Lies: A Fair and Balanced Review

About a year ago I put myself on a no-caffeine, no-Chomsky diet. I know there are a lot of people out there who read Chomsky’s political writings and get all upset because they think it’s nothing but a pack of lies. I’m not one of those people. By the time I finish reading Chomsky I’m upset because I believe most of what he writes, and what he writes is depressing as all get-out. Chomsky has this way of saying something outlandish like “we should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.” He then goes on for pages citing relevant newspaper articles, U.N. Resolutions, Senate testimony and U.S. policy documents to back up his claims. Being a linguist, he also doesn’t have the decency to bend the meaning of words so things like “terrorism” can apply when the bad guys do it but not when we do it.

After I went on my diet I became much calmer and happier. In my mind, the word chomsky became an adjective that described a whole class of media, not just those written by Chomsky himself. I started using the word to mean anything that lays out rational arguments that lead to depressing conclusions about the world. My media diet became stricter as I cut out Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, The Daily Howler, The Center for Media & Democracy and sometimes even The Economist. (While chomsky can be of any political leaning, I don’t include people like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore because they’re more about appeals to emotion than rational argument — that’s a different class I call world wrestling federation.)

Now Al Franken has released a new book, Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The title alone reeks of chomsky, and so my natural instinct was to curl up with my latest copy of IEEE Spectrum Magazine until it went away. But then Fox News sued Franken for using the words “Fair and Balanced” in his title. Their lawsuit, which was quickly thrown out, accused Franken as an “unstable” and “shrill” “C-level commentator” who is “not a well-respected voice in American politics.” With an endorsement like that, how could I resist?

The first thing I note is that professional comics like Franken are much funnier than linguists. (He’s also a lot lighter on the endnotes: this is beach reading, not an academic journal.) Some of the gags are gentle ribbing, like this passage from his section on the environment:

Perhaps there is someone reading this who is saying, “Give me a break, Al. I don’t care about the environment.” To you, I have this to say: You were not legitimately elected president, sir. But I respect the office you hold, and I’m honored that you’re reading my book.

Other jokes are much more barbed, and will no doubt cause much consternation among the more thin-skinned conservatives. Especially harsh are “The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus” comic, drawn in the style of Chick Bible Tracts, and “Operation Chickenhawk,” a short story with right-wing draft-dodgers like Bush, Cheney and Limbaugh fighting in an Apocalypse Now setting. Franken can be quite venomous when he wants to be, but he seems to have an unwritten rule that he’ll only dish out as much venom as the victim deserves. Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly, venom-slingers in their own right, get both barrels. But in the chapter on how he toured Bob Jones University on false pretenses, Franken is actually apologetic and, in retrospect, ashamed of fooling “people who were welcoming, friendly, and extremely nice.” He also has compliments for right-wingers that he feels are honest and worthy of respect, several of whom he considers friends.

Underneath the humor, the book is still pure chomsky. He starts by taking on Ann Coulter, an easy task by any measure. Coulter’s misquotes and downright lies are well documented, and Franken does a quick job of it. (Quoting a friend of his: “I’ve never shot fish in a barrel. But I could imagine that after a while it could get boring.”) He then moves on to Bernie Goldberg (author of Bias), the 2000 election, Fox News, and the Bush Administration, as well as a very touching chapter on the Paul Wellstone memorial. Treatment ranges from point-by-point dissection of specific right-wing lies to anecdotes of the times he’s met with (and often baited) the celebrities of right-wing politics.

Through the book, Franken tries to explain the way the liars operate, and perhaps help us understand why. This is where it gets depressing. Start with slander, false quotes, out-of-context clips, and misleading figures and data. Throw in dirty tricks like push-polling. Finish with a cadre of talk-show hosts, journalists and media personalities ready and able to do your dirty work, and a mainstream press all too willing to go with the juicy, the sensational, and the easy. As for why, just look around you today. Bush has the White House, a firm grip on both houses of Congress, and has a stated priority to stack the Judicial branch. Republicans who disagree with the president’s policies have been marginalized. The Democrats are in disarray, and the White House Press Corp is intimidated.

It all makes me furious, which is why I went on the no-caffeine, no-chomsky diet in the first place. I keep hoping that if I just stick to real issues these sleaze-balls will go away. But of course they won’t, and they’re too powerful to ignore. A healthy society needs vigorous, passionate debate. What we have now is the opposite: a guerilla warfare of ideas, where rational discussion gets shot down by snipers in the trees. On its own, Franken’s book is no grand call to arms, but it joins an increasing number of chomsky that are shouting out from all sides of the political aisle. Together, they are a call to defend our democracy from corruption. To quote Franken’s closing message:

We have to fight back. But we can’t fight like they do. The Right’s entertainment value comes from their willingness to lie and distort. Ours will have to come from being funny and attractive. And passionate. And idealistic. But also smart. And not milquetoast-y. We’ve got to be willing to throw their lies in their face.

I don’t think I can just pick up my IEEE Spectrum Magazine and forget it all again.