Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season by Matt Taibbi. 331 pages, 2005, The New Press.

I don't read too many books that piss me off, but this is one of them. It's very funny, insightful, witty and cruel, and perfectly encapsulates what's wrong with this country. Taibbi follows the Democratic candidates for president in 2004 around on the campaign trail, joins the Republican effort in Florida for a few months in the summer of 2004, and comes to a terrifying conclusion: it's absolutely hopeless.

It's not quite as nihilistic as that, but it is an extremely depressing book, despite the fact that you will laugh a lot while reading it. What Taibbi points out with stunning clarity is that not only are the candidates simply carbon copies of each other and that neither Kerry nor Bush is good for the country (which was obvious watching the campaign in October and November of 2004), but that the media is an active part of keeping anything that might rock the boat out of the public eye. Jon Stewart highlights the meekness of the press with regard to Bush almost every night, but Taibbi goes much deeper than he does (not surprisingly, considering the two formats) and reveals how evil much of the press in this country is. Yes, I said evil. Taibbi obviously has an axe to grind, but it's clear that he's onto something, because even just looking at news articles this week (I finished the book a few days ago), it's clear that the press is not reporting the news, but shaping it. Again, this isn't all that radical an idea, but there's this idea that the press is shaping the news because they're "liberal" and they want to embarrass the president. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Taibbi points out. All the media wants is to keep things basically the same: they occupy a privileged place in the American political hierarchy, and they want to stay there. Anything that threatens to upset their spot comes under scrutiny. Again, conservative commentators would say this applies to Bush, but it applies equally to the Democratic candidates. John Kerry won the nomination for the Democratic Party because the press wanted him to win - he was the most palatable to the members of the media, and they knew that if he won the presidency, their position would remain stable - just like it has under Bush. Therefore, Taibbi tracks how the reporters destroyed first Howard Dean - which he doesn't mind, because he thinks Dean isn't a very good candidate - and then Dennis Kucinich - which he does mind, because he likes what Kucinich has to say. His indignation over what happened to Kucinich is the heart of the first part of the book, when he follows the candidates around in 2003 and early 2004. He points out that even if you didn't like Kucinich, you never got a chance to make up your mind, because the press didn't like him and therefore marginalized him. It's a fascinating look at how we are spoon-fed news to the point where we believe that Kucinich was a weirdo and Dean a loon, just because the press hammered home certain brief moments that showed this - Dean's primal scream comes to mind. Taibbi struggles to understand why the press doesn't care to ask pertinent questions and simply let the candidates talk about nothing, and as he does so, we get angrier and angrier. He points out that the candidates use hot-button words ("jobs," "patriotism," "values" - you know them all) without really saying anything. Why doesn't anyone call them on it? There are plenty of nifty little nuggets about the vacuousness of the press, and I opened the book at random to find one:

Soon afterward I joined the scrum around Edwards. He was turning clockwise in a crowd of hacks and expertly batting away one question after another; he looked like Rafael Palmeiro at a home-run derby. When he caught New York Times reporter Rick Lyman standing open-mouthed without a question ready, he cracked: "Hey, buddy? You just gonna stand there?"

Behind me, two female reporters cooed. "Wow," one said. "Just look at his tan!"

The press, on the other hand, did not like that Dennis Kucinich was a strange-looking man who actually talked about the issues. Taibbi writes about how Kucinich threatened to use eminent domain to seize a hospital in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland that a health conglomerate was planning to close. Little things like that get left out of the news stories about the candidates, because they're boring. Instead we see Kerry hunting ducks and hear about how presidential he is!

In a very funny section, Taibbi breaks down Kerry's acceptance speech at the Convention. He removes everything that was bullshit: self-aggrandizing bullshit; phony religiosity; pointless political platitudes; gratuitous flag-waving; forced and hollow tough-talking; comparing oneself to great figures of the past; callow patriotism; syrupy talk about love for our vast and beautiful country; references to the wonder and might of our armed forces; and hot-button words: hope, the future, freedom, truth, pride, values, heroes, power, change, pledge, faith. After a bunch of pages in which he breaks down the speech and eliminates all the bullshit, he comes up with this:

I was born in Colorado. America can do better.

Now that's an acceptance speech!

