One of the greatest temptations for a political or cultural observer is doomsaying: overstating the seriousness of the triumphs and crises of his or her own time while downplaying those of years gone by. For someone looking for a good story, tales of terror make an especially fine sell, and the raw materials for such an account – a stern diagnosis of the cancer at the belly of the beast, an overemphasis on what are really quite marginal phenomena, and a basically linear description of the road to oblivion – are easy enough to put together and package in apocalyptic form. Civilizational chaos and impending disaster are to the historian of the present what sex, horror, and violence are to the filmmaker: the staple ingredients for a finished product that is at once shocking and easily sellable.
I say all of this by way of introducing Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement not because his tale of what he refers to the “twilight of the American empire” is mere sensationalism. Far from it: Taibbi’s description of the decay in the halls of Congress, for example, is as grimly realistic a portrait as one could ask for. The same goes for his account of the day-to-day life of the U.S. military in Iraq, where the compound walls serve as a metaphor for America’s more general disconnection from the realities of the outside world, and the pointlessness of the occupation — which Taibii calls “a luxury government employment program for American security-industry types” — is taken head-on even as the nobility of military service is given its due.
But the bulk of the book, where life among the 9/11 Truth Movement and the Christian Zionists of John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church is supposed to showcase the civilization-wide insanity of Taibbi’s title, girds an argument that does not stand up well to scrutiny. While there is much here that is revealing, startling, and occasionally even alarming, the presence of bizarre habits and ideas at the American fringes does not itself show that the bulk of our citizenry is “boarding the mothership, preparing to leave the planet for good.”
That’s not to say that Taibbi doesn’t give us some real food for thought. The one statistic that he comes to several times – from a 2006 Scripps-Howard poll which found that 36% of Americans thought it was either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that federal officials “either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them ‘because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East’” – does suggest conspiratorial delusion on a disaster-movie sized scale. Yet the prevalence of similar beliefs among citizens of other nations makes it clear that this particular derangement, is not a distinctively American one. (That more than 30% of U.S. residents in 1970 thought the moon landing was faked and 81% in early 2001 thought Lee Harvey Oswald acted in concert with others in the JFK assassination shows that this sort of conspiracy-mongering is not strictly a “post-9/11″ phenomenon, either.) No doubt there is something spectacularly unhinged about a mindset that buys into the full-blown, Feith-and-Wolfowitz-and-Cheney-blew-up-the-World-Trade-Center-and-sent-a-missile-into-the-Pentagon-and-blamed-it-on-Osama-bin-Laden-as-an-excuse-to-attack-Saddam-Hussein theory, but the more garden-variety paranoia driving the commoner suspicions should not be confused with that. (Failing to discuss the likely connections between such paranoia and the popularity of belligerent liberal tripe like Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11, which Taibbi mentions only once — and in a footnote — is another significant shortcoming.)
The same goes for the book’s account of the state of American Christianity, which Taibbi centers on the story of his attempt to get inside the mindset of Hagee’s followers by becoming one of them: He poses as an eager convert with a troubled past, pretends to speak in tongues and vomit demons, and even allows himself to be baptized as a means to prove his sincerity. And what he turns up is indeed rather grotesque. There is an angry, authenticity-crushing, often hateful confusion of Christianity and Republican politics that would make most mainstream Christians shudder. But, of course, that’s exactly the problem. While Taibbi sometimes makes it out as if his “friends” (his use of this term is bizarre, given the circumstances) at Cornerstone Church could just as well be the regulars at Anychurch, USA, the reality – as he tacitly admits from time to time – is that Cornerstone is not just any church, nor is Hagee just any pastor, but instead an end-times extremist with a habit of making comments that shock even his allies.
Had Taibbi really decided simply to “pick a spot on a map, go there, and get retarded,” he might very well have found himself among Maryland Methodists, Pennsylvania Amish, or Californian immigrant Catholics. (Or, for that matter, he may have ended up with Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright at Trinity United in Chicago.) In each case, there would have been much to be puzzled and perhaps even alarmed by, and certainly plenty of material for a writer like Taibbi to mock. But he would have emerged with a very different picture of the American religious mindset and its sources in the political and cultural climate of our time.
What is perhaps strangest of all, though, is Taibbi’s understanding of the role that the mass media have played in the rise of this (exaggerated, as we have seen) cultural chaos. He writes of the unwillingness of newscasters and pundits to call out even the worst idiocies of Congress and the Bush Administration for what they were:
The message of all this was that Americans were now supposed to make their own sense of the world. There was no dependable authority left to turn to, no life raft in the increasingly perilous informational sea. This coincided with an age when Americans now needed to understand more of the world than ever before. … Now broke, or under severe financial pressure, with no community leaders, no community, no news he can trust, Joe American has to turn on the Internet and tell himself a story that makes sense to him.
What story is he going to tell?
The difficulty here is that, as Taibbi quite willingly admits in other contexts, there was an official story being fed to the American people and passed on without much scrutiny by the media: al-Qaeda attacked America because “they hate our freedoms;” the United States had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein posed a real threat to us and our allies; and we needed to trust the government, cede our civil liberties, and send our siblings and children off to faraway lands to fight a “war on terror” in a “post-9/11 world.” With very few exceptions, these stories were the official ones, and they were respectfully quoted and parroted and passed along even by the (in many respects genuinely) “liberal” media as America prepared for, then engaged – and quickly found itself mired – in a misbegotten war. The real problem, then, is not that there was too little “authority” from the media elites, but that there was too too much of it, and that authority quickly transformed into codescension. It is for this reason that those who wished to break away from the official narrative quickly found themselves prowling dark corners of the internet for information on structural engineering and the Project for the New American Century.
The media did indeed fail us, and did indeed leave the determined among us to figure things out on our own – but this was the result of their willingness to tell us stories that “made sense” to Joe American.
All these criticisms notwithstanding, this is a book with much to recommend it – at least for those unlikely to be horribly offended (as I was) by a professed atheist who takes his feigned Christianity well past the point of sacrilege to win a few laughs and score some cheap political points. Taibbi’s chapters on the bipartisan epidemic of corruption and spinelessness on Capitol Hill are simply excellent, and are well worth the price of the book for anyone who’d like a dose of well-warranted cynicism. His point-by-point takedown of the 9/11 Truthers is similarly hilarious, and even in discussing his experiences at Cornerstone Taibbi does occasionally make some legitimately interesting points about Christianity and religious experience. Don’t, however, come away from this book saddled with too grim a view of our supposed derangement – when the American empire reaches the end of its twilight years, it will likely be Peak Oil, the national debt, or some other sort of economic calamity that turns out the lights. A culture that survived the mass hysteria, social upheaval, and political manipulations of Nixonland is sure to make it through the end of the Bush Era with its sanity well-enough intact.
–John Schwenkler is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He blogs at Upturned Earth.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire