Tag Archives: New York Times

The NYT Gets It Right — and, Even More Amazing, We Have an Open Letter For You to Sign!

4 Feb

The New York Times is out today with a strong condemnation of the NYS anti-boycott bill:

The New York bill is an ill-considered response to the American Studies Association resolution and would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent. Academics are rightly concerned that it will impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel. According to the American Association of University Professors, which opposes the association boycott and the retaliatory legislation, there is already a backlash, including in Georgia where a Jewish group compiled a “political blacklist” of professors and graduate students who supported the boycott.

Even more amazing, the Times manages to describe correctly a point of about the ASA boycott that has been particularly contentious:

The group said it would refuse formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who represent those institutions or the Israeli government until “Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.” The boycott does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary exchanges.

Thank you, New York Times! We’ve been trying to make this point about the institutional nature of the boycott for months now. At last the mainstream media has acknowledged it.

In other news, as a few outlets have reported, we seem to have stopped the bill from advancing—for now. Yesterday, the chair of the Assembly’s Higher Education committee of the Assembly, Deborah Glick, took the bill off her committee’s agenda, which effectively prevents it from moving forward. She has said, however, that she plans to resubmit it. So it’s not over, not by any stretch. But very good work by all of you who emailed and made phone calls over the weekend.

Henry Farrell and I have written an open letter about these state bills over at Crooked Timber. The purpose of the letter is to serve as a rallying cry for academics and citizens—on both sides of the academic boycott debate—across the country. Because the New York and Maryland bills may only be the first of many, we want to give people a template, with all the relevant links, to oppose this type of legislation wherever it may arise. Again, whether they are pro- or anti-boycott.

Some critical sections of our statement:

We write as two academics who disagree on the question of the ASA boycott. One of us is a firm supporter of the boycott who believes that, as part of the larger BDS movement, it has put the Israel-Palestine conflict back on the front burner, offering much needed strategic leverage to those who want to see the conflict justly settled. The other is highly skeptical that the ASA boycott is meaningful or effective, and views it as a tactically foolish and entirely symbolic gesture of questionable strategic and moral value.

This disagreement is real, but is not the issue that faces us today. The fundamental question we confront is whether legislatures should punish academic organizations for taking politically unpopular stands. The answer is no. The rights of academics to partake of and participate in public debate are well established. Boycotts are a long recognized and legally protected mode of political speech. The purpose of these bills, as some of their drafters admit, is to prevent organizations like the ASA from engaging in this kind of speech and to punish those organizations if they do—merely because the state disapproves of the content of that speech. For these and other reasons, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union have declared their opposition to these bills.

Please go to the Crooked Timber site, sign your name in the comments section, and then share the letter on FB, Twitter, and among your friends, family, and colleagues.

One Newspaper, Two Elections: The New York Times on America 2004, Venezuela 2013

15 Apr

In November 2004, 50.7% of the American population voted for George W. Bush; 48.3% voted for John Kerry.

The headline in the New York Times read: “After a Tense Night, Bush Spends the Day Basking in Victory.”

The piece began as follows:

After a long night of tension that gave way to a morning of jubilation, President Bush claimed his victory on Wednesday afternoon, praising Senator John Kerry for waging a spirited campaign and pledging to reach out to his opponent’s supporters in an effort to heal the bitter partisan divide.

“America has spoken, and I’m humbled by the trust and the confidence of my fellow citizens,” Mr. Bush told a victory party that was reconstituted 10 hours after it broke up inconclusively in the predawn hours. “With that trust comes a duty to serve all Americans, and I will do my best to fulfill that duty every day as your president.”

Flanked by his wife, Laura, and their daughters, Barbara and Jenna, and Vice President Dick Cheney and his family, Mr. Bush stood smiling and relaxed on a stage at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center to thank the campaign team that helped him to a decisive victory, outline his agenda and, 78 days before his second inauguration, speak somewhat wistfully of eventually returning home to Texas.

The Times “News Analysis” read as follows:

It was not a landslide, or a re-alignment, or even a seismic shock. But it was decisive, and it is impossible to read President Bush’s re-election with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as anything other than the clearest confirmation yet that this is a center-right country – divided yes, but with an undisputed majority united behind his leadership.

Fast forward to 2013. Tonight, 50.6% of the Venezuelan population voted for Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro; 49.1% voted for his opponent Henrique Capriles.

