To judge from the bookshops, a resurgent American left is inspiring the world. Michael Moore's Stupid White Men was not only the top non-fiction book of 2002 in the US after being on the bestseller lists for a year, but has been on the British, Canadian, German, Japanese, Irish, Australian and New Zealand lists for almost as long. About three million copies have been sold worldwide and the signs are that his follow-up, Dude, Where's My Country?, will do just as well. Moore has mastered the rare trick of being passionate and funny at the same time. Though he is in a class of his own, the sales ranking at Amazon and the tables at the front of Waterstone's and Borders show a healthy niche market for his successors and imitators.
Al Franken, another comedian, has followed up Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot with Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, an exuberant assault on Fox TV and other Republican mouthpieces. Alongside it is Weapons of Mass Deception: the uses of propaganda in Bush's war on Iraq by Sheldon Rampton and John C Stauber. And Big Lies: the right-wing propaganda machine and how it distorts the truth by Joe Conason covers much of the same ground as Franken.
The writers are varied, but they are united by a parochialism that makes their success outside the US puzzling. Moore encapsulated their insularity best when he beat off stiff competition to make the stupidest remark by a white man about the 11 September atrocities. "If someone did this to get back at Bush," he declared, "then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes' destination of California - these were places that voted against Bush!" Moore appeared to take it as read that a cult of death committed to slaughter and self-slaughter cares about the politics of the Americans its devotees kill; that crimes against humanity are less criminal if the victims voted Republican rather than Democrat; and that Wall Street and the Pentagon are Democrat strongholds.
Stupid White Men tells its readers to "pick an issue you care about, call 202-224-3121 - the US Capitol switchboard. Just tell them your zip code, and they'll transfer you to your representative." Non-American readers would need to put a 001 before that. They would then discover that they didn't have a representative because they didn't have a US zip code. Franken's references are so obscure that even many Americans wouldn't understand them. What, for instance, would anyone but an American political junkie make of a characteristic Franken chapter, "Bill O'Reilly: Lying, Splotchy Bully". O'Reilly, a right-wing talk-show host, is demolished because he claimed that he had won two Peabody awards when he had in fact won two Polk awards. He also claimed to have grown up in working-class Levittown, when in fact he had grown-up in middle-class Westbury. He "bludgeons his guests with incorrect and/or just made-up facts and figures". All in all, he's a turd in "the sewer of right-wing dishonesty". The attack is mounted with admirable brio, but the question remains: what are foreign readers who have never seen O'Reilly or his guests, have never been to Levittown or Westbury and have never heard of the Peabody or Polk awards meant to make of this? Yet the American publishers of these authors find an international audience, even though they are so contemptuous of their British readers that they can't be bothered to spend a day anglicising the spelling: "programme" stays as "program" and "labour" as "labor".
Part of the explanation for the success of this under-examined strand of American cultural imperialism is that the United States is the world's most powerful country and her opponents naturally look to those who know it best to find arguments for the prosecution. Intelligent Americans have no particular need to find out about Britain, but intelligent Britons need to know about America. Moore, in particular, appeals to European contempt for dull-witted Yanks. In Stupid White Men he writes: "If you live in a country where 44 million people can't read - and perhaps close to another 200 million can read but usually don't - well, friends, you and I are living in one very scary place. A nation that not only churns out illiterate students BUT GOES OUT OF ITS WAY TO REMAIN IGNORANT AND STUPID is a nation that should not be running the world."
And yet IGNORANT AND STUPID though America is, it is still, for reasons none of its domestic critics explain, the most powerful nation on earth. To make matters worse, it is led by George W Bush, a president who attracts greater hatred than any since Nixon. If you want to know how millions of otherwise decent people could oppose the only possible means of overthrowing a fascist dictatorship in Iraq - and how they can still refuse to offer fraternal support to Iraqi liberals, socialists, communists and what is left of the Kurdish minority - you must look at the implicit belief that Bush is worse than Saddam Hussein and that America's casino capitalism is worse than fascism.
It is easy to see how leftish opinion got that way. Bush stole the 2000 election. He was the plaything of Enron and other criminally corrupt corporations. He pumps tax cuts to the rich whose corporate media return the favour by pumping out propaganda to persuade the IGNORANT AND STUPID electorate to support their stooge. The poor are kept in place by a Gulag state that keeps two million people in prison. The war against terrorism has been an excuse to tear up civil liberties, while the lies that justified the war against Iraq amply repaid the bribes which Bush had received from the oil industry and the military-industrial complex.
Much of this is true and foreign readers of these books must be left expecting an upsurge of radicalism in the States, if not a second American revolution. The venom directed against Bush, however, is a sign of weakness. A left led by comedians is a joke, and its hatred of Bush a sign that it cannot examine its own past and offer an alternative. It was on Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's watch that the US prison population soared to Gulag levels. Clinton tore up New Deal protections for the poor and New Deal controls on speculation and presided over the biggest stock-market bubble in history.
The war against Afghanistan would have happened if Gore had won in 2000. The war against Iraq would not. Instead, Gore would have continued to starve the country - with sanctions that Saddam could manipulate to keep the population cowed - and continued to bomb it. He would have done anything and everything to Iraq, except remove its tyrant. Under a Gore presidency, the rich would not have had the tax cuts that Bush has given them, but inequality would have continued to break records. The Kyoto and International Criminal Court treaties would not have got through Congress under a Gore presidency any more than under a Bush presidency. There would, in other words, have been differences, but only minor differences. The viciousness of American politics disguises the conformity of its conservative political class. Freud's theory of the hatreds inspired by small differences helps us to understand the loathing that its two wings have for each other.
Al Franken would have kept the finest minds of old Vienna engrossed for months. He idolises the Clinton administration and offers a dedication: "To Al Gore. A good man. A funny man. My friend." Everything is the fault of the lies the lying liars tell. Even Moore, who honourably fought the mass incarceration and corruption of the Clinton years, seems to be suffering from memory loss. In Stupid White Men (published in 2002), he said there was a simple choice between Republicans and Democrats: "Do you want to get fucked by someone who tells you they're going to fuck you, or do you want to get fucked by someone who lies to you and then fucks you?" (Moore campaigned for Ralph Nader whose Green Party campaign for president in 2000 did more to scupper Gore than "stolen" votes in Florida.)
In Dude, Where's My Country? (published in 2003), he writes that US energy companies looking for pipeline contracts in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan backed Bush because "Clinton was never going to let Unocal, Halliburton and Enron be in business with these terrorists. So Enron became one of the biggest contributors to your campaign to unseat the Clinton/Gore axis." This is ridiculous, as he must know. Enron stuffed the pockets of the fundraisers for the Clinton, Bush and Gore campaigns with bipartisan liberality. When he was president, Clinton helped Enron do whatever Enron wanted to do.
I spoke to a prominent American left-winger who wanted anonymity because "my comrades are petty and vindictive people". He said: "We [the US left] have no mass movement. Personal righteousness, personal correctness and personal authenticity are everything. We piss off working-class supporters by treating them as sexists and racists and prissily telling them what they can and can't do. We've let the right steal all the popu-list language. If the world continues to follow America, radicalism will be something you see only in TV commercials. Don't look to us. We have leftists here, but no left."