Book Review: The Anti-American Manifesto by Ted Rall

Years ago the professor in my political ideologies class laid out a view of the political spectrum that I’ve never forgotten. It does not, he said, resemble a line with a far left, a far right and a center. Instead, it is a nearly closed circle where the extremes of the spectrum are turning back towards each other. The accuracy of that analysis has struck me several times over the years, especially this year.

For example, among the books that make up the Tea Party canon is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Alinsky’s 1971 book was almost a hornbook for those on the left who were willing to work within the system, for “the Have-Nots on how to take [power] away.” Now, the Tea Party looks to it as a primer on community organizing tactics.

I was reminded of it again last month by a new book that set forth the following definitions:

Us: Hard-working, underpaid, put upon, thoughtful, freedom-loving, disenfranchised, ordinary people

Them: Reactionary. stupid, overpaid, greedy, shortsighted, exploitative, power-made abusive politicians and corporate executives

No one would be surprised to see that in a Tea Party tract. But these come from Ted Rall’s new book, The Anti-American Manifesto. Rall, an award-winning author, syndicated columnist and syndicated editorial cartoonist, is plainly on the left side of the spectrum. In fact, in 2004 he wrote Wake Up, You’re Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back from the Right, which challenged liberals to step forward and lead this country to the promise it offers. From the impressive opening “Credo” to the concluding chapter, “The Manifesto for a New America,” I was so impressed I made sure to get a personally autographed copy.

So, six years later there’s a president of color in the White House who ran and was elected on a campaign of “change.” So what’s Rall thinking now? He thinks it’s time for a revolution right here in the good old U S of A.

I don’t think Rall’s gone off the deep end. Instead, his book is an example of how people across the political spectrum have no faith in the ability of America’s existing political and economic system to change the country for the better. That’s certainly contributed to the popularity and success of the Tea Party. It’s just that Rall takes things a step further. He says it’s too late to reform the country or the government because the existing system is not viable or open to real change. Revolution, he writes, is preferable to collapse.

“The current U.S. government must be prophylactically removed,” he writes. “Our economic and social structures must be radically reinvented. These things can only happen by using force.” Yet The Anti-American Manifesto doesn’t suggest the revolution start on the left. In fact, he invokes the adage “the enemy of your enemy is your friend, urging people to “reach out to anyone and everyone who is willing to take on the existing system.” That also means, somewhat maddeningly, that Rall isn’t specific about what will follow revolution. Although he still hews to many of the ideas expressed in Wake Up, You’re Liberal!, he believes the first priority is to get rid of the current “zombie system of government.” Only then should we begin to “split ideological hairs” on what will replace it.

Rall believes Americans have 10 essential rights: shelter, food, basic clothes, education in accordance with your abilities and talents (through college), medical care, retirement benefits, transportation, communication, competent legal counsel if charged with a crime, and job training and rehabilitation if incarcerated. Although only one of these is currently guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, an argument can certainly be made that what Rall advocates are crucial elements of the unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” described in the Declaration of Independence. Only a revolution can help protect such rights because the governmental and corporate structure that has evolved in America is incapable of doing so, he contends.

Unless you’re hopelessly self-deluded or stupid, you have to accept the painful truth. Under the current triumvirate of state power currently presiding over our lives — governmental, corporate and media — you have no more ability to change anything important — e.g. the way the economy is managed, or which countries and people are being attacked by the armies you pay for — than a medieval serf or a German under Nazism did in the past, or a detainee in a secret CIA prison somewhere does now.

Rall has never shied away from impassioned rhetoric or even hyperbole, whether in his writing or his art. Nor is it reserved for the government. For example, he says that if BP and other oil companies “could extract oil from the crushed skulls of newborn babies, they would.”

Rall, quite simply, seems to have reached the end of his political rope. Not only is necessary change not coming, he believes it never will. Rational people, then, have only one choice, which is to take things into their own hands and start over. Even if people don’t, the system is going to collapse on itself and revolution will be forced upon us. He believes it better to be proactive than reactive. Whether that call to action will succeed is another question altogether.

In the book, Rall notes he “hated” the title of Wake Up, You’re Liberal. I would quibble with title The Anti-American Manifesto. Rall isn’t anti-American. He’s anti what America has become. Yet calling the manifesto “anti-American” doesn’t get that point across. In fact, it may tend to divide rather than unite the enemies of his enemies.

Second, I understand Rall wants to avoid infighting among those are willing to tear the system down. I’m on the opposite side of the question of having aims and goals for any revolution. Without them, fear of the unknown will always outweigh throwing the bastards out and then splitting ideological hairs. Like our government, corporations and media, Americans want to know “What’s in it for me?” before committing to even quasi-radical action. Some essential common principles likely need be expressed.

Finally, to some extent The Anti-American Manifesto has echoes of the late 1960s. Despite the youth culture and cries of revolution in the street, today we are in an arguably worse state of affairs. The America to which Rall is speaking is likely less receptive to such ideas than four decades ago. This is particularly pertinent when Rall himself admits, “It is better to do nothing than to stage a half-assed revolt.”

It’s not surprising Rall has reached his limit. In fact, he says he’s thought revolution was necessary before but was afraid to say so. In fact, in the “Credo” in Wake Up, You’re Liberal he said, “Radical problems require radical solutions.” The last item in that “Credo” is also relevant six years later: “I reserve the right to change my mind.”

Ideology is stupid. For those of us who have no power, it doesn’t matter what we would do if we did. We don’t.

Ted Rall, The Anti-American Manifesto

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