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Book Review: Breaking the Sound Barrier by Amy Goodman

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There are the ladies on the right: Laura Ingraham, Anne Coulter. There are the ladies on the left: Rachel Maddow, Laura Flanders. Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Network's Democracy Now!, is just about as left as they come; she's the kind of liberal Rush Limbaugh loves to hate; she could be the model for his portrait of the lunatic left. Moreover, she would probably welcome his bloviating attack. There could be no better sign of a person's righteousness and basic humanity than to be the object of the Limbaugh ire.

Breaking the Sound Barrier, her latest book, is a collection of her weekly syndicated columns for King Features from 2006 through the summer of 2009. She speaks out on nearly all of the hot button issues of the period — the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immigration, illegal wiretapping. Columns are organized by topical sections ( War, Health Care, Media, etc.), and within each section they follow chronologically. You name it, if it was in the news, she has something to say about it, and it is usually something at the very least thought provoking. And more often than not it expresses a point of view and focuses on information you are not likely to find in the mainstream media, the mainstream media which she likes to castigate as the "corporate" media.

It is ironic that, flaming liberal that she is, she has as little use for the mainstream media, as the right wing zealots do. "It is," she says, "the responsibility of journalists to go where the silence is, to seek out news and people who are ignored, to accurately and clearly report on the issues — issues that the corporate, for-profit media often distort, if they cover them at all." If this is her mission, she does it well. Whether she is making a case for why minor candidates should be included in the presidential debates, or criticizing the American Psychological Association for its failure to demand that its members take no part in the government's torture programs, she expresses a point of view not often heard on the major networks or in the pages of News Corp's various organs.

Where else were you going to hear about Tim De Christopher, an economics student at the University of Utah who bid on the gas and mineral rights at a federal land auction as an act of civil disobedience? Where else would you learn about the distraught father of a marine who accidentally set himself on fire when he was told about the death of his son in Iraq? Where else would you find out that Donald Rumsfeld was living in Mount Misery, an estate formerly used to torture recalcitrant slaves and get them to behave (indeed, where else would you find it out twice)?

The problem with a book like this, however, is that too much of it seems like old news. Many of the battles she is fighting seem to be over. A good deal seems to be old news. True, many of the problems she calls attention to are endemic to the political system as we know it, but the specifics have changed. There are new concerns, new contexts, and it is too easy to use the old news to line some bird cage or wrap some fish.

The torture debate, for example, is something that has never been resolved. There are still those, like Ms. Goodman, who feel that those who authorized it should be tried and punished. There are still those who feel that it was criminal, and that the fact that we continue to ignore it is a blot on our national honor. On the other hand, I'm not sure that republishing the arguments presented a year ago that didn't seem to do the job is the best way to get it done. I guess what I'm saying is that recycling may be a good thing if you're talking about paper and glass; I'm not sure how valuable recycling is when it comes to political essays.

It would be one thing if her prose were in some sense memorable. But while there is nothing really wrong with it, it is simply the kind of pragmatic argumentation that attempts to persuade by the force of its logic, rather than the beauty of its style. It is important for what it purports to say, not for the way it says it. This is fine for the daily newspaper. This is fine for the first time. Is it really something we need to read again?

I find very little to disagree with in Breaking the Sound Barrier. I might quibble about her attitude towards Israel. I might find her analysis of Ralph Nader's effect on the election of Bush questionable; indeed I might question her attitude towards Nader in general. I might object to her misgivings about the current president, feeling that faced with significant problems, he needs to be given a chance. On the whole, however, I find that much of what she says needed to be said, and I commend her for saying it.

She is at her best when she is dealing with the specific, with the individual story, whether it be that of Major General Batiste who loses his job on CBS as a military analyst when he speaks out against the Bush war strategy, or the presentation of the rendition and torture of Mohamed Bashmilah. She is at her best defending the underdog, the voiceless, which of course is what she intends to do. She is at her best when she runs to the aid of her colleagues who are being manhandled by the police and arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota. She is at her best when standing up to the powerful with the courage of her convictions.

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About Jack Goodstein