Book Review: The best democracy money can buy By William Bowles

17 October 2003

The best democracy money can buy by Greg Palast, Paperback, Robinson Books, 2003 and an updated second edition.

In the grand tradition of Hunter S Thompson, Palast’s book is witty, irreverent and written from the hip, as if he’s running out of time, or out the door. I got breathless reading it.

Full of facts and as one would expect from an investigative journalist with a background working for US trade unions doing lots of research, he makes no bones about where he stands, at least as far as corruption and dirty dealings go. And he dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. It’ll take an awfully confident individual or corporation to drag Palast into court for libel or slander.

And it’s no accident that he’s not exactly loved by the corporate media, either here in the UK or in the US as much of his vitriol is squirted at the corporate press, both print and electronic for cow-towing to the ‘powers that be’ following the predictable phone call from somewhere ‘above’ to leave a particular story alone.

Assembled from a collection of articles and essays from a variety of sources including the Guardian, the Observer and the Nation as well as online publications, most notably salon.com, it’s easy to read and an excellent source book, especially for people like me and no doubt, for people like you.

In the opening chapter we learn how Jeb Bush, Dubya’s brother and governor of Florida, got the vote fixed by deleting mostly Blacks and poor whites from the voter lists (around 57,000 of them) on the grounds of having phony felony convictions or simply for being Black. Palast doesn’t actually say that Bush Jnr ordered Jeb to steal the Florida election, merely that a series of events somehow ‘conspired’ to give him the edge (Gore lost by 537 votes in Florida). But it was one hell of a coincidence.

Choicepoint, the corporation that’s gotten the contract to spy on the planet for the Bush emperium, crops up quite often in the book, especially in the Florida and 9/11 chapters. This is a company that needs a book all to itself, indeed the role of computers in maintaining the security state is an issue that is almost entirely ignored in the UK. Is it because we’re a nation of sheep that having 5 million video cameras following us everywhere, doesn’s seem to bother anyone? Paradoxically, in the US, such total surveillance would have lawsuits flying all over the place, at least for the time being…

It goes on to deal with Bush the smaller’s Saudi/Osama connections, 9/11, Carlyle, Halliburton, in fact all the ‘usual suspects’. Indeed it’s almost a diary of the last few years of life on this here planet as far as major US actions are concerned and the construction of the new imperium.

Enron and the power utiliities, globalisation and the IMF/World Bank, corporate America, the Christian rightwing and Latin American dictators and MacDonald’s are all given the Palastial treatment. There’s even a chapter or two reserved just for Tony Blah’s England and how New Labour sold the country to Enron et al.

It’s Palast’s ability to get hold of the ‘smoking gun’ that gives this book its cutting edge, especially in getting hold of documents he shouldn’t have (“they fall from the sky”) and thrusting them into the faces of the guilty, preferably with the cameras running and the sound on as they retreat in disarray and embarrassment when confronted with the evidence of their dirty dealings. And here, it’s important to mention the role of individuals and organisations such as the National Security Archives, without which Palast’s job would be a lot more difficult, if not impossible to do.

A closer look at the opening chapter on the Florida election fix will give you an idea of what I mean. It’s chock full of detail concerning how he got the information he needed to show how the process of fixing the ballot was executed, with asides on the problems he faced in getting the story out (in fact he was only successful in getting the story into the British press, where, as he points out, it didn’t really matter). Palast was able to call on the skills of database experts and analysts who could turn literally millions of records into something that makes sense to you and me.

And an as exposition of how an investigative journalist works without the resources of the corporate press behind him, it’s excellent. The core of the work on the Florida fix involved decoding arcane databases that required very specialist skills, not something your average journo possesses. Proving or disproving that there have been shenanigans may hinge on identifying the importance of a single word and then correctly interpreting it.

The book ends with an appeal to get involved, and predictably and understandably, the chapter starts out with a call to sign up to his Website and mailing list, followed by some plugs for his favourite information sources, most of which you’ll find links to on this site.

However, perhaps I’m just being a curmudgeon, but there’s something missing from this machine gun spray of words and that’s a context and history. I’m not saying the book isn’t valuable and a good read because it is, but it’s a short hand version of events. It comes across as if it’s written for people who haven’t got the time for more than the informational equivalent of a five-minute knee tremble on the way to a demo.

For aside from the motivation of sheer greed, the individuals Palast draws a bead on seem to exist in a political vacuum. And whilst I admit that on an individual level, greed as a motivation is probably all one needs to throw all scruples out the window, the system that makes it all possible is rarely included in Palast’s reportage.

This may well have to do with the fact that it’s assembled almost entirely from articles already written for the press but as an introduction to the 21st century world of corporate pirates for those who know little about them, it does (some) of the job. I hope it will inspire the reader to inquire further and dig a little deeper, beyond what a difficult job it is to be what he calls a new kind of investigative journalist and what a bunch of bastards are running the world.

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