News and Features
Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently
undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related
happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a
book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic). The
lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't
wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists,
by contrast, were near despondency. They had entered the profession
"armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an
exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the
significance of stories and the manner in which they should be
presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a
profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from
professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the
professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits"
focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient
interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned"
profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.
Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered
Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or
anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine
journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet
in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of
figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction
of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its
corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're
not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing
more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on
As much as the media like to report on themselves--I'd use the
obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation--few
observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been
transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with
more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.)
Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers
have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire
the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the
University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the
Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news;
swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless
task. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive
the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff
wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its
Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual
end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many
people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with
exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David
Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But
its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been
shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier
lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed
discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism
that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel
Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si
Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary
journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS,
under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard.
If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else
can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?
With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of
survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a
significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news
division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman,
which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could
they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the
division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is
coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their
corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving
Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public
humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the
entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.
Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of
serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with
only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning
and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The
evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as
well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors
goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local
affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds,
It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public
watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who
has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service
regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein
Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue
operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US
Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies
really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter,
Ted, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's
dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little
noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?
When I was a teenager on my first trip to Paris, I remember looking out
at the Parisians from the window of a taxi as we proceeded along some
splendid boulevard and thinking, But do these people take themselves
seriously, really? They're not Americans, after all. Sorry. It's true,
though embarrassing. I felt sorry for them because they weren't us. I
needed a reality check, which the French were only too happy to provide.
They soon taught me how superior to us, and to me, they were in every
way, especially intellectually and in matters of literature, fashion,
proper cigarette inhalation and the application of maquillage.
Well, let that pass. Now Granta has published the greater part of
an issue (Spring 2002) devoted to Their perceptions of Us, called "What
We Think of America." Interestingly, the writer who is possibly the most
violently anti-American in the collection, or who admits to the most
violently anti-American feeling, is not French, or Arab, but Latin
American. Ariel Dorfman, the US-born Chilean writer, tells about the
time he watched an American toddler tumble into a swimming pool at a
resort in the Andes and carefully measured what his own reaction might
be--after all, the kid had been behaving badly (loud, blond, white,
Anglophone, whining, stupid, spoiled, exploitive, rapacious,
intervening, assassinating legitimate heads of state, financing coups,
training torturers... oops... but really, you catch Dorfman's drift). In
the end, though, he did dive in after the brat.
There is the gentler French person, badboy Benoît Duteurtre,
author most recently of the novel Le Voyage en France, which won
the 2001 Médici prize. Duteurtre criticizes Europe for
proclaiming a high ground in human rights from which to criticize the
Americans, as if, he says, to disguise from itself that it belongs to
exactly the same world and is mired in identical contradictions. He
makes fun of the way the French use the word Disneyland (pronounced
Deez-nee-lahhhhnd) to refer to the entire American polity.
President Jacques Chirac--that unsuccessful chameleon--comes in for a
smacking, too. In Chirac's speech after September 11, Duteurtre writes,
"I heard the inferiority complex of a Europe deprived of its role as
world leader...but still quick to judge good and evil."
The effect of Granta's roundup is shockingly human: Here are no,
or few, diatribes, and much affection--through tears--from Arab and
Muslim contributors. A piece that perhaps explains well what led to
September 11 (which I take to be the ostensible reason for
Granta's package) is Pankaj Mishra's "Jihadis," a beautiful,
brilliantly observed essay about Pakistan (by an Indian!) and its
troubled identity, as well as about the US and Pakistani governments'
growth and nurturing of the jihad movement. Gives you an idea, too, of
the level of corruption that made the initially pure-minded Taliban
This, to me, is the best issue of any magazine trying to explain
September 11. There is also Ziauddin Sardar's "Mecca," both funny and
instructive about the rituals of the hajj and of Saudi society in
general. Don't forget to appreciate the photo essay on Afghanistan by
Thomas Dworzak: It captures the dust, the mud, the turbans, the
mountains, as well as Northern Alliance soccer, burqa ladies buying
their liberation pop-music cassettes and the eerie ruins of eternal
Kabul, after the attacks.
Out on the Links
Sometimes, the problem with online magazines like The Black
Commentator (www.blackcommentator.com) can be the links. For
example, in the inaugural (April 2002) issue, there's a very persuasive
piece on the much-discussed Cory Booker, running for mayor of Newark in
the Democratic primary against the picaresque Sharpe James. Booker,
another dang Rhodes scholar, seems to pride himself on adopting some of
the meretricious conservative bent of Bill Clinton. The TBC piece
attacks Booker for his support of school vouchers and goes on to map out
in great detail the web of conservative groups that have supported the
Booker movement in Newark--not a pretty picture. It argues that Booker
is another pawn in the right's effort to develop African-American
politicians it can work with and manipulate.
The piece has no byline. But at the end, it has a feature possibly more
meaningful than a byline: "sources that contributed to this commentary,"
followed by a series of hyperlinks to information both pro- and
anti-Booker. In his speech at the Manhattan Institute, you can
hear--behind Booker's pro-voucher position--not only the clink of money
and financial backing and the Evil White Rich Men Who Run The World but
also the will of a black electorate with whom Booker, having lived in
Newark's projects and spent month after month on a notorious
never-cleaned-up corner in Newark's drug-dealing inner city, is not
unfamiliar. The problem with TBC is its paranoid style: I'd like
to see it address the question of why there seems to be a drift among
African-American voters toward conservatism--something that doesn't just
tell me the new black pols are being paid for it but that considers the
electorate as well, considers Booker's supporters: what they think of
people like Colin Powell or the improbably named Condoleezza Rice, or of
Cory Booker, who's no idiot. Don't some black families hold these
successful conservative types up as examples to their sons and
daughters, or is that just too Cosbyfied?
Al-Ahram Weekly, a venerable English-language publication based in Cairo
another paper that for themoment is focusing on an oppressed people--in
this case, the Palestinians. Al-Ahram is a useful corrective for
my formerly peace-leaning Jewish friends who feel that the US media,
especially the New York Times and CNN, are increasingly biased
against Israel. It's a real source for uncovered news about what's
happening in the territories, with much less of the myth-making and
demonizing that characterize so much of the Palestinian stuff coming out
of the West Bank over the Internet in these impossible times. Much less
paranoia here but, still, a painful and useful reality check.
In an end-of-the-year column devoted to "Politics and Prose," Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, asserted that there had been a "new gravity" and "sobriety" to American journalism since September 11. Literary responses had failed, he argued, to process the event, notably in a commemorative issue of The New Yorker in which the writing had been "excessive, even grotesque when applied to mass carnage in downtown New York."
Beinart declared it was now the era of the essay--"non-reported, non-narrative, political or historical analysis"--and "the sombre profile of a person in power"--stripped of excessive description, wanton psychoanalysis and "edge" but not of dutiful and accurate quotation. "American journalism, after a long while on the sidelines," he rallied, was "back in the game."
It was a shaky argument, one some editor of The New Republic (a magazine that confuses an antiliterary style of journalism with an anti-indulgent outlook as a matter of policy) was bound to try to make sometime.
