Saturday, September 19, 2009

Watching Max Blumenthal Grow to be a Major American Writer

One year ago, as Alaska's fledgeling progressive blogging community was assisting one Outside writer after another come to terms with just who John McCain's running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was, I got a call from one more writer - Max Blumenthal.

David Neiwert had already alerted me that Max would be in Alaska to do research on Palin's past ties to the Wasilla Assembly of God, and to Rev. Thomas Muthee. I wasn't nearly as familiar with Max' previous work as I was with David's. I was familiar with his July 2007 video, Rapture Ready. I was also aware that Blumenthal had been a key figure in getting the truth out on the 2008 ABC "docu-drama," The Path to 9/11.

Max was able to spend well over a week in Alaska, dividing his time between Anchorage and Wasilla. While he was in Wasilla, he stayed with my wife and me. Our son had just left to go to college in California, and we were in a totally empty nest for the first time. Judy took him in as if he were another son.

Like I had done for a few other reporters, I went with Max to the Wasilla Museum, where Palin had caused an uproar among employees when she was the town's mayor. I took him to the library, where Palin had let the employees know she wasn't happy with gay-friendly books. Max noted shelves full of complete sets of the LaHayes/Jenkins Left Behind series. When he asked a librarian if the library had a copy of a book Palin had hoped to ban, Pastor, I Am Gay, by Rev. Howard H. Bess (a local Baptist minister and gay rights activist), Max was told that the library was very full, and didn't have room for some books.

I also took Max to Chimo Guns in Wasilla, Todd Palin's favorite gun store. Watching Max sincerely ask store employees and customers his simple, straightforward questions, I began to appreciate the genius Max has for quietly confronting the people he is interviewing, with a disarmingly modest demeanor.

Where I didn't take Max was to the local churches, where he managed to film some very bizarre practices. As he suited up for his church attendance - putting hidden and not-so-hidden microphones and video cameras on his person, and practicing speaking in tongues by rapidly reciting the first names of Michael Jackson's siblings, and other made-up words, I couldn't help but laugh heartily. I realized then that not only is Max charmingly confrontative, he's very brave.

Max's two videos made in Alaska, Sarah Palin's Secessionist Pal Speaks, and In the Land of Queen Esther, rank among the best Outside-of-Alaska material gathered about Palin last year. Combined with the work of the California-based Wasilla Project's work, Max's videos helped damn Palin's image to the truthful niche the McCain campaign should have seen as possibly looming, before she was chosen for the VP candidate slot.

As Max worked on Republican Gomorrah over the 2008-2009 winter and spring, he also began collaborating with Philip Weiss, perhaps the leading figure on the web in the realm of coverage of "American foreign policy in the Middle East, from the progressive Jewish perspective."

While Phil Weiss was in Cairo late last spring, covering President Obama's speech at Cairo University, Max was in Jerusalem, making a video that was so explosive, it was removed from YouTube, the Huffington Post, and other web sites. The video, Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem on the Eve of Obama's Cairo Address, is a set of interviews with young Americans and Israelis who have had too much to drink. Their expressions of hatred toward Obama are quite shocking. The fact that they were also into their cups made it convenient for YouTube, Vimeo and Huffington Post to censor Blumenthal's work.

Blumenthal's defense of the interviews makes for interesting reading, but the defense itself has been censored from some sites.

Over the summer, Max continued covering aspects of the intersections between politics, hypocrisy, religious superstition and secret or behind-the-scene connections amongst these and other elements of contemporary life. He's been watching the Tea Party movement. He's kept an eye on Palin's sputterings and twitterings, even as he and I have witnessed the seeming demise of some of Palin's most ardent supporters, most notably, mockumentarian, John Ziegler.

With the publication of Republican Gomorrah, Blumenthal has emerged as a major writer. Recently it pegged number 15 on the New York Times bestseller list. Perhaps the best proof beyond the book itself that Blumenthal has emerged from the formative period of his writing and video and into maturity, is his short op-ed printed in the New York Times, recently. In it, Max explains how President Dwight Eisenhower was prophetic about how and why the GOP's new right would depend upon the very elements Blumenthal covers so fully in Republican Gomorrah. Blumenthal notes that in a letter to an ailing Veteran named Robert Biggs, Eisenhower took the trouble to dissect the incompleteness and paranoia that was beginning to consume some GOP religious conservatives:

Eisenhower also recommended a short book — “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer, a self-educated itinerant longshoreman who earned the nickname “the stevedore philosopher.” “Faith in a holy cause,” Hoffer wrote, “is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

Though Eisenhower was criticized for lacking an intellectual framework or even an interest in ideas, he was drawn to Hoffer’s insights. He explained to Biggs that Hoffer “points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.” The authoritarian follower, Eisenhower suggested, desired nothing more than insulation from the pressures of a free society.

Alluding to Senator McCarthy and his allies, Eisenhower pointed out that cold war fears were distorted and exploited for political advantage. “It is difficult indeed to maintain a reasoned and accurately informed understanding of our defense situation on the part of our citizenry when many prominent officials, possessing no standing or expertness as they themselves claim it, attempt to further their own ideas or interests by resorting to statements more distinguished by stridency than by accuracy.”

I'm working my way through Republican Gomorrah. It is easy to read, because of the fluid narrative. It is hard to read, because it quietly, modestly asks the reader, without being at all explicit, "How did we let these dangerous people gain so much control over our lives?"

I'm now reading it side by side with Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. They complement each other nicely.

Meanwhile, one of Max's most endearing qualities, his understated sense of humor is developing too.

cross-posted at The Seminal


nswfm CA said...

Max has hit the big time, imo, since he's been shown on Bill Moyers. If you search on youtube for rO_7T2Vcnuk , you'll see some of his footage shown.

Philip Munger said...

I saw that. But there's a question as to whether or not PBS even allowed Moyers to run the footage with Max in it. Did you see it broadcast?

Anonymous said...

Here's a new book that may be of interest--

PREMATURE FACTULATION: The Ignorance of Certainty and the Ghost of Montaigne

by Philip D. Hansten

info at