So, I happily started reading the book as soon as it arrived in my mailbox and assumed I'd knock it out in a couple days. I read books just stupidly fast, plowing through several a week when work duties allow, and I knew this wasn't going to be a scholarly tome requiring careful notes and long pauses while I absorbed and processed the sparkling insights within. But then, I also didn't realize that I would dislike the book so intensely. Thirty or forty pages in, I had to just put the damn thing down and go back to Game of Thrones until I could gird my loins again to pick it back up and make myself finish it. Knowing my deadline was approaching, I set everything else I had to do aside for two days last week and read the rest, still hoping that by the end I would have a better opinion about it than the one I had formed in just a chapter or two.
Now ordinarily, I might just say something snarky, peppered with a lot of cursing, but I'm going to be serious (well, semi-serious) and give an honest review. With a couple caveats:
WARNING: In order to write this review, I feel it necessary to reveal a little more about my personal political beliefs than I would normally do on this particular blog Not that I am ashamed of my opinions, but this is not the place where I want to get into arguments of ideology—I do that in bed with my husband. (I'm kidding. We do it in the shower after our S&M swinger parties.) But even though my review of the book is not about the particular political beliefs of the authors, I understand that some of you may decide to "unfollow" me as a result of finding out how I vote. But just remember, if you do, you'll never get invited to one of our S&M swinger parties. (I'm kidding. We only do three-ways.)
Also, for the benefit of any readers of my main blog, The Bitchy Stitcher, I just have to note here that my daughters have recently decided to wage war on my cursing and have been offering me helpful suggestions on things that I can say instead of my usual obscenities, such as "Oh, fudge!" and "Baby Hulk smash!" (Said in a chirpy baby voice. Don't ask.) So, for the last week, we have all been referring to this book as America, You Sexy Baby Hulk Smash!
America, You Sexy Baby Hulk Smash!: A Love Letter to Freedom
by Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain
I am a liberal. A bleeding-heart liberal. A flaming liberal. But I wasn't always. In my youth, as happens to many people, I became entranced with conservative politics by way of Ayn Rand. Rand's philosophy of individualism spoke to me as a teenager because I was so helplessly odd and never able to comfortably fit in anywhere, and so it was rather gratifying to read someone who managed to turn the notion of standing apart from a crowd into an entire ethos. I remained somewhat entrenched in my conservativism until my mid- to late-twenties, when I finally started taking a look at my beliefs and holding them up to standards other than "the funny-looking little Russian woman said so." But there had been cracks in those beliefs earlier, many of them having to do with Rand's completely fucknuts ideas about women.
Besides the fact that, in Ayn Rand novels, women get raped and love it, Rand's views on women can be summed up in her view of why a woman could not be president. To paraphrase: women cannot lead men into war because they are penetrated during sex. The mechanics of sexual intercourse meant, to Rand, that women are essentially passive and submissive to men and could not, therefore, act as a national leader. It occurs to me now that poor woman probably had a really boring sex life and never got on top, ever.
I tell you all of this because, while I identify as liberal, there are still conservative streaks within me. Over the years, I have voted for what I call "Reasonable Republicans," meaning certain Republicans who have a good record on environmental issues, who work well with Democrats, who don't try to shove their Bibles down my throat. (Yes! Those actually used to exist!) But with the advent of the neo-cons and the constant pandering to the extreme right of the party, the Reasonable Republican has all but disappeared, and those who try to make a move towards the reasonable end of the spectrum are summarily shot down and fewer and fewer manage to hold onto office these days. Still, I hold out hope that the party can get its shit together and I look out for signs of reasonableness wherever they may be. And if that reasonableness can come from a woman, all the better. Now who's penetrating, Aynnie?
And this is why I wanted to read this book. I have long been intrigued by Meghan McCain, daughter of Senator John McCain, since she has positioned herself as the voice of the Young Reasonable Republican. She has spoken in favor of marriage equality and other "liberal" ideals and has openly criticized conservatives who hold too fast to the ultra-right-wing philosophy, while still maintaining core conservative beliefs about smaller government and no heath care for poor people. However, she has no credentials as a pundit other than being the daughter of a career politician. But, then again, I have no credentials as anything at all and yet I still write about all kinds of shit, so it's not like I hold that against her. On the contrary, I really, really wanted to like Meghan McCain.
Michael Ian Black is a comedian and so I assumed his sections of the book would just be snide and occasionally funny. I read his memoir, You're Not Doing it Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations, and found it snide and occasionally funny, and also honest in a way that was almost gut-wrenching. After reading it, I wasn't sure I particularly liked the man very much, but I came away with a certain respect for him as a writer. I assumed I would feel generally the same way after reading America, You Sexy Bitch.
The premise of the book is that Black and McCain met on Twitter and one of them suggested a liberal comedian/conservative pundit road trip to see "the real America" and see if they could find any common ground along the way. The book switches voice from Black to McCain and back, giving both perspectives on the events they experience together while meeting strippers in Vegas and touring post-Katrina New Orleans and hating Yakov Smirnoff in Branson, MO.