Let's face it, the new Hunter S. Thompson won't ever be found in its Puritan liberal pages, though the journalism of a New Yorker writer like Jonathan Franzen just might be, albeit a soberer, straighter version. Franzen himself exhibits too minute a panic in his work, too much of an "edge" (see his novel of last year, The Corrections), is simply too much like a literary forefather such as Joseph Heller (Catch-22 and, more important for Franzen, Something Happened) to make any editor at The New Republic feel he had a grip on the world. And what is The New Republic--or any news and culture magazine--about if it isn't grip, skeptical firmness, analytical rectitude?
Ever since the 1960s and the advent of New Journalism--subjective and, yes, "literary" in its aspirations, distinguished by figures like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy, Joan Didion--there has been an ongoing and necessary argument in favor of old-school values like objectivity, plain writing and reporting craft. Beinart's analysis of the American print media today is just the latest salvo, objectively put of course, saying out with "the New" and in with the old. It's part of a larger debate about consciousness and language, and how best to represent the state of the nation in both journalism and fiction in ways that reassure Americans their world can be secured, defined, reinforced.
Ironically, the tag New Journalism has been a misnomer from the beginning, implying--all the more alongside the revolutionary context of the 1960s that birthed it--a rejection of past values and a blind dive into the postpsychedelic waters of contemporary reality. It also denies the historical significance of figures like George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Joseph Mitchell and Damon Runyon, who created openings in journalistic convention, idiosyncrasies that demonstrate that "New Journalism" had been around for the best part of the century--if a writer had the gift and the license to explore the possibilities. For that matter, is it so far from Walt Whitman's 1882 diary of the Civil War in Specimen Days, to Michael Herr's scattershot report on Vietnam, Dispatches?
Many writers disliked the term New Journalism for these very reasons, preferring less-catchy descriptions like "Immersion Journalism" to describe the intense amounts of research and closeness to one's subject matter required to make such subjective reporting great and accurate storytelling; or "Literary Journalism" because of the undisguised desire to apply the techniques of fiction to a retelling of factual events and conversations.
One of the most notorious indicators of the style was the use of interior monologue, even pure streams of consciousness in groundbreaking pieces like Gay Talese's "The Loser," a brilliant profile of boxer Floyd Patterson (Esquire, 1964) and Tom Wolfe's "The First Tycoon of Teen" (New York, 1965) a feature story on the recording mogul Phil Spector. How absurd, these voices from inside their heads! Wolfe's rhetorical answer to the critics was a slap in the face: "How could a journalist, writing nonfiction, accurately penetrate the thoughts of another person? The answer proved to be marvelously simple: interview him about his thoughts and emotions."
A radical and disciplined art, New Journalism presented a cinematic and psychological rupture with the prevailing journalistic approaches, using dialogue, scenes, thoughts in a dramatic reconstruction of events and interview material. But it still depended on the old verities: solid research, thorough interviewing, good writing (albeit more jazzy in tone and form) and diligent fact-checking. It was an extension of the possibilities, not a denial or negation of what had happened before.
Not content to disturb the print media, New Journalists started shaking up the literary world by producing "narrative non-fiction" bestsellers that caught the times better than any novelist seemed capable of: Capote's masterful and groundbreaking insight into murder and America's pathological underbelly, In Cold Blood (1965); Didion's neurotic essays on her pale sense of selfhood amid West Coast cultural decadence, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); Mailer's rambunctious, egomaniacal coverage of an anti-Vietnam War protest march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night (1968).
Books like Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973), Herr's Dispatches (1977), Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979) and Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1979) were among a slather of later releases that proved the phenomenon was not going away--from magazine and newspaper journalism or the bestseller lists. In a twist of fate, Mikal Gilmore, the brother of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer's subject in the capital punishment "thriller" The Executioner's Song, would go on to become one of the few decent writers of the 1990s operating within what could be called the New Journalist tradition, producing a superb book on his brother as well as some excellent writing for Rolling Stone.
Something sick, though, has been happening since the 1960s and '70s heyday of such writers and books. News as non-stop entertainment, the journalist as B-grade personality, a long, slow, moronic nose dive into excess on a scale difficult to imagine back then.
Beinart is right to attack a media consumed today by "lifestyle writing," the bastard child of New Journalism, and a puffed-up aesthetic attitude lacking the flair and depth of earlier, greater writers. Rather than simply attack an excess of style, though, and perhaps a poverty of generational talent, I'd locate the current malaise in the format-driven glibness that is smothering the oxygen of intelligence--not to mention true journalistic creativity--out of magazines and newspapers today.
As serious print media have attempted to go "lighter" and chase readers in the past decade, circulation figures have dropped, even plummeted. This is a worldwide crisis for up-market magazines and newspapers, dimly explained with arguments (not entirely believed, even by those proposing them) that people are getting more information from the Internet or that the educated reader is disappearing. The truth, more awfully, is that readers of all stripes are disillusioned with what's available. Editors and publishers don't seem to know what to do about that except to go further down-market to anything dumber, faster and glitzier, pursuing that fragmenting audience, that shrinking attention span.
Unfortunately, the old formulas aren't functioning anymore in this fractured, increasingly unstable--some might even say dystopic--market. Thus the argument for "sections" and targeted bites of information neatly accompanied by highly supportive advertising. Even if it's meaningless and no one reads it, at least it turns a profit.
If the New Journalist was merely an "impresario" of stories, as the critic Michael Arlen caustically observed in 1972, today's news feature is altogether more miserable, niche-marketed directly to you without need of any bigger and possibly destabilizing voice. The impresarios are mostly gone; now only the product exists, its sheen undisturbed.
Market conditions of the industry aside, there is something deeply conservative beneath Beinart's analysis, a view that spells trouble for the future of modern journalism and where it might go in the United States today--and therefore the world at large. Certainly Beinart's reactionary spirit is in tune with the nation's siege mentality and a chauvinism that encourages the closing not just of borders but of the state of the American mind. There is a feeling that the unexpected, the elusive, manifest in the form of volatile individuals and their creativity, are not legitimate concerns and activities for American voices in an era of uncertainty and instability.
This affects both the media and literature as the struggle for "representation" in American life takes on a deeply political dimension in terms of the language that should be used. It is not just a matter of what is debated, interpreted, depicted--but how that debate should be carried out, the implication being that the wrong words themselves betray the state. There has been an across-the-board conservative intellectual push in the United States for some time now, making an argument for a return to literary order in fiction. B.R. Myers's controversial essay, "A Reader's Manifesto," in The Atlantic Monthly last summer, struck similar notes to Beinart's more recent aria, attacking the wordy pretensions and metaphoric excesses of contemporary American fiction writers like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx. Subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose," the essay denounced evil postmodernists, showoffs and "pansified intellectuals" who had undermined good language and sound thinking across the nation. What Myers demanded was "a reorientation towards tradition."
