Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes literature turns out to have prognostication powers. Don DeLillo’s Mao II is one of the great post 9/11 novels, yet it’s written before the event. And few books made better sense of the dreamy, detached-from-reality mood of the Reagan presidency than Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, also written before Reagan’s ascent to office.

To a lesser degree, and with less literary merit than those others, Buckley’s novel anticipates our current moment of fake news and the alternative facts crisis. This one tells the story of a public relations flak for a defense contracting company who gets charged with trying to whip up anti-China hysteria in order to secure funding for an unknown massive new project. He begins his project by asserting – entirely without fact – that China is behind a recent health scare for the Dalai Lama.

And then the plan spirals out of control. It turns out the Dalai Lama is indeed quite ill, but it serves various conflicting interests to claim that China really did go after him. We get different factions of China’s governing council who accuse and counter-accuse in order to jostle for authority. We get CIA spooks who foment and then undermine the rumors all in the service of their different agendas.

When this book is at its best, it’s a whirlwind of almost plausible stories that conflict with one another. We’re never allowed to forget that the central claim of the competing stories is fundamentally false, but we’re also brought to see that such a truth hardly matters after a while. Once the story begins to circulate, it has a real-world gravity. It’s a lie that has traction, an alternative fact that causes things to happen in the real world.

This one is probably a notch weaker than Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking, but it shares the same sharp humor and deep-seeded concern with the nature of, for lack of a better word, bullshit in the heart of our culture. That one takes more joy in the outrageousness of the lies in play, but both deal with the fundamental observation that we’re shielded from being able to make thoughtful policy by the power of the bullshit around us.

I’m never quite sure of Buckley’s politics. Since he’s the son of 1960s and 1970s Number One Conservative William F., it’s hard to imagine him as a progressive (unless he’s living out a serious Oedipal experience). At the same time, he isn’t pushing for hardline matters either. He seems to see much military spending as wasteful, yet he also seems to have respect for good government. There’s no knee-jerk impulse to decry all government as too much government.

In the end, the message is mostly hopeful. Beneath the cynicism of his characters lies a real hope that we might someday get to a point where we can distinguish the lies of the unprincipled from the truths we ought to be weighing.

At this historical moment, that’s a progressive political claim. In the bigger picture, though, it seems a more philosophical – more politically neutral – notion. You don’t have to be a Social Democrat to believe that good government depends upon access to the truth. That insight, thoughtful and comic as we get it here, is timely today and, given that it’s more than four years old now, eerily prescient.

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