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Liberal Pilgrim's Progress | The Nation

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Liberal Pilgrim's Progress

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Time magazine once diagnosed newspaper columnist, author, professor-at-large and Hugh Hefner sidekick Max Lerner (1902­92) as suffering from a "crush on America." Seven years after his death, Lerner's faint presence in repositories of print immortality suggests that the feeling in the other direction might have been characterized the same way, except the magic's gone.

About the Author

Carlin Romano
Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and critic at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education,...

Also by the Author

As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the
knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological
economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side

Devotees of "balanced," "objective," "fair" and "evenhanded"
nonfiction--well, they be hurtin' in these early days of the
twenty-first century. Enough, perhaps, to demand that self-help, how-to
and "wisdom of menopause" books return to dominate, as they once did,
the now separated-from-birth (and diet and crosswords) New York
Times
nonfiction bestseller list. In the
April 21 issue of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, nearly
half the top ten nonfiction bestsellers belong to a genre that
middle-of-the-road innocents might label "one-sided," "unbalanced,"
"exclusionary" or worse, though the Times's blurbs artfully avoid
the issue.

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, which manages the non-Euclidean
trick of being centrifugally one-sided, denounces us as a racist, sexist
"nation of idiots" even though we're plainly not a nation of idiots.
Whether you love Moore for blasting the "Thief-in-Chief" or adore him
for bashing Clinton and paying dues to the NRA, he's still guilty, as
Ben Fritz's stiletto review in Salon demonstrated, of being "One
Moore Stupid White Man," because "Moore gets his facts wrong again and
again, and a simple check of the sources he cites shows that lazy
research is often to blame."

David Brock's Blinded by the Right castigates the conservative
movement, which Brock recently fled, as "a radical cult" bored by ideas
and committed to a "Big Lie machine that flourished in book publishing,
on talk radio and on the Internet through the '90s." Brock insists on
that even though many conservatives believe in right-wing principles as
honestly as leftists and liberals believe in theirs. While it was lauded
by Frank Rich as "a key document," by Todd Gitlin as a book that "rings
with plausibility" and in these pages by Michael Tomasky as essential to
understanding this "fevered era," its credibility on the left seems
largely based on Brock's hawking a story the left wants to hear, just as
the right thrilled to The Real Anita Hill: that a "convulsed
emotional state," as Tomasky construes it, rather than an ideology, "is
the real binding glue among the right." Despite Brock's repeated
acknowledgments that he's been an unscrupulous, self-serving liar
throughout his life, flatterers of his book give little credit to the
possibility voiced by Slate's Timothy Noah that lying may be "a
lifelong habit" for the author. Bernard Goldberg's Bias, in turn,
offers mirror-image goods to true believers on the right: chapter and
verse on how his old employer, CBS News, and the media in general,
"distort the news" in a liberal direction, even though the media, by and
large, do not distort the news--they report it. On the strength of one
purported conversation with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, however,
and his own epiphanic experience after writing an anti-CBS Op-Ed for the
Wall Street Journal, Goldberg sounds certain that he's packing
smoking guns. No matter that he fails to clarify, in case after case,
how "bias" differs from a presumptive judgment held on the basis of
revisable evidence, or why conservative bias poses no problem within
eclectic media.

Finally, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown, another targeted killing
by the only national publishing house with the reflexes of a helicopter
gunship, leaves Jesse Jackson barely breathing as a political player.
But if fairness ruled the world of book manuscripts, this one would have
swelled to far more than 512 pages. Because while Rod Dreher of The
National Review
complimented the author for "collecting the dossier
on Jackson between two covers," a dossier in court or an academic
department typically contains both good and bad. The Washington
Post
's Keith Richburg, crediting Timmerman's "meticulous research,"
rightly noted that the author also wholly ignores "Jackson's
accomplishments," like his registration of millions of new voters.

So is Moore a direct literary descendant of Adolf Hitler, that
over-the-top idea man whose snarly diatribes grabbed Publishers
Weekly
's number-seven bestseller slot for 1939? Will self-confessed
"right-wing hit man" Brock--political sex-change operation or not--be
remembered as an heir to the legacy of Barry (Conscience of a
Conservative
) Goldwater? Should Timmerman, whose Shakedown
batters Jesse so badly his reproductive equipment may never recover, be
considered just another scion of Victor Lasky, whose ferociously
critical attack on John F. Kennedy awkwardly arrived in 1963? And what
of Goldberg, our redemption-minded spy who came in from the ill-told?
Will his Bias someday be taught in the Columbia publishing course
alongside that 1923 bestseller, Emile Coué's Self-Mastery
Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion
, whose system apparently involved
repeating to oneself, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and
better"?