The Times headline this time: “Maduro Narrowly Wins Venezuelan Presidency.”

And here’s how the article begins:

Nicolás Maduro, the acting president and handpicked political heir to Hugo Chávez, narrowly won election to serve the remainder of Mr. Chávez’s six-year term as president of Venezuela, officials said late Sunday. He defeated Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who ran strongly against Mr. Chávez in October.

Election authorities said that with more than 99 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Maduro had 50.6 percent to Mr. Capriles’s 49.1 percent. The turnout, while strong, appeared to be somewhat below the record levels seen in October, a sign that Mr. Maduro may not enjoy the same depth of passionate popular support that Mr. Chávez did.

Update (1 am)

Nathan Tankus just pointed out on Twitter another point of comparison I missed: “I love the focus on ‘hand picked successor’. Pretty sure ‘son of former president’ sounds more nepotistic.” Nathan then updated that the phrase was “hand picked political heir,” which makes the comparison even starker!

New York Times: It’s Not Like Bradley Manning is O.J. Simpson or Something

6 Dec

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has criticized the Times‘ decision not to send a reporter to cover Bradley Manning’s pretrial testimony. Good for her. Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt, however, defends the paper’s decision.

We’ve covered him and will continue to do so. But as with any other legal case, we won’t cover every single proceeding. In this case, doing so would have involved multiple days of a reporter’s time, for a relatively straightforward story. The A.P. article recounting the main points of Mr. Manning’s testimony about his conditions of confinement that ran on page A3 of The Times conveyed fundamentally the same material as a staff story would have. And Charlie Savage covered his conditions of confinement, as they were being debated, in two previous articles: http://goo.gl/dvFV0, http://goo.gl/gYTX7.

Again, though, readers can definitely expect more coverage of Mr. Manning in the weeks to come.

Not so good for him.

Cause here’s the deal. Once upon a time, there was a trial involving O.J. Simpson. Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex-wife, was found dead on June 12, 1994. After that, the Times ran 494 stories—and that was before the jury had even been sworn in on November 2, 1994. Then the Times ran 453 stories—and that was before the prosecution even made its opening statement on January 4, 1995.  And then the Times ran 1110 stories—before the jury delivered its verdict on October 3.

The reporting pieces were written by senior Times staffers such as Seth Mydans, David Margolick, and Francis X. Clines. And the commentary elicited the efforts of William Safire, Russell Baker, Anna Quindlen, Frank Rich, Brent Staples, A.M. “Out of My Mind” Rosenthal, Michiko Kakutani, and more.

So I think Mr. Leonhardt can spare a reporter or two to tell us what Bradley Manning has to say.

Update (1 pm)

I should have mentioned this in my original post: If you want the whole story on Bradley Manning, you have to read Chase Madar’s book The Passion of Bradley Manning. Chase has been on this case for a long time; would that the Times took his lead.

The New York Times Takes Up The Reactionary Mind…Again

1 Feb

So The Reactionary Mind has made it into the New York Times for a third time. Writing in The Stone, the online section of the Times dealing with issues in contemporary philosophy, Gary Gutting, a philosopher at Notre Dame, weighs in on the debate the book has spawned:

Corey Robin’s new book presents conservatives as fundamentally committed to stopping “subordinate classes” from taking power from the ruling elite.  Conservatism, Robin says, holds that “the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity.”  Mark Lilla, however, has argued that Robin misrepresents the tradition of conservative thought.

Robin cites Edmund Burke: “The real object” of the French Revolution is “to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination.”   Conservatism derived from the fear that the liberal project of democracy would destroy all the traditional privileges of men over women, employers over workers, rich over poor, educated over uneducated, whites over other races, etc.

We are all today liberals in the sense that we accept universal political inclusion.  But we also tolerate and even support various forms of inequality, which amount to different degrees of political power.  Differences in wealth, education, job, gender, race and age all in fact correspond to differences in power.   Hardly anyone thinks all of these differences are bad, but conservatives on the whole think we have gone far enough or even too far in eliminating them, while liberals think that we are still far short of a proper distribution of power.

Many claim that the liberal-conservative division is over the role of government, with liberals supporting government intervention and conservatives opposing it.   But the real issue is not so much whether government should intervene as on which side it should intervene.  For the most part conservatives are, for example, quite in favor of government’s regulating the behavior of labor unions and limiting the ability of consumers to sue businesses, whereas liberals are generally opposed to these sorts of government interference.

