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On May 2 the Senate, in a vote of 94 to 2, and the House, 352 to 21,
expressed unqualified support for Israel in its recent military actions
against the Palestinians. The resolutions were so strong that the Bush
Administration--hardly a slouch when it comes to supporting
Israel--attempted to soften its language so as to have more room in
getting peace talks going. But its pleas were rejected, and members of
Congress from Joe Lieberman to Tom DeLay competed to heap praise on
Ariel Sharon and disdain on Yasir Arafat. Reporting on the vote, the
New York Times noted that one of the few dissenters, Senator
Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, "suggested that many senators were
after campaign contributions."
Aside from that brief reference, however, the Times made no
mention of the role that money, or lobbying in general, may have played
in the lopsided vote. More specifically, the Times made no
mention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It's a
remarkable oversight. AIPAC is widely regarded as the most powerful
foreign-policy lobby in Washington. Its 60,000 members shower millions
of dollars on hundreds of members of Congress on both sides of the
aisle. It also maintains a network of wealthy and influential citizens
around the country, whom it can regularly mobilize to support its main
goal, which is making sure there is "no daylight" between the policies
of Israel and of the United States.
So, when Congress votes so decisively in support of Israel, it's no
accident. Yet, surveying US newspaper coverage of the Middle East in
recent months, I found next to nothing about AIPAC and its influence.
The one account of any substance appeared in the Washington Post,
in late April. Reporting on AIPAC's annual conference, correspondent
Mike Allen noted that the attendees included half the Senate, ninety
members of the House and thirteen senior Administration officials,
including White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who drew a standing
ovation when he declared in Hebrew, "The people of Israel live." Showing
its "clout," Allen wrote, AIPAC held "a lively roll call of the hundreds
of dignitaries, with individual cheers for each." Even this article,
however, failed to probe beneath the surface and examine the lobbying
and fundraising techniques AIPAC uses to lock up support in Congress.
AIPAC is not the only pro-Israel organization to escape scrutiny. The
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though
little known to the general public, has tremendous influence in
Washington, especially with the executive branch. Based in New York, the
conference is supposed to give voice to the fifty-two Jewish
organizations that sit on its board, but in reality it tends to reflect
the views of its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein. Hoenlein has
long had close ties to Israel's Likud Party. In the 1990s he helped
raise money for settlers' groups on the West Bank, and today he
regularly refers to that region as "Judea and Samaria," a biblically
inspired catch phrase used by conservatives to justify the presence of
Jewish settlers there. A skilled and articulate operative, Hoenlein uses
his access to the State Department, Pentagon and National Security
Council to push for a strong Israel. He's so effective at it that the
Jewish newspaper the Forward, in its annual list of the fifty
most important American Jews, has ranked Hoenlein first.
Hoenlein showed his organizing skills in April, when he helped convene
the large pro-Israel rally on Capitol Hill. While the event itself was
widely covered, Hoenlein, and the conference, remained invisible. An
informal survey of recent coverage turned up not a single in-depth piece
about Hoenlein and how he has used the Presidents Conference to keep the
Bush Administration from putting too much pressure on the Sharon
Why the blackout? For one thing, reporting on these groups is not easy.
AIPAC's power makes potential sources reluctant to discuss the
organization on the record, and employees who leave it usually sign
pledges of silence. AIPAC officials themselves rarely give interviews,
and the organization even resists divulging its board of directors.
Journalists, meanwhile, are often loath to write about the influence of
organized Jewry. Throughout the Arab world, the "Jewish lobby" is seen
as the root of all evil in the Middle East, and many reporters and
editors--especially Jewish ones--worry about feeding such stereotypes.
In the end, though, the main obstacle to covering these groups is fear.
