The Book that Got the Bro Tazed
I’m with you in Rockland
where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul
is innocent and immortal it should never die
ungodly in an armed madhouse
Allen Ginsberg, Howl (1955)
Greg Palast is an angry man, a funny man, a brilliant man, and an unapologetic egoist. You might say he’s like Sy Hersh and Mike Moore and Ed Murrow and Milton Friedman rolled into one. His book, Armed Madhouse, has been released in several editions, with various Swiftian subtitles, since 2006. This reviewer used the English Dutton edition from the Ann Arbor Public Library, which, bless them, has four copies.
The book is like a volcanic eruption. Where to start? Most anywhere, since Palast has dispensed with conventional narrative, chronological progression, and logical argumentation in favor of a thematic and topical approach which is much like his blog at gregpalast.com. Palast says, “I like to read in the loo, so this book, like my last [The Best Democracy Money Can Buy] can be read in short spurts, in any order. To that end, I’ve eliminated the consistency and continuity I despise in other books.” A pity, that.
I first became interested in Armed Madhouse during the infamous “Don’t Taze Me, Bro” incident at the University of Florida on September 17, 2007. A young man spent 90 seconds attempting to ask former Presidential candidate John Kerry a series of questions based on Palast’s book. The unfortunate young man, Andrew Meyer, was dragged to the back of the auditorium by campus police. While Meyer was waving a yellow trade paper edition of Armed Madhouse, he was pinned to the ground and “drive stunned” with a Taser while pleading “What did I do?… Don’t Taze Me, Bro!”
Public interest in the Andrew Meyer case has subsided since Meyer, on the advice of counsel, wrote a letter of apology exonerating the police who had taken him down, drive stunned him and arrested him for taking 90 seconds to ask an argumentative question. Meyer reportedly is to complete a “voluntary” 18 month probation, which if successful, will result in him not facing charges over the incident. Video of the incident was a YouTube phenom, with more than 2 million viewings to date. Interest in Palast’s book, which had reached the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in May 2007, has resurged since the Tazing of the Bro.
Palast is savage in his treatment of President Bush Jr’s defining “Mission Accomplished” moment:
On Thursday, May 1, 2003, President Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. Forgetting to undo the parachute clips around his gonads, our President walked bowlegged on the ship’s deck in a green jumpsuit looking astonishingly like Ham, first chimp in space.
It is really quite disgraceful of Palast to make such a comparison to Ham, a perfectly respectable hero-chimp-astronaut.
Beyond his bombast, Palast clearly has excellent investigative instincts and deep national security sources. His investigations of Exxon and Enron helped blow the whistle on major scandals of the 1990’s. His analysis of the Bin Laden’s and Bush’s as motivated by the same oil-baron class interests is similar to the thesis of fellow BBC contributor Adam Curtis’ documentary The Power of Nightmares which we reviewed in Current in January, 2006. Palast says:
Fear is the sales pitch for many products…Better than toothpaste that makes your teeth whiter than white, this stuff will make us safer than safe… Real security for life’s dangers–from a national health insurance program to ending oil sheiks’ funding of bomb-loving “charities”–would take a slice of the profits of the owning classes, the Lockheeds, the ChoicePoints and the tiny-town big shot who owns the ferry company. The War on Terror has become class war by other means.
Palast’s investigation of ChoicePoint alleges this organization grew out of the now-officially-defunct “Total Information Awareness Office” at DARPA. He associates ChoicePoint with the database techniques used to “suppress” votes by millions of legally registered Democratic voters in the 2004 election.
Palast ties the war in Iraq to oil–not to an attempt to sell the oil but rather, to prevent it from being sold in order to drive up prices. He points out that there is no oil shortage geologically–world proven reserves, he says, top 1.189 trillion barrels. That’s 49,938,000,000,000 gallons of oil remaining by my calculation. He quotes Mobil Oil heir Lewis Lapham of Harper’s as saying that “we have been ‘running out of oil’ since the days when we drained it from whales”. Palast later refutes, or refines, his own theory in an afterword called “Return to Hubbert’s Peak: Why Palast is Wrong”.
Greg Palast’s website may be found at http://www.gregpalast.com/
Armed Madhouse is a work to taste, chew, and enjoy. A troubling work by a troubled man, and wicked funny. But I repeat myself.
You be the judge!
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Henry Edward Hardy
A version of this article has previously appeared in Current.
Bad science makes bad science fiction
Richard Morgan’s Thirteen fails to impress
Richard K Morgan
Random House, New York, 2007
Carl Marsalis is a genetically engineered assassin, variant 13. He has been sent to earth from Mars to track a renegade 13 who is loose somewhere on Earth. Marsalis is a gun for hire, forcing resettlement on or killing renegade 13’s on Earth. The action of UK cyberpunk writer Richard Morgan’s novel Thirteen jerks back and forth from the Pacific to the high Andes to Turkey and New York.
