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Books: 'The Great Derangement'

Matt Taibbi
Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone
Monday, May 19, 2008 12:00 PM

Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi was online Monday, May 19 at noon ET to discuss "The Great Derangement," his new book examining the lunacies of post-Sept. 11 America -- from right-wing apocalyptic ministries to left-wing terrorist attack conspiracy theorists. He'll also discuss the impact these factors have had on the 2008 presidential race.

The transcript follows.

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Northville, N.Y.: I'm glad you put the Sept. 11 conspiracy nuts in their respective proper places, but you're wrong to think they're all Bush-hating left-wingers; many of the leaders are goofball right-wingers but you must admit that it's a wonderful thing for the Bush administration to have them around. If they can focus attention on people who push stupid theories about missiles striking the Pentagon, they can distract us all from the real issue, which is that the Sept. 11 attack was a bungling humiliation on the part of the federal government, starting with an incompetent and unqualified national security adviser, through the ranks of the FCC, FBI and CIA, among others. As the Commission hinted strongly (in its guarded language), Bush must thank his lucky stars that these conspiracy wackos are around to distract us all from the real point. If only he had similar distractions for Iraq and Katrina.

Matt Taibbi: Sorry, I've never done one of these before ... a little slow on the draw. Obviously this is exactly the problem with 9/11 Truth. The commission report is a political document like any other, designed to deflect blame for basic, ordinary incompetence. A lot of the little lies are intended in that direction. The Truth movement hears those hoof beats and thinks zebras instead of horses. It's silly.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: I enjoy your stuff, but you know what annoys me? You set up a moral equivalence between genuinely evil people and people who are well-meaning but ineffectual. These are not the same thing. Eight years of a President Mondale, to use an old example, would not have resulted in this catastrophe we are facing. You tar them all with the same brush because you go for laughs instead of insight. They all make for entertaining stories, but that's the ultimate defense of a scoundrel: "The other side is just as bad!" And you play into it.

Matt Taibbi: Is there a question in here? I'm not sure I understand what you're asking.

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Mount Vernon, N.Y. : You know, Bumiller really does look like Ernest Borgnine.

Matt Taibbi: I'm not going near that one. I actually had an editor from the New York Times write me an e-mail challenging me to a fistfight after that.

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Munich, Germany: Could you please briefly explain what the "9/11 Truth Movement" is? I had a look on Google and saw it mentioned a few times, but I couldn't find a definition.

Matt Taibbi: The 9/11 Truth movement, to use the most general description, is a movement that believes that the U.S. government either had an active role in planning the 9/11 attacks, or had foreknowledge of the attacks and intentionally allowed them to occur. More specifically the Truth movement is characterized by a belief that the World Trade Center was mined/bombed (brought down by a "controlled demolition" to use the term they like) in addition to being struck by airplanes. Well, if there were airplanes. The movement has many sub-movements/sects, including some who believe there were no planes at all but mere holograms that hit the towers, and another group that believes no plane hit the Pentagon, that a missile hit it instead. Movement also is characterized by voracious e-mailage/message-boardage.

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New Orleans: I picked up your book after reading the excerpt in Rolling Stone. Great stuff, but I wanted to ask you: Were you surprised at all by your experience with Hagee's church? What did you learn that shocked you the most? I've had a theory that folks in the media -- mainstream and otherwise -- often have underestimated the power and madness of the fundamentalist movement because it is completely outside their frame of reference. Very few reporters come from the blue-collar, rural backgrounds in which one is more likely to be exposed to neighbors and schoolmates who speak in tongues, have been taught that mental illness doesn't really exist and is a sign of secular society's selfish nature, or send their gay teenager away to a re-education camp. As a journalist who did have such a background, for a while it surprised me that people were surprised.

Matt Taibbi: That is a very good question. Most of the people who make up what folks call the "MSM" don't come from that kind of background. As a result there is a tendency to be completely unable to grasp the mindset that drives these sorts of churches. I have to admit to having trouble with it myself and wrote about this in the book -- in particular, the weird lust for violence and violent rhetoric in the church. We had Bible study meetings where the group rejoiced in certain Old Testament sections in which God promised to kill "everything that breatheth" in any town that harbored criminals. My group loved the totality of that commitment on God's part. And I just didn't get where that enthusiasm was coming from and could never really connect with it.

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Boston: I know you need it to put it in there to have the feel of balance ... but since when are Sept. 11 conspiracies something from the "left wing"?

Matt Taibbi: Would you say that Truthers are generally right-wingers? In my experience these people are generally liberal in political orientation.

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Baltimore: One of the things that amazed me in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 was how Bush was praised for his leadership, standing on the rubble on lower Manhattan. Of course, what no one ever would say is that that was the sort of moment every politician lives for -- the chance to puff out his chest and defy the enemy. Does anyone think that if Al Gore were president then, he would have said "gee, Osama, we're sorry if we did anything to provoke this, it won't happen again." People instead confused Bush's strutting with Churchillian leadership in the face of the Blitz.

