Tag Archives: Victor Navasky

Market Morals: Nietzsche on the Media, Adam Smith and the Blacklist

2 Apr

On self-censorship in the media:

Making use of petty dishonesty.—The power of the press resides in the fact that the individual who works for it feels very little sense of duty or obligation. Usually he expresses his opinion, but sometimes, in the service of his party or the policy of his country or in the service of himself, he does not express it. Such little lapses into dishonesty, or perhaps merely a dishonest reticence, are not hard for the individual to bear, but their consequences are extraordinary because these little lapses on the part of many are perpetrated simultaneously. Each of them says to himself: ‘In exchange for such slight services I shall have a better time of it; if I refuse such little acts of discretion I shall make myself impossible’. Because it seems almost a matter of indifference morally whether  one writes one more line or fails to write it, perhaps moreover without one’s name being attached to it, anyone possessing money and influence can transform any opinion into public opinion. (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, § 447)

On the invisible hand in the blacklist:

According to the prevailing folklore, our lives, our liberty, our pursuit of happiness are creatures of our diversity. This was a political elaboration on Adam Smith’s economic proposition that the pursuit of individual self- results in the public good. Or, as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, a society “broken into so many part, interests and classes of citizens” was the best guarantee of civil and political rights.

This theory of countervailing powers had a pleasant symmetry. And yet, after HUAC arrived in Hollywood, it didn’t seem to work. Each element of the community indeed sought its own goals, worked for its own ends, fought for its own interests, yet the result was not a series of benign cancellations of evil….The clash of private interests resulted not in the public interest’s being served but in the blacklist.

The blacklist experience suggests that the old assumption that the public interest is composed of the sum of private interests just doesn’t work. We learn from our study of Hollywood’s guilds, trade associations, agents, lawyers, religious and civic organizations, and the industry itself that the utilitarian ethic, and the liberal individualism it presupposes, wasn’t good enough.When each organization operated in its own interest, the sum of private interests turned out not to equal the public interest. A flaw in the calculus of pluralism. Adam Smith doesn’t work in the marketplace of moral issues. (Victor Navasky, Naming Names, pp. 146, 423-424)

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,763 other followers