How Everything Went Worng | Book Review | Chicago Reader

How Everything Went Worng 

Three new books dig toward the roots of the mess we're in today.

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HOSTILE TAKEOVER: HOW BIG MONEY & CORRUPTION CONQUERED OUR GOVERNMENT--AND HOW WE CAN TAKE IT BACK | David Sirota | That government and corporate America are in bed isn't news, but the blatant mendacity, venality, and bipartisan suck-up that David Sirota details in his new book, Hostile Takeover, are appalling. Sirota, a senior editor at In These Times, exhaustively documents how the rights of average citizens are being trampled in favor of big business interests, all of it abetted by legislators in thrall to campaign cash and corporate-funded junkets.

He starts with tax cuts for the wealthy--perhaps the most egregious of many examples. Just weeks before the invasion of Iraq, House majority leader Tom DeLay said, "Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes." Nothing? asks Sirota. Not securing our country, not preventing another 9/11, not protecting American troops heading into battle? $136 billion in tax breaks for corporate donors--including, for example, $92 million for NASCAR track owners--sailed through Congress while funds for food stamps, veterans' benefits, and Pell grants were cut. A job well-done by the 4,000 registered lobbyists in D.C. who list taxes as a specialty.

Sirota goes on to examine efforts to erode workers' wages and benefits, undermine unions, and enhance profits for HMOs and the pharmaceutical and energy industries. Among the many distasteful tit-for-tattings in Sirota's arsenal: in 2004 the credit card industry as a whole made $30 billion in profits; between 2000 and 2004 it donated $103 million to candidates of both parties. (MBNA is George Bush's fifth-largest donor.) No surprise: the new bankruptcy bill cracks down on individuals but not corporate debtors.

Sirota ably (and angrily) calls out politicos ("Washington is one big legalized brothel") and execs for their "unrestricted, unapologetic greed" and takes some swipes at the "lazy/cynical media" along the way. But he does deliver good news along with the bad. Americans are smart and a grassroots movement will eventually clean up the mess, he says, and the good guys (they are noted here, though greatly outnumbered) are slowly getting more support. Even better, rather than simply rail against the machine, Sirota offers concrete suggestions for change.

Near the end of the book he writes, "If you've made it to this point . . . How do you feel? Depressed? Angry? Outraged?" If you're an average working American, you'll say oh, yes, indeed, that's exactly how I feel. But after spending several days with Sirota's damning manifesto you may no longer feel powerless. --Jerome Ludwig

CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER DITTOHEAD | Jim Derych | "In social situations, never discuss politics or religion," goes the old saw. That's a bit like saying, "Never discuss things that matter." Without free debate, after all, you can't really have democracy. Yet the prospect of dialogue can be daunting when you're a progressive facing one of the 30-odd percent of Americans who still support the current Republican program, especially when to the opponent such allegiance can seem fueled by emotion, not rational thought. How does a liberal talk to a Bush/Cheney supporter, and is the effort futile?

Jim Derych thinks not, and he brings a distinct perspective to the question. His new book, Confessions of a Former Dittohead, is an unpretentious memoir of his postadolescent infatuation with the comforting illusions peddled by talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh (whose followers proudly call themselves "dittoheads"), and how those illusions slowly crumbled after his own repeated collisions with facts and reality. Derych confesses that he was worse than a dittohead; he was a fanatical "dittiot." In his book--distilled from a series of posts on the liberal blog Daily Kos (dailykos.com), where he's gone by the handle "advisorjim" since February 2005--he unwraps the layers of right-wing ideology he once embraced and offers suggestions on how to try and get through to a dittohead.

"Rush makes you feel like you're an insider," Derych explains. "Like you get it and nobody else does. That you're not alone. That's how I got hooked." But Limbaugh is really just a carny barker with a dozen or so rhetorical tricks up his sleeve. He'll isolate a statement by some far-left extremist and claim that it represents the mainstream of liberal thought; or, conversely, quote an unthreatening statement by some mainstream Democrat, then explain to his listeners what it "really" means. With anecdotes and examples, Derych handily shows how Limbaugh lures his listeners into a bizarro world of circular reasoning.

"My dittiotism died the death of a thousand cuts," Derych writes, recalling how after 9/11 he was dismayed by the Bush administration's failure to capture Osama bin Laden, then flummoxed by Limbaugh's insistence on holding Bill Clinton responsible for the whole thing: "Maybe I was just tired of hating Clinton. After eight years you get tired of feeling angry all the time." It's a moment that not only leads to Derych's epiphany, but also points to a weakness that may exist even now in the teetering edifice that Limbaugh and other right-wing radio commentators have built in the minds of their listeners. --Renaldo Migaldi

LAPDOGS: HOW THE PRESS ROLLED OVER FOR BUSH | Eric Boehlert | When Stephen Colbert punked George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last month, he reserved no small amount of scorn for the national press corps in whose honor the dinner is thrown. "Over the last five years you people were so good," said Colbert of the assembled media elite. "Over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out."

That line could have come straight from Lapdogs, the new book by Eric Boehlert. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, former Salon columnist, and frequent Huffington Poster, Boehlert employs meticulous analytic and research skills to demonstrate the collapse of the fourth estate over the past six years and forecast the disastrous consequences the ensuing sinkhole holds for democracy. He comes out swinging, mercilessly bitch-slapping poor Bob Woodward for his curious silence during much of the Valerie Plame investigation, and continues on through a litany of instances in which the press, through either complacency or villainy, abandoned its post: the Swift Boat mess, Bush's mysterious jacket bulge during his first debate with John Kerry, Social Security reform, the hunt for WMD, the Terri Schiavo "controversy" (which, he argues, was a figment of Fox News' imagination). The press, he writes, is so afraid of losing access, so skittish of charges of liberal bias, and rendered so dizzy by the relentless right-wing spin machine that the industry has come completely unmoored.

Maintaining a constant level of righteous indignation and parsing language with finesse, Boehlert takes apart the myth of the liberal media with surgical precision. One chapter charts the rise of ABC's daily online tip sheet, the Note, from an internal memo for the network's news staff to an agenda-setting must-read for the journalists, lobbyists, politicians, and other power brokers known as the Gang of 500. The Note's popularity, he points out, lies in how it reflects the concerns of its rightward-leaning Beltway readership--but the fun-house nature of this relationship gives it undue power. "The Gang of 500 may set the nation's political agenda," he writes, "but who helps set the agenda for the Gang of 500? The Note." Other quarry include pundit-provocateurs like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter, whose "toxic rhetoric" and bullheaded scorn for facts Boehlert holds responsible for a large part of the mainstream media's fearful passivity, and bloggers on right-wing sites like Free Republic and Power Line, who played a major role in pushing Terri Schiavo to the front page and keeping her there at the expense of coverage of, oh, Iraq. But incisive as his case may be, Boehlert is preaching to the choir and, frankly, it's only engaging reading for so long. As George W. Bush knows so well, funny will often get the message across better than facts and fury, and Colbert's 24 minutes of video convey the gist of Boehlert's critique more effectively than these 296 pages of print. --Martha Bayne

David Sirota

When: Tue 5/16, 7 PM

Where: In These Times, 2040 W. Milwaukee

Info: 773-772-0100

More: With Rick Perlstein and Tom Geoghegan

Jim Derych

When: Sat 5/13, 2 PM

Where: Borders, 2817 N. Clark

Info: 773-935-3909

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