The Great Derangement

By Matt Taibbi

The Great Derangement is Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi’s third book, following up on a pair of essay collections. It’s an essay collection too, but there is a wave of an attempt at giving it an overarching theme. The state of insanity the title alludes to is the result of concerned citizens, despairing of a corrupt party system and toothless corporate media, being forced underground. Unfortunately, underground means “down the rabbit hole of geeked-up patriotic paranoia.” Effectively disenfranchised by a dysfunctional democracy, Americans have “lost their shit.”

Or at least some of them have. Taibbi alternates between two deranged groups in particular – the 9/11 Truth movement and a Texas evangelical church – representative of the loony left and right respectively. Both sides stand – along with the current Bush administration (an easy point Taibbi doesn’t make) – against the “reality-based community.” They are faith-based organizations, abandoned by their political institutions, stranded from their country, and crusading against a vague but diabolical Enemy (another point they have in common with the Bushies). They are not so much anti-rational as a-rational, simply uninterested in opposing points of view or critical inquiry. This is the real closing of the American mind. For the most part the individual members of these movements are indifferent to anything but what affects them directly – the “sacrament in the American religion of the Self.” They look to the church for salvation from private demons, unresponsive if not oblivious to the political rants of their pastors (“What did you think about what he said about Ahmadinejad?” Who?” “Never mind.”). They come to 9/11 Truth meetings to vent their “own personal insane theory of reality,” not to listen to anyone else’s. If this is derangement, it is also a kind of therapy. A point Taibbi sneaks none-too-subtly into his account of a meeting of the Austin Citizens for 9/11 Truth by describing the moderator as “the kind of guy who would have been a perfect physical fit as an activities counselor at a substance abuse retreat, passing out volleyballs to upper-class drunks,” nodding his head “est-style” as the participants rage.

“Mainstream American society has never been designed to confront difficult or dangerous truths.” Which makes a sad kind of sense in a democracy. Who wants to confront difficulty and danger? We like being distracted and lied to. What really upsets Taibbi is the decay of lying. And here he scores his best points in a withering analysis of the decline in the quality of American bullshit. The nadir came on September 20, when Bush told the nation that the terrorists hated America for its freedom. This marked “a new low in American politics”: “It was a lie, obviously, but it wasn’t even a good lie.” What a dropping off from the glory days of Reagan (“whose virtue was that he told lies that were enjoyable, uplifting” and “was rewarded at the polls for the quality of his fictions”) and Clinton (“a bullshitter of Shakespearean dimensions”).

the one thing throughout this period that Americans could always depend on, even after Nixon and the collapse of public faith in the president’s morals, was that the lies the American president told would always be the very best lies that science, computerized research, and Washington’s most devious spooks could produce. Our president may lie, but he will lie effectively and spectacularly, with all the epic stagecraft and lighting and special effects available to the White House publicity apparatus. He is never a hack, never a half-assed, off-the-cuff, squirming, my-dog-ate-my-homework sort of liar. Or at least he wasn’t until George W. Bush came around.
“They hate our freedoms” was possibly the dumbest, most insulting piece of bullshit every to escape the lips of an American president.

Which may be true, but did it matter? Given that American society did not want to confront the difficult and dangerous truth, any bullshit would have done. Even bad bullshit was preferable to reality. And it’s not as though anyone believed the bullshit about how “they hate our freedoms.” Any more than they believed that Clinton did not have sex with that woman, or that [insert name of sports hero here] was not on the juice, or that the jury is still out on global climate change. Indeed, given the growing size of the credibility gap one has to wonder if politicians and other propagandists would even bother to lie at all these days were it not to feed the public’s addiction to such fairy tales.

So yes, by all means blame us. Blame the people. There is a push-pull dynamic to most propaganda (something Chomsky, I’ve always felt, doesn’t take enough into account). It’s a tack Taibbi isn’t afraid to take. Initially he seems to want to be exculpatory. The Truther movement, for example, is seen “as a symptom of a society whose political institutions had simply stopped addressing the needs of its citizens . . . who can blame them if the cause they choose to pursue is a little bit crazy?” But while sitting through another 9/11 Truth meeting he has an epiphany: “Suddenly I understood. The People aren’t always victims in the historical narrative. Sometimes the People are preening, chest-puffing, ignorant assholes, too. And maybe the polls are right, and these people aren’t the minority – maybe, I thought as I looked around the packed room, I’m the minority.” It is the intellectual who is truly stranded from his country!

This is a false note, and it sounds throughout The Great Derangement. The fact is, Taibbi is not a very good writer. He seems a product of the same system that gave us the egregious Chuck Klosterman, and his editors have failed to raise his game. Even the difference between i.e. and e.g. has apparently not been learned. More disturbing than the slap-dash prose, however, is just how miserable a shit Taibbi reveals himself to be. His “sudden” revelation that the People are ignorant assholes is telegraphed way in advance. After all, the People also eat in “cheap-ass Chinese buffets,” where they sit like bottle-blonde cows opposite one another, “feverishly spooning mounds of shitty Chinese food into their mouths.” They live in ranch homes “with Formica floors and slate faux-masonry walls within earshot of a highway.” They don’t know how to pronounce flan but – hilariously! – think they do! Indeed, Taibbi’s closest media avatar is Paris Hilton, slumming the simple life in another, demon-haunted America with a motley gang of hicks and rubes who are simply there to provide material. At one point he even suggests to a friend making a mockumentary about 9/11, “It’ll be like Spinal Tap, except no one will be acting.” What yuks!

This all has the effect of somewhat spoiling a book that is not without humorous observations and insight. Perhaps the oddest conclusion one comes to is that it would have been better if Taibbi had simply stayed at home to write it.

Review first published online June 26, 2008.

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