December 26, 2006
Richard T. Corcoran Jr., a figure in the infamous 1989 gang rape of a mildly retarded girl by a group of boys, apparently killed himself last week after shooting and wounding his estranged wife and her boyfriend.
This was one of New Jersey’s most disturbing criminal cases, not simply because it was so outrageous, but because it seemed to arise naturally from a situation found in less extreme form in just about any suburban community. The boys accused of directly assaulting the girl — several of them simply looked on and enjoyed the show — were high school athletes in a sports-obsessed town that coddled them and cut them plenty of slack. Their sense of entitlement fueled a predatory sexual attitude that gloried in the humiliation of other girls before it found its perfect expression in the 1989 sex attack. The story of their growth from obnoxiousness to criminality — and the community that kept treating them as young gods while defaming the victim — is chronicled in “Our Guys,” a hair-raising study of the case by Bernard Lefkowitz, who only now I learn died last year.
When the Montclair Book Center, a hop skip and jump from Glen Ridge, announced that Lefkowitz would be making an author appearance in 1997, the Star-Ledger quoted a Glen Ridge resident to the effect that Lefkowitz better bring a bodyguard and a bulletproof vest. Lefkowitz drew a pretty good-sized crowd. Early in the presentation, this absolutely huge guy showed up and took a seat. Everyone in the room drew a deep breath, then let it go as they realized the visitor was Charles Figueroa, who as a high school senior had blown the whistle on the attackers. He was very pleasant and low-key — he told me he’d just come “to keep an eye on the situation and show my support.”
Lefkowitz himself was quite a guy. When I asked him why a book about a sensational crime in New Jersey was published in hardcover by University of Nebraska Press, he described in great detail how he had initially signed a deal with a major New York house, which gradually lost interest as the case ground on. They eventually dropped the book and Lefkowitz was left to find any port in a storm — or, in this case, a Midwestern university press. Fortunately, the success of the hardcover led to a lucrative paperback sale and a made-for-television movie, so Lefkowitz was finally rewarded for his hard work and diligence.
The charges against Corcoran were dropped just before the case went to trial, though the case haunted him for the rest of his life. The information about his treatment of his wife speaks for itself. So does the remark from a Glen Ridge resident in the Star-Ledger story about how the poor boys had their lives ruined by one little mistake. Apparently the excuses that helped this crime to happen are still being made.
December 26, 2006
Reading the many tributes to Hunter S. Thompson following news of his suicide earlier this week, I’m struck by the passionate admiration shown by bloggers like Digby and Steve Gilliard, and journos like Tom Wolfe and Larry Kramer. I’m also struck by the fact that many, in fact most, of the tributes are far more interesting and better-written than anything the Godfather of Gonzo ever cranked out, even at his peak.
In some ways, the reaction to Thompson’s suicide reminds me of the equally heartfelt mourning over the death of music critic Lester Bangs in 1982. Both men were word-drunk ravers who lived hard and gave themselves as much space as the putative subjects of whatever article they were writing. Both men labored to infuse idiosyncratic energy into the very lines of their writing, and sometimes came close to achieving their goals — Bangs more so than Thompson. Both men seemed to embody something crucial to the self-image of their admirers — to their friends, Bangs and Thompson were Huckleberry Finns in a world of Tom Sawyers. But when death took Bangs at the tender age of 33, he was only getting started — there was every reason to believe his best work was ahead of him, that he would blow the gates off the rock critic ghetto that nurtured him and take his inimitable style into the wider world. When Thompson took his own life at 67, his best work was decades behind him, and quite frankly it wasn’t aging all that well.
Thompson arose from the New Journalism of the late 1960s, when writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe infused reportage with the narrative techniques of the best fiction. In the hands of a Mailer or a Wolfe, the results could be spectacular; in the hands of less gifted writers, the results were endless reams of self-indulgent crap. Thompson was a particularly baleful influence to anyone who felt confined by the strictures of straight-up journalism. Hey, why bother getting your facts straight when you could spin out page after page of ornately crafted invective about how Richard Nixon was the reeking ball of pus at the heart of the American Dream? Trouble is, invective isn’t particularly hard to do — anyone who spent some quality time with a copy of H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices can do it in his sleep. (I speak from personal knowledge here.) Thompson’s magnum opus, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trial ’72, isn’t a patch on Miami and the Siege of Chicago when it comes to capturing the hallucinatory awfulness of mainstream American life and politics of the era. That’s because Norman Mailer knew when it was time to keep his eyes open and his mind clear — a knack Thompson never bothered to acquire.