I can’t quite tell if Gitting thinks he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me, but aside from some particulars, most of what he says in this passage is the basic argument of my book. And while I don’t agree with his conclusions at the end of the piece, I’m pleased by his framing of the issue.  What it signifies is that we may at last be having the debate I was hoping to have about the meaning of conservatism and what the disagreement between the right and left is really all about.

The New York Times Review of The Reactionary Mind: My Response

7 Oct

A review of The Reactionary Mind appears in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. It’s by Sheri Berman, a respected political scientist at Barnard and author of an important book on the origins and triumph of social democracy. It’s a negative review—which is unfortunate and unpleasant. But beyond matters of fortune and feelings, there is substance, and that calls for at least a provisional response.

In her opening paragraph, Berman writes:

A book documenting the wreckage and continually tracing the links between right-wing ideas, policies and outcomes would be a significant contribution to public debate. Unfortunately, Corey Robin’s “Reactionary Mind” is not that book.

My goal in writing The Reactionary Mind was to understand the right—not to criticize it or to show why it’s wrong, but to get inside its head, to examine its leading ideas and bring its sense and sensibility into focus. I did not aim to “document the wreckage” of the right or to trace the linkages between its “ideas, policies, and outcomes.” Nor did I intend, as Berman later writes, to “reveal the ideology’s flaws” or to provide an account “of the right’s role in contemporary American political dysfunction.” Least of all was I trying to explain why my “own side is on balance more deserving.”

Getting Burke Right

My book is a revisionist account of the conservative tradition. Because Edmund Burke is the father of that tradition, he figures prominently. I offer a heterodox reading of his work, which cuts against a conventional wisdom about him and the right that I’ve discussed and critiqued before. Berman is under no obligation to accept my view. But instead of showing why it’s wrong, she writes as if she hasn’t read it.

According to Berman, Burke’s conservatism consists simply of a desire to preserve existing institutions, whatever they might be. She writes:

[Burke] was concerned with preserving institutions that had been tested “in terms of history, God, nature and man,” as [Samuel] Huntington once wrote. This led him to defend Whig institutions in England and democratic institutions in America, since he believed they were each anchored in their particular societies and traditions.

But if Burke sought merely to preserve existing institutions, why did he scream to high heaven that “our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut”? Why did he say of those tried and tested Whig institutions that “our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects”? Why did he declare that the “ancient divisions” between Whig and Tory, which had created and once sustained those institutions, were “nearly extinct” and wonder “if any memory of such antient divisions still exists among us”?

Why did he work so tirelessly for a total war with France when he openly admitted that war “never leaves where it found a nation”? Why did he go to such lengths to explain to an émigré that any restoration of the French monarchy, which he favored, “would be in some measure a new thing” and would “labour under something of the weakness as well as other inconveniences of a Change”?

I understand why Berman holds the view she does; it’s what we’ve all been taught. But she has just read a book in which the author shows why that view is wrong and offers an alternative account: that Burke, like conservatives more generally, responds to democratic movements against regimes of privilege by reinventing those regimes, often by borrowing from the very movements he opposes. If Berman thinks the conventional version is right, she’s under some obligation to show why mine is wrong.

Evil Idiots

Berman asserts that I “portray America’s leaders as essentially a bunch of evil idiots.” In fact, I argue the opposite, as here, on p. 17 of the book:

It has long been an axiom on the left that the defense of power and privilege is an enterprise devoid of ideas….Liberal writers have always portrayed right-wing politics as an emotional swamp rather than a movement of considered opinion….Conservatives, for their part, have tended to agree.  It was Palmerston, after all, when he was still a Tory, who first attached the epithet “stupid” to the Conservative Party….Nothing, as we shall see, could be further from the truth. Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there.

I further argue that the Bush administration and its neoconservative enablers are the inheritors of the Romantic tradition. If I thought America’s leaders were a bunch of idiots, I would not have compared Donald Rumsfeld’s memos to Thomas Carlyle’s “Mechanical Age,” Richard Perle’s sensibility to Chateaubriand’s, and David Brooks to the leading figures of the Counter-Enlightenment. Nor would I have parsed Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address through the writings of Cardinal Richelieu, Learned Hand, and Francis Bacon. The title of my book is The Reactionary Mind, not The Mindless Reactionary.

