Sunday, July 11, 2004


In this weekend's New York Times Book Review, Alan Wolfe looks at contemporary books on politics and declares that they're deficient as books, and therefore beneath him. He then notes that they resemble the partisan pamphlets of early America, so he decides to examine them as pamphlets -- for no reason, apparently, because he clearly believes that pamphlets are beneath him as well. In fact, any passionate expression of a political opinion is beneath him, and ought to be beneath you, too. ("If the only choice we have is between no politics and vituperative politics, the latter is -- just barely -- preferable.")

To give him his due, Wolfe is appropriately appalled at the fact that Ann Coulter once speculated on a Democratic ticket consisting of Al Gore and Gray Davis and called it "the only compelling argument yet in favor of friendly fire." But he apparently sees no difference between this and the statement by T. D. Allman (in Rogue State: America at War with the World) that the Bush administration has pursued a "middle-finger foreign policy."

It's all equally awful to Wolfe -- a mildly colorful metaphor and a literal wish that opposition figures will be shot and killed. But why should he bother distinguishing one from the other? All that matters is that they're both signs of our fall from grace. The Eden we've left behind is one in which "an American Establishment, a bipartisan group of bankers, politicians and journalists ... shaped the contours of national opinion" and "decided which television programs we would watch and how much dissent we would permit." Sounds swell, doesn't it?

Eden existed "before Watergate and the collapse of Vietnam," yet for some reason "the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs"; given that cable news didn't become contentious until the mid-1990s and blogs came along somewhat later, it's not clear what sort of limbo we were in from Nixon's resignation until the debut of The O'Reilly Factor.

You and I know, of course, what went on in those years: The rise of the liberal-bashing Reagan, and then, with his departure, the ascendancy of Rush Limbaugh and his imitators. Wolfe, like most mandarins, thinks nasty rhetoric, even between hard covers, was invented by Ann Coulter and Michael Moore; I don't imagine it ever occurred to him to crack a copy of Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be, which is now a dozen years old and is the Ur-text, the template for all the polemics, right and left, that followed.

I don't recall hearing much from Wolfe when nearly all the nastiness was coming from the right; like most mainstream elitists, he became distressed only when liberals started fighting back. Will it surprise you if I point out that he focuses on nine liberal books and only five conservative ones?

The Book Review used to ignore nasty political books, even the ones that needed to be discussed because they were setting the terms of the national debate. Now the Book Review says that such books are pretty much all alike, and we'd be better off without the whole damn lot of them. That's not much of an improvement.

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