Matt Taibbi: More surprising to me was the universal praise for Bush's early speeches after Sept. 11. They were masterpieces of illiterate gibberish and fourth-grade thinking, but still the press was tripping over itself to compare him to Churchill. In some ways the political press is a lot like the sportswriting community -- its favorite story is "is Kobe as good as Michael Jordan?" A lot of our reporters just love the ball-washing assignment, love finding new ways to say that our numbskull leaders are geniuses. It's weird.

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washingtonpost.com: What sorts of impacts do you see these fringe movements having on November's presidential election?

Matt Taibbi: Interesting question. It's really hard to say. One thing I think is an underreported story is the Bob Barr candidacy. There are certainly enough people out there disenchanted enough with the two parties to consider anyone who throws his hat in the ring -- and I think the press is being naive in assuming that Barr only takes votes away from McCain. It could go any way, we have no idea I don't think. We also don't know a whole lot yet about how the Truth movement affects elections because no one has done any real polling on that yet (at least that I'm aware of). We'll probably find out more when more Truther-types run for office, a la Cindy Sheehan (whom I used to like) in California. It may eventually become its own electoral phenomenon in places.

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Bristow, Va.: Matt, you're being a little shy about your connections between religion and wishing people's deaths. After all, you wrote " 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope," including your vision of John Paul II sitting up and bursting into flames. Are you really qualified to judge others as mmm, "offbeat"?

Matt Taibbi: Sorry about that, got a phone call from Erica Jong. You're expecting me to have shame? I work in the media.

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Leesburg, Va.: Your focus on the left-wing tilt of 9/11 Truthers (and they do go both ways) is just your phony way of trying to look "fair and balanced," which is quite ridiculous considering your general tone of Rage Against the Machine juvenilia. As if Rolling Stone were the International Herald Tribune and not a magazine for old stoners. What do you think about that?

Matt Taibbi: You're absolutely right. I was saying just that to your mother last night when I was shaving her back.

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washingtonpost.com: You buried yourself pretty deeply in some of these cultures to try to understand them; were you ever worried you might get convinced of their points?

Matt Taibbi: Yes, absolutely. There's even a scene in the book where I go to church one morning and I catch myself looking forward to the service. I nearly rushed to the bathroom and hanged myself. In all seriousness, one easily can be seduced by any environment. In Iraq for instance I think I fell into the trap of getting way too close to the guys I was with and that made it hard for me to be objective about the assignment.

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New Hampshire: Thanks, Matt, for taking my question. Do you think that the constant fear-mongering finally is sounding more and more like the "boy who cried wolf" to many Americans?

Matt Taibbi: Where in New Hampshire? I think that's absolutely the case. I really think the candidacies of Obama and Ron Paul in particular were symptoms of a voting populous that has become fatigued with the demonization/fear-mongering game in politics. People are weary of hating the other side. It will be harder for politicians to win using those tactics, but they can still be effective, as Hillary's run proved.

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San Francisco: Isn't another sign of post-Sept. 11 derangement the Americans who ascribe to "Dear Leader, Right or Wrong!" about Bush? Where will the rubber-stamp GOP congressmen, the Bush Dog congressmen, and the right-winger media gasbags focus their energies when they no longer have George Bush's infallibility to worship, do you suppose?

Matt Taibbi: There is a great wringing of hands on the Republican side about how to keep that "Silent Majority" voting bloc captive. They did it for so long with wedge issues and scare tactics, but the fall of the Bush regime has left the Rush Limbaugh crowd confused about its loyalties. They need to find a new enemy (which they will get when a Democrat gets a elected) and then a new leader with a new ideology. It'll happen, but it'll take a few years.

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Laurel, Md.: Among secularists (like me) there's a terrible fear that a large segment of the American electorate literally believes in things like the book of Revelations and the prophesies reported in books like "The Late Great Planet Earth," and that part of the support for Middle East military engagement comes from people who see it as accelerating The Second Coming. Does you book discuss at all how the darkest side of religious superstition could be influencing our foreign policy?

Matt Taibbi: Hi Laurel. Yes, the book does discuss this somewhat. Pastor Hagee, the pastor in my church, was very active in AIPAC, the Israeli lobby. Basically there is a symbiotic relationship between the pro-Israel neocons and the Christian Zionists, who believe we must support Israel in order to be on the right side of the upcoming battle at Armageddon. Those people believe we have to "hurry up God" and accelerate world events toward that final showdown, at which point Christ will return to earth, punish the unbelievers and whisk all the good people up to Heaven, where they will all have new split-level homes, new SUVs and really cheap gas. Their belief in this scenario is a real factor in pushing U.S. policy in the Middle East. It's pretty weird and very scary.

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Anonymous: Having studied the subject -- war -- quite extensively, I have concluded that most conflicts are initiated by controlled events, or by the perversion of events, such as taking a coal explosion on the USS Maine, and turning it into alleged sabotage. Do you feel that wars are started by chance, or overwhelmingly by design?

