September 17, 2002

Review of Greg Palast's "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy"

If you read any U.S. newspaper on a regular basis, you're more than likely to get a perspective of the world that lends to believing certain things. The state of Florida did not illegally remove 57,700 voters from Florida voter rolls before the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. The International Monetary Fund did not mandate higher fuel prices in Ecuador in March 2001, spurring subsequent riots from poor Ecuadorans. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was an accident and not a predictable consequence of money saving efforts like a turned-off radar and faked safety reports.

If you believe any of these things, Greg Palast would like a word with you.

Greg Palast, investigative journalist extraordinnaire, writes for the London Observer newspaper and appears on the BBC show Newsnight. Lest you think that Palast is just some America-bashing Brit, you would be (partially) wrong. Palast is American: He was born near Los Angeles, and even studied economics at the University of Chicago(!), but he is sworn to use his powers for the forces of good. That he works in Britain doing his investigative work says something about the stenography that passes for journalism in this country.

Palast's first book is The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, published by Pluto Press. The book can be thought of as a world tour with Greg Palast, detailing his journalistic and public affairs work over the years. Palast connects the Florida state government to a company called DBT Online which purged "felons" from its databases guilty of the "crime" for being African-American, or being Hispanic or white Democrats. Palast also details the fiasco in Ecuador as only one of a number of IMF chokeholds worldwide, which the IMF carries out expecting people to riot as a result. And exposing the Valdez coverup is just part of Palast's work with Alaska's Chugach people, whose sad tale needs telling badly.

All of that is in just the first half of the book. Palast continues on, describing (among other things) when Bill and Hillary Clinton faced an emerging (real) scandal in 1998. Hillary's law partners got payments from Indonesian elites and a former client. Republicans dropped pursuing the scandal to prevent Democrats from exposing a bigger Republican scandal involving theft from a right-wing front group. Palast also chronicles his adventure with a cash-for-access scandal in Britain's Parliament, which led to Tony Blair decrying Palast by name on the Parliament floor.

These are just some of the tales of corporate malfeasance and subversions of government that fill the book. If you think that this makes for dull, bloodless reading, you would be (entirely) wrong. Despite the topic matter, Greg Palast is fantastically witty and writes in an entertaining style. Amazing as it sounds, I had fun reading this book (the passage about the Chugach notwithstanding), and I think Palast's stylistic achievement with his book is an example worth emulating. Just because there are rotten things and people in our world doesn't mean that one's writing efforts about them must be similarly rotten. And an engaging style can help one's efforts: One way to get your cause across to people--especially those who don't usually seek out depressing topic matter--is to make your work at least interesting to read. Palast scores on this point resoundingly.

Two other quick words about the book: The book does have some profanity in it -- but then so does most cable TV, and most cable TV isn't nearly half as smart as this book. Also, the book is only 199 pages long, but I found it to be a surprisingly time-consuming read, but decidedly worthwhile.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy is one of the best books money can buy. Stop reading this review right now and go get your copy.