Al Franken and Liberal Limits

In keeping with the Killing Train’s tendency to stay well behind the times, I got around to reading ‘Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them’ by Al Franken, the 2004 paperback version.

It was interesting. Funny at times. He does a good job debunking the various appalling things done by the likes of Anne Coulter and Bill O’Reilly.


In keeping with the Killing Train’s tendency to stay well behind the times, I got around to reading ‘Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them’ by Al Franken, the 2004 paperback version.

It was interesting. Funny at times. He does a good job debunking the various appalling things done by the likes of Anne Coulter and Bill O’Reilly.

And yet, it bears repeating, it is also a showcase of all the limits of liberals in the US. The argumentative posture that he takes is one that is very difficult to defend, at times. Because liberals have to spend so much time distancing themselves from a radical analysis, and then they have to defend themselves from the right-wing attacks Franken does a good job with, there’s little time to come up with much else that’s coherent.

Take, for example, page 28 – “Loving America the Al Franken Way”. He lays out his positions on various things in terms of good and bad. “Salem witch trials – bad”, “Slavery – bad”, “Land grant universities – hot, Rural electrification – hotter, Social Security – hottest”!

And so on.

But then you have the following:

“Creating democracy in postwar Germany and Japan; laying groundwork for European peace and prosperity in second half of twentieth century – right on!”

How about all the interference in the domestic politics of those countries, the rehabilitation of fascists in order to ensure that leftists of various stripes who had tremendous prestige after WWII because they had led the resistance against the fascists in so many places (see Blum’s ‘Killing Hope’ for some examples)

“Vietnam – mistake”

Not quite. Not at all, actually. In fact, it was the most deliberate, drawn out, and genocidal suppression of a movement for national independence.

“Winning Cold War – credit all around, to postwar Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Gross human rights violations in name of winning Cold War – credit all around, except to Jimmy Carter.”

Tell that bit about Carter to the East Timorese. And as to ‘winning the cold war’, the whole idea that the US won the cold war and therefore deserve to be masters of the universe is a huge ideological bulwark for imperialism. Since the Cold War was precisely about maintaining mastery over the third world, the fact that the US ‘won’ it, at the expense of the many, flawed, and diverse movements for national sovereignty and equality all over the third world, was a tragedy for humanity.

There are funny cartoons in it, good evidence and dirt about various right wing figures, but the closing chapters on Iraq are among the weakest. Franken went to Iraq to entertain the troops. He says, on page 378, “the war is costing us a billion dollars a week. And we will have to be there for years.” In keeping with his theme, he says “we” are there because “they lied” about weapons of mass destruction. But he could have gone a little farther and discussed why they lied – whose interests it was in that this lie happen. The answers have to do with control of the world and its resources, and as good as Al is on the right, and as good as he is on a lot of things (there’s a satirical bit early in the book about child labour that shows some empathy, but in a kind of a weird and not particularly solidaristic way) he doesn’t make it clear that that’s not how the world is supposed to be.

The defense of Clinton pervades the book, and includes the bombing of Yugoslavia and the omission of the mass death in Iraq from the sanctions. The defense of neoliberalism generally is implied. When he discusses Senator Paul Wellstone’s memorial in chapter 25, he discusses the negativity of the republican campaign against Wellstone (during which Wellstone died in an accident): ‘Coleman said that Wellstone “opposed any program that promised to move people from public assistance to private payrolls”. Of course, that was a scurrilous lie.’, Franken adds. By doing that he has to concede that public assistance is bad, private payrolls are good. A fair amount of space goes to discussing Clinton’s improvements to the US military, which helped the US in its (presumably good) war in Afghanistan but because of dastardly Rumsfeld’s changes to the military caused us to do less well in Iraq (where we shouldn’t have been anyway on account of the lack of weapons).

The obvious lament follows: if only liberals were more radical, they would do a better job fighting the right.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.