Saturday, August 20. 2005
Last week I was lurking in a bookstore and noticed a book called 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37), by Bernard Goldberg. This week I went back to the bookstore and found the book on sale 30% off, indicating that it's some kind of bestseller. I'm a sucker for lists, so I thumbed through the thing, but most of the names I didn't recognize, and most of those I did recognize seemed like peculiar choices. Then an article from Common Dreams popped up in my mailbox proposing six other people as the ones "Really Screwing Up America" -- seven actually, but Ken Lay managed to make both lists -- and I hadn't heard of half of them either. Someone named Philip Dhingra posted a web page with Goldberg's list and some info on who these people are and why Goldberg hates them, so that helps. I couldn't have told you who runs the ACLU or PETA or the Ford Foundation, but they all made the list.
For balance or confusion, Goldberg picks a few names from the far right -- Jimmy Swaggart, Michael Savage, David Duke. Seems like he could have consolidated those three slots by picking Fred Phelps, but I guess he didn't look too hard. Perhaps that's because he's so busy getting offended by things normal people just laugh off. For instance, Courtney Love leaves him so speechless all he can say is "Ho" -- and after doing that, he's got the balls to dump on Ludacris. One problem is that the list is weak on people who actually have any real power. He's got one billionaire on the list: George Soros, who sure screwed most of Asia but is better known in these parts for his philanthropy. He's got two U.S. Senators (Kennedy and Byrd), and two ex-Senators (Gore and Edwards), one ex-Governor (Dean), and a few U.S. Representatives and lower politicians, mostly black; not a Republican among them, unless you count Duke, who never got past the Louisiana state house. Most of the businessmen are has-beens (Lay, Dennis Kozlowski). He's got a real problem with TV news people and celebrities. According to Dhingra's explanations, slots 12, 13 and 14 were awarded for Dan Rather's Bush National Guard story. To make that screw up -- bad evidence for what was essentially a true, if not terribly important, story -- rank so high requires a lot of forgetting, not least of Colin Powell's U.N. speech, a piece of fraud that cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Rather didn't have any effect on anything, except that he provided the Republicans with an excuse to talk about something other than Bush's record. (So maybe that was catastrophic for America?)
Even given my fondness for lists, I'm not going to nitpick or pose an alternative list. Part of this is that aside from a few obvious politicos, most of whom have been attracted to the Bush administration like flies to shit, I don't know who's screwing up America. Most of the folks on Goldberg's list are symptomatic or representative of ideas or attitudes he just despises: vulgarity, irreverance for America, the notion that minorities and women feel cheated, maybe greed. I question his commitment on the latter point because he rarely employs it except when attacking something else on his list, but also because it's the only thing he dislikes that bothers me much. Were I to put together such a list, no doubt it would be symptomatic and representative as well. The reason for this is that individuals just don't have all that much power; rather, they rise to positions that we call powerful because they represent broader forces. Religion, for instance, is a powerful force in American life. Someone like Ralph Reed isn't a mastermind; he's just particularly adept as exploiting it. He would be on my list, but if he disappeared someone quite like him would quickly take his place. It strikes me as a peculiarly right-wing thing to make a list like this, partly because the right overrates individuals, and partly because the right likes to fantasize about killing off troublemakers.
The other thing I want to point out is that Goldberg obsesses over cultural matters to the relative exclusion of politics and economics, which most of us realize are the real seats of power. This, too, is a right-wing thing, because the right is all about control, and culture is out of control. Mostly: big business has a stranglehold on mass distribution, but there are ways around that, and the shrinking number of huge corporations are still competitive enough that they're a lot more concerned with money than content. The result is that culture is demand-based -- more so now than ever, which in the U.S. at least had never been under much control. Hip-hop, for instance, has found a huge audience even though it often flaunts the verities that politicos of all stripes profess to believe in. It can do this because it, unlike politics, is free from the tyranny of the majority.
But Goldberg doesn't have a clue about culture. If he did, he'd have to worry more about Steven Spielberg (not on the list) than Michael Moore (#1). Rather, he looks for obvious political signs, which leads to his rants about culture celebrities -- actors, musicians, etc. The interesting thing about an actor talking about politics is that actors aren't selected for their politics. Actors are atypical in some ways -- looks, wit, charm, fame, wealth -- but their politics are surprisingly random, much like others who don't belong to the carefully selected political class. Goldberg picks on groups he calls "dumb" and "vicious" (with special opprobrium for Janeanne Garofolo, who he deems to be both). Interesting that these are the two characteristics that never get invited as talking heads -- instead, all of us left of center are stuck with people like Mark Shields and Tom Oliphant supposedly representing us. (Do they even belong to the same species?)
Of course, the most annoying thing about Goldberg is that he couldn't have spent more than a few weeks hacking this bestseller out of his own prejudices and ignorance. I've been trying to write a book for years, and it never occurred to me that it could be done so easily.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
The author does not allow comments to this entry