Matt Taibbi: Most wars are the result of gradual escalations of tensions between armed states that are visible to everyone and have completely logical reasons behind them. The actual vehicle used in stating wars -- the Gulf of Tonkin or the Maine, for instance -- are a lot less significant than the weakening of the South Vietnamese state vis a vis its own resistance movements, the history of colonial occupation in that country, and so on. Wars always have real politics behind them, regardless of what trick is used to pull the trigger. In the case of Sept. 11 the conflict between the West and radical Islam has been growing for centuries and accelerating rapidly in the last few decades in particular. It's no secret to anyone; it's been out in the open. Whereas Sept. 11 Truth wants to interpret the bombings as a development mainly of domestic internal politics, something the U.S. does to its population. And I don't see how you can argue that the government has developed a strong need to snow its own population with sinister plots in order to invade Iraq or Afghanistan. The Gulf of Tonkin this time around was Powell's presentation to the U.N., not the bombings on Sept. 11.

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Anonymous: Can the difference between the religious right and the Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists be this: The fundamentalists believe god is involved in our day-to-day events, and the 9/11 Truth crowd sees the inside operators of our government and economy as playing god?

Matt Taibbi: That's one analogy. Another similarity is that if you ask Christians for the evidence for their beliefs, they tell you it comes after death. Truthers say they don't have the evidence because it's locked away and only a "full investigation" (which they know full well they will never get) will reveal it. In both cases the belief system is arranged in such a way that it is inherently impossible to disprove.

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Seattle: One of the things that bugs me about the coverage of right-wing religious extremists like Hagee is that he and others support Israel not to see it succeed, but so that God has an easier time kick-starting the Apocalypse by having the first wave in one place. Why is that belief given a pass?

Matt Taibbi: Hi Seattle. The reason it's given a pass is that the Israelis themselves are glad to accept that support no matter how nutty it is. One Christian Zionist, Hal Lindsay, said that if the Jews don't convert at Armageddon, it will be the "Mother of all Holocausts." It's not like people like Benjamin Netanyahu (who spoke at Hagee's church) don't know about this stuff. They're just willing to gamble that it never comes into play -- in the meantime, they'll take the political bump they get from that group's support. A win-win until the end of time.

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Washington: Did your father being a TV journalist influence your career choice? Do you do TV?

Matt Taibbi: My father being a journalist certainly was a factor -- I grew up around the business, so when I graduated from college, it was the only saleable skill I had. No way did I want to do TV. I don't know how people do it every day. In writing, you can fix your mistakes before you publish. On live TV the air around your head is thick with potential disaster every moment. Very stressful. Plus I have horrible teeth, like a sick horse.

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Long Beach, Calif.: While not a total convert to the Sept. 11 theory of it being an inside job, I do think that building No. 7 was a controlled blast, as it was not hit by a plane, and was dropped on camera in the fashion of a pro demolition. Have you seen the footage, or owner Silverstein saying they "pulled" the building? How does that sit with you?

Matt Taibbi: I'll tell you how that sits with me -- only a moron could think that a guy like Silverstein, who's suddenly in line to get a massive insurance settlement, is going to confess on live television to demolishing his own building. I mean, are you people completely daft? It's the same with the whole business about Rudy Giuliani "admitting" that he knew the towers were coming down. If he was in on something like that, is he really going to confess it to Peter Jennings? Why in the world would he do that?

Also, the supposed "motive" for demolishing WTC-7 is hilarious -- to cover up evidence of the planning of the attacks, as it is speculated that they were planned from that building. What, did the conspirators carve their plans on slate tables? They needed to blow up a massive skyscraper on live TV in order to prevent "Long Beach, Calif." from finding out the awful truth? Like you're finding out anything without them blowing up any buildings. This theory presupposes that people commit these crimes for no reason at all. It's crazy.

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Chicago: Hey Matt, I read all your work and wanted to offer you another way of looking at your seemingly endless coverage of the Hillary death watch. If Obama had "knocked her out" in one round, Hillary would have suffered a short, clean, defeat. Now Hillary has to endure all the mockery and humiliation that comes with being on the political level of Mike Huckabee. This has to be like Chinese water torture, and in that sense is a wonderful opportunity for schadenfreude.

Matt Taibbi: I hadn't looked at it that way. Although I have to say that there's something to that. Maybe we should all be glad she stayed in. It is becoming very interesting TV to see her slogging on in these half-filled rooms in the middle of nowhere, telling the lace mill story for the nineteen-thousandth time. Pretty soon she's going to be pulling out the "Thank you, Rapid City! Try the veal!" line...

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Bastrop, Texas: If you are right about Powell's speech to the U.N. as being the propellant of the war, do you think he knew he was lying?

Matt Taibbi: Of course he knew. And I'm sure he was very upset about being pushed into that role. He's like the teenager who gets picked by his cowardly buddies to try to buy alcohol. They were all holding their breaths until he got his bottle bagged.

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Matt Taibbi: Okay, thanks everyone for your many excellent questions. I'm sorry if I didn't get to everyone -- this is my first chat and I am not used to the format. Thanks also to washingtonpost.com -- have a good day everyone...

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