Violence, War, and National Security

Berman misconstrues my argument about national security and its relationship to conservatism.  She writes:

Robin argues that the entire concept of national security lacks any meaning or validity and is merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples. Although the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq gives unfortunate credence to such views, Robin takes his arguments too far.

I don’t think, and certainly don’t argue, that national security is a meaningless concept; my claim is that it’s all too meaningful. Its central premise—the national interest—is the subject of intense contestation, in the US and elsewhere, precisely because nations are congeries of conflicting interests and values. Rather than rise above those conflicts, definitions of the national interest, and its cognate “national security,” are embedded in and reflect those conflicts.

National security is an “ambiguous symbol,” wrote international relations scholar Arnold Wolfers, which “may not have any precise meaning at all.” “May not have any precise meaning” is not the same as “lacks any meaning.” Believers often can’t pin a precise meaning on God yet God is a meaningful concept for them. Most meaningful concepts are imprecise: try coming up with an exact definition of love, friendship, or justice. Likewise, “contested” is not the same as meaningless or empty—a conflation, as H.L.A. Hart noted in his critique of Patrick Devlin, conservatives are all too liable to make.

Berman also claims that I think national security is “merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples.” But my argument in the book is something else altogether. In a nutshell: Because of its ambiguity, national security allows political actors to pursue a great variety of projects in its name: the reinforcement of gender norms, programmatic attacks on the rule of law, the accumulation of economic privileges, romantic notions of battle, and more. And because modern war, in Lukács’ words, insinuates itself into “the inner life of the nation,” various social institutions—the workplace, churches, schools, and more—get mobilized in the name of security. That allows the men and women who run these institutions to describe and defend the pursuit of their interests as contributions to the war effort.  Justifying violence and aggression is the least of it.

I devote some 30 pages to this argument, yet Berman does not address it.

Berman also fails to address the detailed evidence I produce in support of the claim that conservatives are “enlivened by” violence and that the notion of catastrophe is such that “the rules of evidence [regarding the imminent destruction of a nation] will be ignored.”

The first claim—about conservatism and violence—opens a 28-page chapter on the intimate relationship between the two. Using Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful as my urtext, I offer as proof that conservatives are enlivened by violence the testimony of the following voices from the right: Harold Macmillan, Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, Douglas MacArthur, George Santayana, Helmut von Treitschke, Michael Oakeshott, Russell Kirk, Roger Scruton, Robert Nisbet, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, John Adams, Joseph de Maistre, Georges Sorel, Carl Schmitt, Teddy Roosevelt, John C. Calhoun, Ernst Jünger, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benito Mussolini, and a great many figures in the Bush administration.

The second claim occurs in the midst of a dense five-page discussion—via Bacon, Richelieu, Hand, Michael Walzer, Bush, and Perle—of the following phenomenon: The more terrible a threat is to a nation’s well being (e.g., thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union), the less proof that nation’s government will require of the existence of that threat in order to take action against it. Flouting the rules of evidence in situations like the run-up to the Iraq War is not accidental or peculiar; some four centuries of theoretical and legal precedent can be invoked to justify it.

Again, Berman need not agree with these claims, but she is under some obligation to suggest why they’re wrong. Instead, she simply dismisses them as “vituperation” and “invective” that make “the reader eye’s roll.”

Populism versus Elitism

The one argument of my book to which Berman does devote some time and energy concerns the relationship between populism and the right. Given her work on fascism, I had hoped to learn something from Berman’s critique. Instead, she flies past my argument in pursuit of yet another straw man.

After writing that I believe conservatism is “an inherently elitist” ideology, Berman claims that that argument cannot account for the anti-elitist dimension of conservatism and that I “explain away right-wing populism as some sort of trick” to keep the masses in their place.

The problem here is that Berman seems to believe that elitism and populism are antipodal forms, where never the twain shall meet. Perhaps that’s why she overlooks my argument that elitism and populism are the mutually reinforcing, yet tension-ridden elements of a single project.

