Saturday, October 02, 2004

People of the book

Just for once I got to read a book before the New York Review of Books reviewed it. (I need to add that I don’t buy every book they review and that many of the books that I do buy never get reviewed at all in that august journal.) That said, and despite both conditions applying, I’m not altogether convinced that we were reading the same book. (Nor that I’d have bought it after reading the review if I hadn’t done so already.)

To begin with I need to say we weren’t in fact reading the same book. The author was the same – Thomas Frank - and the words inside were the same, only the title had been changed to protect the innocent. The reviewer’s copy was called ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’ whereas my copy is called ‘What’s the matter with America?’ The reviewer’s copy’s subtitle was ‘How Conservatives won the heart of America’ mine is ‘The resistible rise of the American right’. So one’s clearly for domestic consumption (where implying something might be wrong with America is not allowed) the other for European consumption (where doing so is encouraged). And there ought really to be an international version (where doing so should be made mandatory) entitled: ‘What’s the matter with the world?’ and carrying the simple subtitle response, ‘America’.

The distorting impact on POSIWID of Smith’s Laws has already been extensively documented. Here, using his home state as exemplar for the world, Thomas Frank details their impact on Kansas, with poetic effect. Scaled up globally, the effect is shattering, as earth-dwellers amongst us already well know.

US politics, Frank reckons in this brilliant book, is no longer big-picture, big-business Republican versus big-picture, big-society Democrat as it’s been since Abe Lincoln invented the Republican Party back in the middle of the nineteenth century. Today, real US democracy is a bottom-up, micro-focused thing and abides solely within a Republican party split into two factions who hate each other. In a beautifully described class war, we learn how ultra-right-wing Republican religious fundamentalists who are generally working-class poor and only interested in campaigning against abortion, Volvo drivers and the teaching of evolution, and regular CEO-class Republican right-wingers who are ruling-class rich and only interested in getting richer, join forces to fight the hated liberal elite, aka the Democrats in their guise as 'Government'.

And the POSIWID of this anti-Volvo backlash? ‘Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive de-industrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatisation. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.’ (Frank, Page 7) Smith’s Law once again trumps the good intensions on the road to Hell.

Frank reckons that as a social system, this inter-Republican backlash really works. ‘The two adversaries feed off each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one. This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world.’ (Frank, page 249) Referring to an anti-trust action against Microsoft, he provides us with a startling insight into inverted symbiosis. ‘The logic is convoluted and conspiratorial, but it gets a Republican where he needs to be; Kline (Kansas State Attorney General) would serve the state’s poorest and weakest by letting Microsoft off the hook.’ (Frank, page 233)

So where does all this leave the wider world? Well, as earth’s resident superpower, the US rules, OK, and President Dubya dispenses its power. That means we’ve got about as much chance as Kansas. If he, and his successors, are in some kind of inverted symbiotic hock to the ultra-religionists as Frank maintains, I reckon it’s hard to hold out much hope that things will improve.

The number of Americans who never leave their country, never even own a passport, varies between 85 and 99 percent depending on your source of statistics. Whatever the right number is, it’s an awful lot of people. And, such is the way of democracy US-style, these are the guys who rule the world. And, as Frank says, ‘What they’re after is cultural turmoil, which serves mainly to solidify their base. By deliberately courting the wrath of the educated world with the evolution issue, the Conservatives aimed, it seems, to reinforce and sharpen their followers’ peculiar understanding of social class. In a word, it was an exercise in anti-intellectualism.’ (Frank, page 208)

So, precisely when the world needs leading by the brains to safety, US democracy gives us Dubya and probably will do again next month.

US Edition UK Edition Mystery in the Heartland By Jason Epstein. New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 15, October 7, 2004.

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