In one of many trainspotting examples he berated Proulx for some "characteristic prose" where she thanked her children at the end of Close Range (1999) for putting up with her "strangled, work-driven ways." According to Myers this phrase made "no sense on any level." When a reader wrote in to complain that it was "an implied metaphor and hardly difficult to understand," Myers stuck to his guns, returning to the dictionary and rules of grammar to justify himself. Fortunately for us, language moves--and is received--poetically and intuitively, even if Myers doesn't want to admit it.
However, he did finger a crucial distraction from the building of the modern American novel and how it is reviewed, even sanctified today. He called this "the sentence cult," those who adore wonderful phrases and patches of writing that finally do not add up to a fully felt, organically "alive" book worth reading, let alone relating to deeply. On this point of literary fragmentation, a collapse away from storytelling and character, a collapse of identification and therefore identity, he may well be right. As to whether such a collapse makes the literature inherently bad--well, that's another thing altogether.
This debate about the state of the American novel has been going on for years. Indeed, American literature regularly convulses to such landmark essays--and the need to write them--a battle for intellectual territory that should not be underestimated. The reverberations of these opinion pieces among cultural elites carry through as manifestoes for the times and exert enormous influence in publishing houses and the media. They should also be understood as beachheads for the highbrow magazines presenting them: in this case the long-running desire of the Atlantic to overtake Harper's as the defining literary and intellectual periodical of the day, a desire underlined by its drift toward political and aesthetic conservatism. The Atlantic is ready for the Bush era, righteous, satisfied and a little smug, just as Harper's might be seen as aristocratically Clintonian, progressive to the point of dilettantism and somehow out of step with the narrowing contemporary mood.
Myers's essay is an attempt to supersede an argument put forth by Franzen in Harper's in 1996, in a piece titled "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images a Reason to Write Novels." In that essay, Franzen wrote of his own "despair about the American novel." His conclusions, and hopes, however, were somewhat different from those of Myers.
Of the social novel Franzen wrote: "I didn't know that Philip Roth, twenty years earlier, had already performed the autopsy, describing 'American reality' as a thing that stupefies...sickens...infuriates, and finally...is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents." His despair for the state of the American novel was born out of the 1991Gulf War and "a winter when every house in the nation was haunted by the ghostly telepresences of Peter Arnett in Baghdad and Tom Brokaw in Saudi Arabia--a winter when the inhabitants of those houses seemed less like individuals than a collective algorithm for the conversion of media jingoism into an 89 percent approval rating."
Questioning the difficulties of social realism in the age of electronic media, and arguing that TV could represent reality better than any novel could, Franzen pined for the days when a book like Catch-22 had a huge social impact, raising questions about society to such a level that its title became part of the common vocabulary, entering itself in the dictionary (a thought that must give B.R. Myers a sleepless night or two).
What Franzen saw in Heller's black and absurdist work was less of a need to find legitimacy in a realistically detailed social novel of the present à la Dickens, but instead to write a novel that socially engaged, quite a different--if not unrelated--thing. It was this thinking that guided him in writing The Corrections, with its vaguely hallucinogenic, forensically detailed portrait of American family life, and the struggle of its characters to remain human amid the blizzard of consumer alienation. Despite the rave reviews and bestseller status, it is perhaps a little early yet to know if Franzen has succeeded in his project of engagement; but there is no doubt he has struck a nerve.
None too surprisingly, The New Republic took Franzen to task for his epic yet atomized scope. Observing the influence of the novelist Don DeLillo on the younger Franzen, the critic James Wood made a piercing summation of the senior writer's impact on The Corrections: "The DeLillo notion of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry, has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die." Noting that Franzen imagined "a correction of DeLillo in favor of the human," Wood went on to say that this was "more than welcome, it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things--the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons!--but do not know a single human being."
It's clear that Wood--one of America's finest literary critics--finally favors something of Franzen's humanity but resents the occult unease beneath DeLillo's crowded linguistic responses to consumer capitalism and how he applies that language to create a surreptitious and infecting despair, a deep, flamboyant coldness. There is also a vague feeling from Wood that DeLillo is somehow evil, a monster of hidden tones, corrupting America from within. He is certainly appalled by a DeLillo essay that appeared in the New York Times, "The Power of History," wherein the novelist declared, "At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition, and awe. Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history."
How strange those words from 1997 read now, post-September 11. In the buildup to this statement DeLillo had defined the modern novelist as a radical and an outsider to all systems: political, social, linguistic. "Fiction will always examine the small anonymous corners of human experience," he wrote.
But there is also the magnetic force of public events and the people behind them. There is something in the novel itself, its size, its openness to strong social themes that suggests a matching of odd-couple appetites--the solitary writer and the public figure at the teeming center of events. The writer wants to see inside the human works, down to dreams and routine rambling thoughts, in order to locate the neural strands that link him to men and women who shape history. Genius, ruthlessness, military mastery, eloquent self-sacrifice--the coin of actual seething lives.
Against the force of history, so powerful, visible and real, the novelist poses the idiosyncratic self. Here it is, sly, mazed, mercurial, scared half-crazy. It is also free and undivided, the only thing that can match the enormous dimensions of social reality.
This is a nihilistic view, divorcing itself from history's involving tug or becoming perhaps a perversion of it. DeLillo might argue that such perversions are simply the logical result of a "social individual" in the Information Age. A kind of endgame--alienated, yes, but lit with negative protest nonetheless.
Franzen identified this problem similarly in his "Perchance to Dream" essay as the way "privacy is exactly what the American Century has tended toward. First there was mass suburbanization, then the perfection of at-home entertainment, and finally the creation of virtual communities whose most striking feature is that interaction within them is entirely optional--terminable the instant the experience ceases to gratify the user."
The collapse of the myth of the Internet as a democratizing force in news and information, as a glue for a new public consciousness, is part of this great feeling of disaffection and disconnection. While it remains a counterculture organizing ground for assorted global protest groups, it is not quite the democratic free-for-all it was once hoped to be. Meanwhile, clichés like "the New New Journalism" and "the Way New Journalism," which try to give countercultural weight to new forms of Internet journalism, have fallen fast to the reality that major news corporations are maintaining their centrality and indeed expanding it, seeking international print and electronic monopolies over freelance writers in a manner that all but strangles them out of the mainstream system. Add to this a babble of impotent, even crazed voices, and you have confusion, not liberty, shouting to be heard outside the corporate gates.
Where New Journalism once challenged a homogeneity of opinion, even one of its most extreme practitioners, Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of "Gonzo," finds a heterogeneity on the Net so repulsive he can't bear it. As he put it, "There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can't really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but at least there is some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it's becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything's acceptable as long as it's interesting."
The language of the Net itself is affecting new books and the audiences who might be reading them. Figures like Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are also partly a literary byproduct of chat rooms and websites, and use an eclipsed language more heady and conversational at once, and therefore "young." Overall, though, one senses an impatience at root in Net culture, a desperation for sensation and the moment that does not feed itself into writing or reading books. In that regard the seething quality of the public consciousness, its near-madness, is really what the Net comes to represent--and with it a deep loneliness, a frenzy masked as social activity. Novelists like DeLillo, Franzen, Eggers, David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody order that sea of thought, but also manifest its rabidity and pointless depths, indexing it to the furies and absurdities of consumer culture. To steal a line from Marshall McLuhan, "Some like it cold."