Hunter S. Thompson is being memorialized as the drug-fueled visionary scold who exposed Richard Nixon as the embodiment of evil, but I doubt Nixon ever lost so much as a minute worrying about the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The irony is that when push came to shove, it was the straight journalists who played Van Helsing to Nixon’s Dracula and dragged him into the lethal sunlight. The answer to the absurdities of mainstream politics was not to drop mescaline, drink a case of tequila and crank out fifty pages of free-associated observations about your three-hundred-pound Samoan attorney friend. It was to follow the example of Joe McGinnis, whose book The Selling of the President 1968 delivered a knockout punch to the conventional wisdom journalism embodied by Theodore H. White and his The Making of the President series. I.F. Stone did more honest journalism in a day than Thompson did his whole life. Dan Rather didn’t have Thompson’s gifts as a writer, but he was the one who ended up giving Nixon nightmares. New Journalism produced some amazing writing, but the great thing about plain vanilla journalism is that you don’t have to be a genius to pull it off. You just have to keep asking questions.
One of the Thompson tributes on the Internet (I’ve lost track of which one — there are so many out there) mentions that as a young man, Thompson would type out copies of Ernest Hemingway’s novels in an attempt to understand how Hemingway pulled off his effects. Maybe he did the job too well. Like Hemingway, Thompson peaked early and vanished into a silly persona of his own creation: where Hemingway became Papa, the avuncular connoisseur of bullfighting and sport-fishing, Thompson became Uncle Duke, the perpetually drug-addled gun lover of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. It’s no secret that Thompson nurtured a decades-long grudge against Trudeau; it’s also undeniable that Uncle Duke captured the nasty clownishness underlying Thompson’s wild man of the mountains act. I gather that Thompson in person was endlessly charming and made friends easily. I’m sorry I never met him. But I’m not sorry that I left Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 in the dumpster along with a lot of other high school reading. The highway of excess doesn’t lead to the palace of wisdom, it leads to Generation of Swine and tiresome iterations of an act that had become stale, oh so very stale, long before the end.
December 26, 2006
The reign of the Bushies could not have come at a worse moment in history.
At a time when the main question about global warming is no longer “does it exist?” but “how bad and how fast will it be?” — as this magisterial series in The New Yorker is making abundantly clear — the Bushies are more interested in bobbing and weaving and letting lobbyists write legislation so that their campaign contributors won’t have to suffer anything but the slightest inconvenience.
At a time when Islamist terrorists began gearing up to strike us on our home soil, the Bushies took their cues from their boss and went fishing. When the 9/11 disaster unfolded, the Bush administration finally acted — to secure more tax cuts, chop away at the Constitution and invade a country that posed no threat to use. Meanwhile, the architect of 9/11 is free and at liberty.
At a time when the government is sodden with corruption and lies, blatantly contemptuous of any calls to restrain its power, our corporate news media are so relentlessly focused on trivia and celebrity that even when presented with fresh evidence that Bush lied us into an unnecesary war with Iraq, all they can muster is a shrug before returning to the question of how many wedding gifts should be returned by the runaway bride.
And, at a time when America’s leadership in science and technology is being eroded by stiffer competition from the rest of the world, the Bushies and the Republican Party pander to the deranged religiosity of flakes like Pat Robertson, and encourage wingnut fundamentalists to resume their old crusade against reason. Take Kansas, for example, where the fundies in charge of the state school board are forcing people into a pseudo-debate about evolution for the ten-thousandth time.
I’m not going to rehash the distortions, lies and debating tricks that make up the case for “intelligent design theory” — that’s what valuable sites like this are for.
Instead, I’m struck by the sheer amount of damage the fundies do to themselves and the people around them by turning Kansas into a punchline for jokes about religious troglodytes. The New York Times story quotes Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, a high-school physics teacher who thought the hearings were important enough to take an unpaid day off: “Kansas has been through this before. I’m really tired of going to conferences and being laughed at because I’m from Kansas.”
