“Our president is, in fact, a draft-dodging chickenshit coward,” says expatriate investigative reporter Greg Palast on his spoken word CD, Weapon of Mass Instruction. He prefaces that statement, as he does with many similar ones, that he doesn’t want you to get the idea that he’s implying what he’s about to say, but it’s easy enough to discern where his sympathies lie. Throughout the album, he sounds just like you might expect for someone lauded by Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky and labeled by detractors as a left-wing conspiracy nut. He is provocative and engaging. He strains your credulity and makes you outraged. He tries to rile you up to take back our country from the corporate oligarchy that he sees most thoroughly embodied by the Bush family, a group he hates like nothing else on earth.
Most likely, the above paragraph will give you a firm indication whether Weapon of Mass Instruction is the kind of album that you include as part of your patchwork secular bible or burn in a public ceremony along with Janet Jackson records. It’s a shame, really, because Palast, known primarily for his work with Britain’s The Guardian, deserves both the attention and scrutiny of a mainstream audience. A native Californian, Palast has had difficulty getting his work published in America to a degree most fans of the First Amendment would rather not acknowledge. This forced him overseas, and when his work does appear in the U.S., it’s largely through solid lefty channels. Nowadays, these channels are going white hot with passion and anxiety over the prospect of having another four years with a reckless idiot with his hands on the steering wheel of the free world, and Palast is in perfect tenor with this worry. He doesn’t address the upcoming election but rather lists the abuses of Bushes I and II, connecting them to the bin Laden family, oil companies (of course), and most horrifying of all, a gold company that took over an African mine by force, shooting the resistance and burying miners alive.
These accusations should and do evoke our anger, and anyone with a passable level of intelligence knows that these kinds of things go on. For continuing to rake the muck, Palast deserves ample credit. But listening to Weapon, it’s hard not to wish that he were involved in a debate rather than just a monologue. His stories about confronting various corrupt officials like Katherine Harris make it sound like the right wing runs in fear at the sound of his name, but dissembling politicians are too easy of a target. Surely there are some conservative intellectuals who could put up a fair fight, and that’s what Weapon sorely lacks. Almost anyone who ever bothers to listen to this album is going to be ready to believe any bad thing about the Bushies, and while Pop and Dub have done more than enough to merit unsparing analysis, anyone passionate about the truth should guard the line between legitimate criticism and smarmy caricature.
Does Palast cross that line? As a mere music critic, it’s hard for me to say what is and isn’t valid about his rhetoric, and the controversy surrounding the man offers little insight, tending as it does to be comprised of simplistic shouting from both sides. The fate of Michael Moore, Palast’s fellow traveler, suggests that there may be less fire than smoke. Moore got legitimately famous recently for the mud he slung at the right wing in Stupid White Men and Bowling for Columbine, and with that fame came scrutiny unlike any he had experienced from his safely leftist fan base. The results were disheartening to any Moore fan open to hearing them. Facts that he had presented as hard and fast in his work were revealed as exaggerated, misleading, or plainly false. Palast is an investigative journalist rather than a filmmaker without real credentials, so it seems safe to assume that he is held to much higher standards than Moore, but the lesson that an audience’s standards for proof plummet when it already believes the argument still applies. Weapon of Mass Instruction contains far too much to either be totally rejected or swallowed whole. Those consuming it would be well advised to make this the starting point of their look into these issues rather than the final word.