Friday, November 12, 2004

This Side and That

Some time ago, I made a promise to some folks that I would do a few political book reviews as a run up to the election. My plan originally was to do two from each side of the aisle in the two weeks prior November 2nd. Real life got in the way of this plan in two ways, one minor one major.

Nevertheless, I present here two books, one from the right wing and one from the left. What was surprising to me, firmly on the left wing spectrum, was how easier it was to listen to and critique my rightwinger of choice, Tucker Carlson. For those of you, blessed as you are, who’ve never experienced Tucker, he is the bow tie wearing Little Lord Fauntleroy of CNN’s all yelling all the time program, Crossfire. A simple look at any picture of the man shows you that he’s desperately hoping to whip George Will in the nerd accessory sartorial battles and he’s a sanctimonious, smug, arrogant creep. On his nerd battles with George Will, he is clearly winning. When Samantha Ettus put together the book The Experts' Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, it was Tucker they called for how to tie a bow tie, and not his hack elder.

Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, by Tucker Carlson, Read by Tucker Carlson, Brilliance Audio, 2003

What makes the book entertaining is just that. Tucker Carlson is entertaining. He’s quick on his feet, witty, and not above cruel jokes at the expense of others. I can respect that. He also gives you a behind the scenes peek at the goings on at CNN and tattles some delicious anecdotes about Bob Novak and Tom DeLay hating his guts, James Carville’s irascible libido, and Bill O’Reilly being a pompous blowhard asshole who’s come to believe his own hype.

However, he is not a journalist and anyone who thinks he is has a screw loose. Tucker is a somewhat well-informed talking head. He is a media personality. He is a right wing shill and a hack. (For a delicious skewering of him, go see Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire.) As a writer, he’s breezy, light, a bit on the lightweight end of things. The ninety-eight pound weakling of political books, right next to Alan Colmes.

Which was why the book proved to be such an entertaining audiobook. It’s like listening to a rather amusing gossipy spinster.

What was disturbing listening to Tucker go on was his approval — even in some cases adoration — of liars. If you were to tell Tucker that Crossfire was not a news show, he’d probably deny it. He thinks it’s news; it’s on the Cable News Network; and yet, it is not news. Not even close. It’s political spinning straight from each party’s talking points. And when you present what you do as news, you have a duty to present the truth, to present facts no matter how badly they may reflect on your party or its members. Once Crossfire is cancelled or the lineup changed and Tucker’s out of work, if he wants to get a political show on other, less reality-based channels (E! and FoxNews come to mind), he can go there and be as entertaining a liar as he wants. He can celebrate the liars all he wants there. But to hear him giggle so approvingly over deliberate falsifiers (and in a couple cases to admit to some minor on-air fibbing himself) is rather disturbing from a member of “The Most Trusted Name in News.”

The other difficulty I have with Tucker is his racism. It’s that kind of racism where probably even the person is not entirely aware of it. It’s the I-have-black-friends (but I drive a little faster in black neighborhoods) kind of racism. He pooh-poohs Trent Lott’s comments that if only Strom Thurmond (running on an overtly racist platform against segregation and anti-lynching laws) had been elected president, saying of course Lott’s not really a racist. It was just a slip of the tongue. Tucker leaves out that the slip of the tongue in question (2002) had been repeatedly used by Lott, on the record, going back as far as 1980. Lott is hastily hustled off stage to be replaced by the favorite Democrat racist conservatives pull out whenever called on their race-baiting: Robert Byrd. Rather than address Lott’s extensive ties to racist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens and Southern Partisan magazine, Tucker just whips out the boogeyman of Byrd’s past ties to the Klan.

Tucker then goes on to discuss three prominent black politicians and he manages to discuss them with such a cliched mindset that it almost reads like a joke. He criticizes Jesse Jackson, not for his ethically dubious use of black boycotts to pry money out of corporations and into black charities, but for being lazy, incoherent, a rhymer, and a mumbling idiot. Al Sharpton is presented as a fast-talking drug addict/dealer who also is too slangy for Tucker’s taste. While his one positive black role model, the conservative and perennial also-ran Alan Keyes, is repeatedly praised for his eloquence. It’s like he’s nudging you, saying, “He’s so well spoken.”

