As Scott Lemieux of the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog noticed before I did, every two years or so some MSM editor decides that the world needs a “lazy puff piece” on right-wing publisher Adam Bellow. Lemieux correctly points out that the most recent one, published in the Washington Post on December 30, may prove definitive, if only for its “sheer density of clichés.” What is most interesting about these clichés—whether in the Post, or the New York Times, or the New York Observer, or in Bellow’s own New York magazine humblebrag—is how far from the facts the profiles must stray to maintain their quasi-heroic story line. One has to wonder, therefore, what is really at work beneath the surface.
The newest line on Bellow, according to the Post’s Julia Duin, is this: “The intellectual left, he contends, is in a vacuum. The right is where there are ideas, variety, excitement. And Bellow, a former liberal who has made a career of pushing conservative writers and controversial issues to the forefront of American publishing, wants to hear from you.”
Bellow has made a career of calling himself a former liberal, though just when he was a liberal is hard to say. Times publishing correspondent Julie Bosman cites having Saul Bellow as a father as part of his liberal pedigree, apparently unaware that the great Jewish American novelist was perhaps the heavyweight champion of literary neoconservatism. His final work, Ravelstein, was a celebration of Straussian philosopher Allan Bloom. Bellow fils has, on different occasions, dated his alleged conversion to Ronald Reagan’s election, Oliver North’s Iran/Contra trial, the publication of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and various offenses against decency he’s apparently witnessed while waiting on line for smoked fish. (Bellow is constantly attacking what he terms the “Zabar’s Left,” located in what Duin calls the “ultraliberal environs of the Upper West Side.”)
A second canonical notion in these profiles is their insistence that Bellow is on the level when he claims to “feel an obligation to…maintain a certain standard of intellectual seriousness.” Remember: this is the editor responsible for burdening humanity with books like Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. As Tim Noah has noted at Slate, “Taken seriously, these books reveal themselves to be nonsensical, overwrought, vile, and quite obviously wrong.” (In Brock’s case, the author himself disavowed the work.)
The Post also seeks to sell Bellow’s notion that “there is zero fresh air coming from the left…. There is more genuine intellectual ferment on the right. Conservatives are better educated, if only to know what the left is saying and how to defend themselves.” With his right-wing imprint, Broadside Books—an arm of HarperCollins—Bellow plans to “attack the intellectual roots of liberalism, and find and publish a lot of new thinking on the right,” especially in the Tea Party.
Well, good luck with that. Four scholars who studied the views and attitudes of 2,000 voters sympathetic to the Tea Party presented their findings to the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, reporting that the subjects’ attitudes could be characterized as reflective of “four primary cultural and political beliefs” in greater measure than other Americans: “authoritarianism, libertarianism, fear of change, and negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration.” Not exactly high-minded book-bait. Bellow insists he will say no to books that “bash Islam,” yet he has already published one awful, fanciful tome called The Arab Lobby and plans to publish an e-book titled The New Quislings: How the International Left Used the Oslo Massacre to Silence Debate About Islam.
What appears to excite Bellow, much like his fellow second-generation neocons John Podhoretz and William Kristol, is the resentment of the liberals he grew up with. “I wasn’t terribly impressed by Clarence Thomas,” he admits. “I was certainly not deceived by the Bush administration’s assurances that he was the best man for the job. Yet I was less offended by this conservative hypocrisy than by the strident attacks on Thomas by liberal interest groups, whose obvious subtext was that a black man who did not see himself primarily as a victim of white racism was not ‘really’ black.” Reading the minds of his fellow Zabar’s patrons, he continues, “Liberals, especially liberal Jews, are scared of conservative Christians…. They’ll say, ‘These people want a theocracy.’ I say: ‘Those people see themselves as victims of a secular invasion. They are defending themselves against you. They wouldn’t be doing this had you not banned prayer in schools.’”
What is oddest about the Post profile is that Bellow is news at all. He was profiled for this exact venture by the Times in the fall of 2010. Since then, he has, to put it mildly, failed to set the publishing world afire. His much-touted pamphlet-publishing operation rarely approaches four figures in sales, and his top-selling hardcover, Dick Morris and Eileen McGann’s Revolt!: How to Defeat Obama and Repeal His Socialist Programs—A Patriot’s Guide, achieves the previously unimaginable feat of making Goldberg and D’Souza appear sensible. And at 60,000 copies, it sold about as many books as Ann Coulter sells just to members of the John Birch Society.
So why the constant celebration in the so-called liberal media? Could they inadvertently be showing us the path trodden by the son of the great Saul Bellow as a kind of cautionary tale? Bellow fretted in his 2004 New York piece, “Today the main conservative spokesmen are not serious intellectuals like Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley, whose aim was always to persuade a fair-minded opponent, but abrasive personalities like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, whose aim is to whip the Republican base into a froth, and get rich in the process.” Among American conservatives, apparently, yesterday’s confession is tomorrow’s business plan.