Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Heartening Reviews from (Gasp!) The New York Times

There are two new Bush-basher tomes decorating the shelves of your local big box bookstores. That’s not news; such works are a dime a dozen — and over-priced at that. What makes these reviews unusual is the negative take on each author’s efforts…in the Times no less.

The first jolly read is by Lewis Lapham, PRETENSIONS TO EMPIRE :Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration. It appears to be a collection of his columns, and the tone is compared to Anne Coulter’s — every bit as shrill, but without the blond hair or stiletto heels (and, one might add, the shapely legs).

You don’t remember Lewis Lapham? Let me refresh your memory: this is the “journalist” who reported on the Republican National Convention before it happened. As the reviewer notes:

There’s one column that’s conspicuously absent from this collection, and that’s the one from September 2004, which included a brief account of the Republican National Convention. Lapham wrote it as if the convention had already happened, ruefully reflecting on the content and sharing with readers a question that occurred to him as he listened; unfortunately, the magazine arrived on subscribers’ doorsteps before the convention had even taken place, forcing Lapham to admit that the scene was a fiction. He apologized, but pointed out that political conventions are drearily scripted anyway — he basically knew what was going to be said. By this logic, though, I could have chosen not to read “Pretensions to Empire” before reviewing it, since I already knew Lapham’s sensibility, just as he claims to know the Republicans’. But I dutifully read the whole book. And I discovered, with some ironic poignancy, that Lapham did have a point: some people never acquire any more nuance as they go.

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Well, heavens to Dan Rather! Who’d have dreamed such shenanigans went on amongst liberals? And here I thought only conservatives were nefarious prevaricators.

This is not the only Lapham exercise in bile…I mean besides the mess he made out of Harper’s. In 2004, The New Criterion published a long essay of his entitled “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill.” (paid subscription required). Roger Kimball reprints part of his own review here, on TNC’s blog, Armavirumque:

Mr. Lapham’s essay is full of charts and tables detailing the nefarious flow of money to conservative causes. There is nothing new here: liberals have been “exposing” philanthropic support for conservative causes for years. Three billion dollars in thirty years—that’s a lot of money. But wait, doesn’t the Ford Foundation support a galaxy of left-wing causes with half a billion dollars every year? And what about the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the various MacArthur Foundations? (The J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation, Mr. Lapham neglects to mention, provides an annual subsidy of $2,150,000 to Harper’s.) What about, for that matter, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who through her foundations doled out $65 million to left-liberal causes in 2002?

In fact, liberal philanthropy outspends conservative philanthropy by at least a factor of 25 to 1. But that is immaterial to Mr. Lapham. For him, conservatives by definition do not support ideas, they support “propaganda.” Indeed, in the world according to Lapham, conservatives by definition are propagandists, never thinkers. Norman Podhoretz is “a rabid propagandist.” Irving Kristol, though charming and “bright” (thanks, Lewis!) is also a “propagandist” who betrayed his early Trotskyite commitments for filthy lucre: “the times changed, the winds of fortune shifting from east to west, and after a stint as a CIA asset in the 1950s, he had carried his pens and papers into winter quarters on the comfortably upholstered bourgeois right.”

According to Mr. Lapham, no conservative writes a book or article in order to say what he thinks is true; he does it at the behest of some nameless conservative power broker in order to advance a political interest. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations: you might have supposed these were thoughtful contributions to important issues of the day. Not a chance of it: Mr. Lapham reveals that they are merely “expensively purchased and cleverly promoted tracts.”

That’s it: liberals write even-handedly, telling truth to power (was there ever a more vapid slogan?). Conservatives, of course, write “tracts.” Any right-thinking — pardon me, correct-thinking — person knows this. Ask anyone. Start with, say, Barbara Boxer.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lapham is being nominated for top o’ the heap of Pseudo-Intellectuals of the last thirty years. Holy moly! That must be quite a list.

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Sidney Blumenthal’s book, “How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime,” appear to be a rehash of old columns. Considering their provenance — Salon and The Guardian — you could probably write these diatribes yourself. Just fill in the blanks. Whatever. The reviewer notes:

…There was a time when Blumenthal was an unpredictable writer and thinker (during his years at The New Republic, for instance), but by 1997, when he left The New Yorker to go work for the Clinton White House, his transformation to predictable partisan was more or less complete. During the Ken Starr years, Blumenthal was publicly accused by the journalist Christopher Hitchens of waging a covert campaign to portray Monica Lewinsky as a stalker; today, he seems to appreciate the value of special prosecutors a good deal more. His book is dedicated to Joseph C. Wilson IV, the American diplomat who publicly challenged Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to get yellowcake uranium from Niger…

I actually remember reading some of Blumenthal’s earlier writing. But he seemed to go off the rails after he left The New Republic. For that matter, the mag went off the rails long ago. I wonder what its circulations statistics are now?

Bluementhal doesn’t fare as badly in this review as does Lapham. And deservedly so. Those in power are not without their problems. However, she (the reviewer, Jennifer Senior), makes a most telling point about the Left, one that was a major reason I departed their ranks many years ago: except for Bill Clinton’s occasional riposte, they have no sense of humor. None. Zilch. Nada. Here is the reviewer's take on Blumenthal's noted lack:

It’s hard to trust a narrator who only and always assumes the worst. There’s a story Blumenthal tells about George W. Bush’s private tour of the brand-new Clinton library in Little Rock, during which the president apparently told his guide, “A submarine could take this place out.” (The structure juts out over the Arkansas River.) The observation sends Blumenthal into a reverie: “Was this a wishful paranoid fantasy of ubiquitous terrorism destroying Clinton’s legacy with one blow?” he asks. “Or a projection of menace and messianism, with only Bush grasping the true danger, standing between submerged threat and civilization?” Either is possible. But it’s also possible that the president was making a joke.

The left has often complained that what it needs isn’t polite speech, but voices as pungent as those on the right. Maybe so. But even the angriest people on the right tend to be funny. Books like this one are a depressing reminder of how important it is for writers to have a slight sense of humor about themselves, if they want to be taken at all seriously..

That’s the problem for the Left in a nutshell: they are humor-challenged, no wit to leaven things means that eventually you wind up witless. And that is the Left’s Achilles heel: a deep and abiding witlessness… combined with the poisonous self-righteousness of those who refuse to learn from history.

When I consider the possibility of Hillary’s ascendance to the throne, it’s depressing, not merely for her outmoded, fifty years' wrong and failed ideology, but even more so for her total lack of humor. But I suppose that will be the full-time labor of the First Guy — getting Her Frumpiness out of hot water with a few laughs to distract the journalists. If she’s smart, Bill will be her Press Secretary, too. And I suppose it will be a relief to both of them to return to the teat of "public service." Considering that neither of them has ever been gainfully employed (if you count Hillary's brief foray into a law practice, you're dreaming -- that's where she made her money in hog futures, remember?), it will be an emotional relief for both of them to return to the White House family quarters. They can take up where they left off, stealing whatever they missed last time around, and breaking the crockery over Bill's head. I can't wait for "Return of the Interns."


Wally Ballou said...

Actaully, TNR's circulation may have dropped because it was seen as "too conservative" for its traditional base - there was a brief neo-lib phase, but TNR has always been offically "liberal". They lost a lot of old readers when they supported the Iraq war. The moonbats need something comfortable to read, and The Nation picked up their lost readership.
This graph shows the story through 2003.

Wally Ballou said...

Update - this article in TAS talks about the contuinuing decline of TNR - now as rabidly left-wing as they can manage, but still circling the drain. Barely topped 50,000 in 2005.