Jewish organizations are quick to detect bias in the coverage of the
Middle East, and quick to complain about it. That's especially true of
late. As the Forward observed in late April, "rooting out
perceived anti-Israel bias in the media has become for many American
Jews the most direct and emotional outlet for connecting with the
conflict 6,000 miles away." Recently, an estimated 1,000 subscribers to
the Los Angeles Times suspended home delivery for a day to
protest what they considered the paper's pro-Palestinian coverage. The
Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the
Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald have all been hit
by similar protests, and NPR has received thousands of e-mails
complaining about its reports from the Middle East.
Do such protests have an effect? Consider the recent experience of the
New York Times. On May 6 the paper ran two photographs of a
pro-Israel parade in Manhattan. Both showed the parade in the background
and anti-Israel protesters prominently in the foreground. The paper,
which for weeks has been threatened with a boycott by Jewish readers,
was deluged with protests. On May 7 the Times ran an abject
apology. That caused much consternation in the newsroom, with some
reporters and editors feeling that the paper had buckled before an
influential constituency. "It's very intimidating," said a correspondent
at another large daily who is familiar with the incident. Newspapers, he
added, are "afraid" of organizations like AIPAC and the Presidents
Conference. "The pressure from these groups is relentless. Editors would
just as soon not touch them."
Needless to say, US support for Israel is the product of many
factors--Israel's status as the sole democracy in the Middle East, its
value as a US strategic ally and widespread horror over Palestinian
suicide bombers. But the power of the pro-Israel lobby is an important
element as well. Indeed, it's impossible to understand the Bush
Administration's tender treatment of the Sharon government without
taking into account the influence of groups like AIPAC. Isn't it time
they were exposed to the daylight?
The essential mystery of the 2000 election has always been this: How in
the world did George W. Bush ever get close enough to invite the
Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to give him his
Of course, he couldn't have done it all by himself. Al Gore ran away
from one of the most successful economic records of any Administration
this century and could not seem to articulate a single compelling reason
that he should be President. Bush was also mightily aided by Ralph
Nader, whose spoiler candidacy commanded just enough support to swing
battleground states for the Republicans while failing to come even
remotely close to the 5 percent, matching-funds goal that was his
professed inspiration. But the biggest piece of the puzzle is still
Bush. He may have "grown" in office, but the fact is he had some of the
skimpiest qualifications for the job of almost any successful candidate
in our history, while Gore's were among the best. Moreover, his
political views were well to the right of most voters on almost
everything, while Gore's were well within the national consensus. By any
conventional calculation, Bush should have lost in a landslide.
The obvious answer to the paradox is that Bush sold his personality, not
his politics. But how? Are people just stupid? Don't they realize that
it doesn't matter if one candidate is a likable cutup and the other one
a superior stiff when it comes to stuff like global warming, a patients'
bills of rights, Social Security, the right to choose, etc.? Well,
that's one answer. But a more compelling one is that the so-called
liberal media, contrary to its nonsensical reputation for favoring
Democrats, failed to inform the public of the two candidates' political
and ideological differences, and the implications those differences held
for the nation's future.
The release of two different kinds of campaign documents--Ambling
Into History, a book by New York Times reporter Frank Bruni,
and Journeys With George, a film by former NBC News producer
Alexandra Pelosi--shed considerable light on just how the media managed
to spend millions upon millions covering the candidates while reporting
next to nothing of value to voters. Ambling is a memoir of a
love-struck reporter. The journalist charged with covering the campaign
for the newspaper that sets the agenda for most of the elite media
focuses with laserlike intensity on every nod, wink, smile and
profession of alleged "love" that comes his way from the candidate. But
we hear barely a word about the candidate's pollution- and
fat-cat-friendly policies as governor of Texas or his lies and
dissimulations when it came to environmental protection, affirmative
action, issues of corporate responsibility, healthcare policy and the
like. If you want to know the exact number of seconds that George and
Laura Bush danced at every one of their nine Inaugural Balls, then the
intrepid Mr. Bruni is your man. If you have any interest in what Bush
might have been doing at his desk the following morning, well, where did
you get the silly idea that a New York Times reporter should
concern himself with boring stuff like that?