Her words bring to mind H.L. Mencken, the famed journalist who covered the Scopes “monkey trial” as it unfolded in the summer of 1925 at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tenn. Mencken had a keen eye for the grotesqueries of the fundamentalists opposed to the teaching of evolution in schools, led by their paladin William Jennings Bryan. He also appreciated the work done by the opposing side, led by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow. Mencken, surprisingly, restrained his viperish wit when he first saw Dayton — expecting a hellhole, he instead found a lovely town tucked into the Cumberland Mountains. During his long stay while covering the trial, he met many like-minded people who took it for granted that they were viewed as freaks by the rest of the community:
“Such is the punishment that falls upon a civilized man cast among fundamentalists . . . all the brighter young men of the state — and it produces plenty of them — tend to leave it. If they remain they must prepare to succumb to the prevailing blather or resign themselves to being more or less infamous. With the anti-evolution law enforced, the state university will rapidly go to pot; no intelligent youth will waste his time upon its courses if he can help it.” Some civic boosters had welcomed the trial as a way to bring money and recognition to Dayton, but Mencken correctly predicted that the trial would make the place “a joke town at best, and infamous at worst.”
I spent an afternoon in Dayton about ten years ago, and what I saw was pretty depressing. The houses that so charmed Mencken were abandoned or seedy-looking; many of the stores in its downtown area were boarded up. The best-looking building in town was the Rhea County Courthouse, where the basement has been converted into a “museum” devoted to the Scopes trial. The exhibits were mainly a bunch of photos and a timeline of the trial: aside from chairs and fans used during the sweltering hearings, the trial left little in the way of physical evidence. You’ll get a better sense of the trial from reading one of the many Mencken anthologies. The action was all verbal, and when the players were done talking, they rolled out like a traveling carnival and left Dayton to its fate.
I’m not saying Dayton went downhill solely because of the “monkey trial” and the ridicule that followed. For all I know, the town may have rebounded in the last decade, though I’d find that pretty hard to believe. But I am saying that intellectual capital is a fragile thing — easy to lose and hard to replace. People who can imagine a better life for themselves and conceive the means to get it will not stick around if they feel unwelcome or scorned. People willing to work for serious scholarly credentials won’t earn their degrees in states that are synonymous with intellectual squalor. The fundies can start their own think tanks like the Discovery Institute and convince numbskull legislators that their “theory” deserves to be taught alongside evolution. But real science is real science, and chasing it out of Kansas simply means Kansas will have one less avenue back to prosperity. The brain drain flows in only one direction — away from the state.
Mencken’s summation, written 80 years ago, should offer encouragement to the intellectual heroes who are in Kansas today trying to face down the intellectual kangaroo court ginned up by the fundamentalists on the state school board:
Darrow has lost this case. It was lost long before he came to Dayton. But it seems to me that he has nevertheless performed a great public service by fighting it to a finish and in a perfectly serious way. Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. Tennessee, challenging him too timorously and too late, now sees its courts converted into camp meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by its sworn officers of the law. There are other states that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates.
If you don’t see a message for our times in those words, then you’re probably reading the wrong blog.
December 26, 2006
One of the things that redeemed the second season of The Sopranos, which had gone all wobbly after a good start, was the unblinkingly cruel subplot about David Scatino, a boyhood friend of mobster Tony Soprano, who talks his way into one of Tony’s high-stakes poker games and almost instantly buries himself under an unpayable mountain of debts. It quickly turns out that Tony knew about Scatino’s compulsive gambling problem, but let him into the game anyway because Scatino and his wife own a successful sporting-goods store.
What follows is more frightening than any monster movie. After siphoning out Scatino’s bank account (including his son’s college fund), Tony and his cronies gorge themselves on the store’s credit lines, buying up easily resold big-ticket merchandise and leaving the store awash in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills. The business dissolves into bankruptcy, taking with it Scatino’s marriage (his wife divorces him), his family (his son, cheated out of an Ivy League future, hates him) and a good portion of his sanity. In the end, as he prepares to embark on his new life as a drifter and day-laborer, Scatino asks Tony why he let him destroy himself. After all, haven’t they known each other since childhood? Tony replies with the story of the frog and the scorpion. “This is what I am,” Tony says. “This is what I do.”
