There’s a fire burning in America’s basement, New York Times columnist Herbert urges in this well-chosen collection of op-ed pieces. No one’s rushing to put it out. Instead, “we’re behaving as if we cannot even smell the smoke.”
What’s wrong with America today? Well, Herbert suggests, it’s hard to put a finger on the one big prime mover; suffice it to say that even though we are the world’s sole superpower, at least for the moment, and richer than Croesus, “there is a sense of things out of whack, of the center caving, of obligations unmet and promises betrayed.” That’s the kind of thing that happens when a black man is lynched in a small Southern town, when in another small Southern town the word of a single rogue cop can put more than 10 percent of the African-American population in jail on suspicion of drug dealing. That’s the kind of thing that happens, too, when citizens are rounded up en masse, the police reasoning that they can sort out the guilty from the innocent—the same logic applied in New York City, in other words, as in Guantánamo Bay. And so on. Herbert is outraged by the countless outrages wrought by the Bush era, and though his displeasure sometimes provokes rhetorical excess—does anyone but a straw man imagine that education is really a national priority, after all?—in the main it comes wrapped in plenty of facts and figures and specifics, none of them pretty. The op-ed format, of course, doesn’t allow much room for sophisticated argumentation, seldom affording more than a few hundred words at a pop; and journalism is by its definition ephemeral, so that many of the instances that prompted these pieces will soon be forgotten. Even so, Herbert holds up better than most, and his explorations of such things as the outsourcing of American jobs and the Halliburtonization of the Iraq War, though not the final word, ought to still raise a few hackles among readers of a certain bent.
Heroes and villains, good guys and bad: white-hot dissent from a practiced pen.