anointing oil.” In one telling scene, a group counselor all but ignores a man who has just recounted a haunting childhood in order to chat with a healthier fellow about his hunting exploits.
Hagee’s political power derives from his ability to deliver his sheep to the polls on Election Day. Yet his congregation seems remarkably unmoved by his sermons about Israel and Iran. These are people who think New England is a place in Europe. It is the sense of community, and the promise of an afterlife that will compensate them for the crushingly mundane existence they are unable to improve, that keep his enfeebled members devoted.
Thus Taibbi is duly shocked by the ease with which he is able to solicit shoppers, as a Cornerstone recruiter, in a Texas mall. “I could scarcely even start my rap with half of these people before they started reading back to me the transcripts from their latest group therapy session. It was like none of these people had ever had a friend before.” He continues a moment later: “It’s like a sacrament in the American religion of the Self—the seminal post-Oscar Charlie Rose interview where you talk about Truffaut and your battle to overcome your glue addiction.”
It makes more sense, then, for folks to accept patent absurdities from the pulpit, and avoid eating fortune cookies lest one should invite the devil into his soul. Hagee marshals all that temporal discontent, politicizing people with statements like: “They want to use the environment to force America to reduce its population. And how do they want to do that? Through abortion.”
Witnessing this homily, Matt writes, “I wanted to cheer for that, too, except that I couldn’t figure out what the fuck he was talking about, so I kept my mouth shut.” It’s the fear of looking foolish—hence, the risk of further alienation—that keeps his fellow parishioners from questioning similar statements. And while Taibbi’s treatment of his subjects is frequently sympathetic, he can’t abide their self-defeating vanity. They’re all too ready to swallow the lie that their “lives now sucked not because they were unemployed, but because Sean Penn was a little communist weasel who didn’t believe in God besides.” He can’t resist one last, cruelly funny joke at their expense.
Some have dismissed the book, therefore, as sneering elitism. But Taibbi doesn’t go any easier on the overeducated, tech-savvy paranoiacs who make up the 9/11 Truth Movement. This subculture, he argues, “is really distinguished by a kind of defiant unfamiliarity with the actual character of America’s ruling class.” He derides their underlying story as “something cooked up by a bunch of teenagers raised on texting, TV and Sports Illustrated who just saw V For Vendetta for the first time and decided to write a Penguin History of the World on the strength of it.” The only thing worse is their zealous disbelief in easily verifiable facts. It doesn’t matter, for instance, that after 9/11 the government continued operating the “old cold war military”—instead of undertaking the radical transformation the PNAC camarilla actually lobbied for.
There’s a personal element to his savaging of the Movement. Taibbi relates that after publishing an essay critical of their theories, he became the target of a prolonged, foamingly angry email campaign and, incredibly, a protest. The upshot is a confrontation with Nico Haupt, “so-called mad genius of [the Movement]…credited with inventing the famed acronyms LIHOP (let it happen on purpose) and MIHOP (made it happen on purpose).” Matt retells how Haupt cornered him in a NYC diner, hurling invective, accusations that he’d been paid off, and a shower of food particles at him. “I vill spit on you all I like!” he screams at the reporter.
Self-aggrandizing Truthers like Haupt and his isolated followers coalesce around the conspiracy theories much like the churchgoers at Cornerstone unite in fantasy: out of a profoundly misguided need to be heard. Like Christian fundamentalists, their ignorance is fueled by an unwavering mistrust in all forms of mass media, except those darkened recesses of the internet where their prejudgments are validated. The informal Truther gatherings operate as petty, ad hoc bureaucracies, with frustrated members dropping out and others seizing control of message boards with the sole aim of perpetuating Babelic monologues that never fruitfully intersect. It’s not just people on opposite sides of the cultural divide who can’t communicate. Those who allegedly share the same beliefs are almost as hopelessly removed from one another. At one meeting, a member suggests the group should “create an entirely new system of media.” But they can’t even organize a movie night.
And like Hagee’s followers, the Movement’s frenzied energy is refracted and coopted—in this case, by the Democrats’ protean re-branding efforts—as it assumes the antiwar platform. Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid rode herd on the Truthers, paltering through groups like MoveOn, making sure they turned out in strong numbers for the midterms. But, of course, the Democrats never intended to deliver on their promises to bring soldiers home from Iraq. “A conspiracy like the one described by 9/11 Truth,” writes Taibbi in summation of the Movement’s sweaty futility, “would only be necessary in a country where the people are a threat to actually govern themselves.”
The Great Derangement’s oddest and most symbolic moments coincide, perhaps inevitably, in the ensanguined sand of American-occupied Baghdad. Matt is embedded with an MP unit that has left the surreal homeland comfort of the military outpost and is visiting an Iraqi police station. Bombs and small arms fire suddenly erupt outside. The soldiers, he says, “don’t know why they’re there and they don’t know who is blowing shit up a hundred yards away….they don’t know what they don’t know, and what they don’t know is turning out to be the important thing.” This “bubble” existence, as he labels it—in which everything external is alien and inassimilable—is to him, the book’s core.
It is amid this rupture that Taibbi bemoans the “lazy-ass Iraqi cops” who refuse to leave the station to offer assistance. The US soldiers empathize somewhat more, recognizing the fear paralyzing the police; understanding they’ll only imperil themselves to help “one of their guys.” But the reporter never reconsiders this glib, imperial caricature of shiftless wogs. It’s an American squad leader—not an Iraqi national—who asks, “What the fuck are we doing here?” This moment is the sole unacknowledged lapse, by an author who always scrupulously and hilariously documents his moral infirmities. (He absurdly assesses his role as the book’s true “villain.”) Reviewers and critics, too, have focused exclusively on the mistreatment of his Christian and predominantly white comic foils.
The book concludes with faint optimism. But how much more dire is the picture for the American empire—and how much more do we have to fear from the world at large—if the bubble is bigger than even Matt Taibbi can imagine?
send your ill-informed ravings to us here
Inc.|Netflix DVD Rentals. NO LATE FEES; Free Shipping. Try for FREE!
T-Shirts only $14.99 when you buy 3 or more at CCS.com | Shutterfly.com | LinkShare Referral Prg
Copyright 2002-2008, The Beast. All rights reserved.