Rather than dismiss right-wing populism, I see it and describe it repeatedly throughout the book as fundamental—not just a recent phenomenon but coterminous with the entire tradition of the right. It assumes one of three forms, none of which involves false consciousness or conspiratorial trickery:

Democratic feudalism: Giving real, not imaginary, power to members of the lower orders to wield over people beneath them. This can happen in factories (supervisors), families (husbands/fathers), and fields (overseers, slave catchers, etc.) It can also happen in certain forms of nationalism and imperialism, in which the lower orders of one society get to wield real and symbolic power over all the orders of another.

Upside-down populism: Get the lower orders to identify with the higher orders, not through deception but through an emphasis on the one experience they share: loss. When the higher orders are toppled by a revolution, they become victims and thereby join the ranks of a common humanity: their losses are real, and as Burke realized, this can make them formidable claimants on the masses’ attention and sympathy.

Outsider politics: Because the conservative defense of privilege occurs in the wake of a democratic challenge, it must develop a new ruling class and “a new old regime,” in which the truly excellent—not the lazy inheritors of privilege but the very best men—rule. These men often hail from outside the traditional precincts of power, proving their mettle in one of three places: at the barricades of the counterrevolution, on the battlefield, and in the marketplace.

Yes, Palin—like Bush, Reagan, Nixon, and Agnew before her—makes much of her opposition to “liberal elites” in the Ivy League and the culture industries. That sort of rhetoric has been the hallmark of the American (and European) right throughout the twentieth century. But as virtually every historian of the American right has shown, right-wing anti-elitism has seldom been leveled, in policy or practice, at the real sources and centers of power and privilege in America. Quite the opposite: it often has cheered an upward transfer of resources. Indeed, can Berman cite one proposal of the McCain-Palin ticket that would have undermined the power of elites? Is she aware that many members of the Tea Party would like to repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct and popular election of senators? That they harbor, as empirical political scientists who’ve studied the Tea Party demonstrate, an unusually high degree of animus against racial minorities and immigrants?

Politic

For all of Berman’s insistence that my book is politically driven—The Reactionary Mind replicates the “breathless Manichean attitude” of Ann Coulter; it’s “a diatribe that preaches to the converted”—her main complaint seems to be that it is not politic enough. It’s not diplomatic or tactful; it doesn’t talk to “the people” the way a politician should.

The left’s central challenge, accordingly, is how to address the public’s real needs and get credit for doing so.

It’s an odd responsibility to assign to a work of scholarship: that it “connect with the people,” “reach out to ordinary citizens,” and “get credit for doing so.” Instead of marketing a palatable worldview, I was aiming to offer a fresh sense of an intellectual tradition. I also hoped that, if my argument were truly fresh, it might stir up an argument or two. While Berman’s review is, frankly, not the sort of argument I’d hoped for, I look forward to the dust-ups to come.

Making Love to Lana Turner on an Empty Stomach (and Other Things That Caught My Eye)

25 Jul

Kirk Douglas

In my first year of grad school, I read Naming Names, Victor Navasky’s study of the blacklist in Hollywood. That, and Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy, made me a permanent junkie for all things McCarthy. The blacklist was a shameful episode in American history, but it had its bright spots.  One of them was Kirk Douglas, who helped break it by insisting that the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo receive the screenwriting credit for Spartacus.  The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is now honoring the 94-year-old Douglas with its Freedom of Expression Award. Douglas discusses his experiences with Spartacus—as well as being Jewish in Hollywood—here.  Best quote from Douglas: “I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

A Sculpture of Two Women Kissing

Bill DeresiewiczOne of my favorite critics is Bill Deresiewicz. He’s got a newish book on Jane Austen, writes reviews for the Nation, and blogs at The American Scholar. “Severity of judgment is a great virtue,” wrote Blake, and Deresiewicz’s judgments are severe. But he’s also an irrepressible enthusiast, capable of a tremendous warmth and generosity of spirit that are infectious. As you can see in his take on who the real Greatest Generation is, and the monument to them he’d like to see in DC: “a sculpture of two young women kissing—right there, right on the National Mall.”

Terrorist or Talmudic Scholar

Islamophobia is hardly new, but the terrorist attacks in Norway have  shone new light on it and the hard-right ideologues in the US  (and elsewhere) who promote it. The attention is welcome, but this lead in today’s New York Times—in a piece strangely titled “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.” (“thought” seems an awfully fancy word for what goes on in those corners of the blogosphere; would the Times call something comparable “Anti-Semitic Thought”?)—caught my eye:

The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them, as well as copying multiple passages from the tract of the Unabomber.