What we’ve just seen is a variation on an old con called a bust-out. Usually it involves con men offering to buy a business, making a partial payment to gain access to the firm’s credit and name, and then hollowing out the company’s finances by running up the existing credit lines and opening new ones, all of which are maxed out to buy electronic gear and anything else that can be resold quickly at a fraction of its value. For the con men involved in the bust-out, it’s all gravy. The phony buyer –- usually a shell company with no discernible assets -– defaults and the business reverts to its original owner, by which time the once-thriving firm has been turned into a rotting hulk ready to have its bones picked clean by creditors.
The Bush family has often been referred to as the WASP version of the Corleones, but the Soprano clan makes for a much better comparison. At its best, The Sopranos is an acid mockery of the phony gravitas of the three Godfather movies. Where Michael Corleone is heroically evil, an international player who consorts with statesmen and the Vatican before succumbing to his tragic flaw, Tony Soprano is a sewer rat engaged in the grubby business of preying on human weakness and fear -– when his fall comes, it will be tragic only to himself. Until then, however, he’s going to make as much money as he can for himself and his buddies, and leave the rest of the world holding the bill.
I’m not just using hyperbole here. I do think that when honest historians assess the Bush administration, they will find it more useful to treat George II and his Republican cronies as a criminal organization rather than a political party. The best tool for analyzing Bush’s policies is not historiography, but the procedures used by federal agents as they pursue a RICO investigation into a mobbed-up business.
Take the money and run. As long as Republicans are in power, that phrase should replace “E Pluribus Unum” on the national seal. It’s the natural outcome of a quarter-century of rhetoric about how government is the problem, not the solution; how government doesn’t work; how deregulation is the only way to build the economy. If government is nothing but a taxpayer-funded scam, then why not use it to enrich yourself and your buddies? If the very idea of public service as an idealistic calling has been turned into a mealymouthed joke, then where’s the shame in abusing power and running the country into the ground? As long as you can convince just over 50 percent of the suckers to vote your way, you can throw yourself a party and leave the world holding the bill.
This is what they are. This is what they do. Didn’t they tell you?
The recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is all of a piece with this scenario. Even many Republicans find this loudmouthed dolt hard to take; certainly no foreign leader will be able to take him seriously as a player on the world stage. Bolton will face a building full of career diplomats who know his nomination was dead in the Senate, that he had to be smuggled into office under cover of darkness, that the best they can expect is three years of low-down entertainment until the Bushies pack up their swag and head for the hills. If you despise the very idea of the United Nations — and if your core voting bloc cherishes Satanic conspiracy fantasies about the UN being the Antichrist’s method for achieving one-world government — then an ambassador capable of effective diplomacy is unnecessary. The important thing is that a plum job went to a crony. Sure, he may very well be implicated in the Valerie Plame case, but after a couple of years on the government sugar tit he’ll be able to lawyer himself up and hold the prosecutors at bay for a long time.
Insane tax cuts for the wealthy. Delusional military ventures abroad. From the minute the Bushies took power, their biggest concern has been to break open the cash registers, empty the shelves and open the bank vaults. Stewardship is a joke to them. What we are witnessing may very well be the biggest bust-out in human history.
And if you, good citizen, are wondering where you fit into this picture, just cast your mind back to the last episode of the second season of The Sopranos. One of the closing shots shows us David Scatino in an empty parking lot, tying some gear to the top of his car as he prepares to leave his ruined life behind him. He wanted to play poker with the big boys, so you can say he brought his troubles on himself. A majority of Americans voted for Bush in at least one of the last two elections, so you can say we brought this on ourselves. In Scatino’s case, human weakness created a business opportunity for Tony Soprano. America’s weakness created a business opportunity for the Republicans. With the national press at a historic low ebb, the Democratic Party flat on its back and the airwaves humming with wingnut propaganda, the pickings couldn’t be any richer.
They saw their chance and they took it. That’s what they are. That’s what they do.
December 26, 2006
Put on your best white sheets and click over to Human Events Online, where the good ol’ boys of “the national conservative weekly” have posted their nominations for the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries” — a prelude, no doubt, to a good old fashioned book-burnin’ party.
