Schoolyard bullies

Kick ass and take names: That’s something conservatives certainly know how to do.

Liberals, however, have been remarkably slow at learning how to deal with the turbocharged invective coming from the mouths and pens of aggressive right-wingers. How many bloodied noses do you need to get before you learn to respond quickly, and with at least equal force, to the political equivalent of a schoolyard bully?

Someone who did know how to respond was Bill Clinton, which may be why the bullying right worked so diligently to take the former president down. That battle was chronicled by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons in their 2000 bestseller The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Now, Conason, a regular contributor to and The New York Observer, has written a new book titled Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth. The book’s subtitle might make the reader assume this is an exposé of rightward slant in the mainstream media, but that subject matter already has been addressed—in Hunting; in Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News; and even in another just-released book, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, which covers some of the same ground that Conason does in Big Lies.

But where Franken is a satirist who isn’t afraid to open up some pompous Fox News pundit’s jugular vein for a cheap laugh, Conason is a serious journalist, whose métier doesn’t seem to be the endless one-liners of late-night talk shows. This is not to cast aspersions on Franken’s Lies, an often riotously funny look at the right’s penchant for embracing mind-boggling hypocrisy; it’s just that the more earnest Conason has written a different book.

In Big Lies, Conason takes 10 commonly accepted canards from the right, lays them out and exposes their stench to fresh air. He begins with the right-wing meme that “limousine liberals,” a.k.a. “snobs,” are grossly out of touch with the concerns of average Americans and that only conservatives, the true champion of the little guy, understand the real value of hard work. Correctly nailing this idea as the Republican version of class warfare, Conason proceeds to draw a distinction between the small percentage of extremely wealthy persons who support the president and his rabid pro-wealth policies (Stockton billionaire Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers, gets a name check) and the rest of us who get to live with the economic and social wreckage created as a result. “That little Monopoly plutocrat in the top hat is back with a vengeance, grasping bags marked with dollar signs,” Conason writes. That’s just the first chapter.

Lest you think this is some incendiary Marxist jeremiad, it isn’t. Conason is an unrequited Clintonian; he even makes a point to separate liberals from “annoying academics and activists” on the far left, mentioning Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark—which isn’t necessary, in this writer’s opinion.

The remainder of Big Lies takes other right-wing prevarications to task, such as that liberals control the media and use it to spread lies while conservatives support the military, manage the economy better, defend the Constitution, protect family values, support colorblind equality, champion free enterprise and are tough on terrorism. Oh, and that George W. Bush really is a compassionate conservative. Conason’s chapter on crony capitalism is especially devastating, making Bush look like the second coming of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Big Lies may not convince a single right-winger to abandon conservatism; more likely, it will become an indispensable tool that liberals can use to sharpen their arguments. As Conason puts it in his introduction: “The underdog who fights back,” he says, “is always better off.”