Who's Screwing America -- Battle of the 100 Lists

Thank you, Huffington Post, for inviting me to guest-blog and to post some excerpts from my just-published book, 101 People Who Are REALLY Screwing America (and Bernard Goldberg is Only #73) (Nation Books). The book is a response to--a refutation of--the cure for--Goldberg's very successful book titled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is #37)--or as it could much more accurately have been titled, 81 Liberals, 7 Conservatives, and 12 Others, of Whom Maybe 5 Altogether Are Really Screwing Up America. My reaction to which was: Is he serious? My answer: Yes, but only about propagating the myth of an America dominated by liberals and distracting from the real screwer-uppers.

Goldberg's 100 included not one member of the Bush administration. No one responsible for the Iraq disaster, or for the lies and disinformation the war was mongered with. No Donald Rumsfeld or Scooter Libby or Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle. No one responsible for the pre-9/11 "intelligence" failures, or for illegal spying on Americans, or for sanctioning or ordering torture and a secret prison Gulag, or for trying to subvert the Constitution by turning Congress and the courts into branches of the executive branch, or for making sure the public and Congress know as little as possible about what the White House is up to, or for suppressing scientific information about global warming, women's health, AIDs prevention, consumer safety...

Not one Republican member of Congress. No Tom DeLay (who was not yet indicted when Goldberg wrote), nor any of his henchmen/accomplices in the K-Street project, like Grover Norquist, who have created the worst big-money corruption of our government since Warren Harding. No Jack Abramoff (who was still at large), nor any of his partners in crime.

Nothing about the tobacco, drug, or fossil fuels industry. Not one polluter of any kind. And no war profiteering companies with names beginning with H, or indeed any other letter.

Nobody who's been busy making America the laughingstock of the world and hastening our cultural and economic decline by working to replace science with Christian-fundamentalist dogma.

Who is screwing up America, according to Goldberg? Why, Barbra Streisand, of course! Harry Belafonte. Tim Robbins. Hollywood liberals. And of course, Michael Moore (Goldberg's villain #1). Ted Kennedy. Jesse Jackson. ACLU director Anthony Romero. George Soros. Bill Moyers.

Oh, there is a U.S. president on his list: Jimmy Carter. And one vice-president. No, not our leading Iraq liar and schemer, congressional inquiry obstructor, "energy policy" conspirator, no-bid-contract "coordinator," and duck-hunter extraordinaire--not Cheney, of course, but Al Gore.

To make my list, you had to have made an outstanding contribution in at least one of the following fields: (1) pushing the government and the courts far to the right of the public; (2) corrupting government with big money; (3) subverting democracy and the election process; (4) enriching and empowering the already rich and powerful at everyone else's expense; (5) making the media a handmaid of the party in power; (6) encouraging bigotry; (7) despoiling the environment; (8) dumbing down or sleazing up the culture; (9) profiting financially or politically by peddling religion or otherwise gulling the gullible.

You didn't have to be Republican official, corporation chiefs, or right-wing intellectual to qualify. My first excerpt (below) is about Dan "Da Vinci Code" Brown, my screwer-upper #100, by virtue of his meeting requirements (8) and (9) above.

When writing his entry, I somehow neglected to mention how utterly laughable Brown's technique is. Not every last bit of it, but enough to condemn The Da Vinci Code on those grounds alone.

Many passages, for example, suggest Brown doesn't know the difference between a thriller and a tourist guide book:

"Murray Hill Place--the new Opus Dei National Headquarters and conference center--is located at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City. With a price tag of just over $47 million, the 133,000-square-foot tower is clad in red brick and Indiana limestone. Designed by May & Prinska, the building contains over one hundred bedrooms, six dining rooms, libraries, living rooms, meeting rooms, and offices..."

(Perhaps the figures he cites are vital mathematical clues to the location of the Holy Grail? No, perhaps not.) Wait, there's more:

"The new entrance to the Paris Louvre [as opposed to the Jacksonville, Florida Louvre] had become almost as famous as the museum itself. The controversial, neomodern glass pyramid designed by Chinese-born American architect I.M. Pei still evoked scorn from traditionalists who felt it destroyed the dignity of the Renaissance courtyard....Progressive admirers, though, hailed Pei's seventy-one-foot-tall transparent pyramid..."

The first 32 pages alone give us: the "imposing façade," "the majesty of the façade," "the esteemed Musee d'Orsay," "the ultramodern Pompidou Center," "the estimated five weeks it would take a visitor to properly appreciate the 65,300 pieces of art in this building," "Harvard's revered Egyptologists," "the famous marble staircase," "the most famous of the Louvre's three main sections," "the famous high ceilings," "the Louvre's most famous Italian art," and (in the same sentence) "it's famous parquet floor," "the famed Tuileries" (twice)....! The book's very first words: "Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere..."

All this, remember, is scattered amidst murders, chases, and the unraveling of the most sensational secret and conspiracy in all of history--in other words, while we're supposed to be panting with suspense. If any readers panted, I would think it was only because they'd been laughing so hard.

To make readers--this reader, anyway--suspend disbelieve and buy into a monumentally far-fetched plot, if only for entertainment purposes (not that this novel purports to be merely entertainment), you have to it believable on the sentence and paragraph level: characters (Brown's are parchment-thin), dialogue--oy, Brown's dialogue!

But far from turning readers off, Brown's Michelin-Guide style points up one not-so-secret secret of the book's success: Brown assures his readers they're not just enjoying a cheap airport novel--they're absorbing culture.