Here’s the list, chosen for you by such intellectual lumninaries as Phyllis Schlafly:
1. The Communist Manifesto — Karl Marx
2. Mein Kampf — Adolf Hitler
3. Quotations from Chairman Mao — Mao Zedong
4. The Kinsey Report — Alfred Kinsey
5. Democracy and Education — John Dewey
6. Das Kapital — Marx
7. The Feminine Mystique — Betty Friedan
8. The Course of Positive Philosophy — Auguste Comte
9. Beyond Good and Evil — Freidrich Nietzsche
10. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money — John Maynard Keynes
Frankly, I find the list’s denunciations of books 1, 2, 3 and 6 to be rather pro forma — I suspect they were chosen mainly to provide nasty comparisons with books 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10, which is where the list’s authors let their wrath burn most brightly. It does allow the list to end on a note of hilarity with this attack on book 10, which they call “a recipe for ever-expanding government. When the business cycle threatens a contraction of industry, and thus of jobs, he argued, the government should run up deficits, borrowing and spending money to spur economic activity. FDR adopted the idea as U.S. policy, and the U.S. government now has a $2.6-trillion annual budget and an $8-trillion dollar debt.”
How profound! The current Republican president takes the budget surplus generated by his Democratic predecessor and turns in into a black hole of debt that threatens to engulf America’s economy — and it’s all FDR’s fault!
At the site, you’ll see that the runner-up list includes Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Sadly, there’s nothing to explain why they didn’t rank as high as the Kinsey report (4). The inclusion of Kinsey shows us once again the conservative propensity for magic thinking: by giving the world straight data on what people actually did (and do) in the bedroom, Kinsey didn’t provide useful information — he enabled “the normalization of promiscuity and deviancy.” I expect Darwin made the list for a similar offense — wingers and creationists are already on record accusing evolutionary theory of promoting everything from higher crime rates to homosexuality.
Reading this list, one must conclude that (a) these jokers need to read more books, and (b) they especially need to read more conservative books, just to spare themselves some unflattering comparisons.
For one thing, the Nazi stance on the role of women in society — “kinder, kirche, kuche” (“children, church, kitchen”) — dovetails pretty neatly with the ideas of a great many conservative figures (witness the inclusion of Betty Friedan on the blacklist), and when we learn that Hitler dismissed women from all medical, government and legal posts, all the while offering tax breaks and maternity benefits to those who married and devoted themselves exclusively to child-rearing, we can only wonder why Bush hasn’t introduced the idea yet. Or was he leaving that policy proposal to Bill Frist?
After all, no less a conservative luminary than Pat Buchanan argues (in his book A Republic, Not An Empire) that the United States should have stayed out of World War II, that Nazi Germany was no threat to us and if our staying on the sidelines let all the other bad stuff continue — you know, the Holocaust, whole populations annihilated, that kind of thing — then that’s the way the cookie crumbles, or should have crumbled. So if the Human Events Online crowd has a problem with the Nazis, don’t bug us liberals — our forbears were warning people about those monsters even as conservatives of the period advocated hanging back and letting Hitler do the work of crushing Bolshevism. Go take it up with Pat.
The Human Events crowd gets into trouble again further down the list with another Nazi reference, this time with Book 9. “Here Nietzsche argued that men are driven by an amoral ‘Will to Power,’ and that superior men will sweep aside religiously inspired moral rules, which he deemed as artificial as any other moral rules, to craft whatever rules would help them dominate the world around them. ‘Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation,’ he wrote.”
Beg your pardon, folks, but if that paragraph doesn’t sum up the neoconservative approach to dealing with the rest of the world, then nothing does. Ron Suskind entered the history books when he reported how a member of the Bush administration dismissed questioners and critics as “the reality-based community.” By virtue of its power, the functionary declared, the United States could and would make its own reality. That’s the will to power at its most nakedly predatory, and instead of criticizing Nietzsche, Human Events Online should acknowledge him as a conservative prophet. Same goes for Mao Zedong: “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” the most famous aphorism from No. 3 on the Human Events hit parade, is the thinking underlying every conservative pronouncement about America’s status as a “hyperpower” that can do whatever it wishes.
Far more offensive to these moral clarity types, I expect, is Nietzsche’s unyielding iconoclasm. He called himself “a man who wishes nothing more than daily to lose some reassuring belief, who seeks and finds his happiness in this daily greater liberation of the mind. It may be that I want to be even more of a freethinker than I can be.” For the type of conservative who expects to be swaddled and cocooned against uncertainty, Nietzsche’s works are the very stuff of nightmare.