The anecdotes belie Tucker’s claim that he’s not a groupthink partisan. Any story about a conservative suggests that their flaws are minor ones. Jerry Falwell (the man who blamed the ACLU, gays, and feminists for 9/11 — though Tucker never tells us this)? He likes to brag about the celebrities he’s friends with, like Geraldo Rivera. Fritz Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina, Tucker loves, just loves, and he tells us all the charming anecdotes of Hollings’ boorish behavior, then chimes in with accolades of love for convicted Democrat representative James Trafficant.

See? Conservative are just slightly flawed decent people who offend through their love and enthusiasms. The people on the left are all criminals, psychopaths, and lazy Negroes.

Bushwacked, by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, Read by Molly Ivins, 2003

This is a much harder book to listen to than the first. Partly because Ivins and Dubose do actual research and investigate real people and the effects bad policies have on their lives which sometimes makes the book a bit arcane and wonkish. But more so because reading about how in order to maximize a tax break for big corporations, the Bush administration cut 500,000 of the poorest Americans from the federal program providing assistance in paying winter heating bills, is not enjoyable reading. It’s infuriating and it’s depressing.

The introduction includes Ivins and Dubose's preferred set up "If ya'll had read the first book, we wouldn't had to have written this one." By which they mean, had all of America read their book Shrub, which explained all the terrible policies Bush supported and enacted while governor of Texas, he would never have gotten as far as he has. I suspect a third book will grace the shelves someday, but what’s the point really? We’re on to a second term now, there’s no higher office to tempt him away from making us all so miserable.

As the authors slowly makes their way through individual, normal American cases, the effect is a chilling, moving, denunciatory indictment of the government "of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations" of which George W. Bush is just the shiteating grin. At every step of your life and your day, a corporation is there angling for preferential governmental treatment. Cash and carry government is her term for this and it fits. Education? Textbook and testing companies write the No Child Left Behind laws. The FDA? Meat packers and chicken growers have lobbied the agency into a toothless weakling. The EPA? Monsanto and any other chemical corporations have gutted them.

What is refreshing about Ivins and Dubose's book is they don't rely simply on Republicans bad/Democrats good dichotomy. They hold Clinton's feet to the fire and call out his green-looking activities when they're really PR stunts. At the same time, they give us the historical beginnings of current problems, organizing pro-business powers dating back to Reagan and before. What is different is just how pro-business the Bush administration has been in comparison to those previous. At every department, at every level, Bush political appointees have been former lobbyists for business interests in those fields. The sheer weight of fact makes the book compelling, if horrifying.

What makes the case even worse is that I found out after I started listening that the book in question isn’t even the complete book. It’s an abridgement. The mind boggles at what more there could be, but there always seems to be more. As an improvement upon the terrible John Ashcroft at Justice, Bush nominates Alberto Gonzales, the man who authored legal memos calling the Geneva Conventions outdated and quaint. It’s as if there were no limit to what they are willing to try to pull, and Ivins and Dubose investigate it and make it easy to follow, using humor as a weapon.

But perhaps the most telling accounting of the effects of Bush's policies is what the Texas government has done since Bush was "elected" president. They have killed his faith-based programs, rolled back his state tax cuts, altered his ardently pro-business regulation guttings, and have worked time and again to revert to what preceded this idiot's reign of error. To help this noble work along, the work we will all have come 2009, Ivins and Dubose end the book with a list of ways to reform the government.

As human beings are forever devious, forever looking for ways to skirt rules and laws, I have to say that I support four-square their notion of perpetual reform. It sounds like hard work (and it is), but constantly trying to make government more accountable, more efficient, more fair, and more democratic is the business of every single person who lives here, paying the taxes and reaping the benefits. That light at the end of the tunnel may seem harder and harder to see these days, but Ivins and Dubose have enough optimism for the book to end with infectious hopefulness to spare.

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