Thursday, 18 September 2008

"The Great Derangement", by Matt Taibbi (Spiegel & Grau)

"A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire"

Matt Taibbi has been hailed as many great things, including "one of the most astute, entertaining and audacious political reporters of his generation" and "the heir to Hunter S Thompson's gonzo spirit". They're all true. Without a doubt, he is one of the best political reporters in America at the moment: far more insightful and observant, not to mention much less gullible than the "proper" Washington correspondents for major newspapers and news weeklies.

In The Great Derangement, in his trademark mix of serious and biting comedy, Taibbi has turned his eye to three things that dominate American life today: the war in Iraq, politics in Washington, religion and what he refers to as "the bonkerisation of the population". It is a vicious critique of the entrenched interests and norms of Washington, and a lament of how nothing ever changes. After the Republicans lost the majorities in the House and Senate in 2006, Taibbi reports, "it would be a period where the Democrats would prove absolutely that it is possible in America to govern entirely on the appearance of principal - while changing absolutely nothing," and for the press to not even notice, accepting and regurgitating the lines fed to them by the Democratic National Committee and newly promoted Congreemen and Senators.

The first half of the book, written before 2006, shows the Republicans at their worst (the Rules Committee) and lays all their faults out for our disgusted appraisal. Following 2006, however, Taibbi finds himself displaying the Democrats' faults for us, how they succumbed to the same temptations as the "corrupt" Republicans before them. The only person to have so far ever made the US government budget process interesting and engaging, you get the sense that Taibbi is disappointed beyond belief with the Democrats and their pandering to interest groups and bending over for President Bush. He targets for the comically inept 9/11 Truth Movement, who decide to picket his office.

Infiltrating one of the largest churches in the US (Reverend John Hagee's), Taibbi moves to Texas to attend Bible study, weekend retreats, and demon mass-exorcising events. Taibbi describes all of these experiences. It is a surreal world where Americans appear to have lost the thread of reality; where pastors are all-knowing, never-to-be-contradicted seers; he shows compassion when discussing his fellow seekers, some of whom are simply looking for answers to help them cope. Perhaps the funniest scene in the book is his first group-session at the weekend retreat, when he fabricates a difficult-childhood backstory for his undercover persona (I won't spoil it, but it involves big clown shoes). Of the Christian right, he writes:
  • "sometimes I can't help being angry about how dumb and mean our culture has become, how fast that meanness and dumbness is expandingm and how determined some Jesus-culture merchants are that people like me should not escape it."
In Iraq, Taibbi embeds with a couple of regiments, reporting the absurdity of the situation over there, the wasteful spending and futility of the soldiers' mission.

His seering wit is never allowed to take away from the seriousness of the issues he touches upon. When he feels it's important for us to recognise that elections have basically become just "a forum for organising the hatreds of the population", or when he wants us to truly grasp how improbably powerful megachurch patriarchs have become, he allows his sense of humour to take a brief back-seat. The Great Derangement is so much more than just a written attack on politics, as Taibbi explains how actions of a few can affect and distort the lives of the many.

With his keen eye for the absurd, unsurpassed ability at turning a phrase, and skill at portraying the contradictions in American society, Taibbi truly is one of the greatest observers of the American experiment of this generation. The Great Derangement proves that his skills as a reporter and writer are just growing with each new article and book, bringing more insight, humour and understanding to the farce that is American government.

Hilarious, frightening, illuminating, and gripping. Simply superb.

Further Reading: Matt Taibbi, "Smells Like Dead Elephants" & "Spanking the Donkey"; Nicholas Guyatt, "Have A Nice Doomsday"; Harmon Leon, "American Dream"; Thomas Franks "What's the Matter with America" & "The Wrecking Crew".

No comments:

Post a Comment