The willingness of the Times bigfoot to treat the election as the
equivalent of a junior high popularity contest signaled to the rest of
the media that contentless coverage would be the order of the day. The
net result, as Pelosi shows us in her fascinating but nauseating
documentary--to be broadcast on HBO in November--is a press corps that
follows its campaign masters like a litter of newborn puppies. They wait
open-mouthed for Karl Rove or Karen Hughes to drop a tender morsel of
warmed-over baloney into their mouths, wagging their tails in
appreciation after every feeding.
The clowning frat boy who plays the Republican presidential candidate in
the Pelosi movie does turn out to be a genuinely congenial fellow. If
you've been wondering why it is that everybody seems to like this
guy--and how he has managed to forge so many lifelong bonds with people
irrespective of his apparent doofus-like qualities--then this movie will
provide a painless seventy-six-minute education. The filmmaker--the
daughter of House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi--hates Bush's politics
but likes him personally, and so can we. She tells audiences that
Journeys is a documentary about process and that the candidate
himself is unimportant. But that's nonsense. Bush is a star. If Pelosi
had had the misfortune to be assigned to Al Gore's press plane, this
movie would have sucked.
But like Ambling, Journeys is more valuable for what it
shows than what it tells. Over and over we hear the reporters criticize
themselves for the emptiness of their coverage as they express a kind of
wearied contempt for the snowmobile rides and other pseudoevents that
substitute for substance. But over and over again, they submit without
apparent protest. They regurgitate the campaign's baloney sandwiches and
watered-down Kool-Aid--without even bothering to convince themselves
that it's really steak and champagne. In between feedings, they ask the
Man for his autograph, laugh at his jokes and seek, without much
success, to justify the effects of their collective lobotomy to Pelosi's
Unlike Bruni, Pelosi demonstrates considerable professional
self-awareness (which is why she felt compelled to quit her job and
leave the field entirely after the campaign). Early on, she gives us
the Financial Times's Richard Wolffe speaking excitedly about
covering "the greatest story in the world...big issues, big stakes; it's
a big game, but it's important." A little later he admits, "Most of our
time is spent doing really stupid things, in stupid places with stupid
people." If you want your mystery summed up in a single sentence, it
would be hard to outdo Wolffe: "The Gore press corps is about how they
didn't like Gore, didn't trust him.... Over here, we were writing only
about the trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us."
But Bush himself puts it best, just before kissing Pelosi in pursuit of
her (meaningless) vote in the California primary: "If I lose," he
playfully smirks, "you're out of work, baby. You're off the plane."
Right in the wake of House majority leader Dick Armey's explicit call
for several million Palestinians to be booted out of the West Bank, and
East Jerusalem and Gaza as well, came yet one more of those earnest
articles accusing a vague entity called "the left" of anti-Semitism.
This one was in Salon, by a man called Dennis Fox, identified as
an associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University
of Illinois. Leaving nothing to chance, Salon titled Fox's
contribution "The shame of the pro-Palestinian left: Ignorance and
anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy of Israel's
Over the past twenty years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring
just how badly Israel is behaving. There's a brisk uptick in the number
of articles accusing "the left" of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt
varying strategies. Particularly intricate, though I think
well-intentioned, was a recent column by Naomi Klein, who wrote that "it
is precisely because anti-Semitism is used by the likes of Mr. Sharon
that the fight against it must be reclaimed." Is Klein saying the global
justice movement has forgotten how to be anti-anti-Semitic? I don't
think it has. Are all denunciations of the government of Israel to be
prefaced by strident assertions of pro-Semitism?