A critic like Wood finds this sprawling ambition depressing. You might recall his lament that "It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.... This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist's quarries anymore." It could be argued that just when New Journalism was pushing its way into literature's representational culture, the more talented novelists were moving out to the fringes of consciousness, to places "nonfiction narrative" could not reach. So much so that Tom Wolfe himself eventually berated modern American novelists for their abstractions and lack of research in his own essay manifesto, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." Wolfe espoused a return to the qualities of naturalism, citing Emile Zola and, of course, the importance of the "novelist as reporter." (Since Wolfe had recently written The Bonfire of the Vanities, his screed was seen in many quarters as bald self-promotion.)
Wolfe's views are not so far away from those of B.R. Myers. Wolfe's zippy writing style may have sung with pop culture verve, but he has always been a conservative at heart, as his rigid championing of realism, or "documentation," as he prefers to call it, shows. Aside from a stoush with Mailer over A Man in Full, Wolfe has also argued with John Updike and John Irving, the latter describing all of Wolfe's novels as nothing but "yak" and "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction." Wolfe responded to them all in an essay called "My Three Stooges" (it can be found in his latest collection, Hooking Up), accusing Mailer, Updike and Irving of having "wasted their careers by not engaging in the life around them...turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history."
In Wolfe's final opinion, the American social novel is suffering not from "obsolescence" but from "anorexia." For all its force of actuality, though, Franzen's sickened density in The Corrections is quite a different creature from Wolfe's idea of what a social novel should be. It doesn't just observe or document; it palpitates, realistically, with the surreal excess Wolfe once identified as an indulgence. And in a strange way, perhaps, it softens the blows of DeLillo, tries to put us back together again without hiding the cracks.
Now, however, a new era of unvarnished reporting and the dogmatism of style that underlies it appears to be dawning. September 11 is fuel to this conservative fire. The world has become so unsteady, the argument runs, that we have to get back to our roots, find the lines that moor us safely to what and where we are. Plasticity of language, tangential and subjective reporting, work that emphasizes a fractured or restless view of the world--these must be stopped. Examples abound.
There can be little argument that September 11 has sent everyone into the spin of re-evaluation. But writers have always had to wrestle with such extreme moments, monstrous acts that threaten to annihilate us, spiritually if not actually. Where is the sense in it? How do we become human again, rather than vengeful, blind with loss or hate? One danger for literary journalism, of course, is that it threatens to aestheticize the experience of an event like September 11. The same may well be true of writing about Hiroshima, the Holocaust, even something as basic as a brutal, anonymous murder. Straight journalism must negotiate the obverse dangers, the tendency to reduce everything to the details, an impartiality that becomes desensitizing and objective to the point of emotional irrelevance.
The proof of value must finally lie within the words themselves. And for all of Beinart's criticisms of unnecessary poetics and dubious metaphors, the literary fraternity and journalists of literary inclination still gave us much to be grateful for. What that may mean in terms of novels and a broader state of mind to come is still too early to tell; but his and Myers's demand for a retreat from the frontiers of ambiguity, from wordplay and a tensile language that the likes of Don DeLillo tease into something conscious and unsettling within us is, well, a backward step. It may be awful to say it, but the obsession with information that underlies the work of DeLillo, Franzen and others could still be capturing the real and enduring trauma for society, way beyond the immediate horror of September 11 and its psychic impact.
I have to note that the English novelist Ian McEwan's dark and cool eloquence in The Guardian--his interrogation of the images and our action-replay absorption in them, our nauseating lust for news--was of the first order, as both literary essay and as a moral inquiry between self and the society of spectacle. Factual journalism alone can't easily create that kind of recognition. In Vanity Fair, the novelist Toni Morrison's address to the dead was the finest elegy I read from anyone, anywhere, with her bruising admission of "nothing to give...except this gesture, this thread between your humanity and mine." Yes, facts can make us grieve, too, but there are times when we also need the obscure magic of poetry to heal us.
Even the issue of The New Yorker so maligned by Beinart was filled with great literary journalism. The one exception to the form was an essay--nonreported, nonnarrative, political, historical, analytical--by Susan Sontag, a piece strangely overlooked by Beinart in his comments, given the new aesthetic world order he perceives. Sontag questioned the proposition of national innocence, and how that outlook refuses some of the baggage--some of the baggage--of responsibility America has to bear for its foreign policy. It was easier to misunderstand, simplify and demonize her arguments than to take on board the questions she was asking, even the sober ones.
September 11 did do something to the imagination, did go beyond words. It was a profound blow to the spirit. In all the realms of journalism and analysis since then, some have spoken well, some haven't. Some, most interesting of all, have evoked confusion and mixed feelings, and longed for the light of understanding. The clamor to speak has itself become a problem, a moral dilemma that reflects the media's sickening habit of overproduction, its sheer commerciality.
After any death, any tragedy, there is an inevitable level of sobriety and reserve, yes. If that leads to better journalism, better writing, better books, how wonderful for us all. But the argument that literary responses and literary journalism are somehow not up to the task, that reflection and rebuilding the public consciousness should be left to the practitioners of conventional bricks-and-mortar journalism and old-fashioned storytellers who know their rules of grammar, is far from convincing. To do the job fully we need a little soul and poetry, a little shaking up too. Literary journalism and great, radically written novels are more than able to fill that gap. And perhaps raise a few questions as well in that world between the imagined and the real where nightmares--and dreams--are born.
A friend and I were sitting around commiserating about the things that get to us: unloading small indignities, comparing thorns. "So there I was," she said, "sitting on the bus and this man across the aisle starts waving a copy of law professor Randall Kennedy's new book Nigger. He's got this mean-looking face with little raisiny eyes, and a pointy head, and he's taking this book in and out of his backpack. He's not reading it, mind you. He's just flashing it at black people."
"Don't be so touchy," I responded. "Professor Kennedy says that the N-word is just another word for 'pal' these days. So your guy was probably one of those muted souls you hear about on Fox cable, one of the ones who's been totally silenced by too much political correctness. I'd assume he was just trying to sign 'Have a nice day.'"
"Maybe so," she said, digging through her purse and pulling out a copy of Michael Moore's bestselling Stupid White Men. "But if I see him again, I'm armed with a 'nice day' of my own."
"That's not nice," I tell her. "Besides, I've decided to get in on the publishing boom myself. My next book will be called Penis. I had been going to title it Civil Claims That Shaped the Evidentiary History of Primogeniture: Paternity and Inheritance Rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence, 1883-1956, but somehow Penis seems so much more concise. We lawyers love concision."
She raised one eyebrow. "And the mere fact that hordes of sweaty-palmed adolescents might line up to sneak home a copy, or that Howard Stern would pant over it all the way to the top of the bestseller list, or that college kids would make it the one book they take on spring break----"
"...is the last thing on my mind," I assured her. "Really, I'm just trying to engage in a scholarly debate about some of the more nuanced aspects of statutory interpretation under Rule 861, subsection (c), paragraph 2... And besides, now that South Park has made the word so much a part of popular culture, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. When I hear young people singing lyrics that use the P-word, I just hum along. After all, there are no bad words, just ungood hermeneutics."
