Weekend Bookchat

September 6, 2008

In this edition of Weekend Bookchat, we give thanks for investigative journalist Amy Goodman, co-founder and main host of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! Goodman’s unflinching commitment to going out into the field and talking to the people who are usually ignored by the mass-market press has put her in the line of fire many times, and this week it got her caught up in the police violence against protestors at the Republican National Convention, where she and two colleagues were unlawfully arrested and charged. She talks about the arrest in the Young Turks clip posted above, and in this column. If you want to help do something about this bloody minded farce, check out your options here.

Amy Goodman and her brother David, also an investigative journalist, co-authored Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times, one of this year’s best progressive books — profiles of people speaking out and taking action for what’s right in America. The Goodmans are also co-authors of Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them, and Amy Goodman herself wrote Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back. When it comes time to write the unvarnished history of this decade of lies and corruption, Goodman will stand out as one of those who remembered what is great about America and spoke out on its behalf.

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Religionists are fond of claiming that there can be no morality or social order unless people have been scared into believing that an invisible guy in the sky will punish them for bad behavior. This argument ignores the fact that the Republican Party’s descent into corruption and scandal coincides with the rise of its Christianist element, but its does provide chuckles when we see that John McCain’s running mate is a Jesus-whooping muttonhead who’s been lying pretty much nonstop since she become the senator’s choice for veep. George W. Bush has cited Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher, but that hasn’t stopped him from lying us into a war in Iraq and presiding over eight years of organized looting and plundering at home.

In his new book Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, sociologist Phil Zuckerman goes looking for stable, law-abiding societies in which religion is at best a minor element. According to reviewer Catherine Tumber, he found what he was looking for in Denmark and Sweden:

Statistics bear out the relative godlessness of Danes and Swedes. Less than a quarter profess belief in a personal God; less than 5 percent believe the Bible is the literal word of God, compared with 33 percent of Americans. Zuckerman believes that such numbers allow him to test religion’s social argument: Is it true, as the likes of Pat Robertson would have it, that without religion, society plunges into depravity, criminality, and moral relativism? After interviewing some 150 of these Scandinavians, Zuckerman concludes that the answer is plainly no. If anything, he finds, they are both content and “deeply good.” As a nonbeliever and admitted polemicist himself, Zuckerman can almost be heard wondering how this widespread secular contentment might be bottled and distributed.

Sharman Apt Russell also finds goodness and order on the opposite end of the scale from Christianity and other monotheistic religions. Russell is a scientific pantheist, and in her book Standing in the Light she finds comfort and a call to decency in the words of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy.”

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Thomas Frank, author of the sensational The Wrecking Crew, traces the decline of American political commentary from its peak with Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago:

I mock, but the American Dream is a banality that apparently never requires definition and yet is capable of launching our pundit class on endless expeditions to the shimmering El Dorado of . . . the center.

Ah, the center! Now there is the place to be. The existential radical Mailer wouldn’t be caught dead there, but at least he was willing to identify its coordinates correctly: In 1968, “the center” obviously meant the Great Society liberalism that was shared by Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Nelson Rockefeller alike. Corporate liberalism was simply the logic of the nation’s political machinery, and everyone knew it—although plenty of people hated it. These days, of course, the proper political writer is no existentialist, and he dares not locate himself anywhere but the almighty center, that omphalos of triangulated righteousness. It is simply understood that you cannot possibly have anything worthwhile to say about American politics unless you can see the error of “both extremes” and know in your heart that the two parties behave in every situation as precise mirror images of each other.

There’s another telling difference: When our contemporary pundits take up the banner of centrism, they never mean Great Society liberalism, even though it’s easy to find polls that show the public still strongly approves of, say, national health care, safe workplaces, equality, the public financing of Social Security, and so on. To them, “the center” always seems to mean a sort of soft libertarianism: free markets, free trade, low taxes, and no more of that infernal bawling about moral values. The center, in other words, always turns out to be a perfect reflection of the political longings of the white-collar class.

For all the platitudes about centrism that pass for thought among pundits, Frank argues, the real problems facing America are largely the result of the long ascendancy of conservatism and its decay and collapse under George W. Bush. “And totting up the catastrophes that have attended that reactionary generation—not least among them the quisling counsels of our pollster-and-consultant caste—is a moment not for tranquilizers, but for outrage.”

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Does barbecue equal barbarism? Is that rack of lamb a framework for racism? Andrew Warnes argues as much in Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food. Reviewer Andrew Leonard says it’s “either the most ridiculous book ever written about America’s defining ‘grass-roots’ food, or it is the most profound. Or perhaps it is both . . . I found myself both riveted and appalled by Warnes’ investigation of barbecue.” Bon appetit.

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How the collapse of one man’s political career spurred the creation of a classic political treatise. How writers become invisible — and visible. How the war on crime became a means of control over the rest of us. How the National Enquirer became an institution for those who need to be institutionalized. How military service, folk songs and the Hoboken music scene inform the work of this excellent young novelist.

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