There are probably more unpleasant ways to spend your time than reading “The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason.” You could, for example, eat a stranger’s fingernail clippings. You could also learn to sing a cappella in Norwegian. For that matter, you may as well visit a country that has fallen victim to the kind of socialist revolution that this book and its writers appear to advocate, in those rare moments when they appear to be advocating for something more substantive than late-afternoon masturbation.
I am loath to suggest Venezuela, which has recently become right-wing metonymy for socialism unrestrained. But if the Chaponistas are serious about “seizing the billionaires’ money, socializing their wealth, and handing the keys to production over to workers” in order to end “the political and cultural nightmare that is America,” we could do no better than look south, to a country that has a desperately starving populace despite holding the largest oil reserves in the world. This one, I’m afraid, can’t be blamed on Goldman Sachs.
On your way down to Caracas, Venezuela, do take a listen to “Chapo Trap House,” the ostentatiously incoherent, overweeningly sarcastic podcast on which the book in question is based. Calling themselves “the dirtbag left,” the podcast’s hosts have declared war on the lanyard-wearing neo-liberals of the Democratic establishment, who, they charge, have surrendered in short order both the principles they once held and the power they once wielded. Launched in early 2016, the podcast is allegedly a hit with the clued-in, bummed-out youth who remain convinced that Jill Stein would have made a pretty good president.
“Dirtbag left” is a clever image, one meant to evoke the gonzo sensibility of Hunter S. Thompson. It is also as much a marketing trick as “Make America Great Again.” The “dirtbags” who host “Chapo” — Felix Biederman, Matt Christman and Will Menaker, with regular appearances from Virgil Texas and Amber A’Lee Frost — are not exactly characters out of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Menaker is the son of Daniel Menaker, one of the most influential figures in Manhattan publishing; Biederman’s father was a Chicago lawyer. They went to colleges like Skidmore and Cornell. Post-college, they settled in the most predictable of places, the place where all the white kids go to convince themselves that they are not like all the other white kids: Brooklyn.
Oh, yes, I forgot that the Chapniks are inordinately fond of video games and marijuana. Exploits in these two not-unrelated categories are treated with reveries meant to evoke Henry Miller debauching his way through the Left Bank, on the way to a higher plane of consciousness. But getting stoned on a ratty couch in Crown Heights doesn’t make you an enlightened dirtbag, let alone one whose insights are immensely valuable because they’ve bubbled up from the lower depths where fellows of the Brookings Institution fear to tread. It does, however, explain why the single most coherent — nay, only coherent — policy proposal I found in listening to Chapo Trap House, and reading their miserable book, is for a truncated workweek.
What truly distinguishes “Chapo Trap House” is the utter lack of decorum with which the hosts/writers serve up their lukewarm brew of comedic liberal punditry. Their core insight is that cable news, as well as the nation’s most respected newspapers and magazines, are stagnant reservoirs of milquetoast moderation, swamps where good ideas — progressive taxation, socialized medicine — drown. The media refuses to acknowledge truths evident to any dirtbag who has walked the mean streets of brownstone Brooklyn, allegedly because we fear that any such truth-telling will lead to our beloved lanyards being yanked off our pale capitalist necks.
After the death of Sen. John McCain, for example, most commentators praised the late Arizona Republican senator for his courage as a prisoner of war, as well as his more recent challenges to President Trump. His memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral was widely regarded as a show of anti-Trump defiance. “Chapo,” though, was pointedly unimpressed. But their scorn for McCain was no sustained critique of his involvement in the Keating Five scandal, his all-too-frequent coddling of the very same forces of immoderation he also condemned (see: Palin, Sarah). Instead, there was just mockery, mockery that was pointless, flaccid and juvenile, mockery about as transgressive as scrawlings on a bar bathroom wall. “They’re gonna f***in’ fill that a**hole with helium and float him above the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” one of the hosts said in a podcast episode airing shortly thereafter. This was plenty hilarious, but more hilarity was to come, with another host calling McCain a “basic bitch.” So funny. So true. Will someone pass the joint?
This is about as coherent as things ever get on the “Chapo” podcast. One recent episode, for example, had the hosts recounting a trip to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The travelogue lasted nearly a half an hour and included a trip to the National Aquarium in the latter city. The setup was long and tedious, mind you, but worth it for the following punch line: “My favorite animal was the turtle.” Take that, corporate America! There was a modestly coherent segment about a new Jennifer Garner film, which capitalizes on fears of undocumented immigrants. This went nowhere, which is where “Chapo” always goes. The episode, nearly a full hour long, culminated in the following insight: “Everything in your life gets old, after, you know, like, a long time. Like 24 months.” “Chapo Trap House” got old rather more quickly than that.
