If journalism is the first draft of history, and history is argument without end, then Matt Taibbi has fired the opening salvo of a new argument about the current political and religious culture in the United States. I can just see grad school papers 20 years from now with titles like, â€œThe Deranged Decade: The Hegemony of Myth in Political Manipulation, 2000-2008.â€
The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire is laced with gallows humor but also some sharp observations about certain sectors of American culture. What Taibbi is concerned with is the way in which Americans construct protective bubbles around themselves with narratives about the big bad world — which are more often than not delusional, deranged, and flat-out wrong. He arrives at this conclusion while reporting on the Iraq war as a â€œembeddedâ€ journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. While stationed at â€œCamp Libertyâ€– where 30-foot walls are constructed to protect the soldiers inside from attack (even though bombs are randomly being set off by Iraq insurgents) — Taibbi reasons:
Over time I started to feel in my bones that this weird walled-off archipelago was itself a profound metaphor of American domestic reality … the more I looked at them, the more they reminded me of the freaky-tall bulwarks on King Kongâ€™s Skull Island: masterpieces of architectural overkill, the panic visible in each extra foot of protection, walls designed to keep something in, not out. In America we live in a bubble and the rest of the world is a dangerous mystery, about which many legends may be spread by those cunning and unscrupulous enough to bother. The outside world has become scary enough that most of our people have decided not even to bother trying to figure it out — which is how you end up with such lunacies like They hate us for our freedom and 9/11 was an inside job.
Taibbi takes one for the team (and that would be Team America) by not only embedding himself with U.S. troops in Iraq, but also in the Bible Belt as a convert to Cornerstone Church. He also takes us inside the U.S. government and confirms in one chapter what the likes of Ron Paul and Ralph Nader have been telling us for years: When it comes to the day-to-day business of the government, there is very little that differentiates the Republicans from the Democrats.
He has the unenviable task of faking his way through indoctrination and baptism as a born-again Christian. He often feels terrible about his fake identity, is appalled by the rampant hatred that permeates sermons that are supposed to â€œlift the spiritsâ€ but are often reminiscent of the â€œTwo Minutes Hateâ€ in Orwellâ€™s 1984, and flummoxed by the lack of understanding of not only world geography but a basic understanding of the geography of the United States (one of his fellow converts had no idea where New England was, even after he rattled off the names of the states that comprise the region. Only when he mentioned the New England Patriots did she have a slight understanding of what he was talking about).
Still, he generally likes the people heâ€™s forged relationships with and sees the value places like Cornerstone Church play in their lives. According to Taibbi, Cornerstone is where people can find community and a refuge from the world; a community of somewhat like-minded individuals who want help from God with their everyday problems (i.e., divorce, unemployment, family strife, and even buying things like a new car). The struggles and strife of everyday life need a psychological â€œvent,â€ and thatâ€™s where the pastors at Cornerstone do their part to channel all that frustration into things like speaking in tongues, publicly admitting childhood wounds, and an emphasis on the Christ of Revelations (i.e., the Jesus who kicks ass and takes names in the Second Coming, and not the hippie-anarchist in the Gospels). Itâ€™s a con; a con that the conned are aware of at some level, but buy into anyway. Itâ€™s based on a total submission to authority in exchange for membership, psychological protection from â€œthe world,â€ but it also reinforces a siege mentality where the enemies (i.e. Liberals, environmentalists, gays, and Muslims) are constantly trying to destroy them.
What makes churches like Cornerstone so powerful is not just the control they exert over their â€œflock,â€ but also how connected they are to the U.S. government and Israel and use those connections to promote a particular political agenda during Sunday services. If you want a more anthropological look at how Christian Conservatives frame political issues, Taibbiâ€™s book provides a revealing look.
The â€œLoony Leftâ€ gets its time in the spotlight, too. The 9/11 Truth Movement is not some fringe group, as Taibbi initially thought, but rather a rather vocal and energetic group who will not accept official reports about what happened on 9/11, instead clinging to things like one phrase in a PNAC (Project for a New American Century) report where itâ€™s written that â€œa New Pearl Harborâ€ may be the catalyst for rebuilding U.S. defenses as proof thereâ€™s a vast conspiracy afoot. Taibbi examines the PNAC document and concludes that the recommendations made by the PNAC — which included reducing the size of the National Guard, reducing or eliminating the aircraft carrier program, reducing or eliminating the Joint Strike Fighter, and creating a global missile defense system (Reaganâ€™s â€œStar Warsâ€ program) — never took place after 9/11.