"No wonder Oprah canceled her book club," she muttered.
Seriously. We do seem to have entered a weird season in which the exercise of First Amendment rights has become a kind of XXX-treme Sport, with people taking the concept of free speech for an Olympic workout, as though to build up that constitutional muscle. People speak not just freely but wantonly, thoughtlessly, mainlined from their hormones. We live in a minefield of scorched-earth, who-me-a-diplomat?, let's-see-if-this-hurts words. As my young son twirls the radio dial in search of whatever pop music his friends are listening to, it is less the lyrics that alarm me than the disc jockeys, all of whom speak as though they were crashing cars. It makes me very grateful to have been part of the "love generation," because for today's youth, the spoken word seems governed by people from whom sticks and stones had to be wrested when they were children--truly unpleasant people who've spent years perfecting their remaining weapon: the words that can supposedly never hurt you.
The flight from the imagined horrors of political correctness seems to have overtaken common sense. Or is it possible that we have come perilously close to a state where hate speech is the common sense? In a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recently, a black man was surrounded by a group of white patrons and taunted with a series of escalatingly hostile racial epithets. The bartender refused to intervene despite being begged to do something by a white friend of the man. The taunting continued until the black man tried to leave, whereupon the crowd followed him outside and beat him severely. In Los Angeles, the head of the police commission publicly called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a "bitch"--to the glee of Log Cabin Republicans, who published an editorial gloating about how good it felt to hear him say that. And in San Jose, California, a judge allowed a white high school student to escape punishment after the student, angry at an African-American teacher who had suspended his best friend, scrawled "Thanks, Nigga" on a school wall. The judge was swayed by an argument that "nigga" is not the same as "nigger" but rather an inoffensive rap music term of endearment common among soul brothers.
Frankly, if Harvard president Lawrence Summers is going to be calling professors to account for generating controversy not befitting that venerable institution, the disingenuous Professor Kennedy would be my first choice. Kennedy's argument that the word "nigger" has lost its sting because black entertainers like Eddie Murphy have popularized it, either dehistoricizes the word to a boneheaded extent or ignores the basic capaciousness of all language. The dictionary is filled with words that have multiple meanings, depending on context. "Obsession" is "the perfume," but it can also be the basis for a harassment suit. Nigger, The Book, is an appeal to pure sensation. It's fine to recognize that ironic reversals of meaning are invaluable survival tools. But what's selling this book is not the hail-fellow-well-met banality of "nigger" but rather the ongoing liveliness of its negativity: It hits in the gut, catches the eye, knots the stomach, jerks the knee, grabs the arm. Kennedy milks this phenomenon only to ask with an entirely straight face: "So what's the big deal?"
The New Yorker recently featured a cartoon by Art Spiegelman that captures my concern: A young skinhead furtively spray-paints a swastika on a wall. In the last panel, someone has put the wall up in a museum and the skinhead is shown sipping champagne with glittery fashionistas and art critics. I do not doubt that hateful or shocking speech can be "mainstreamed" through overuse; I am alarmed that we want to. But my greater concern is whether this gratuitous nonsense should be the most visible test of political speech in an era when government officials tell us to watch our words--even words spoken in confidence to one's lawyer--and leave us to sort out precisely what that means.
Here we are, twenty years on, and the reports of the Israeli army smashing its way through Palestinian towns remind me of what came out of Lebanon as Sharon and his invading army raced north. Israeli troops beating, looting, destroying; Palestinians huddled in refugee camps, waiting for the killers to come.
But there is a huge difference. Twenty years ago, at least for people living here in the United States, it was harder, though far from impossible, to get firsthand accounts of what was going on. You had to run out to find foreign newspapers, or have them laboriously telexed from London or Paris. Reporting in the mainstream corporate press was horrifyingly tilted, putting the best face on Israeli deeds. Mostly, it still is. But the attempted news blackout by the Sharon government and the Israeli military simply isn't working.
Here's Aviv Lavie, writing in Ha'aretz on April 2:
A journey through the TV and radio channels and the pages of the newspapers exposes a huge and embarrassing gap between what is reported to us and what is seen, heard, and read in the world.... On Arab TV stations (though not only them) one could see Israeli soldiers taking over hospitals, breaking equipment, damaging medicines, and locking doctors away from their patients. Foreign television networks all over the world have shown the images of five Palestinians from the National Security forces, shot in the head from close range.... The entire world has seen wounded people in the streets, heard reports of how the IDF prevents ambulances from reaching the wounded for treatment.
As always, there are the courageous witnesses. These days we have the enormously brave young people in the International Solidarity Movement sending daily communications back to the United States that flash their way round the Internet and even translate into important interviews in the mainstream media.
Meet a few of them. Here's Jordan Flaherty, filing this account on Indymedia:
Last night the Israeli Military tried to kill me. I'm staying in the Al Azzeh refugee camp, in Bethlehem, along with about twenty other international civilians. We're here to act as human shields.... On the hill above the camp is an Israeli military sniper's post. To get where we were staying in the village, most of us had to cross this street. It was a quick, low, dash across the street. As I ran, the sniper fired.... The shots began as I came into view, and stopped shortly after I made it to the other side. They were clearly aimed at me. And, by the sound of them, they were close. All night long, there was the sound of gun shots, as the military shot into our village. We stayed clear of the windows.... The guns and bullets were, no doubt, paid for by my tax dollars. Which is, of course, why we are here.
Or Tzaporah Ryter, filing this on Electronic Intifada:
I am an American student from the University of Minnesota. I currently am in Ramallah. We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers.... On Thursday afternoon, the Israeli army began sealing off each entrance to Ramallah.... Those traveling in began desperately searching for alternative ways and traveling in groups, but the Israelis were firing upon them and everyone was running and screaming.... Israeli jeeps were speeding across the terrain, pulling up from every direction and shooting at the women and children, and also at me...
Or the extremely articulate and self-possessed Adam Shapiro, whose testimony ended up in the New York Daily News and on CNN, where he told Kyra Phillips:
This is not about politics between Jew and Arab, between Muslim and Jew. This is a case of human dignity, human freedom and justice that the Palestinians are struggling for against an occupier, an oppressor. The violence did not start with Yasir Arafat. The violence started with the occupation.... Arafat, after every terrorist incident, every suicide bombing, after every action, has condemned this loss of life, of civilian lives on both sides. The Sharon government, sometimes will apologize after it kills an innocent civilian, but it does not apologize for raping the cities and for going in and carrying out terrorist actions, going house to house tearing holes through the walls, roughing up people, killing people, assassinating people.
Most of the time you open up a newspaper and read a robotic column--as I did the Los Angeles Times's Ronald Brownstein the other day--about Palestinian terrorism and the wretched Arafat's supposed ability to quell the uprising with a few quick words. And then you turn on the NewsHour and there, of all people, is Zbigniew Brzezinski, stating the obvious, on April 1:
The fact of the matter is that three times as many Palestinians have been killed, and a relatively small number of them were really militants. Most were civilians. Some hundreds were children.... in the course of the last year, we have had Palestinian terrorism but we have also had deliberate overreactions by Mr. Sharon designed not to repress terrorism but to destabilize the Palestinian Authority, to uproot the Oslo Agreement, which he has always denounced, in a manner which contributed to the climate, that resulted in the killing of one of the two architects of the Oslo Agreement.