As a parting shot, the listmakers offer this: “The Nazis loved Nietzsche.” This wheezy slander is where the pseudo-scholars lose their training wheels and crash into the rose bushes. Listen closely, children: The Nazis loved Richard Wagner, not Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a close friend of Wagner until the composer’s extreme German nationalism and hatred for Jews prompted a very public breaking away that culminated in 1878. Nietzsche even lambasted his own sister for marrying a Jew-hater: “One of the greatest stupidities you have committed — for yourself and for me!” he wrote in 1887. “[Y]our association with an anti-semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me ever again with ire and melancholy.”
In the interests of promoting further learned discussion, I will offer my own list of the 10 most harmful books tomorrow. I won’t be restricting myself to a mere two centuries, either — The Opinion Mill finds gets its grist from a wide range of sources.
Other bloggers, notably Kevin Drum, have tried their hands at this as well, and I’ll be commenting where appropriate.
See you tomorrow.
December 26, 2006
Good morning, class. Yesterday we talked about the list of dangerous books compiled by the little orcs at Human Events Online, which asked you to believe that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson’s early warning about the dangers of runaway pollution deserved to be ranked with Mein Kampf and Chairman Mao’s little red book. (It also expected you to believe that Phyllis Schlafly devotes evenings to getting her brain around Comte’s The Course of Positive Philosophy, but that’s another diatribe.)
As promised, here is The Opinion Mill’s own bibliography of blight, compiled with an eye to acknowledging those books that have done the most damage. Some, in fact, are still warping impressionable young minds. Where is the outrage? What will we tell the children?
THE THREATENING STORM, by Kenneth M. Pollack
Talk about a short shelf life! I’ve had cartons of milk that held up longer than this 2002 tome, a big favorite with Iraq war-whores during the chest-thumping, Winston Churchill- and Teddy Roosevelt-quoting phase of the run-up to the invasion, when Fox News went into full Leni Riefenstahl mode and Andrew Sullivan warned that if those mewling liberal critics didn’t knock off their anti-war carping he was going to come storming out of his Provincetown hammock and scratch their eyes out. Pollack wasn’t the only one helping tool up the war machine, but he did more than most to help grease the skids for the disaster now unfolding. Page after page of alarming news about Iraq’s rapidly expanding biological weapons programs, the fact that nuclear weapons were almost within Saddam’s grasp, the threat Saddam posed to the entire world . . . Yo, Kenneth! When’s the revised edition coming out? Kenneth? KENNETH?
DOUBLE STANDARDS, by Jeane Kirkpatrick
The title essay, which won Kirkpatrick the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan, put a fresh coat of paint on the old argument that propping up corrupt dictatorships in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East was necessary for the greater purpose of opposing the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism. Kirkpatrick’s version — which helped end Jimmy Carter’s tentative gestures toward a foreign policy informed by morality and ethics rather than just bloody-handed realpolitik — turned on the distinction between the “totalitarianism” of the Soviets versus the “authoritarianism” of Somoza (who had recently been overthrown by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) and the Shah (who had just been run out of Iran by the Ayatollah Khomenei). Totalitarian regimes like the Soviets and the Chinese exerted top-to-bottom control over their societies and were thus immune to argument or change; authoritarian regimes were more amenable to change and could be brought around to democracy if given the right incentives; therefore, odious but pro-U.S. authoritarian rulers in Honduras, Guatemala and Iraq deserved our help in facing down challenges from the totalitarians of Managua, Moscow and Tehran. Since this book was published, the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc voted itself out of existence, while the Chinese have morphed into venture capitalists with a taste for crushing political dissent. Meanwhile, we have fought two wars with that pro-U.S. authoritarian ruler in Baghdad, undercut the Iranian reform movement with dumb grandstanding, and allowed the authoritarian regime in Pakistan to play us like a hooked trout as it pretends to beat the bushes for Osama bin Laden.
DARWIN’S BLACK BOX, by Michael Behe
The opening salvo in the barrage of lawyer’s tricks, three-card-monte arguments and willful ignorance that we now know as the “intelligent design” movement, which would open science textbooks to the argument that life is so complicated, it must have all happened by magic.