If this is the case, can we not ask that those concerned about the
supposed silence of the left about anti-Semitism demonstrate their own
good faith by denouncing Israel's behavior toward Palestinians? Klein
did, but most don't. In a recent column in the New York Times
Frank Rich managed to write an entire column purportedly about Jewish
overreaction here to news reporting from Israel without even fleeting
reference to the fact that there might be some factual basis to reports
presenting Israel and its leaders in a bad light, even though he found
time for abuse of the "inexcusable" Arafat. Isn't Sharon "inexcusable"
in Rich's book?
So the left gets the rotten eggs, and those tossing the eggs mostly
don't feel it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose
obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land,
oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves, and
in all likelihood ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or
Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas-Fort Worth airport between the
third and fourth runways (the bold Armey plan).
Here's how Fox begins his article for Salon: "'Let's move back,'
my wife insisted when she saw the nearby banner: 'Israel Is a Terrorist
State!' We were at the April 20 Boston march opposing Israel's incursion
into the West Bank. So drop back we did, dragging our friends with us to
wait for an empty space we could put between us and the anti-Israel
sign." Inference by Fox: The banner is grotesque, presumptively
anti-Semitic. But there are plenty of sound arguments that from the
Palestinian point of view Israel is indeed a terrorist state, and
anyway, even if it wasn't, the description would not per se be evidence
of anti-Semitism. Only if the banner had read "All Jews Are Terrorists"
would Fox have a point.
Of course, the rhetorical trick is to conflate "Israel" or "the State of
Israel" with "Jews" and argue that they are synonymous. Ergo, to
criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic. Leave aside the fact that many
of Israel's most articulate critics are Jews, honorably committed to the
cause of justice for all in the Middle East. Many Jews just don't like
hearing bad things said about Israel, same way they don't like reading
articles about the Jewish lobby here. Mention the lobby and someone like
Fox will rush into print denouncing those who "toy with the old
anti-Semitic canard that the Jews control the press." These days you
can't even say that the New York Times is owned by a Jewish
family without risking charges that you stand in Goebbels's shoes. I
even got accused of anti-Semitism the other day for mentioning that the
Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as recounted in a
funny and informative book published in 1988, An Empire of Their Own:
How the Jews Invented Hollywood, by Neal Gabler.
So cowed are commentators (which is of course the prime motive of those
charges of anti-Semitism) that even after Congress recently voted
full-throated endorsement of Sharon and Israel, with only two senators
and twenty-one reps voting against (I don't count the chickenshit
twenty-nine who voted "present"), you could scarcely find a mainstream
paper prepared to analyze this astounding demonstration of the power of
AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, plus the Christian right and the
military industry, which profits enormously from military aid to Israel,
since Congress has stipulated that 75 percent of such supplies must be
bought from US firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
The encouraging fact is that despite the efforts of the Southern Poverty
Law Center to drum up funds by hollering that the Nazis are about to
march down Main Street, there's remarkably little anti-Semitism in the
United States, and almost none that I've ever been able to detect on the
American left, which is of course amply stocked with non-self-hating
Jews. It's comical to find the left's assailants trudging all the way
back to LeRoi Jones and the 1960s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic
gibes. The less encouraging fact is that there's not nearly enough
criticism of Israel's ghastly conduct toward Palestinians, which in its
present phase is testing the waters for reaction here to a major ethnic
cleansing of Palestinians, just as Armey called for.
So why don't people like Fox write about Armey's appalling remarks
(which the White House declared he hadn't made) instead of trying to
change the subject with nonsense about anti-Semitism? It's not
anti-Semitic to denounce ethnic cleansing, a strategy that, according to
recent polls, almost half of Israelis now heartily endorse. In this
instance the left really has nothing to apologize for, but those who
accuse it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They're apologists for policies
put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an
unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct.
Although former Vice President Quayle's legacy may not be one for the
history books, he will certainly be remembered for the day he took on
television's Murphy Brown.