After predictable dissent from Kissinger, Brzezinski went on:
It's absolute hypocrisy to be claiming that Arafat can put a stop to the terrorism.... the fact of the matter is that his ability to control the situation would be greatly increased if there was serious movement towards political process, towards a political settlement and that the United States took the lead.
Between this brisk statement and the eloquent courage of Adam Shapiro and his brave fellow internationalists, the truth is getting out--not fast enough, not loud enough--but better than twenty years ago.
The jury is still out on whether it can restore, let alone enhance, its influence.
Back in 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers accused The New York Times Book Review of unfairly assigning her attack on the women's movement, Who Stole Feminism?, to the distinguished scholar of Victorian literature Nina Auerbach for review. Sommers claimed that Auerbach was an unethical choice: Although not named in the book, she had been present at one of the many feminist academic conferences disparaged in its pages and was allegedly the author of a rather overbearing comment, cited in the book, scribbled on a paper written by Sommers's stepson, who had taken a course with Auerbach at the University of Pennsylvania (Auerbach denied writing the comment and suggested it was the work of a TA). Sommers's absurd bid for publicity stirred up a media chorus of sympathetic harrumphs about feminist conspiracies (the Review was at that time edited by a woman, Rebecca Sinkler): Columns ensued by Jim Sleeper, Howard Kurtz, Hilton Kramer. Rush Limbaugh accused the Times of trying to "kill this book."
None of these mavens of literary ethics saw fit to note that Cathy Young raved about the book in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in Commentary despite being vice president of the right-leaning Women's Freedom Network, where Sommers was on the board, or that Mary Lefkowitz gave it high marks in National Review despite being Sommers's very good friend. The Times Book Review ran two weeks' worth of letters (including a particularly rabid one from Camille Paglia, bashing Auerbach as if she were some PC criminal and not an important academic whom any author in her right mind would feel honored to be reviewed by, and who had been, in point of fact, much too high-minded and polite to give Who Stole Feminism? the pasting it deserved).
Fast-forward to the Washington Post Book World, which has landed in hot water for publishing a review of David Brock's Blinded by the Right by Bruce Bawer. Much of Brock's book deals with skulduggery at the Scaife-funded American Spectator--a magazine for which Bawer was a movie critic for several years prior to Brock's own stint there as, he now confesses, a hired mudslinger and fabricator of slanders against Anita Hill, President Clinton and others. Bawer did not mention his connection to the Spectator when offered the assignment, nor did he mention it in the review, even parenthetically, and having spent several years as The Nation's literary editor, I'm not a bit surprised: Reviewers were always neglecting to tell me that the author under consideration was their colleague, best friend, former lover or the editor of the magazine that was publishing their fiction. When I would belatedly find out and confront them, were they embarrassed? Dream on. One even wrote me an outraged letter comparing his panegyric on the poetry of his department chairman to Shelley writing about Keats. Caveat editor, indeed!
Did the Washington Post engineer a pan for Brock by knowingly choosing a reviewer too closely allied with the people and politics he attacks, as claimed by the Media Whores Online website, which is calling for the public beheading of the Book World editor, Marie Arana? Bawer is mentioned (briefly and favorably) in the book, but there is no index and--I hate to be the one to break this to MWO--"previewing" a book before assigning it is not the same as reading every page. (Truth in advertising: I've written a few reviews for Arana and think she's an excellent editor and swell human being, even if the Book World didn't review my last book.) Still, it's a little hard to believe that nobody at the Book World knew that Bawer is a pretty conservative fellow, and, as MWO points out, there is a bit of history here: Two years ago, the Post assigned Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President to James Bowman, who was also associated with The American Spectator. On the other hand, Bawer, who, like Brock, is gay, says he left the Spectator over its slurs against homosexuals. Gee, two gay guys who both quit the same rightwingnut magazine--had Bawer loved the book, conservatives would be claiming the fix was in. In fact, Bawer's review was fairly trivial; mostly he made fun of Brock in a feline sort of way--slyly noting his love of elegant tailoring, fancy parties, attention and money, and observing that Brock is still talking trash, only now his targets are his erstwhile friends on the right. Compared with Helen Vendler, whose poetry criticism Bawer skewered in the Hudson Review some years ago with such relish and in such detail that anti-Vendlerites bought up the entire print run within minutes, Brock got off easy.
But then Helen Vendler's taste, like all taste, is open to question, while so far no conservative, Bawer included, has seriously disputed Brock's revelations beyond expressing a general skepticism that this self-confessed liar and suck-up artist has changed his spots. Is Brock lying when he describes how wealthy right-wing foundations created and fueled a media apparatus devoted to smearing liberals, feminists and Democrats, especially the Clintons, with whatever mud it could find or fabricate? Are his unflattering characterizations of his former cronies false? Brock portrays peroxided pundette Laura Ingraham as an ignorant drunk who does not own a single book; he charges Ann Coulter with "virulent anti-Semitism"; he says Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. urged him to attack women because that sold papers. He claims the only thing Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos wanted to know before handing him a million dollars to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton was whether she was a lesbian. He says Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the EEOC under Clarence Thomas and one of his most stalwart supporters, was thoroughly persuaded by Strange Justice, in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson validate Hill's claims, but helped Brock savage the book anyway. Virtually every page of Blinded by the Right makes an assertion that is, if true, embarrassing, and if false, libelous. The silence is curious, to say the least.
After much urging, the Post acknowledged that Bawer's review was inappropriate. Meanwhile, you can be sure that none of the pundits who raked Nina Auerbach and the New York Times over the coals will be firing up the barbie this time.
Call it the year of the yellow notepad. Doris Kearns Goodwin, ejected from Parnassus, Pulitzer jury service and kindred honorable obligations, sinks under charges of plagiarism consequent, she claims, of sloppy note-taking on her yellow legal pads.
Michael Bellesiles, flayed for knavish scholarship in his Arming America, says that his notations from probate records, central to his assertions about gun ownership in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, were on legal yellow pads that were irreparably damaged when his office at Emory University was flooded in May 2000, the year his book was published.
Stephen Ambrose, overtaken by charges of plagiarism, did not have recourse to the yellow-notepad defense, presumably because he had become rich enough not only to discard them in favor of teams of researchers, including his family, but to make an out-of-pocket, $1.25 million donation for environmental good works, including restoration on the Blackfoot River, no doubt hoping that water in Montana would be as efficacious as at Emory in purging the record.
The plagiarist lurks in all of us, and temptation or carelessness looms closer with the cut-and-paste function of the computer, though Shakespeare managed to steal a lot of Holinshed without electronic assistance.