The number of people involved in this conspiracy to institute PNAC recommendations has become solidified in paranoid narrative among the 9/11 Truthers where not only the government but also the American financial sector was in on the plan — which includes the detonation of the World Trade Center buildings, the creation of hologram commercial jets that looked like they were hitting the building, and â€œsecretâ€ footage being kept in vault that shows what really happened. As Taibbi says:
The truly sad thing about the 9/11 Truth Movement is that itâ€™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 or Iraq. At its heart, 9/11 Truth Movement is a conceit, a narcissistic pipe dream for a dingbat, sheeplike population that is pleased to imagine itself dangerous and ungovernable. Rather than admit their own powerlessness and irrelevance, or admit that theyâ€™ve spent the last fifty years or so electing leaders who openly handed their tax money to business cronies and golfed in Scotland while Middle Americaâ€™s jobs were being sent overseas, the adherents to the 9/11 Truth Movement instead flatter themselves with fantasies about a ruling class obsessed with keeping the terrible truth from the watchful, exacting eye of the People.
It is exactly the spending of tax money by the government that undermines the quality of life for most Americans, as Taibbi illustrates in one of the best chapters, â€œDemocrats Seize the Reign of the Derangement.â€ It is in this chapter where Taibbiâ€™s prescient analysis of the pork-barrel politics of both parties make the whole brouhaha over â€œearmarksâ€ for the Bridge to Nowhere so wonderfully clear — and why politicians canâ€™t stop their addiction to money.
In 2006, the Democrats were able to become the majority party in both houses of Congress — but only a small majority. Stopping the war, pushing back at the changes Bush rammed through Congress, and a general revulsion at â€œearmarksâ€ that fatten up bills and add more to the amount the federal government spends on programs were at the top of voter interests. What did the Democrats do? Well, they didnâ€™t bother listening to the calls to end the war, and publicly touted they had crafted a â€œContinuing Resolutionâ€ (CR) in the budget that was â€œearmark-free.â€ The problem is, it wasnâ€™t.
One of Taibbiâ€™s friends in Congress (who used to work for Pete Domenici of New Mexico) was an expert at reading the complex and tortuous language that contained requests for â€œearmarks.â€ What exactly are earmarks? Simply put, they are budgeted items that are not proposed/requested by the Executive branch. They become part of the government budget when individual senators and representatives tack on the requests as part of budget negotiations on a particular bill. Earmarks are unregulated and are basically used to as payback to campaign contributors. The â€œBridge to Nowhereâ€ is highlighted because it was a $230 million example of the way in which senators like Ted Stevens — who was the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee — could do whatever he wanted when doling out money.
Earmarks are, as Taibbi said, â€œ[L]ike a kid scribbling ice cream and cookie requests onto Momâ€™s shopping list.â€ Yeah, itâ€™s that blatant. Bribery is illegal in the government, but when itâ€™s done through campaign contributions for earmarks, well, thatâ€™s just business as usual — until someone points out the corruption. Once thatâ€™s done, then itâ€™s a big PR campaign to demonstrate that the government is addressing problems, but not really doing anything but rearranging the deck so money can continue to have an effect on legislation. Or as Taibbi wrote: â€œYou donâ€™t elect politicians to commit crimes; you elect politicians to make your crimes legal.â€
The Great Derangement is a depressing read, but Taibbiâ€™s funny prose keeps the gallows humor front and center. Heâ€™s certainly pointing out the rot in the system and our own failings to pull our head out of our asses and start thinking more critically about issues that affect our lives. He does see some changes in the political terrain through the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul, John Edwards, and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama (this book was â€œput to bedâ€ in late 2007), but as we know now, our heads are rapidly going back up that orifice in our nether regions now that the presidential campaign is about lipstick, pigs, sexism, and terrorism. In short, weâ€™re being bombarded with the same messages that keep us in those bubbles of derangement.