Yes, Flannery O'Connor was right: "There's many a best-seller that could
have been prevented by a good teacher." Each of these polemics keeps
rolling as a big commercial success for its publisher, even though, by
any standard of evenhandedness, each practices the big lie by what it
omits. Are they skyrocketing hits because they're tantamount to "big
lies," texts unwilling to address contrary views?

Maybe we've entered an era in which publishers and readers no longer
care about two hands working at complementary tasks--about evidence and
counterevidence, arguments and counterarguments, decency toward subject
matter. One way to interpret the ascent of the Feckless Four is to
accept that literary producers and consumers think we should leave all
that to college debating societies, scholarly journals and books,
newspapers of record and the courts. That's truth territory--this is
entertainment. And could that actually be the crux of the putative
trend? The recognition, by publishers, buyers and canny trade authors
alike, that well-balanced, evenhanded, scrupulously fair nonfiction
books bore the hell out of readers, however many prizes they may win?

Perhaps, in other words, the rise of the polemic is not simply a passing
curiosity, a reaction to political correctness cutting both ways in 2002
America, but a stage of evolutionary development in a post-
eternal verities culture. Educated readers--whether right or
left--hunger for books that simply smash the opposition and make one
feel the only sensation sweeter than orgasm: the sense of being utterly,
unimpeachably right. To update an old saw by publisher William Targ, too
many people who have half a mind to write a nonfiction bestseller do so,
and that's roughly the amount of brainpower the reader desires.

It certainly feels as if we're facing an epiphenomenon of the moment, an
upshot of the electorate we saw polarized on that red and blue 2000
electoral map. And yet, over the decades one spots many precursors of
Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman (a crackerjack adversarial firm
that might cost hundreds per hour if journalists billed like lawyers).
Michael Korda's recent Making the List: A Cultural History of the
American Bestseller, 1900-99
(Barnes & Noble), suggests
that curators of American bestseller lists could have put up the neon
Onesided Books 'R' Us sign long ago. Diet books, medical guides, how-tos
and self-improvement schemes, after all, ritually command readers to do
it this way, not that way. Dale Carnegie made it to the list with How
to Win Friends and Influence People
, not How to Win Friends,
Influence People and Also Estrange a Ton of Other Folks
. Books by
political candidates advancing their platforms may not sizzle with
Moore's streety phrases or Brock's inside snitching, but they slant the
truth just the same. Similarly, the titles of leading bestsellers of the
1930s--Ernest Dimnet's What We Live By, Walter Pitkin's Life
Begins at Forty
and Walter Duranty's I Write as I
Please
--suggest unshakable points of view promised and delivered.
Even in that war-dominated decade, one sees the forerunners of today's
divided left/right list, with Mission to Moscow, which offered,
Korda writes, a "benevolent view of Joseph Stalin," coming in second on
the 1942 bestseller list, while John Roy Carlson's Under Cover,
"an expose of subversive activity in the United States," rose to number
one in 1943. Yet, Korda observes, while Americans favor books that
"explain to them what is happening," they "still want to be amused,
entertained, and improved." So when authors like Moore, Brock, Goldberg
and Timmerman bring added assets to their unbalanced texts--Moore's
over-the-line wit, Brock's salacious gossip, Goldberg's hate-the-media
vibes and Timmerman's avalanche of dirt--it's like attaching an extra
rocket to the binding.

The presence of one-sided books on bestseller lists, in short, is no
fleeting phenomenon. It's a tradition. But might their increase threaten
the culture? Not likely. Here an insight from Korda fuses with a larger
appreciation of how philosophy in the broadest sense--the way we
organize what we know into views that hang together--operates in
American culture.

Korda extrapolates from bestseller history that "American readers have
been, since the 1940s, increasingly willing to be challenged and even
attacked. They might not have been eager to accept these challenges in
person...but they were willing to buy and read books that criticized the
status quo." He cites fiction as well Laura Hobson's novel
Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with its critique of anti-Semitism,
and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which
eviscerated the "white upper-middle-class lifestyle." It's equally true
that American bestsellers from the beginning sometimes set themselves
against a prevailing yet vulnerableview. Tom Paine's Common Sense
took off and became common sense after he insulted George III and monarchy
the way Moore zaps George the Second, and, well, monarchy.

Korda's insight jibes with a larger truth. Our growing readiness not
only to tolerate but to prefer lopsided views of things arises from our
gut-level understanding that America, at the dawn of the twenty-first
century--and contrary to its clichéd cultural image--stands as
the most vibrant philosophical culture in the history of the world, an
unprecedented marketplace of truth, argument, evidence and individuated
positions on sale to any browser with a browser. Anyone with a pulse and
a laptop can access material supporting the right, the left, the up, the
down, the Israeli view, the Arab view, the Zoroastrian, the pagan, the
poly, the foundationalist, the nonfoundationalist, the libertine, the
puritanical, the environmental, the deconstructionist, the Lacanian, ad
infinitum. That reservoir of opinions, attitudes and slants lifts our
tolerance for one-sidedness into an appetite for edifying entertainment.
Because we can order or click our way to the other side of almost any
viewpoint, and can get it wholesale or retail, we forgive omissions. In
our cornucopia culture, only diners have to offer everything.