THE TURNER DIARIES, by “Andrew MacDonald”
Virtually unreadable for anyone with an education that rises above the fifth-grade level, this bloodthirsty chronicle of a global race war and the extermination of all Jewish and non-white races remains the favorite coffee table book in the bunkers of the white suprtemacist movement. An inspiration to Timothy McVeigh and white racist killers everywhere.
OF A CONSERVATIVE, by Barry Goldwater
Goldwater’s manifesto established him as the John Paul Jones of conservatism: even as his presidential campaign against Lyndon Johnson sank without a ripple, the lifeboats were full of eager young wingers crying “We have not yet begun to fight!” Or, to put it in Goldwater’s own words — ghosted for him by a member of the alarming Bozell clan — “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” To his credit, Goldwater himself seemed genuinely dismayed by some of the troglodytes he helped unleash upon America, and even people who despised his politics were heartened when, at the height of the Reagan era, he announced that it was the duty of every good American to kick Jerry Falwell in the ass. But he helped midwife our current predicament, and for that he gets top dishonors.
THE WEALTH OF NATIONS, by Adam Smith
Founding document of the Order of the Invisible Hand, an influential cult that frequently operates in concert with the Laissez-Unfair League, the Club For Lobbyist Checkbook Growth and a shadowy gangster organization, loosely known as The Chicago Boys, that routinely dumps its victims at Laffer’s Curve. Many conservative economists and pundits claim to have read this book, which posits that wholly unregulated marketplaces are the most efficient means of ensuring that people with lots of money will get even more. Smith’s image of an “invisible hand” that restores equilibrium to the marketplace, once it has finished slapping the hell out of anyone with a yearly income below six figures, is popular with people whose yearly incomes are at or above six figures.
THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH, by Hal Lindsey
A seminal tract in the founding of fundie nation and the rise of the Rapture Right. An adept businessman as well as a religious crank, Lindsey knows that when his latest prophecy of the world’s end evaporates, it’s not time to go into hiding — it’s time to publish another book that moves the date ahead a decade or so.
FREE TO CHOOSE, by Milton and Rose Friedman
Milton Friedman is to libertarian economists what Hal Lindsey is to snake-handlers, and while he makes the same arguments for unfettered predatory capitalism in other books, this one makes the list for accessibility — it provded the basis for a television series on that cesspool of liberal bias, PBS. Developing economies around the world have sustained long-term damage under the ministrations of advisors schooled in the views of Friedman.
UP FROM LIBERALISM, by William F. Buckley, Jr.
An early manifesto from the founder of National Review — the man most responsible for leading American conservatives out of the wilderness of anti-flouridation crusades and into respectability and power. Think of him as the Saruman of punditry, speaking sweet reason in plummy tones while the caverns beneath his feet disgorge an endless horde of snarling, mud-spattered monsters. Thanks to the conservative penchant for cutting funds to educational programs, Buckley’s sesquipedalian prose is now incomprehensible to most conservatives. Nevertheless, this book launched his career as the attractive and witty public face of an unattractive and witless movement. A poison bon-bon.
And the all-time champ . . .
THE PROTOCOLS OF THE
LEARNED ELDERS OF ZION
This 19th century czarist forgery, which purports to be the details of a Jewish plot for world domination, is probably the most durable piece of hate literature in history, defying all attempts to diminish or negate its poisonous effects. It has inspired pogroms, terrorist attacks and continent-wide extermination campaigns, making it one of the single deadliest pieces of writing ever set to paper. A big favorite with white supremacist groups and militias as well as other cranks on the far-right fringes of politics.
And these also-rans:
THE BELL CURVE,
by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray
Two members of the demographic group that consistently scores the highest on IQ tests posit the IQ test as the predictor of fate and the gauge of future success. The argument’s roots in eugenics and even less savory notions of racial superiority lie exposed, even as the authors try to keep them covered with footnotes. Consult Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man for an intellectual history of this branch of pseudoscience.
WILL, by G. Gordon Liddy
Unintentionally comic autobiography, written by a middle-aged dork, recalling his days as a young dork who set out to transform himself into the spitting image of the bullies who snapped towels at his butt. Introduced Rattus norvegicus as a key item in conservative cuisine. Harmless stuff, really, since Liddy’s tough-guy posturing evaporates even as you read it. Still has potential as a cinematic comeback vehicle for Pee-wee Herman, if only because Divine is no longer with us.