Matt Taibbi: The Great Derangement

Taibbi, Matt. The Great Derangement: Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008)

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi has written an entertaining book about his experiences with some of the more whacked-out segments of American society. Taibbi's recurring encounters with John Hagee's Christianist Zionism are the strongest part of his book, and the excerpt published in Rolling Stone ("Jesus Made Me Puke," an abridged version of Chapter Three's "The Longest Three Days of My Life") is the tale of an "Encounter Weekend" with some of Hagee's worshippers who seem a few pews short of a sanctuary.

Variously embedded in Baghdad, enmeshed in the Congressional budget process, embroiled in the NFL draft and a Mitt Romney campaign rally, Taibbi demonstrates an ear for authentic dialogue and for the details that bring his anecdotes alive in the mind of the reader. His experience with the "9/11 Truth" movement parallels the Hagee church lunacy, but Taibbi tries too hard to make them equally significant:

On both the left and the right, huge chunks of the population were effecting nearly identical retreats into conspiratorial weirdness and Internet-fueled mysticism. (p. 4, Introduction)

This is a false equivalence. Left-wing weirdness lacks the political component that is frequently present in its right-wing counterpart; 9/11 Truthers and crystal-caressing crackpots on the Left are no match for the organized Christianist movement on the Right.

Taibbi errs again in the Introduction, calling the Internet "an escapist paradise for the informationally overwhelmed." (p. 5) This is nonsense. While it's easy for Internet surfers to use this vast resource solely to reinforce one's opinions, it's absurd to claim that it is a low-information medium. While the signal-to-noise ration is often low, the Internet is a high-information paradise...even more so than most libraries.

His sexist stereotypes also grate on my ears, as these two examples:

...that sheepish, ashamed-to-have-a-penis look I had seen so many other men wearing in church. (p. 57)

...there is something very odd about modern Christian men--although fiercely pro-military in their politics and prehistorically macho in their attitudes toward women's roles, on the level of day-to-day behavior, they seem constantly ready to break out weeping like menopausal housewives. (p. 64)

I'm inclined to cut him some slack, however, considering the identity of his targets. Reagan comes in for some criticism, referred to as "as skilled and telegenic a liar as politics has ever seen," (p. 161), but even better is Taibbi's smackdown of Bush's "they hate our freedoms" claptrap:

Bush's famous explanation for 9/11 was a new low in American politics. It was a lie, obviously, but it wasn't even a good lie. We were watching, live, the last stage of a fifty-year decline in the performance standards of the White House's propaganda professionals. (p. 162)

"They hate our freedoms" was possible the dumbest, most insulting piece of bullshit ever to escape the lips of an American president. (p. 164)

If you're looking for a light and enjoyable political romp through modern American society, you could do worse than picking up Taibbi's Great Derangement. (Also recommended is Hemant Mehta's interview with Taibbi at Friendly Atheist.)


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