It's all about bouncing back

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Great Derangement

I don't usually cover written humor in the Rabbit, but as a diehard fan of politically-focused chuckles, I have to make a small exception to provide a high hop election-year endorsement for Matt Taibbi's most recent work "The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire".

Taibbi is the current national affairs editor at Rolling Stone. The downside to holding this golden post is that readers will always quietly compare him to Hunter S. Thompson and P. J. O'Rourke. On the upside, Taibbi's insight and humor stand up favorably in the comparison. He continues the gonzo tradition of inserting himself directly into stories that exemplify the nation's current political and cultural tableau; but he does so in a manner that is somewhat less snide or superior. He is confident, but certainly more self-effacing than his predecessors. He's also simply a masterful wordsmith who brings a wry perspective to our nation's current state of cultural retardation.

But don't let my reference to his own modesty and general decency lead you to believe that fans of political snark (I count myself amongst them) won't find plenty to love. Taibbi sets out to throw himself into the middle of the country and find out what has gone so terribly wrong that we find growing extremes of ridiculousness on both the left and the right. To find kinship with the Right, he spends time living in Texas with a group of evangelical Christians; and to reach the far left he joins a group of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. His key thesis is that the groups are far too similar in their willingness to disengage from the rest of the nation. "Abandoned by the political center, both groups ascribed unblinkingly to a militant, us-against-them worldview, where only their own could be trusted. What made them distincly American was that, while actually the victims of an obvious, unhidden conspiracy of corrupt political power, they chose to battle bugbears that were completely idiotic, fanciful and imaginary."

My favorite quote in the book comes from when Taibbi first sets out on his quest: "I decided to pick a spot on the map, go there, and get retarded. If the country was going to flip out, I didn't want to be left behind." Certainly you can hear the echos of Rolling Stone editors past in that quote. But Taibbi does maintain his own voice -- particularly when expressing true compassion for the individual Americans he meets during the journey. For that reason, even (especially) long-time Thompson and O'Rourke fans should absolutely give it a read.

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