TV executives, of course, knew from early on that brash, partisan
talk-show hosts would outrate scholarly balancers every time. (The talk
show, from Alan Burke and Joe Pyne to Bill O'Reilly, has mainly been an
exercise in getting someone to scream uncle.) So, in turn, canny
commercial publishers know that supplying "the other hand" can safely be
left to the equally one-sided polemicist around the corner, or to the
culture at large (particularly if the status quo is the "position"
omitted). The nonfiction polemic, like provocative theater, demands an
interactive audience member who'll supply or obtain elsewhere whatever's
missing, up to the level of individual need. The upshot of rampant
American pluralism, if not neatly packaged truth or beauty in marketable
texts, is an unburdening of public intellectuals and trade authors from
the academic obligation to be fair, judicious and open-minded. Like
artists, they're simply expected to arouse.

It's an unholy system, all right. A typically American market solution
to our supposedly innate demand for equity in the pursuit of knowledge.
But it's ours. And the big bucks it produces for paperback and foreign
rights? Don't even ask.

Despite 6,000 columns for the New York Post, wide syndication in his prime and scores of trenchant articles for PM, The New Republic and this magazine (of which he was briefly political editor in 1938), Lerner gets no entry in Donald Paneth's Encyclopedia of American Journalism or many other reference works. Despite his fifteen books, including America as a Civilization (1957), a masterly 1,036-page study that Henry Steele Commager thought earned Lerner his "place alongside Tocqueville and Bryce," you'll find no article on Lerner in such standard sources as Eric Foner and John Garraty's The Reader's Companion to American History. (Here the entry on old rival Walter Lippmann adds insult to injury, calling Lippmann "unique among twentieth-century writers in combining a career as an editor and syndicated columnist with that of an intellectual.") Turn to "L" in the sixteenth edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and there's just one line from Lerner--Alan Jay Lerner.

Not a yield likely to make Lerner's champions break into a chorus of "My Fair Culture." Is Lerner's low profile just the routine post-mortem slump that lasts until the first acolyte turns biographer, critic or annotator? Did Lerner's autumnal frolicking at the Playboy mansion, Esalen and similar drive-throughs of California sexuality spike his chances for inclusion in the establishment pantheon? Or is Lerner's dimmed reputation du jour simply a cautionary tale for all intellectuals who succumb to the lure of slapdash journalistic commentary for big bucks--the Alsops of yesteryear, the Wills and Krauthammers of today? Lerner's current eclipse may simply indicate an inverse relationship between excessive ephemeral writing and sustained reputation.

One pleasure of Sanford Lakoff's Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land is that it makes a case for Lerner as a cultural thinker with no special pleading. Drawing on his personal familiarity with Lerner as he synthesizes Lerner's evolving thought, Lakoff, a onetime Lerner student and now a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, monitors his hybrid scholar/satyr from Minsk cradle to American grave. The accumulated detail is meant to protect Lerner--a romantic-poetry buff--from going the way of Ozymandias.

Lakoff slyly faces every literary biographer's toughest challenge--birth to early adulthood--by using an excerpt from Lerner's unpublished autobiography as Chapter One. Lerner's account of classic immigrant struggle--the twin siblings who didn't survive, the Ellis Island arrival at age 5, the humiliations of poverty as his gentle, autodidactic father moved from garment work to a milk-delivery business in Bayonne, New Jersey, and New Haven, Connecticut--goes a long way toward explaining his later outsized intellectual appetite.

More germane in assessing Lerner's importance is the evidence of his brilliance. Lakoff takes over as Lerner enters Yale in 1919, a scholarship student from a New Haven high school. Unlike many journalist/academics today who parlay media experience into teaching posts despite inferior academic credentials, Lerner began as an impressive scholar who gravitated toward the press by default. As an undergraduate, he won four prizes, three for scholarly achievement in English and German and one for the best essay on patriotism. Still, as he approached graduation, a favorite teacher delivered blunt news. "You ought to know that, as a Jew, you'll never get a teaching post in literature in any Ivy League college."

Stymied after graduation in 1923, Lerner went to Yale Law School, but stayed just a term before souring on the subject. Around that time Lerner read The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, whom he came to view as "the most considerable and creative mind America has yet produced." Fired up by the maverick economist's holistic belief that economics, psychology and the rest of life must be studied together, Lerner headed off to Washington University for a graduate fellowship in economics.

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