America has a rich history of bitching. About social change. About religion. And, fundamentally, about politics. Sometimes, Americans even complain that there is far too much complaining going on. As angry bumper stickers and interminable internet threads suggest, Americans don't even have to talk when they vent their politicized misgivings.
What's the alternative? "The alternative is to think clearly, to orient ourselves, and to act," Brian Kahn writes at the beginning of his new book Real Common Sense, and if that sounds easier said than done, it assuredly is. Kahn says that the fault for our inactivity lies in our own consumerist tendencies, but a larger part resides with the Right, which has unfailingly been opposed to progress of any kind and, worse, tried to appropriate the Founding Fathers to support its views.
Real Common Sense attempts the daunting task of wresting the ideals of the American Revolution from the clutches of the Right. Kahn pinpoints the crises of American political life and shows how each is an entanglement of consumerism, privatization, and irresponsibility. Liberally peppering his book with the words of Jefferson, the Constitution, FDR, and others (we would have liked more Kahn and fewer quotation marks), he laments the corporatist insanity that caused our almost-Greater Depression, the media's reliance on airing entertaining punditry over information, and an unhealthy junk food culture that the government seems powerless to prevent. Kahn's rhetoric is occasionally heavy-handed, yet his writing is both informative and intelligent, especially in his mockery of "socialist engineering"—the right's taboo labeling of anything remotely humanist—that would include Medicare, the armed forces, and national parks.
Like any strictly partisan book, Real Common Sense will elicit one of two responses: If you are on the right you will loathe Kahn's ideology, but if you are even two inches to the left you will appreciate the radical streak of Kahn's mind and read it in one sitting.
Somewhere between a New Deal Democrat and a Lincoln Republican, Helena-based Kahn is host of the award-winning radio program "Common Ground," as well as an activist for a variety of causes. No doubt influenced by his prodigious employment record—boxing coach, ranch hand, journalist, documentary filmmaker—Kahn displays an empathy for the common person that is passionate and inflexible. He hammers away at his message that community trumps the individual, long-term goals are paramount, and extremists are ruining the country.
And while the author's humorless outlook is forbidding, his optimism that things can be corrected is tenacious; what distinguishes Real Common Sense from the thousands of other titles calling for a major shift in values is that it actually offers solutions. For instance: government regulation of pharmaceutical-drug costs; improving the media by levying a tax on broadcasting companies, which will be collected for airing educational ads; compulsory universal service based on FDR's Civil Conservation Corps projects, such as building roads and planting trees; and a progressive tax on the wealthy. If his advice often sounds oversimplified, that's because it is. That's not a bad thing, considering that its target audience is composed of working-class people and not professors of economics or staff writers for The Economist.
Offering a brief timeline of the U.S. from the founding of the nation to the poverty and environmental catastrophes of today, Kahn shows how conservatives, tutored by the selfish philosophy of Ayn Rand, have turned the American Dream into the American Myth. Surprisingly, for a work that deals with such a wide array of troubling topics, Real Common Sense shies away from an explanation of fundamentalist religious belief, which seems to have given an artificial conscience to right-wing, anti-Enlightenment politics. Perhaps Kahn took another cue from Thomas Paine: questioning religion will quickly make one very unpopular with a vast chunk of the population. Whatever the rationale for the omission, it seems a glaring silence in his otherwise unequivocal attack on conservative principles.
Yet Real Common Sense still manages to be a momentarily important riposte to Fox News, the Tea Party, and other "falsifiers of American history," in Kahn's words. Its tone is homespun and conversational, and what it lacks in comprehensiveness it achieves in a no-frills analysis of citizenship, community, and responsibility. While nothing new to those familiar with Michael Moore's films, it is nonetheless a clear-sighted tract on the agonies of government, media, education, and conservation. Both an update to Paine's Common Sense and a rebuttal of Glenn Beck's Common Sense, Real Common Sense is more a self-help handbook for proletarian guidance than a Paine-worthy polemic. It will not transform the reactionary, but it just might inspire the progressive.