With Bellesiles the stakes are high, because he addresses the issue of gun ownership in America and the Second Amendment. By the mid-1990s the battle was tilting decisively in favor of those arguing that the amendment asserts the right of individual citizens to own guns for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance. (NB: The preceding sentence concludes with twenty-two words lifted from a piece by Chris Mooney in Lingua Franca.)
Like any good tactician, Bellesiles shifted the terms of discussion. He said he'd reviewed more than 11,000 probate records between 1765 and 1850 from New England and Pennsylvania, and discovered that roughly 14 percent of all adult white Protestant males owned firearms, meaning about 3 percent of the total population at the time of the Revolution, and that hence "all this talk about universal gun ownership is entirely a myth that I can find no evidence of." (More cribbing from Mooney.)
So if the people weren't armed, and if even official militias were mostly a disheveled rabble without arms, the Second Amendment was really an antic fantasy, like feudal armor in the mock-Tudor hall of a Bradford cotton millionaire.
The antigun crowd greeted Bellesiles with as much ecstasy as any relief column by early settlers in Indian Country. The Organization of American Historians gratefully pinned the Binkley-Stephenson Award to Bellesiles's bosom for his 1996 essay on the origins of American gun culture. Arming America elicited not only fervent applause by Garry Wills in The New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books, but also the Bancroft Prize.
Bellesiles came under attack, but since his assailants included NRA types and even Charlton Heston (who cut to the heart of the matter by charging that Bellesiles simply had too much time on his hands), their often cogent demolitions were initially discounted as sore-loser barrages from the rednecks. Even so, the sappers pressed forward and began to penetrate Bellesiles's inner defenses.
A crucial chunk of battlement crashed to the ground when Bellesiles's most sedulous critic, James Lindgren, investigated his claim to have researched probate records at a National Archives center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren no such records existed. (Cockburn's source here is Danny Postel in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since Cockburn once borrowed Postel's car in Chicago and saddled him with a couple of parking tickets, he definitely owes him a cite. These two tickets were probably the final straws in a load of fines that prompted Postel to flee Chicago for Washington, DC.) Then more chunks fell when other archival records cited by Bellesiles, in San Francisco and Vermont, turned out not to exist.
Bellesiles's Little Big Horn comes in the January edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. Primed in part by Lindgren, Gloria Main of the University of Colorado pounds Bellesiles with medium-range artillery, as in "[Bellesiles] found only 7 percent in Maryland with guns. My own work in the probate records of six Maryland counties from the years 1650 to 1720, ignored by Bellesiles, shows an average of 76 percent of young fathers owning arms of some sort." Ira Gruber of Rice slides the bayonet into Bellesiles with incredulous harrumphs about misrepresented evidence on casualty rates in American and European battles ("But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim"). In an interesting essay on guns, gun culture and murder in early America, Bellesiles is finally dispatched by Randolph Roth of Ohio State ("every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong").
To give him credit, Bellesiles falls with some dignity ("Arming America is admittedly tentative in its statistics"), but fall he does. Now Emory is making nasty noises, and erstwhile allies are fleeing into the hills. Morgan, who whooped him up in the New York Review, says he's rethinking. Garry Wills says he's too busy now to address the matter, which is pretty lighthearted, considering that Bellesiles's phony scholarship is as devastating a blow as the antigun crowd has sustained in decades of fighting over the Second Amendment. (I speak contentedly as the owner of a 12-gauge and a .22, though I think too many discussions, pro and con, of the Second Amendment lack any sense of dynamism in the surge and ebb of class struggle in America.)
What about Knopf, which published Arming America? Editor Jane Garrett tells Postel that the house "stands behind" Bellesiles, that his were not intentional errors but the result of some "over-quick research." Knopf is renowned for its cookbooks. Suppose Bellesiles had suggested putting Amanita phalloides into the risotto. I don't think Garrett would be so forgiving.
The new Daedalus is out. I have to admit to having not read Daedalus with much fervor in the past, say, fifteen years (well, if ever, to be honest), but I was curious about the venerable journal now that it's under the editorship of James Miller, professor of political science and director of liberal studies at the New School, and author, most notably, of Flowers in the Dustbin, a book about rock and roll that actually won a music-book award, to say nothing of his other books (one on Foucault, another on the SDS, another on Rousseau, plus History and Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty).
Miller's first issue (Winter 2002) is about inequality. Whoever would have suspected twenty or thirty years ago that inequality could be considered good or that a discussion about its attributes could fuel an entire 117 pages of intelligent commentary? I'm aware of the debates--say, since Reagan--about the societal advantages of greed and inequality, but has any decent person ever seriously thought that inequality was good for anything other than sustaining the kind of high culture that produces journals like Daedalus, and of course for people like Marie Antoinette and Kenneth Lay? Anyhow, as Daedalus has traditionally, the new magazine suffers painfully from the kind of writing academics do ("In this essay, I shall attempt...," etc.) and the kind of writing policy wonks do ("The Luxembourg Income Study, which is the best current source of data on economic inequality in different countries, has calculated 90/10 ratios for fourteen rich democracies in the mid-1990s").
Yet because Daedalus has in the end a liberal mind, the new issue provides, if you can plow through it, a strong restatement of the value (economic, political and moral) of equality; and convincing arguments that inequality is pretty regularly--if sometimes more subtly than one would imagine--an evil. A historical essay that happens to be written by my distant cousin Sean Wilentz offers, among other things, lively illumination of the idea, dimly seized by me in my sporadic and unsuccessful attempts to buy a house, that the ability to purchase real estate lies at the heart of all equality or inequality.
In spite of the general impenetrability, many of the pieces have good bits. Martha Nussbaum's essay on women in India begins with an unforgettable story: A Bangladeshi woman waiting for a train at Howrah Station in Calcutta is first gallantly helped by railroad officials, and then drugged, kidnapped and gang-raped by four station employees; when she finally makes her way back to the station, battered, blood-stained and disoriented, she's tricked once again by other kindly, courtly, decent-seeming chemin de fer types into another gang-rape hideaway. Amazingly (cheerful Indian ending), she survives to bring suit against her attackers. This one anecdote brings life to Nussbaum's piece, while reminding us (as if one needed reminding, after the recent train burnings, etc.) that all the exotic incident and violence in Indian literature does not come from nowhere.
Quarrel & Quandary
As long as we're looking at venerable journals that I haven't read recently (an ever-widening category, it seems), let's talk about Partisan Review. I picked up the first issue of 2002 because it contains an article arrestingly titled "Melville's Skull and the Idea of Jerusalem," by Cynthia Ozick. Ozick is a great writer; her style is fluid and personal, and there is wonderful voice in everything she touches. This essay is no exception--if I agreed with any of its passions or arguments, it would be a beloved object of reflection. In it, among other things, Ozick claims that the modern state of Israel has at its foundations "ethical visionariness," unlike the states of Europe and other contemporary nationalist movements. Zionism, she says, "is distinct because it is inextricably bound with a coherent concept of the moral obligations of civilization: land cannot mean land alone, land bare of civilized purpose, land bare of law." This, by the way, is someone writing about Zionism not in the nineteenth century or two years ago, but today, as Israel's tanks roll back into the territories (land bedecked, no doubt, in "civilized purpose," so long as it remains occupied by those equipped with ethical visionariness). Ah, well; in her Zionist arrogation of all indignation, all righteousness, all suffering, Ozick even indicts Herman Melville for not recognizing Jerusalem's holiness, because he preferred the whiteness of the whale. She can't bear that.
