Loony lefty conspiracy movements. Christian megachurches. The Florida GOP. Capitol Hill. In the middle of the last decade, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi waded neck-deep through all of these fever swamps and came out of the other side with The Great Derangement, which reads like a Bosch painting.
In this book, Taibbi demonstrates how political demagoguery and post-9/11 paranoia pushed Americans into various bubbles of ideological isolation, where they could have their opinions, biases, and prejudices constantly reinforced without having to worry too much about encountering opposing views. He accomplishes this by personally infiltrating several of these bubbles — and then holds a magnifying glass up to the systemically corrupt U.S. power structure to show how they all miss the mark in their criticism.
Interestingly, Taibbi calls himself out as the “villain” of the book, possibly because as the author, he acts as a kind of ringmaster who gathers all of these distinctively American freak shows together for the reader’s amusement. But by doing this, he also provides a valuable (and horrifying, and hysterical) snapshot of the country prior to the economic collapse of 2007-2008.
The funniest chapter in a book full of funny ones is titled “The Longest Three Days of My Life,” and it details Taibbi’s experiences at an “Encounter Weekend” retreat run by eschatological pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church. Posing as a parishioner, he and some other members of Hagee’s San Antonio-based congregation — which numbers in the tens of thousands — travel out to Texas Hill Country to find Jaaaaysus.
The event kicks off shortly after the group arrives at the “ranch,” with a speech delivered by a comical, overly macho church leader, who loudly and proudly talks up his exploits in high school athletics and the military. (Anyone who grew up in the South knows the type.)
But, you see, this tough guy has a tragic past — his father didn’t attend his ball games while he was growing up. (Seriously.) And this terrible trauma created a “wound” in his life, one that had to be healed by his heavenly father. And everyone else is there because of a similar wound in their own lives, and their mission for the weekend is to find that wound and discuss it in various breakout groups while sitting on metal folding chairs in large rooms lit by phosphorus tubes. Oh, and to cast out demons by speaking in tongues. (Again, seriously.)
This sort of pop-psychology-with-an-old-time-religion-veneer stuff would be mostly harmless if not for the fact that the retreat seems to offer very little to people in attendance who have experienced real mental and emotional distress (or “wounds,” if you like). Instead, it’s apparently designed to assuage the ennui of relatively normal folks. I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that a big part of Christianity is lifting up the lowest and most downtrodden among us, not trying to help some guy from Lubbock overcome the crushing despair of getting passed over for the manager job at the Bass Pro Shop.
There are other problems with Hagee’s church: It repeatedly pushes specific political positions onto a Christian flock that is much more interested in personal fulfillment and salvation. (Hagee is especially keen on keeping Israel strong so that country can fulfill its supposed destiny of being destroyed in an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil during the End Times.) Most of the worshippers tacitly support the church’s Washington agenda, Taibbi reports, but are generally more concerned with how Christianity can change their lives for the better.
Taibbi goes through other situations that somehow manage to be as surreal and prosaic as the Cornerstone Church retreat, such as when he spends time figuring out how Congress operates and uncovers the banality and venality of the legislative process. He finds that lawmakers pass pointless resolutions in nearly empty sessions during the day, but in the dead of night, important Congressional committees hammer out bills that provide legal cover for and giveaways to an assortment of powerful interest groups. (Why so late? Because few professional journalists are willing to cover a meeting at 2 a.m. — committee members like to keep the really important and dirty stuff under wraps.)
He also encounters some of the key figures of the 9/11 Truth movement, a group that believes the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were an inside job. Taibbi seems to get more frustrated with these people than anyone else in the book, perhaps because they have the most stubborn resistance to reason and facts. They cherry-pick and fabricate “evidence” that supports their theories of the government’s role in those attacks, and then just ignore anyone who points out the gaping holes in their arguments.
I’m guessing this defiance of logic is only part of why Taibbi, who is a progressive, gets so pissed at them. The other would probably be the fact that the “Truthers” took up so much of the countercultural left’s time and attention with their silly conspiracies that there was little energy remaining to deal with the really important issues, such as America’s imperial overreach, unprecedented public and private debt, and a looming financial crisis. The craven Democratic Party establishment certainly wasn’t going to step up.
All of these experiences lead Taibbi to this conclusion:
“The People aren’t always victims in the historical narrative. Sometimes the People are preening, chest-puffing, ignorant assholes, too … Maybe this is just how Americans like to roll. You can cut them out of the political deal, lie to them, exile them to some barren cultural landscape of shopping and TV and perpetual powerlessness, sell them a cheap dog-and-pony show for an election, and their way of fighting back will be to parade around like strippers in some amateur lunatic forum …”
Sigh. The more things change …