In Defense of Studs Terkel

In Defense of Studs Terkel

Edward Rothstein separates Studs Terkel’s politics from his oral history, proving he doesn’t understand the man’s legacy at all.

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Reading Edward Rothstein’s sour commentary on Studs Terkel, I was surprised that Rothstein, presumably a sophisticated thinker, seems to believe one can separate one’s political views from a historical narrative, even from oral history: “It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history.”

It turns out that Rothstein is not complaining about the intrusion of Studs’s “political vision” into his oral histories. I doubt, knowing Studs pretty well, that he would deny that. Indeed, I suspect he would embrace it. Would he be proud of attempting (yes, attempting, because it cannot really be done) to be a neutral conduit of his interviewees’ thoughts?

No, what Rothstein resents is the specific character of this intrusion, that is, Studs’s political beliefs. On Studs’s oral history: “You grow cautious as you keep reading.” I’m inclined to think that Rothstein did not “grow” cautious but that he started out being cautious, on the alert for radical ideas, or worse, anything that might suggest Marxism.

Rothstein is disappointed in Studs, because “he seemed to be a scrappy liberal…but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism.” Rothstein is evidently a proud liberal, possibly scrappy. I suspect Terkel, were he still alive, would have approved what Norman Mailer wrote once to Playboy magazine:

I don’t care if people call me a radical, a rebel, a red, a revolutionary, an outsider, an outlaw, a Bolshevik, an anarchist, a nihilist, or even a left conservative, but please don’t ever call me a liberal.

Rothstein gives examples of Studs’s “radicalism.” These are positions so reasonable that they would give a good name to “radicalism,” just as McCain’s worry that Obama is “socialist” because he wants to redistribute wealth divests socialism of its worst connotations and makes it quite attractive. For instance, Rothstein objects to Terkel comparing FDR’s reaction to the Depression to Reagan’s reaction to economic distress, wherein Terkel says that FDR “recognized a need and lent a hand,” while Reagan “lends a smile.”

He doesn’t like the quote marks around Studs’s “The Good War” because “the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II’s shadows and injustices.” Would any reasonable and “balanced” assessment of that war not emphasize, precisely because that has been missing in the general romanticization of the “good war,” the “shadows and injustices”–Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, the segregation in the armed forces?

Rothstein finds that “nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory.” Should we be alarmed? I can understand why J. Edgar Hoover would be alarmed–but someone as well-educated as Edward Rothstein? Looking at the state of the world, observing capitalism self-destruct to the point where even the Wall Street Journal questions its viability, it would seem that it may be time to take a second look at “models shaped by Marxist theory.”

“The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories.” Is Rothstein one of those readers? Does he believe, does anyone believe, who has given some thought to the myth of “objective” history, that one can present history “without perspective”? Indeed, would that be desirable? Do we want from history, even oral history to be “just” a series of statements that suggest no perspective?

Rothstein worries that with Studs’s oral histories “one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen”…Surely, he must understand–unless he possesses a na¨i;veté we would never suspect in a New York Times writer–that one is never sure what is being omitted, and therefore we must always look beyond the words set before us. And no phenomenon is “fully seen,” so we try to see as much as we can, and add to the universe of knowledge, as Studs Terkel did so brilliantly, our little piece of truth.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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