Big Lies is certainly the best of the popular political books I’ve reviewed for the site, although that isn’t saying much. Yes, Big Lies is better than Treason, but then so are the comics of Jack T. Chick. This book is frustrating because while it is good, it could have been brilliant.
What I like most about Conason’s book is its basic thesis: there exists
an enormous, right wing propaganda machine that includes everything
from well funded, academic think tanks to party-line pundits, and this
machine has produced a spate of “big lies” that have seeped into the
public consciousness. Conason goes through several of these lies and
distortions, beginning with the demonizing of liberals. He reminds us
that liberals are the ones who fought for the basic rights of racial
minorities and women. Without liberals, you could kiss your overtime
pay, the 40 hour work week and the minimum wage good bye (incidentally,
please don’t tell the people who work on this site about any of those
things). In short, Canason argues that liberal values are, more often
than not, American and human values: a fair shake for working people,
environmental protection, equality of opportunity, and so on.
Although it’s a well-worn fact to those who read much about
politics, many will be surprised to learn that polls indicate that most
Americans take the “liberal” position on most issues. They think our
taxes should be more progressive, they think we need more environmental
protections, they even favor universal health care. The polls also show
how effective right-wing propaganda has been. Ask people if we should
give more financial assistance to poor families and they’ll say yes.
Ask them about welfare and they’ll say they oppose it. Presumably, this
is because right-wingers have successfully tarnished the word ‘welfare’
with false stories about “welfare mothers” driving Cadillacs. That, and of
course because people are gullible and stupid.
I think Conason could have gone one better here. The
right hasn’t just unfairly portrayed liberals. It’s created fictional
beings called “liberals” and substituted them for the real thing. The
example coming to mind is Ben Stein saying something like, “don’t you
hate it when you ask a liberal if a person he just met is black, and he
claims not to have noticed?” Oh yeah. That happens all the time, Stein.
I know tons of people who claim to not notice if someone is black. Just
like I know tons of closeted commies who hate America and whose only
desire in life if for everyone to become a married homosexual.
Conason and other liberals should do the same thing to their
right wing adversaries. The left should invent right-wing boogiemen
that think 9/11 was divine justice for America’s tolerance of lesbians
and who also advocate nuclear strikes against the State department for
disagreeing with the President’s Iraq policies. Oh wait, that’s Pat Robertson and he’s real. He’s probably on CNN right now, thanks to the “liberal media.”
Conason devotes each chapter to debunking specific lies in
greater detail: the media have a liberal bias; right wing chicken hawks
are great patriots; rightists exhibit great moral rectitude and so on.
Among the most absurd lies is the charge of liberal elitism. It’s no
secret that the GOP is the party of the rich and powerful. Somehow, the
Ann Coulters of the world have been able to get away with saying just
the opposite. Democrats are the ones in gated communities, Republicans
are the working people. Conason dispatches this lie well and easily.
The most amusing part of the chapter documents the lavish, urban
lifestyles of pseudo-populist, right-wing pundits. Rush Limbaugh, for
example, is “a ridiculous snob” who lives in Manhattan, drinks only the
most famously fine wines and smokes Cuban cigars. (The book was
published before we learned of Rush’s refined taste in faux-opiates).
Why doesn’t Rush live in Wichita? Because, he tells Cigar Afficianato, he loves the high culture of Manhattan.
This was one of several times during the book when I was
grateful to see a best selling author make a neglected point, but at
the same time, somewhat in awe of the fact that the point had to be
made at all. It seems like Conason is attacking a straw man. The idea
that the party of Jack Welch is the populist party, advocating for the
common man, while the party of the UAW are bunch of pointy headed
elitists is just bizarre. It’s almost too easy for Conason to shred
this lie. It must have been a struggle to write anything more than,
“what, are you kidding?” In fact, if I had written this book each
chapter would have been one sentence long or less. My chapter about the
liberal media would be “oh, please.” My chapter on Republicans
supposedly being good for national security would have been,
“pshhhhhh.” But actually laying out these arguments is work that needs
to be done. In this case, the “straw man” positions are widely advocated
and even accepted, which demonstrates how serious the problem of
rightist propaganda is.
One lie I would have liked for Conason to take on is that
these right-wingers are conservatives. They are not. The current
Republican party is in fact quite radical. Conservatism sounds like,
and in my opinion is, a much better political camp to be in than
“right-wing.” But the GOP is not conservative. As a broader
issue, I hate that the points on the political map, specifically right
wing, left wing, liberal and conservative have been rendered
meaningless. I’m with Rush on this one. “Words mean things,” or at
least they should. Even some political science textbooks now define
these words more or less as corresponding to the policies of either
Democrats or Republicans. But if words do mean things, then
conservatives believe that social change cannot or should not be
engineered and that social and political institutions are usually worth
preserving. In other words, they’re wary of change. A rightist is
someone who favors hierarchy, concentration of power. Think about
Bush’s tax and spending policies, foreign policy, attitude toward the
environment and pretty much anything else about the president and his
party and it should be obvious which description best applies to them.
So I winced every time Conason referred to “conservatives,” even though
it’s a common misnomer, because this book is about challenging that
kind of bullshit.
So, it should be clear by now that I liked this book. I recommend it. The serious flaw of Big Lies, however, is that Conason often fails to restrain his partisan tendencies. How is it possible to avoid being partisan when writing a book about right-wing lies? Actually, it wouldn’t have been very
difficult. Most of the lies and distortions of the right are easily
exposed as such with facts and basic reasoning and this is what Conason
does, most of the time.
First, I should point out that Conason is much fairer and less
hostile than his typical peer, be it Al Franken or Michael Savage. Joe
goes out of his way to say the average citizen with right-wing beliefs
is no more or less likely to be a decent person than a liberal. He
concedes that Democratic politicians make plenty of mistakes and that
people on the left can be just as wacky as people on the right. None of
these concessions to civility and rationality detract from the basic
argument that right-wing propaganda is polluting our public discourse.
What does detract form Conason’s argument is the occasional
indulgence in partisan spin. He blames the entire S&L crisis on
Reagan’s deregulation, which is wrong. The bulk of the crisis was the
culmination of problems that had been brewing for decades. He accuses Michael Savage of fomenting racial hatred, without offering any evidence. I’ve listened to and read Savage and, while always entertaining and guilty
of plenty, he’s never revealed any real racist tendencies. This hits
upon a big lie from the other side: “Anyone who disagrees with Jesse
Jackson is a racist.”
Still, it’s nice to read a smart, popular book about
politics that bares some relation to reality. It will never be read by
the hard core GOP cultists who believe most deeply in the lies this
book debunks, but Big Lies is a welcome reality check for the
less ideological among us, who may have allowed bits of detritus from
the propaganda machine to settle into our minds.