In another very funny section and slightly creepy section of the book, Taibbi infiltrates a Republican campaign office in Orlando and checks things out. What's most disturbing about the entire thing is the casual racism of the people involved with the Republican campaign. Taibbi asks to interview the black Republicans in central Florida, and they can't think of many until they recall the chairman of the Federation of Black Republicans for Florida, plus a Promise Keeper who comes in for a fake interview with Vibe magazine that Taibbi sets up. One of the white Republicans actually says to the Promise Keeper, "I know how you people don't like to work." He says it as a joke, but it's this kind of casual racism that is everywhere in central Florida, according to Taibbi. He mans a voter registration table at a gun show, where a woman was selling etchings of Nathan Bedford Forrest and doing rather well. Taibbi quotes her as saying, "People are so narrow-minded. They think that just because he founded the KKK, he was a racist." Later on, a woman calls Taibbi and says she loved Bush because he's against gay rights. Taibbi asks someone in the office if he should correct her, because Bush is against gay marriage, not gay rights. The guy thinks about it, then tells Taibbi not to correct her. The mainstream Republicans, Taibbi writes, knows that intolerant people are part of their base, and they don't care.

Taibbi reserves plenty of opprobrium for protesters, as well. He points out that protesting like it's the 1960s doesn't work anymore, because those in power aren't afraid of it anymore. In the 1960s, the randomness of protests worked because society was so much more rigid. These days, randomness is part of society, so these mass protests (which of course aren't covered accurately by the media, but that's another point) simply reinforce a new status quo: the protesters will have their say, and then disappear. It doesn't matter. What the powerful fear these days is organization, but these protesters aren't organized beyond the desire to show up at an appointed place at an appointed time and get on television. This goes back to Kucinich: he wants to talk about "boring" issues like NAFTA and the American manufacturing base, but the press doesn't care about that. They want to talk about John Edwards' tan and John Kerry's Vietnam reminiscences (which, as Taibbi points out, are completely beside the point). The powerful know that these protesters are just something to be endured for a very short time, and then everyone can move on and keep screwing everyone over. They are assisted in this by the press, who simply reports about a protest as if it's some quaint thing that means nothing. And everyone keeps going.

The saddest thing about this book is that it offers no real solutions. Taibbi doesn't seem to know what to do about it, and it's very difficult to change this political-media axis, because they control so much. I have no idea if Dennis Kucinich was a good candidate or not, but even if people like him and vote for him, Taibbi implies he will just be sucked up into the power structure and destroyed. We have options, but it will take a revolutionary effort, and no one really cares. It's a difficult book to deal with, because it leaves us angry but without a place to vent that anger. The best thing we can do, probably, is to keep it local and hold people who are at least a bit closer to us accountable. Those who are up in the hierarchy occupy a completely different stratum than we do. It's a horrible feeling of powerlessness that Taibbi leaves us with.

Despite that, it's an important and powerful book. It's must reading for anyone who cares about where this country is going. Taibbi, despite his inclination toward Kucinich and his loathing of Bush, is much more concerned with the way society is structured rather than picking on any one person. He calls Bush a monster more than once, but he also has special bile for John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. He absolutely hates the media, and his final chapter, in which he puts reporters in a bracket and has them face off against each other by looking at what they write about the campaign is devastatingly funny but very depressing. Taibbi does a great job making us laugh and making us angry, and that's a good thing.

Spanking the Donkey will make you think a lot about what you can do to make society better. Well, at least it did for me. Yes, it will make you angry. But it might inspire you as well. And that's not a bad thing.

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Blogger Roger Green said...

As it turns out, I voted for Kucinich in the 2004 Dem primary, despite how people told me how foolish it was because "he didn't have a chance", which was of course true, but a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Look at the horse races going on now: Clinton, Obama, maybe Edwards. Al Gore is getting more play than Kucinich (yes, he's running again) or the "minor candidates". And the same is true on the Repub side, with Guiliani, McCain and maybe Romney.
It's true in the general election, where third-party candidates aren't allowed in the debates (unless they're Ross Perot, e.g.), often sponsored by the press, so we're given the "lesser-of-two-evils". Again.
Evil is about right.

20/3/07 6:57 AM  
Blogger Ahistoricality said...

I don't entirely buy Tabibi's thesis, as you describe it, that the media is the elite calling the shots, and I have a real suspicion of any argument which requires a large diverse group of competitors to collude without ever actually coordinating. Still, I do think that there's an inbred and risk-averse quality to mainstream media, as well as a tendency to grossly underestimate their audiences.

Give you credit: first time I've ever actually been tempted to pick up a campaign book.

22/3/07 1:45 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

It's less collusion than members of the media simply coming from the same kind of people and mindset, and therefore they have an interest in perpetuating the way things are. We can see something like this is, say, sports, where the players don't get together to formulate a way to act, but they all end up acting the same way. At least that's how I see it.

Of course, Taibbi does have an axe to grind, but that's to be expected. As long as you can work with his prejudices, you can get to his main points, which are valid.

22/3/07 7:25 AM  

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