Book Review: Armed Madhouse

As much as I love to condescend about the multiple social horrors afflicting my American neighbours – private health care, the highest per capita prison population in the world, economic policies that favour the rich by clobbering the poor, yada yada yada – I have to admit I LOVE American dissidents. They are innovative, expert practitioners of social unrest who understand free speech is worthless when wasted on bootlicking sycophancy.

Nevertheless, I picked up a copy of Greg Palast‘s latest book with scepticism. I had read Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed’s War on Freedom, which seemed at first glance to be packed with references, but when I finished the book and started fact checking it turned out the majority of the references were from a single source: Greg Palast. Just as single-source referencing sets off my alarm bells with global warming sceptics and GMO advocates, it’s only fair that I allow myself to be equally dubious when people I am generally inclined to agree with are sourcing narrowly. With my perspective thus influenced, I was fertile soil for suggestions that Greg Palast is a wing nut conspiracy theorist; suggestions that are never difficult to come by when researching the claims of popular dissidents. In fact, such smears are impossible NOT to come by.

I admit it; I get brainwashed too. I still can’t shake the feeling there is something tin hattish and questionable about Palast’s analysis of the documents that mysteriously fall into his hands, or those of his “research teams”, even though there is nothing particularly implausible about the whole “Dick Tracey meets Noam Chomsky” scenario that Palast puts forth. I don’t doubt the documents he references actually exist, the photos in the book are real, the conversations quoted actually took place and he really did surreptitiously record them. I work in a Freedom of Information office and send huge bundles of (redacted) documents off every day, fairly indiscriminately. My film school project was a mini-documentary about private investigators and their ingenious “surreptitious recording” techniques. I know enough about power politics from diverse enough sources to know his analysis is a much more clear-headed picture of current events than anything you will see on CNN, but all the same – Greg Palast, isn’t he that zany conspiracy theorist?

So there you go. Propaganda: no-one is immune.

But so what? In the shop, I set my doubts aside and flipped it open to a random page to see what Palast is on about, and the writing just grabbed me. Regardless of whether or not he is living in a dark fantasy world, I decided, Palast is absolutely brilliant. His writing is witty, exciting, irreverent, intriguing – more entertaining than a roman candle tossed into a gas-soaked pile of Politically Incorrect Guides. As if that wasn’t enough – the page I opened it up to revealed the book was specifically written with loo readers in mind, so that (as Palast puts it) it can be read in “short spurts”. What more did I need? I decided some books don’t need to be unequivocally “true” in order to be well worth buying, especially when you’re on the last few pages of Julian Caldecott’s Water and have a five hour late night train journey ahead of you.

The fact that Palast is a fantastic writer is fortunate, since it would be next to impossible for a layman to verify his sources over the internet on a slow day at work. Confirming that he actually has all the documents and recordings he says he has would require a personal visit with a team of forensic audiologists. On top of that I suspect, after my experience fact checking war on Freedom, that my threads of internet inquiry are likely to lead directly back to Palast’s website, or mainstream articles referencing him as the source (understandable, since he is an investigative journalist – if he was repeating “known knowns” there would be nothing to investigate). So my choices are a) take his word for it b) follow in his footsteps, file my own batch of FOI requests, record my own phone calls to the senior fellows at oil-funded think tanks and solicit my own army of disgruntled federal employees to pass me confidential documents, or c) just sit back in the privacy and comfort of my cosy green bathroom and enjoy a great book by a guy who regularly writes for the BBC, Harpers and the Guardian.

I’ve got one of Michael Moore’s offerings in the loo at the moment, but after a few chapters of Armed Madhouse I am beginning to think I can find a better use for Dude, Where’s my Country in there.

Note: This is “part 1” of the review because I’m not even halfway through the book. I would normally wait until I’ve actually read a book had some time to reflect on and integrate its contents before offering an opinion, but I just couldn’t wait. I consider this the excited buzzing about how awesome the new Batman movie is I heard during the intermission. I’ll write “Part 2” after the puzzle pieces have finished falling into place and the dust has settled.