Oh--in case you weren't sure: The book's historical assertions are utterly bogus but presented by Brown as truth. According to a front-matter page headed "Fact," "The Priory of Sion--a European secret society founded in 1099--is a real organization [whose members included] Sir Isaac Newton, Boticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.." The "Priory of Sion" was actually founded in 1956, existed for several months, and had nothing to do with any ancient secret about Jesus--until, some years later, as a hoax, its founder planted forged documents (which Brown cites as authentic) in the National Library of France.

Brown's service to America: Instead of paying attention to how their government is, for example, subverting the Constitution, diverting as much public money as it can into corporate coffers, and weakening national security--instead of exploring this real conspiracy, if you will--tens of millions of Americans have been transfixed by, indeed are making themselves virtual scholars of, this bogus history.

From my book:

#100: The Mysterious Smile of Dan (Da Vinci) Brown

You don't read airport novels or thrillers. But your view is, as long as they stay on their side of the literature/mass-market-fiction border and don't bother you, you don't bother them. You may even like to know they're there should you ever need them. (Like that street you drive down to every so often.) But if they begin to stray off the reservation, raid across the border, adopt high-culture airs in an attempt at what the Observer called the "trick of intellectual flattery" (see Flaubert's Parrot, Galileo's Daughter, Wittgenstein's Mistress, Newton's Manicurist, etc.), and make not just literary but grand historical and conspiratorial claims that billions of readers take seriously--if they become the best-selling hardback adult novel of all time and make their maker so rich that you sit around all day mumbling, "Why didn't I think of that plot"--then it's time to get the women and children into the fort and mount a punitive expedition in the New York Review of Books or someplace. You know--really spoil it for the author as he's gazing across his vineyards at the Mediterranean from the terrace of his château in Provence or New Hampshire.

As of October 2005, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (despite some critics deriding it as "Umberto Eco-lite," and "nothing more than a James Bond-style romp cloaked by a veneer of erudition") had been on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list for 135 weeks. More than 25 million copies sold. Forty-two foreign translations. "In danger of becoming better known than Leonardo himself," one newspaper remarked. There was even a "Da Vinci Diet." (Help yourself to bread as though it's your last supper.) One shudders to think of the thousands of would-be Browns even now foraging for wild historical speculations upon which to weave the next blockbuster novel. After all, Brown has told the press it all began when, while working as an English teacher, he finished reading a Sidney Sheldon thriller "and thought, 'Hey, I can do that.'" (Brown's own sequel tackles the Freemasons. I kinow--how about The Protocols of the Elders of the Rococo?)

The Da Vinci Code dares to ask: What if Christianity was founded, not on solid, scientifically and historically proven fact, but on a myth? According to Code, Jesus Christ's wife, Mary Magdalene, bore his child; their descendants became the Merovingian line of French kings. (Most of this is drawn from the 1982 "nonfiction" best-seller Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Perhaps Brown read the Newsweek review: "The plot has all the elements of an international thriller.") The Christ family's descendants survive to this day, they and their secret guarded by a secret society whose past members included Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, who left clues about the whole story in their paintings. Code opens with the murder of a contemporary member, the curator of the Louvre, by an agent of the (real) Roman Catholic Church organization Opus Dei.

Brown begins by professing to tell the truth, and many readers take him at his word: On "Grail Trail" tours of Europe, tourists retracing his characters' steps have reportedly asked bewildered Louvre staff, "Is this the room where the curator was murdered?" Opus Dei was deluged with emails asking why it is hiding the truth about the Holy Grail.

The novel may not do Roman Catholicism any favors, but it does encourage New Age nonsense by portraying Mr. and Mrs. Christ as having cultivated pagan practices of ritual sex and worship of "the sacred feminine." According to Code, the figure to Jesus' right in Leonardo's The Last Supper is really Mary Magdalene. Her and Jesus' A-shaped figures together form a giant M. The V-shaped space between them refers to Magdalene's womb--the real Holy Grail. You get the picture. Or rather, you don't: Reviewing Code, the art historian and classicist Ingrid Rowland worried that readers may come away believing they have learned something about Leonardo and his art. Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker: "A cultural anthropologist, a hundred years from now, will doubtless find, in the unprecedented success of The Da Vinci Code during the time of a supposed religious revival, some clear sign that, in the Elvis mode, what a lot of Americans mean by spirituality is simply an immense openness to occult superstitions of all kinds."

Both critics also point out embarrassing anachronisms. Part of the novel hinges on decoding the original meaning of "Mona Lisa"--a name not used for the picture until the 19th century. And "Da Vinci," Rowland notes, is the one thing Leonardo would never have been called in his lifetime, "any more than 'Of Arc' was Joan's surname."

What to make of the fact that Brown's villains are devoutly Catholic as well as gay, I leave up to the reader.

"In a world where a rich turbaned sheik takes aim at skyscrapers, discotheques, and train stations in the name of holy war," writes Rowland, Code satisfies readers' thirst for black-and-white certainties, and for confirmation "that the West has contributed something more to humanity than McDonald's, cowboy presidents, and the stock market"--something like, for example, the Italian Renaissance, and what it stand for: Civilization.

But this novel's conservatism goes a lot farther. True, it makes heroes out of humanists and villains out of churchmen; but it also peddles nostalgia for divinely ordained and sired monarchs. Outside of Republican politics, you can't get much more reactionary than that.

Rowland contrasts Code with another recent novel set in the Renaissance Europe, Q, which, unlike Code, suggests "that there is no secret code to make everything right" but "the secret of our own nature"--that "the answers to our woes lie plain before us, accessible to all, as they have always been: the arts of coexistence [and] a citizen's constant vigilance, laced with a Good Samaritan's instinctive compassion."

Brown's first book was 187 Men to Avoid: A Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman. From there to The Da Vinci Code--or, as it should have been titled instead, 187 Convoluted Absurdities to Overlook: A Guide for the Historically Credulous--is perhaps not so great a leap. Men to avoid? Start here.