And Black was snide and occasionally funny, but at the same time he was often very thoughtful and clearly intent on trying to explain himself well. He was very willing to admit when his thinking was muddy and when his opinions were based only on personal experience or just feelings rather than fact or reasoning. At first, I was pissed off at his "liberals suck because we are snotty elites" attitude, but later I came to actually understand the various struggles he has with certain viewpoints and dogmas.
McCain, on the other hand, well...I came to understand that she holds certain opinions because she just does, dammit, and and she refuses to apologize for it, so there.
At one point, early in the book, Black and McCain get into a fight over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which she supports and he does not. She immediately gets her back up, not because his reasons are unsound or his logic specious, but because her family is military. "...My great-grandfather and grandfather were both admirals in the navy; my great-grandfather played a major role in the ending of World War II, and subsequently died of a heart attack a week after the war ended while standing drinking a glass of whiskey. My father was tortured for five and a half years in a filthy Vietnam prison. Both my brothers joined the military as teenagers. I love the military and support the men and women who fight so courageously for our country so I can be here at home and write a book with an alternative comedian who is making my blood boil with his 'give peace a chance' hippie attitude." She goes on to explain that yes, sure, the whole weapons of mass destruction thing was a big lie, but we need to ignore that because soldiers had to fight and we should support soldiers so we have to support the reasons those soldiers were sent overseas to die. To her the people who follow orders cannot be separated in thought from the people who give the orders.
What McCain is essentially saying is: "I love the military, therefore I love all wars fought by them, no matter the reason for the fighting. I don't care if the war was unjust or started under false pretenses, because anytime an American soldier fires a weapon on another country it preserves my freedom. I have no basis for saying this, I just believe it and don't understand why everyone else doesn't." When she finally resorts to the you-can't-possibly-argue-with-this-and-so-this-will-end-the-debate-right-here slogan, "Freedom doesn't come free," Black laughs. She says, "I understand that this is a simplistic way to describe something that is much larger and deeply rooted in extreme patriotism, but I don't see how anyone could be blind to the truth behind the sentiment."
Understand that it is not McCain's opinions that bother me, though I may disagree with many of them; it is her inability to push beyond her own experience and emotions in articulating why she holds them. Throughout the book, whether she is pontificating on racism or her love of country music, the essence of her opinion is This Is Just The Way I Feel And I Don't Trust Anyone Who Doesn't Feel the Same Way. Granted, she is pretty good at articulating that, but I can get that just by stopping a random person on the street and asking how they feel about any particular charged topic, including country music. Everybody holds opinions that are based on the way they were raised, or just a gut feeling, or a particular experience they had that holds meaning for them. So do I. But if I were to write a book in which I had to defend them, I wouldn't expect my gut or my biases to be enough of a defense.
I went to a small, liberal-arts college where each class was discussion-based. We had professors (whom we called tutors, as they were not supposed to "profess" anything) who helped lead and guide the discussions, but for the most part, students dissected and discussed the material themselves. Being able to debate intelligently was crucial, and it was not always easy, but we learned that in any discussion it is important to know your opinion, to be able to state it clearly, and, most important of all, to back up that opinion with evidence. If someone came along with an idea that was better and that could be proven to be sounder than yours, you had an intellectual obligation to acknowledge it and not continue to fight for your position just because it was yours. You come up with an equal or better argument, or you bow out. It was a rigorous and often exhausting education, but it taught me never to accept "I just do" as a good enough reason for believing anything, and certainly not as a means of convincing someone else to respect my opinion.
When the two get to Nashville, another argument ensues, because Black hates country music and McCain loves it. But Black takes a moment to explain that what he truly hates is modern, pop-rock country, and theorizes why this particular bland flavor of country music has become so popular. He admits freely that he likes the old-school stuff, but takes the time to explain why the newer music doesn't appeal to him. McCain loves it all, without reservation, without discernment. She just does, that's why. "There's just something about country music that speaks to me." For McCain, she either doesn't know why she loves or believes something but just does, or her love for it comes from her upbringing, and both seem to her to be equally powerful and unassailable reasons for espousing a particular belief.
Now, I have a feeling that I would really like Meghan McCain personally. Though I have little patience for women who spend too much time fussing with their makeup and shit, in general she seems like a fun person to hang out with. (Michael Ian Black, on the other hand, strikes me as the kind of person who, after being in his presence for 10 minutes, I would want to repeatedly kick in the nuts. But I'd be happy to read his version of the nut-kicking.) I just really wanted McCain to be the kind of woman who could crack wise and have a good time in Vegas with the strippers, all the while devastating the snide comedian with her systematic breakdown of his puny, half-serious arguments using unassailable logic and reason. Or I at least wanted her to try and to understand why it's important.
I realize this review does not go into much detail on the various events of the book, but honestly, you can figure it out pretty quickly. They fight; they sort of make up. They see funny things and meet interesting people. Yakov Smirnoff blows them off and gives McCain a quarter-life crisis. At the end, they know each other a little better and maybe understand each other a little better. And maybe it is only my own bias towards scrupulous reasoning or at least some good old fashioned soul-searching that makes me criticize McCain so harshly, but, that's just the way I feel, dammit.