Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Jeff Sharlet's C-Street

I just finished Jeff Sharlet’s follow-up to The Family. I’m sitting on a plane on my way to Ireland and I just devoured about half the book. While I don’t read much fiction anymore because I find so little of it compelling, it still always amazes me when a piece of nonfiction can be as or more gripping than a novel. Perhaps its an old prejudice from younger days—kid’s nonfiction is a terrible genre—that I have not managed to erase even after years of higher education. Even years in which, possessed for a passion by various books or articles, my friends would sit long hours debating into the night or call each other excitedly to find out whether someone else had read the same passage. I remember one sleep deprived semester planning to read only the first five pages of an article by – and staying up to finish it. The same article caused two friends of mine, who had spent the night in the classics lounge working and taking brief naps to regenerate, to bound out to greet my professor, bouncing in excitement, before our 8am class. Non-fiction certainly can inspire, but my gut tells me that it usually doesn't.

I may not be jumping up-and-down—I’m pretty sure that I would get chastised by the flight attendants—but I have to say that this book not just appealed to me but it impassioned me. After 2 hours of sleep, 1 hour of airport delay, and 3 hours of flying, I’m still writing this review and that in itself should speak volumes. This book is wild.

Back in the days of the John Ensign and Mark Sanford scandals I became very interested in C-Street. I heard Jeff Sharlet speaking on the Rachel Maddow show and I instantly wanted to buy his book. What appealed to me was not the hypocrisy of a Christian movement that hid and even helped the adultery of its adherents and leaders, but that a group of prominent officials could create a fundamentalist prayer cell meant to alter the way that they did government work in a country under the first amendment.

Perhaps even more, I was intrigued because I had come up with a similar idea for a novel. I was reading some Greek texts by one of the oligarchists—Xenephon, maybe, or Heraclitus, I don’t remember—and I came up with an idea about a modern oligarchic movement. Thinking back to the political writings of Chomsky that I read when I was in high school and the takeover of the democratic system by elites who manipulated the media and electoral process for their own undemocratic ends, I considered what would happen if this idea was taken wide-scale. I thought to myself, what if a group secretly began placing a number of crypto-conservatives into powerful positions in government and companies around the world preparing for an eventual takeover and essentially conservative revolution (however much of an oxymoron that idea might e). But my idea wasn’t compelling—conservatives, at least how it exists in the United States today does not inspire the devotion for a secret brotherhood like that. Then, right on television, Jeff Sharlet articulated the missing link: fundamentalism.

The Family is a fundamentalist Christian fellowship that does precisely that—they infiltrate the highest positions in government and other powerful institutions in order to network and spread their agenda. At first, it seemed like it couldn’t be true, but after vague and evasive quotes from members of the organization, I finally realized that it was absolutely true. I read The Family last year and I really enjoyed it. The exploration of the topic was deft and provided the necessary facts while giving an objective—sometimes unnervingly so—account of the operation.

The problem, however, with The Family, is that it got bogged down. Sharlet, wanting to give the full history of this insidious institution in American politics got bogged down in the details. Too many of the founders were striking men with blond hair and blue eyes described in almost exactly the same words. While one can’t change history to make it more varied, one can attempt to couch one’s narrative differently in order to keep reader interest. While I found the book fascinating, it didn’t stick as well as I would have liked in my memory and I didn’t pursue my research farther.

One day, browsing on Amazon, I noticed that Jeff Sharlet wrote another book. I put it on my Amazon wishlist, but I didn’t pay it as much heed as I might have. I was more interested in this book because it was called C-Street and so, I assumed, it would focus on the political aspects of the movement and the way in which the C-Streeters influenced American policy. He delivered. This book is an amazing chronicle of the way in which the fundamentalist contingent—specifically the family—influence American policymaking both foreign and domestic. The group’s influence runs even deeper than I anticipated and their issues are those which now appear on the forefront of America’s social battles: abortion, women’s rights, and homosexuality.

This book is magnificently written. Sharlet divides it into chapters based on the Family’s principles and each section blends politics, history, and interview. It’s gripping. Perhaps, in some sense, I have fallen prey to what Sharlet calls the problem of the American attention span. He argues that people are much more interested in sex scandals than they are in the family’s support of genocidal regimes. It did indeed take the Ensign and Sanford cases to bring C-Street to my attention. However, I hope that I have proven myself a more worthy reader than that. I found the chapter entitled “The War” to be the most engaging and almost as terrifying as the sections on the Ugandan kill-the-gays bill and on foreign policy more generally. “The War” detailed the rise of fundamentalism in the American military. The combination of superiors using their position to indoctrinate servicemen and the anti-Semitism detailed in this chapter was absolutely shocking. You have to read it to believe it.

Ultimately, I think this book was fantastic and that everyone everywhere should read it. The idea of Christian evangelicalism using government positions and advocating on blatantly elitist principles—they refer to these people as the “up-and-out”—is something that should be investigated and brought to the forefront of the public consciousness, especially since the American taxpayer is paying for a lot of the trips during which senators attempt to evangelicalize leaders of other nations—especially the poor and corrupt—is something everyone needs to ponder. Also, the writing is concise and powerful.

I’m planning on reading The Family again. Maybe on the flight home. I think I'm going to try to sleep on this next leg of the flight.