Sunday, January 30, 2005

Book Review - A Popular Trend: Negative Political Books

By Stewart Kiff

Today, more than ever, we live in a world of passionate discourse. Newspapers, talk radio and especially cable television are awash in opinions dressed as argument and often accessorized with massaged facts and sly putdowns. More often than not it is the sensational that captures headlines and moves public sentiment. Political writers who limit their comments to the sensible, the logical and the well-researched seem continually sidelined by those who revel in the dramatic and emotional. This month, in acknowledgement of this sad reality, we journey to the realm of negative excess; reviewing three books so extreme that they define themselves by what they are against.

Unfortunately, this field of negative political books has become awfully crowded. Indeed, it seems like a whole publishing industry developed to simply produce anti-George W. Bush books, let alone the multiplicity of books whose themes are uni-dimensionally anti-American, anti-Mulroney, anti-French (as in the country), and now anti-Martin. In its bristling hostility and unflappable negativity, this publishing trend exposes the chasm between left and right which divides modern politics and in many ways has come to define it.

Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man
David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke

First up, we have the bitter and personal: Michael Moore is a Big, Fat, Stupid, White Man. I would have loved to completely dismiss this work as just so much ideological hyperventilating. But, once you get past the cheap invective and casual sneering, you will find that authors Hardy and Clarke, while clearly detesting Moore, also have a factual basis for their criticism.

The writers have done readers a service by taking a step by step approach to detailing the omissions and misrepresentations in Moore’s documentaries that have become the target for his growing legions of critics. Unfortunately for Michael Moore fans it would appear that there is a fair bit of substance to these charges of inaccuracy and manipulation of facts and footage, and the volume of perceived deceit may lead one to question his motives.

This book however is a bit dated. It was completed before the release of Moore’s hit film, Fahrenheit 9/11. It is just too sour and too sloppy to merit a recommendation here.

Not Recommended.

The Anti-Chomsky Reader
Edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz

The Anti-Chomsky Reader, targeting writer and intellectual Noam Chomsky, is an altogether different story. While I have appreciated the art and competence of Moore’s books and films, I must confess I never “got” Chomsky. When I have tried to read him, I found his prose nearly impenetrable. His writing is elliptical and wordy, and filled with a casual sarcasm. Even when I go over paragraphs a couple times to try and confirm the meaning, I still don’t get him.

But for many devout lefties, notably those in the anti-globalization movement and the pro-Palestine movements, Chomsky was long ago beatified as their patron saint. The famous Canadian documentary, Manufacturing Consent, helped accelerate this process. If anything, his fame and influence have increased in recent years to the point where he is considered an intellectual superstar.

He has attained this lofty status, in part, because of his significant and real contributions in the field of Linguistics as a Professor at MIT. But it is his political writings that accord him the real gravitas. Such is the power of his notoriety that in some circles it is sufficient to have claimed to read Chomsky to have some of his status pass off on you.

The Anti-Chomsky Reader aims to take down this man’s entire life’s work, through a systematic attack that refutes one-by-one the assumptions and facts on which he has built his arguments. Largely, the authors succeed. The documentation in this book is excellent. Its assertions are verifiable and clearly written. The book does suffer slightly from Editor David Horowitz’s thuggish approach to debate, which tends to push nuanced facts to absolutes and denigrates opponents.

What cannot be ignored in this book are the many substantial critiques of Chomsky, and his questionable methods of research to back up his assertions. Even more problematic are the detailed links this book provides between Chomsky and holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and a web of anti-Semitic publishing houses.

More debateable, but nonetheless problematic, is Chomsky’s support in the late seventies of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, at the exact same time the regime was engaged in a terrible genocide. The book asserts and documents actions and statements by Chomsky that show him so ideologically close-minded, that he went out of his way to dismiss and downplay reports of the genocide as they emerged from Cambodia.

Chomsky, for all his celebrity among intellectuals, remains a bit of a fringe interest among the general public. For them the thrust of the book will seem obscure, which is why it can only be lightly recommended for general readers. But for political junkies with an interest in Chomsky, this is a must read.


Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
Al Franken, Dutton Books

In one of the great political books of the past two years, Saturday Night Live alumnus, comedian, and leftie activist/broadcaster Al Franken sets out to prove just how dishonest many leading right-wing commentators are. Fortunately for the reader the book is written in an entertaining and thoroughly engaging fashion as it states its case that, yes, they are a bunch of liars.

Following on his formula from 1999’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot, Franken takes aim at popular right-wing commentators, in particular, loudmouths like Ann Coulter and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. What sets this book apart from others of its ilk, other than its playful tone, is the rigorous research upon which the author bases his critiques. Franken neither condescends to his readers nor takes himself too seriously.

Certainly, Ann Coulter’s reputation does not hold up well under Franken’s documentation of her apparent mendacity. Yet the book has an underlying respect for some of those the author disagrees with, and that gives it an endearing quality beyond its humour.

Which is why it’s a bestseller. If you have not picked this up to see what how entertainment and quality political criticism can mix, then you are missing a treat.

Highly recommended.