The idea of empire, once so effectively used by Ronald Reagan to
discredit the Soviet Union, has recently undergone a strange
rehabilitation in the United States. This process, which started some
years ago, has accelerated markedly since September 11. References to
empire are no longer deployed ironically or in a tone of warning; the
idea has become respectable enough that the New York Times ran an
article describing the enthusiasm it now evokes in certain circles. It
is of some significance that these circles are not easily identified as
being located either on the right or the left. If there are some on the
right who celebrate the projection of US power, there are others on the
left who believe that the world can only benefit from an ever-increasing
US engagement and intervention abroad; for example, in ethnic and
religious conflicts (such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia), or in states
run by despotic regimes or "rogue" leaders (e.g., Iraq). It is on
grounds like these that the idea of a new imperialism has recently been
embraced by Britain's Labour Party.
That elements of the left and the right should discover common ground on
the matter of empire should come as no surprise. Contrary to popular
belief, empire is by no means a strictly conservative project:
Historically it has always held just as much appeal for liberals.
Conversely, the single greatest critic of the British Empire, Edmund
Burke, was an archconservative who saw imperialism as an essentially
radical project, not unlike that of the French Revolution.
The idea of empire may seem too antiquated to be worth combating. But it
is always the ideas that appeal to both ends of the spectrum that stand
the best chance of precipitating an unspoken consensus, especially when
they bear the imprimatur of such figures as the British prime minister.
That is why this may be a good time to remind ourselves of some of the
reasons imperialism fell into discredit in the first place.
To begin with, empire cannot be the object of universal human
aspirations. In a world run by empires, some people are rulers and some
are the ruled: It is impossible to think of a situation where all
peoples possess an empire. On the other hand, the idea of the
nation-state, for all its failings, holds the great advantage that it
can indeed be generalized to all peoples everywhere. The proposition
that every human being should belong to a nation and that all nations
should be equal is not a contradiction in terms, although it may well be
utterly unfounded as a description of the real world.
It is precisely the exclusivism of empire that makes it a program for
ever-increasing conflict. If the mark of success for a nation consists
of the possession of an empire, then it follows that every nation that
wants to achieve success must aspire to an empire. That is why the
twentieth century was a period of such cataclysmic conflict: emergent
powers like Germany and Japan wanted empires as proof of their success.
Those who embrace the idea of empire frequently cite the advantages of
an imperial peace over the disorder of the current world situation. This
disregards the fact that the peace of the British, French and
Austro-Hungarian empires was purchased at the cost of a destabiliza-tion
so radical as to generate the two greatest conflicts in human history:
the world wars. Because of the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, there can be no doubt that a twenty-first-century empire
would have consequences graver still.
An imperium also generates an unstoppable push toward overreach, which
is one of the reasons it is a charter for destabilization. This is not
only because of an empire's inherent tendency to expand; there is
another reason, so simple as often to go unnoticed. The knowledge that
an imperial center can be induced to intervene in local disputes, at a
certain price, is itself an incentive for lesser players to provoke
intervention. I remember an occasion a few years ago when one of the
leaders of a minor and utterly hopeless insurgency asked me: What kind
of death toll do you think we need to get the United States to intervene
There can be no doubt that political catastrophes can often be prevented
by multilateral intervention, and clearly such actions are sometimes
necessary. But it is also true that in certain circumstances the very
prospect of intervention can, as it were, become an incentive for the
escalation of violence. The reason the idea of empire appeals to many
liberals is that it appears to offer a means of bettering the world's
predicament. History shows us, unfortunately, that the road to empire is
all too often paved with good intentions.
When incurable liberals like Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman begin using the name Whittaker Chambers as a term of approbation, we are entitled to say that there has been what the Germans call a Tendenzwende, or shift in the zeitgeist. The odd thing is that they have both chosen to compare Chambers's Witness, a serious and dramatic memoir by any standards, to a flimsy and self-worshiping book titled Blinded by the Right, by David Brock.
The Senate's most progressive member is in the fight of his life.