Woman Is the Deejay of the World
Yoko Ono, an equally self-possessed woman, is on the cover of Mixer magazine, a decidedly unvenerable journal devoted to "music, clubs, life." In my house, we have a Don't Diss Yoko rule. Amazingly, my small sons have learned to despise her. They've informed me that Yoko "broke up the Beatles" and that she is "bad"--by "bad" they mean "bad." The great thing about Yoko is that, at age 68, she goes on being herself. She recently refused to give Paul McCartney any special credit on the Lennon-McCartney songs that he in fact wrote himself ("Yesterday" comes to mind), keeping the old enmity with Sir Cheerful simmering. Ono's latest prank: She's become an occasional club deejay down in New York's meatpacking district. "It's weird," says Peter Rauhofer, a city deejay, "when you're in a deejay booth...and find Yoko Ono standing beside you...at 3 am." He goes on: "Her manager asked me if I had a microphone, because Ono wanted to do some 'orgasmic moans.' I thought he was joking." He wasn't, of course. She does the moans, to the supposed delight of the dance floor. Later she repairs with a reporter for further insight to her "vast, conservatively decorated kitchen" in the Dakota. Yoko's evolution from child of Japan's banking aristocracy to alternative artist and outrageous darling of New York's demimonde would make an instructive entry in the annals of inequality. But if someone has to be rich, it should be Ono. Why? Because at a happening in Hyde Park in 1968 or so, she blindfolded an entire fashionable audience with sanitary pads--and then silently left them there to contemplate their own ridiculous abandonment. That's visionariness.
Andrew Sullivan cannot have an easy life. A Catholic gay man who is also HIV positive, his political views have led him to attach himself to a party, a movement and a church that believe him to be practicing an abomination. Influential Republican power-brokers blame America's sexual tolerance for the attacks of 9/11. The military he reveres is kicking gays out at a rate unseen since the presidency of Ronald Reagan--another Sullivan hero. And his church offers a warmer embrace for pedophile priests than for honest homosexuals.
Sullivan is best known as a kind of all-purpose controversy magnet. He posed for a Gap ad; he posted a lurid online advertisement for unprotected sex; and he briefly accepted $7,500 in paid website advertising from a pharmaceutical industry trade association whose products he regularly praises, before returning it. During his stormy editorship of The New Republic, he opened its pages to the lunatic ravings of Camille Paglia, the racist pseudoscience of Charles Murray and the libelous fantasies of Stephen Glass. Sullivan has, moreover, been the target of much gay ire over the conservative content of his writings in The New York Times Magazine, where its editors inexplicably allowed him--slyly but effectively--to out a whole host of allegedly gay Democratic politicians, including Clinton Cabinet members, along with liberal talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell.
Now Sullivan has launched a career in the brave new world of "blogging," or vanity websites. And while his site arouses a certain gruesome car-wreck fascination, it serves primarily as a reminder to writers of why we need editors. Andrewsullivan.com sets a standard for narcissistic egocentricity that makes Henry Kissinger look like St. Francis of Assisi. Readers are informed, for instance, that Andy's toilet recently overflowed; that he had a rollicking dinner chez Hitchens; that he might have seen Tina Brown across a hotel lobby, but he's not sure; and that, in separate, apparently unrelated incidents, he had a nightmare and ate a bad tuna-fish sandwich that upset his tummy, requiring many "stomach evacuations."
Beyond the confines of his bathroom, Sullivan's singular obsession appears to be the crushing of any hint of democratic debate about the war. His campaign began with a now notorious London Times missive warning his fellow patriots: "The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts...may well mount...a fifth column." Called upon to defend this vile slander of inhabitants of the very city that suffered the attack, Sullivan named four writers who, he determined, "were more concerned with what they see as the evil of American power than the evil of terrorism, that their first response was to blame America." Among the myriad problems with this answer was the fact that at least one of the four--me, as it happens--supported the war and much of the patriotic reaction the attacks inspired.
No matter, the Sullivan Inquisition continues undeterred. Barely a day passes without his unmasking yet another "Anti-War Democrat"--in whose ranks he includes the pro-war Tom Daschle, the pro-war Hillary Clinton and the pro-war Janet Reno, among many others--basing his argument less on the words these politicians speak than on the thoughts he knows them to be holding in secret. In Clinton's case, he writes that when she said that Congress should be "asking the hard questions" and "having the debate Congress is required to have--where to go, what to do," her words may have been "unobjectionable" but her "intent is clear." Democrats simply prefer "weakness" to a "strong and unapologetic role in the role [sic]." Can there be a better illustration of the modus operandi of the ideological commissar--the McCarthyite mullah--than this kind of mindreading? (It's also a pretty solid argument for proofreaders.)
A British expat, Sullivan has set himself up as a one-man House Un-American Activities Committee. Take, for instance, Ted Rall's nasty, offensive cartoon ridiculing Marianne Pearl and 9/11 widows as money-grubbing attention grabbers. "If this is what is motivating some elements of the anti-war left," he roared, "they're even more depraved than I thought," as if mocking the victims of September 11 is a leftist cause célèbre; as if one silly cartoonist speaks for anyone but himself. Next came the commissar's decree: "No paper should ever run Rall again."
Sometimes Sullivan's hysterics are merely amusing. For instance, his TNR colleague Jonathan Chait counted fifty-one attacks on the moderately liberal Paul Krugman in slightly more than five weeks. Sullivan also, in Chait's words, "distort[ed] Krugman's views so wildly as to venture into pure fantasy." (This happens a lot.) The pundit's crime was to accept a $37,500 consulting payment from Enron years before he became a columnist and to disclose it when he first mentioned Enron favorably in Forbes and later negatively for the Times. William Kristol and Irwin Stelzer, by contrast, took their Enron cash and then proceeded, respectively, to edit and to write a highly favorable article about the company without any niceties of financial disclosure. Calculated on the basis of Sullivan attacks, the conservatives' transgressions were approximately one-twentieth as serious.
It is not as if responsible blogging is impossible. Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles.com and Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com manage to control (or at least occasionally mock) their own egos while offering valuable and quirky takes on the news, and without any news from their bathrooms. But the will to censorship that underlies Sullivan's rants is dangerous. Smart fellows like Ron Rosenbaum, Howard Kurtz and Michael Wolff have marveled at the ideological heterodoxy of the well-spoken "gaycatholictory" who likes to compare himself to George Orwell. This reputation is--to put it mildly--undeserved. In the space of a few days, Sullivan's site recommended articles by Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Norman Podhoretz, William F. Buckley and Michael Ledeen. Not exactly Orwell Country, I fear. Sullivan recently announced to his acolytes that he plans to write less in order to play Benedick in a Washington production of Much Ado About Nothing in a pair of black leather pants. "That should pack them in," he adds. Give the man credit for audacity, if nothing else.
Facebook Like Box