Politics, glorious and otherwise

Two books examine the good, the bad and how to lie with a smile on your face

| September 29, 2004
Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent
Edited by Anthony Dunbar
NewSouth Books, 234 pp., $24.95
Can you imagine a president of the United States asserting that "the greatest challenge facing the world" is "the growing chasm between rich and poor people," and that "extreme inequality is a moral issue" that the nation must address? Or offering this bit of critical thinking on foreign affairs: "Despite our superpower status, we should not expect to impose our values on others with the force of arms. ... Being a superpower does not guarantee super wisdom."

If you can't, then pick up a copy of Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent. This newly published collection of 12 essays features a foreword from former President Jimmy Carter in which he writes these very words. Professing a deep concern for the present state of the nation--as he did in a short but moving speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston--Carter joins some of the South's leading progressive activists, attorneys, thinkers and writers in calling for a sea of change in Washington.

Though it's sharply critical of the White House from start to finish, Where We Stand is not a broadside in the style of the plethora of Bush-bashing books now gracing the shelves. Instead, it's a collection of detailed, probing and thoughtful analyses, one that offers a distinctly Southern perspective on how to put the country back on course.

Of course, we Southerners, whatever our political stripe, rarely find ourselves in unanimous agreement about policy matters. Accordingly, this is also a wide-ranging critique, put forth by authors who don't present any one fix for the crisis at hand, outside of a turnover in the Oval Office. In his chapter, "The Southernization of American Politics," John Egerton, the author of several books on Southern political culture, suggests that the contributors share at least one theme, presented in the form of a declaration: "This is where I stand as one Southerner, one American, one voice in opposition to the materialistic, militaristic, ideologically driven nation we seem hell-bent on becoming."

Two Triangle-based contributors also add their voices to the opposition. Gene Nichol, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, reports in a chapter called "Ignoring Inequality" that North Carolina, like many Southern states, has seen its fortunes decline as a result of federal policies that favor the rich. "Our median family income is now almost $5,000 below the national average," and "about one in seven Tar Heels live below the poverty line," he notes in a grim review of a recent U.S. Census Bureau report on income and poverty. "Local newspapers gave the poverty report fairly prominent play," he says. "But, as usual, it was a one-day story. No expressions of outrage appeared. No emergency proposals followed. The Congress stood mute. The Executive branch was unmoved."

To let such inequalities go on unchecked is costing our nation dearly, Nichol argues. "The growing, silent marriage of privilege and privation mocks the American commitment to constitutional democracy. We ignore it at the cost of our national mission. We look past it at the cost of our best selves."

Dan Pollitt, the veteran civil rights attorney and UNC law professor, explores in depth another mounting threat to democracy. His 26-page chapter on "Civil Liberties in a Time of Crisis" is a solid primer on the PATRIOT Act and other counterterrorism laws that have imperiled essential rights of expression, assembly and freedom from government surveillance. He notes that resistance to these measures has come from several quarters, including liberals, libertarians and conservatives. One Southern tradition, then--that of opposing federal restrictions on basic liberties--may prove crucial in our modern-day showdown over these issues.

Overall, the authors remind us, again and again, that the progressive strain in Southern politics is still vibrant, though it remains enmeshed in our long-standing dilemmas over issues of race, religion, economic inequality, regionalism and nationalism. Consequently, harnessing the South's progressive energies in an effective way will prove as difficult--and as important--as ever come the November 2004 elections. "Beating 'these people' (to use Robert E. Lee's phrase) will be a tremendous challenge," Egerton writes, but "there can be no peaceable regime change in Washington without a strong assist from progressive Southerners."

All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth
By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $14.00
The only antidote for this ailment may be a good ol' fashioned dose of reality, and here to dispense a spoonful are the whizkids from Spinsanity (www.spinsanity.com). In 2001, three 20-something college students, Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, created the now wildly popular Web site, where they painstakingly deconstruct the lies, damned lies and questionable statistics that have plagued politics during the Bush administration. And now, they've published a detailed, extensively documented and surprisingly readable collection of reports that pull down the curtain on the White House's backroom spinmeisters.

Nyhan, 25, is a Ph.D. student in political science at Duke University. In an interview last week, he reported on the brisk sales of All the President's Spin: the book recently climbed to 14 on New York Times' list of best-selling nonfiction paperbacks. "We think it speaks to how frustrated people are with the media and the state of political debate in this country, and how much they're looking for good solid information," he said of the book's success.

That sort of solid information stands in stark contrast to the White House's disinformation on an array of domestic and foreign policy issues, the authors argue. "George W. Bush has done some serious damage to our political system," they write in the introduction. "His deceptions span nearly all of his major policies, were achieved using some of the most advanced tactics from public relations, and were designed to exploit the failings of the modern media."

An interesting early chapter traces the origins of the Bush team's hardball--and often effective--PR techniques from the early months of the 2000 presidential campaign. Other chapters explain how the administration managed to distort debates about such crucial issues as the 2001 tax cuts, Bush's science and environmental policies, and the war in Iraq. Perhaps the most chilling section of the book addresses the ways the administration has wielded the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks to undermine political dissent at home.

Nyhan is quick to point out that despite their harsh critiques of President Bush, the Spinsanity crew still pulls no punches when it comes to exposing misinformation from the Left. "We really do believe the book is nonpartisan and it's not about defeating Bush," he says. "We see it as a case study of a much larger problem, and the other side is far from innocent on these same things." And indeed, Nyhan himself recently penned a biting review of several distortions in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

While the Bush administration has clearly "advanced the state of the art, everyone else is scrambling to catch up right now," Nyhan warns. "Unfortunately, the march forward in this is never-ending, and what Bush has done may not necessarily even be the state of the art in a few more years. That's why we're trying to sound the alarm now and say that this is really reaching a critical point, and we need citizens to be on their guard and try to fight against political dishonesty in all its forms. The next president, no matter who it is, is going to have the same incentives to do exactly what Bush did in this past term."

Brendan Nyhan will read from All the President's Spin at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 4, at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

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