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
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
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
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
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.
California GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. has portrayed
himself as a savvy businessman who can deal successfully with the
state's financial woes. But Simon's ties to Enron, the bankrupt energy
company that has been charged with manipulating the electricity market
in California and is under federal investigation, raise questions about
his business acumen and his fitness for the state's top post.
Former business associates of Simon say that he personally persuaded
Enron to invest in Hanover Compressor, a Houston company he founded in
1990 and on whose board he sat between 1992 and 1998. Hanover makes
pumps that move natural gas and oil through pipelines and from wells.
According to several people at Enron and Hanover involved in the
transaction, the Enron investment was made in 1995 through an Enron
partnership called Joint Energy Development Investments, or JEDI, which
is now at the center of the federal investigation into Enron's collapse.
Simon held a 1.4 percent stake in Hanover, which after the JEDI
investment was worth tens of millions of dollars. His father, William
Simon, the former energy czar and Treasury Secretary under Richard
Nixon, ran a private investment firm, William E. Simon & Sons,
which owns more than 4 percent of Hanover. The younger Simon declined
requests for an interview. He has previously dodged questions about his
relationship with Enron.
JEDI was at one time Hanover's second-largest shareholder, with an $84
million stake in the company, according to a Securities and Exchange
Commission filing. Last June, JEDI shifted most of its shares to another
off-balance-sheet Enron partnership. JEDI's stake in Hanover allowed the
Enron executives who managed JEDI to attend Hanover board meetings.
Hanover executives said Simon and Enron came up with several
Simon was also involved in Hanover in matters separate from the Enron
deals that could raise legal concerns. Hanover said in February that it
would have to restate its financial results beginning in January 2000
because of improper accounting for a partnership that--as with
Enron--made the company appear more profitable than it was. Over several
years during this time, according to the Wall Street Journal,
Hanover officers sold millions of shares of stock--again much like
Enron, where officers who were allegedly aware of the company's
accounting practices were encouraging employees and others to buy shares
even as they were selling their own. Hanover is now the target of at
least four class-action lawsuits by shareholders who have alleged the
company misled investors; and it is also under investigation by the SEC.
Simon wasn't a member of Hanover's board at the time of the improper
accounting, but a week before Hanover made the announcement, the company
reported that every annual report it has issued since going public in
1997 contained errors. Simon, as a member of Hanover's audit committee,
was responsible for approving the company's annual reports. The audit
committee, according to Hanover's investor relations department, was
held responsible by Hanover for the error.
Simon helped Hanover set up a partnership in the Cayman Islands, Hanover
Cayman Limited, as a tax shelter. In addition, he assisted Hanover in
setting up a joint venture with Enron and JEDI to construct a
natural-gas compression project in Venezuela.
Jamie Fisfis, Simon's campaign spokesman, said Simon has been
forthcoming about his business dealings with Hanover and Enron. But when
asked about JEDI's investment in Hanover and what role Simon played,
Fisfis said he did not know and would only confirm that Simon was a
member of the Hanover board at the time. Moreover, he could not offer an
explanation when asked about the other joint ventures with Enron that
Simon's former business associates said he had a hand in creating. Simon
has told reporters on the campaign trail that he was barely involved in
Hanover's business activities, but Hanover executives say Simon was
intimately involved during his six years on the board. When Simon left
the board in 1998, he sold most of his 430,000 shares in the company.
However, he still has more than $1 million invested in Hanover,
according to the Associated Press.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar of the University of Southern
California's School of Policy, Planning and Development, said Simon has
to start answering questions about his dealings with Enron, "whether it
be good or bad," or risk alienating voters. "The symbol that Enron has
become is negative, cheating and ruthless."
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Governor Gray Davis, who currently trails
Simon according to the latest polls, said Simon's close ties with Enron
pose questions about his track record: "For a man who touts himself as a
business manager, these types of activities raise questions whether
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