“Warned” is a peculiar choice. Warnings tend to come from one of two quarters: those with authority (cops) or those with vision (Cassandras).  These racist anti-Muslim bloggers have neither. “Warned” grants them both, suggesting they are in a position to see something coming down the road that the rest of us can’t, won’t, or don’t see. That combination of “small group” and “for years” only enhances the suggestion, conveying a sense of a lonely band of brothers, prophets without honor in their own country, steadfastly preaching the word to those who can’t, won’t, or don’t listen.  Then there’s that “deeply influenced,” as if the terrorist were a Talmudic scholar, immersing himself in the texts of Ibn Ezra late into the night.

If you think I’m making too much of this, just imagine reading the following sentence about Mohamed Atta a few days after 9/11:

The man accused of leading the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was deeply influenced by a small group of Arab bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from American power…

Idiot/Savant

One of the most painful scenes to behold is an encounter—a conversation, debate, colloquy—between  individuals of mismatched intellect. In the past week, I’ve had occasion to witness two.

Wendy KoppDiane Ravitch is an educational historian and former under secretary of education; Wendy Kopp is the founder of Teach for America. No one knows more about education in America than Ravitch; no one knows more about hucksterism than Kopp. Ravitch is sharp, Kopp a charlatan. The two were brought together at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Take a look, have a listen, and pour yourself a drink.

Janet MalcolmJanet Malcolm is one of the smartest, shrewdest, and most disturbing voices in American journalism today. Katie Roiphe made herself famous in the 90s with an anti-feminist attack on the idea of date rape, which Katha Pollitt summarily dispatched in the New Yorker. She has since tried to reinvent herself as a woman of letters.  She could give Norman Podhoretz—of Making It fame—a run for his money (except that Podhoretz really did hoist himself up the greasy pole of success; Roiphe has always depended on the kindness of connections). Malcolm and Roiphe were brought together by the Paris Review. Have a look, and pour yourself another drink.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Freshman English. Or So Says the NYT.

9 Jul

Ever since I read Dwight Macdonald’s essay “Masscult and Midcult”—in Andrew Ross’s excellent undergraduate seminar on intellectuals and popular culture, which formed the basis for his equally excellent book No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture—I’ve known better than to complain about the literary tastes of the mainstream media. But this list (h/t Michael Busch) of what the staff at the New York Times Magazine considers to be “the best fiction of all time” brought me up short.

Dwight Macdonald

It’s not just that the staffers had a lengthy debate as to which was better:  Lolita or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Nabokov v. Chabon?  Really?)  Nor is it that they were debating which of these two books is the finest novel of all time (ahead, one gathers, of Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, and so on.)

No, what made me wince is the list of books each of the staffers proposed as his or her personal candidate for “the best fiction of all time.”  Nominees included: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse Five, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Great Gatsby.

What do these novels have in common (aside from being written in the 20th century)? I read them in high school.  (Except for A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I’ve never read; I have, however, read The World According to Garp.  In high school.) Indeed, the author of the Times piece writes, “Tenth-grade English teachers all over the country can congratulate themselves on a job well done.”  Though judging by the preceding sentence (“The biggest lesson learned from this exercise are that we have some high-falutin’ readers in this office”), I gather he has something else in mind.

These books—again, with the exception of Owen Meany—aren’t masscult or midcult, though there’s plenty of that on the list, starting with Chabon himself, too.  What they are is starter novels for new readers.  Or, as it turns out, favorite novels of terminal readers, who’ll never pick up another good book again.

Contra Macdonald, it seems that the literary taste of the mainstream media is neither highbrow nor lowbrow; it’s just juvenile, a syllabus of arrested development.

In Which the NY Times Suddenly Decides It Respects Noam Chomsky

4 Jul

Noam Chomsky

The Times ran a serious and substantive story two days ago about Noam Chomsky’s attempt to persuade Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to free a judge from house arrest. Look out for tomorrow’s follow-up story, in which Ethan Bronner devotes a respectful 600 words to Chomsky’s thoughts on the Gaza Flotilla.

What We Don’t Get

2 Jul

The Times asks Harry Jaffa to review a new translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. We got lots of heavy breathing about Leo Strauss (“the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century”), the crisis of modernity, and Athens v. Jerusalem. What don’t we get? A review of the Ethics or this translation.

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