13 August, 2012

Review: Right State by Mat Johnson and Andrea Mutti

Political commentary is hard to do correctly. I'd love to tell you that Mat Johnson has pulled it off but he falls into a familiar pitfall. There is no one human in Right State. These are puppets we've played with before. While obviously coming in from a liberal viewpoint, Johnson isn't that far from Frank Miller's recent conservative ravings. Johnson is gentler and less bigoted but still delivers a book without any relatable characters. There is no one for the reader to walk beside in  Right State. The most sympathetic character is a heavy handed stand in for a point of view. I leave Right State unsure of it's agenda. Nothing here is likely to shed light to anyone else. If you are a conservative Right State will feed your belief that liberals consider you ill educated at best and a racist head case at worst. If you are a liberal it oversimplifies the appeal of the far right political movement. There is a danger in assuming your idealogical opponent to be fundamentally different from yourself.

Ted Akers is a pundit. He speaks passionately for money without deeply believing his own words. He is rhetoric in a suit spreading a toxic point of view for profit. He is, of course, a good guy. No one ever thinks they are the problem. Right State has a strong set up here. Several far right pundits have recanted their past beliefs. Discovering you are part of the problem is not a simple journey to take. Instead of a gradual discovery of his own blindness, Akers is quickly immersed in a full fledged conspiracy. Reluctantly drafted to thwart a death threat against America's second black liberal president (no, Right State is not a futuristic thriller) Akers finds himself surrounded by extras from Deliverance. These undereducated militants consider Ted Akers a national hero.

I want to pause here to refute the easy assumption that the patriot / militia movement is made up of cult leaders and dim thinkers. The election of President Obama may have galvanized them, but it did not create them. I have known sophisticated, intelligent, articulate people who have moved deeper and deeper into these movements over the last fifteen years. To conflate an extreme far right belief with insanity is to underestimate the attraction of this movement. What the KKK was to the 1960's, they are to us today. A plot on the level that Akers is sent to unravel would not consist of one crazed cult figure and dozens of dimwitted followers. While crazed cult figures and dimwitted followers can certainly exist in any party it lessons the impact of Akers awakening to have it precipitated by such a group. It also relegates Right State into a preach-to-the-choir stance. This book will no more reach across the divide than Miller's Holy Terror. This is a shame.

Akers, of course, discovers there is more at work behind the scenes than he realized. The militants are being manipulated by forces high in the opposition party, the party Akers once defended. His disillusionment is as swift as it is brutal. For the reader, it's a bit of a yawn. How much more compelling  would Akers awakening in place have been? How much could Johnson have said about our broken system of shouting if Akers awoke after a successful plot? If the catalyst was not being tossed down the rabbit hole but awakening in Wonderland and realizing the cost? What if the revelations in Akers came from the implementation of the change he advocated for? Right State is a lost opportunity. Johnson tells the story of a man confronting the crazy fringe he inspired. It may be the tale Johnson set out to tell but it is a well worn and cliched one. The fish in this barrel have already been shot. Johnson is better than this material and I hope he takes another shot at our great divide. Right State was all wrong for me.

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