As a columnist, Joe Conason is something of a liberal wind-up toy. Twist the crank and get your 750 words of “Republican bad, Democrat good. Republican bad, Democrat good.” (Repeat as necessary.)
Admittedly, that’s a pretty reductive analysis, but Big Lies is a reductive book—even if its author is nobly trying to dismantle the political mythology of the American right. Thanks to the tireless crusading of neoconservative activists, intellectuals and a gaggle of fire-breathing pundits, this mythology has commandeered the mantle of conventional wisdom.
For those with better things to do than keep tabs on the punditry, Conason is a New York Observer columnist, Salon.com blogger and author (with Gene Lyons) of The Hunting of The President: The Ten Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. With its big red letters on a white backdrop, Big Lies is marketed as a political rant to be lopped on the same bookstore tables as those by Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly and the rest.
Each chapter of Big Lies is devoted to, you guessed it, a big lie. Examples include, “Tax-cutting Republicans are friends of the common man, while liberals are snobbish elitists who despise the work ethic;” and, “Conservatives truly love America and support the armed forces, while liberals are unpatriotic draft dodgers.”
After an all-too-brief exegesis on how the right exploits these fibs, Conason proceeds to hammer (and hammer) examples of contradicting information culled mostly from various newspapers. Two of the most delightful chapters take conservatives to task for their bogus populism and phony moralizing. By way of example, Conason offers our current commando in chief, who has famously repudiated his patrician past (the elite New England boarding school, the white boy affirmative action to Yale and Harvard Business School) in favor of a salt-of-the-Texas-earth routine. Conason also sticks similar charges to Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, each of whom rakes in millions by demonizing big city liberal elites and romanticizing the suburban common man. And where do these millionaire media moguls reside? Liberal Manhattan.
While Conason shoots down canards like a deft sniper, he never acknowledges that these “big lies” are buried beneath the surface of political discourse and not deployed in the more subtle crossfire of day-to-day wrangling. Sure, a blowhard blogger like Andrew Sullivan might suggest, as he famously did after Sept. 11, that coastal liberals are mounting an anti-American “fifth column,” but real influence peddlers don’t engage in the same type of public smack-talking.
Conason also fails to make important distinctions. For instance, he repeatedly references influential conservative thinkers like Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol in the same breath as blowhard pundits such as Coulter and company. To Conason, the right is simply the right—which isn’t quite right.
Another example of Big Lies’ small vision is its unwillingness to hold liberals accountable for the state of contemporary liberalism. If you haven’t heard, this manifests itself in less than a third of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats. According to Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn, the Dems haven’t been in such a sorry state since before the New Deal. But in the world of wind-up-toy Joe, this isn’t the result of the party’s failure to articulate a platform more distinguishable than “we’re not Republicans” or Bill Clinton’s shucking liberal concerns for centrist booty. Nope, it’s all about blaming the GOP. Though he resorts to trite disclaimers (not all Republicans are racists, homophobes, corporate lackeys, baby killers ...) his failure to look inward is an act of staggering partisanship that discredits his effort.
As a weekly columnist, Conason does a great job of exposing the peccadilloes of our current administration. However, at book length he’s redundant and boring. Had this book been titled An Encyclopedia of Republican Malfeasance 1854-Present, perhaps it might pass without comment, as most non-savants don’t feel compelled to read reference books cover to cover. For those who worship at what the New York Press’s Matt Taibbi calls “the church of lefty self-congratulation,” perhaps Big Lies offers solace in a time of Republican rule. What it offers the rest of us is less obvious.