As a columnist, Joe Conason is something of a liberal’s wind-up toy. Twist his crank and you’re sure to get 750 words of “Republican bad, Democrat good. Republican bad, Democrat good.” Repeat as necessary.
That’s a pretty reductive analysis, but Big Lies is a reductive book, even if its author is nobly trying to dismantle the right’s reigning political mythology—a mythology that, thanks to the tireless crusading of neoconservative activists, philanthropists and a gaggle of fire-breathing pundits, has commandeered the mantle of conventional wisdom.
For those with better things to do than monitor punditry, Conason is a columnist for The New York Observer, a blogger for Salon.com 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 like any other rant. Unlike radio and television, the publishing industry has finally copped on to the fact that liberal books can sell, particularly during a time of conservative rule: Witness the phenomenon of Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men and Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. This trend may make lefties feel like they’re evening up the score, but it’s not necessarily a boon for readers interested in furthering their understanding of American politics.
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 B-School—in favor of a salt-of-the-Texas-earth routine. (In all fairness, this shtick is employed just as nauseatingly on the left by Jim “boy howdy” Hightower and Michael “I’m-fat-therefore-I’m-of-the-people” Moore.)
Conason also catalogues the many extramarital dalliances of Republican politicians and professional virtuecrats. More than enough, in fact, to give Clinton’s sleaze a refreshing bipartisan perspective.
While Conason shoots down canards like a deft sniper, he never acknowledges that most of his “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 9-11, that coastal liberals are mounting an anti-American “fifth column,” but most real influence peddlers don’t engage in the same sort of smack-talk.
Conason fails to make other important distinctions as well. For instance, he repeatedly references influential conservative thinkers like Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol in the same breath as blowhard pundits like Ann Coulter and company. The relationship between the conservative wonk-philanthropic establishment and the hit squad (Fox News, Sean Hannity, David Horowitz) would make for an interesting and useful analysis. But 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, fewer than a third of Americans identify themselves as Democrats. According to Clinton 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 distinctive than “We’re not Republicans” or Bill Clinton’s shucking liberal concern for centrist booty. Nope, it’s all about blaming the GOP. Though he resorts to trite disclaimers (not all Republicans are racist, homophobic baby killers), his unwillingness to 180 the mirror is an act of staggering partisanship that serves to discredit his effort.
In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Matt Bai spent time in the burgeoning left-wing foundation called the Center for American Progress, which aspires to be a liberal version of The Heritage Foundation. What he observes is that liberals have spent the better part of the last two decades on the ropes, defending great-society programs and gesticulating about health care plans. The problem is that they’re still on the ropes. Not merely because conservatives have created their own media and put their message into the forefront of public discourse, but because liberals’ messages are old, and hard to convey succinctly.
The crisis in American liberalism is hardly a big secret: Look no further than the nine-man carnival that is the Democratic primary. This crisis arguably has something to do with the fact that so many “big lies” have gained widespread currency. But you wouldn’t know it from this book.
As a columnist, Conason does a great job of exposing the peccadilloes of our current administration; at book length, he’s redundant and boring. Had his book been titled, An Encyclopedia of Republican Malfeasance 1854-Present, then perhaps it might pass without comment, as few feel compelled to read reference books cover to cover. For those who worship at what Matt Taibbi of the New York Press 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.