One detects in Thirteen shades of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, better known as the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. Like Dick’s anti-hero Rick Deckard, Carl Marsalis is a genetically engineered assassin sent to kill others of his kind. Like Blade Runner, Thirteen is full of philosophical speculation interspersed with spectacular violence. But there the comparison ends.
In early works of cyberpunk, such as Neuromancer by William Gibson, or John Shirley’s Song Called Youth trilogy, or the work of Rudy Rucker, there is an exuberance and sense of rebellion against injustice and order for the sake of order. Whether it is a last rock and roll concert on the Eiffel Tower in Eclipse, or the streets of Chiba City in Neuromancer, there was a fierce anarchic joy in those 1980’s cyberpunk classics.
In Thirteen, I’m not feeling the joy. Morgan explains, rather ponderously, that the 13’s are free of social constraints:
“Calculated murder is an anti-social act, and it takes special circumstances at either a personal or a social level to enable to capacity. But that’s you people… it’s not any variant thirteen… We’re the violent exiles, the lone-wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops and living in one place got so popular. We don’t have, we don’t need a social context.”
Morgan’s theory is that modern man is an effeminized, wimpy and cowardly, degenerate race because all the true alpha males were exterminated and bred out. Thus, confusingly, his thirteens, though sociopathic loners, deficient in empathy, are somehow also charismatic leaders and irresistible to women. Women, we are made to understand by Morgan, really want to subordinate themselves to the strongest male.
Morgan is drawing on the work of Richard Wrangham as popularized by Matt Ridley in his book Nature Via Nurture. Wrangham was a student of primatologist Jane Goodall. Wrangham focused on interpersonal (inter-ape?) violence in his 1996 book, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Wrangham’s book, and Morgan’s fictionalization of Wrangham’s ideas as construed by Ridley have several problems. Chimpanzees are not ancestral humans any more than humans are ancestral chimps. They are, if you would, cousins. Among the chimps that Goodall studied at Gombe there were many examples of apparent altruism, trust, and loyalty; these virtues get short shrift among the adherents of primal human nature as essentially nasty and brutish.
Cyberpunk is often a delight to read because of its reimagining of a familiar world, the world of today. Lights are brighter, mirror-shades shinier and even commonplace objects are re-imagined and re-contextualized in works such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.
In Thirteen, the places we visit are not well-imagined or well-described. For instance, Morgan’s scenes in the alteplano, or high plains of Peru and surrounding countries, are almost generic. We don’t smell the smells of the dusty street. We don’t see the remaining Incan roads, terraces and canals, ancient walls joined without a trace of mortar. We don’t hear the llama’s and old cars in the narrow streets. We don’t see the women in their colorful vests, long braids, long skirts, and funky hats. We don’t learn what people eat (aside from whisky). We don’t see the festivals like Oruro’s la Diablada (Dance of the Devils) even though such a scene might have dovetailed well with Morgan’s preoccupation with humans who are or become monsters. We know we are in New York or Turkey later on in the story only because we are told that we are there.
In short, Morgan’s prose is not merely plodding, predictable, and average. It is downright boring. His best ideas seem to have been lifted from the works of better writers such as John Brunner’s 1975 The Shockwave Rider and Dick’s 1968 Electric Sheep. For instance, Thirteen’s United States is fragmented into three states, a Pacific Rim, old Northeast and “Jesusland”. This internet meme is attributed to G Webb of yakyak.org by Morgan; but it is quite similar to ideas about the fragmentation and tribalization of the future US in Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider.
The UK title of Thirteen is Black Man. And Carl Marsalis, despite being a genetically engineered super/sub-human, apparently looks like a modern black man. There is a good bit of seemingly overt racism in the book as when Carl is beaten unconscious, apprehended and thrown into a Jesusland jail. Morgan tries to soften the Nazi-ish tinge of his twin themes of racial destiny and will with a dedication that says that he hates “bigotry, cruelty, and injustice with an unrelenting rage”. One wonders then why he has found it necessary to construct a novel in which such traits are seen as genetically endowed survival mechanisms. That Marsalis is a symbol of the fears of white society that the black man is a subhuman violent brute who is after “their women” is one thing; but the black man, Marsalis in Morgan’s book really is a sociopathic, back-bred pre-human. Who just happens to look like a black man. Would Morgan have called his novel “White Man” and made his anti-hero an exaggeratedly virile, violent, sociopathic white man?
Richard’s Morgan’s Thirteen is poorly written fiction based on dubious science. The interested reader is advised to find instead a nice copy of The Shockwave Rider or Neuromancer or A Song Called Youth or any of Phillip Dick’s novels.
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Henry Edward Hardy
A version of this article previously appeared in Current.