If it’s true that a book can be judged by the endorsements on its cover, then readers of Townie Planet – a new e-publication by New York-based journalist and author Steve Radlauer – are in for something, let us say, a little different. “A refreshing blast of contempt and outrage”, says Paul Slansky; “funny and good and harsh and scary” says Liz Dubelman; but it’s perhaps David Owen, author of The Conundrum, who encapsulates things most accurately – “What the proverbial fuck!” is his expert summation. Exactly.
The central theme of Radlauer’s polemic is, in effect, the emergence of the Tea Party – the rise to prominence and power of the small-minded and the ill-informed, the strongly opinionated and the grossly overweight. The rise of the right – not fascism or anything as obvious as that, but something much more insidious: idiocy. “It’s this,” as Radlauer puts it, “— the growing power of fucking morons, enabled and encouraged by deeply evil people with deep pockets — that makes me froth.”
And boy does he froth. After an “introductory rant” in which two alternative subtitles are posited – the eminently memorable A Meditation on the Morons who Fuck Everything Up and the even catchier People Are Fucking Morons – Radlauer goes on explain his concept of the Townie: an ever-increasing group of “unsophisticated, uncultured, uneducated, untravelled hicks, Philistines intent on dragging the rest of humanity down to their own level.”
These, he argues, are not simply confined to America, but are in evidence throughout the world – “from red-state American townies to bomb-vest-wearing Middle-Eastern townies” – and Radlauer has it in for them all. With precision and relish he lines up his targets and mows them down: bumper stickers, gun racks, sports coaches, religion, Sarah Palin… Blessed with an analyst’s eye and an acid tongue, Radlauer presents us with an archly entertaining rant in the best traditions of the polemical pamphlet – fizzingly funny, deftly outraged, and crackling with the fury of the righteous.
But there’s a problem. Just as Radlauer criticises the Townies and their demagogues for a binary us-and-them mentality, he too is dividing the world. And just as he rails against a smugness that can only stem from misplaced certainty in what is right, so, arguably, he too falls prey to the same mistake. On the surface, the problem is countered under the heading “Townies are Smug” but actually all this does is draw attention to the central difficulty: an over-developed faith in the power of progress, an outdated clinging to the values of the Enlightenment. It’s the misplaced superiority that’s bred by reality TV. The self-satisfied, armchair Scientism of the Wired reader.
“Did townies invent the internet? Or television? Or photography? Or the printing press? Did they invent the microscope or discover the tiny organisms that make us sick?” Nope, but then did you, Steve? What gives you the right to align yourself with such inventions? Tellingly, Radlauer’s examples of abstract thinkers are Einstein and Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking; progress is unquestioningly accepted as A Good Thing; and he even falls into that most tediously American of past-times – arguing about whose beliefs are closest to those of the sainted founding fathers.
And it is belief – and Radlauer’s analysis of it – that is most telling: “Belief is necessary only in relation to that which is not manifestly real,” he says, before going on to qualify this phrase, ”not manifestly real”: it is, to Radlauer, that which is “unreal. Made up. Fake. Bogus as a three-dollar bill. Why? Again: you cannot believe in something that's real. That which is real defies, or is ‘beyond’, belief.” Uh oh.
As any good etymologist knows, the origins of the word ‘manifest’ are from Latin: manus – a hand – and festus – struck. So something that is manifestly real is something so obviously real that it slaps you with its hand, probably in the face. So for Steve Radlauer, like many a materialist, sub-Dawkins, Scientism believer, anything which is not face-slappingly obvious is the subject of belief and therefore not true. By this definition, in the list of things that are “bogus as a three-dollar bill” we can probably then include, for example: quantum physics; the Big Bang; climate change; the genius of Geoffrey Chaucer; mathematics; ethics; consciousness; and, indeed, the nature of truth itself.
At a time when the very concept of progress is under sustained and thoughtful questioning, Radlauer arrives, all guns blazing, like a strange kind of throwback to a pre-Post Modern age. It’s a fascinating journey back in time – a short, insightful and blisteringly hilarious one – but it’s not, in the final analysis, massively helpful, or particularly progressive. But then that was probably never really the point.
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