How well does this translate into a book? About as well as “Call of Duty” to classical ballet. Shorn of the podcast’s rambling, profane style, “The Chapo Guide to Revolution” is, more or less, the unedited musings of a hopelessly dim 14-year-old. Having read the introduction to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” the young revolutionary has decided — just like his libertarian counterpart plowing through “Atlas Shrugged” — that he has figured everything out. “Our case is simple,” the authors write in the introduction, the appeal to simplicity being the naïf’s timeless tell. “Capitalism, and the politics it spans, is not working for anyone under thirty who is not a sociopath. It’s not supposed to. The actual lived experience of the free market feels distinctly un-free. We’ll tell you why, and offer a vision of a new world.”
That’s ambitious. And ambition should be made of sterner stuff, or at least stuff that wasn’t cribbed directly from “Wikipedia.” As far as I can tell, no original reporting went into this book, nor any original thought. Instead, there is a lot of name-calling, most of it juvenile, all of it stale: i.e., “Barack Hussein Ahmadinejad bin Laden Obama,” “Ted ‘Chappaquiddick’ Kennedy, “Big Dick Lyndon” [Baines Johnson, presumably]. Calling President Clinton “Slick Willie,” as this book does on two occasions, is not only supremely lazy but also indicative of the fact that these bargain-basement Bolsheviks are about as edgy as Time magazine circa 1993.
Still, one expects at least a bong hit’s worth of dignity for $25 worth of what is, at least by appearance, a book. That “the downfall of the liberal era was contained in its original triumph, the New Deal,” is not only historically incorrect, but breathtakingly moronic. A presidential campaign by far-right activist Patrick Buchanan is treated as follows: “yet the old-style racial resentment at the amorphous DC establishment articulated by his campaign continued to metastasize.” I was once a high school English teacher, and have read a lot of bad writing in my time. But nothing prepared me for the horror of that sentence. Pat Buchanan deserves a lot, but he doesn’t deserve that.
To be fair, coherent thought may not be the point of the “Chapo” revolution. This is, after all, a book whose subtitle promises a diatribe against “logic, facts, and reason.” It is a book dedicated to the “brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan.” Maybe these are attempts at humor — I say maybe because they are so painfully unfunny — and the whole book a kind of extended joke played on those who still take American politics seriously. Fine. But then give me a power wash of searing irony to blast the crud off American polity, something edgy but honest, Lenny Bruce plus Richard Pryor plus Emma Goldman. Something bracing and brutal and true.
Instead, this: “‘The Matrix’ is probably the most important movie ever made.” That world-changing analysis comes at the opening of a section consisting of movie recommendations. There is also a section about books. Did you know that “Moby-Dick” is “roundly regarded as the single greatest American novel ever written”? Well, you do now. What does that have to do with revolution? To be honest, I have no clue. Ask someone without a lanyard. And is that joint ever going to come around?
The core section of the book is concerned with members of the media, many of whom are castigated in these pages for a variety of ideological and journalistic sins: Paul Krugman, Ben Smith, Andrew Sullivan, Megan McArdle and Chris Cillizza. If you live in New York or Washington, you likely know these names and have an opinion about the people to whom those names are attached. Otherwise, you might wonder why so much energy is expended in teasing out the difference between “Little Green Footballs” blogger Charles Johnson and Chuck C. Johnson, “a different piece of s*** who showed up later on.”
Media criticism, or rather media bashing, constitutes the closest thing that “Chapo” has to a philosophy. In a forum with Reddit users two months ago, Menaker acknowledged that “Chapo” is greatly beholden to “Gawker,” the media blog that was felled in 2016 after Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, successfully sued (with secret backing from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel) the website. “Gawker” was sued out of existence because it published, and refused at first to take down, a video of Bollea having sex with a friend’s wife. That, for “Chapo,” is apparently the paragon of responsible journalism. “I appreciate anyone who’s made a concerted effort to tear down the notion that one must be civil and respectful to their media betters,” Menaker said approvingly.
“Chapo Trap House” is the excessive snark of late-stage “Gawker,” when it had often ceased to be funny, combined with the earnest, conspiratorial leftism of “Democracy Now!” This is a profoundly dreadful combination, not to mention an entirely contradictory one. If you believe, as “Chapo” does, that we are a nation of “penguin-shaped dunces in Under Armour polos and khaki shorts,” how can you also believe that very same nation to be capable of a glorious socialist future?
Unless, of course, this is all just a ruse, one in which we are not audience but victim. One that asks the gullible to hand over their time and attention, in return for which they will get back nothing more than a reformulation of their own fantasies and grievances. In this too, “Chapo Trap House” is not original. Ideological differences aside, the mechanics of Chapism are identical to those of Trumpism: vitriol, dishonesty, incivility and misdirection. None of it is very original, and none of it is very smart. But maybe when you’re woke, they let you do it.
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