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November 17, 2003

The LA Times Book Review and Me

Dear Friedrich --

Do you follow the LATimes Book Review Section? It's edited by Steve Wasserman, who's quite the serious fellow; the section is earnest and intellectual, furiously intelligent and morally-bullying -- ie., far more New York in tone than West Coast. This week's issue strikes me as typical; its informal theme appears to be "leftists vs. the left." A few examples (none of them available online, unfortunately):

* From a review by Michael Kazin of Susan Braudy's new book about Weather Underground gal Kathy Boudin:

How many know that one of the ringleaders of the failed insugency, Kathy Boudin, was the daughter of a brilliant, philandering lawyer, Leonard Boudin, once famous for defending accused Communist spies as well as Paul Robeson, Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg? Or that her mother stuck by her man, even inviting his lovers to cocktail parties, then tried to commit suicide? Or that her brother Michael rebelled by becoming a federal judge with strongly conservative views? ... From the 1930s through the 1950s, Leonard Boudin used his talents to serve a party that blinded itself to the awesome butchery of Lenin and Stalin. Then his daughter persuaded herself that the cause of liberation required her to blast apart a bathroom in the U.S. Capital. .. The whole New Left was a movement famously led by privleged young people who clashed with their parents. Many, like Boudin were 'red-diaper babies.'

* From a Christopher Hitchens review of a new David Horowitz book:

Quarrels on the left have a tendency to become miniature treason trials, replete with all kinds of denunciation. There’s a general tendency -- not by any means confined to radicals but in some way specially associated with them -- to believe that once the lowest motive for a dissenting position has been found, it must in some way be the real one ... No matter what the shortcomings of U.S. policy may have been in the post-2001 crisis, it is clear at least to me that much of the left has disgraced itself either by soft-headed neutralism or, in the case of a very noticeable minority, by something rather like open sympathy for the enemies of civilization ... There really is a cultural layer, in academia as well as outside it, that considers Joseph McCarthy to have been far more opprobrious than Josef Stalin...

Well, heaven praise Hitchens for being so sensible. But still: There's nothing quite like lefties when they start blazing away at each other, is there? Back when we were kids dipping our toes in the NYC arts-and-ideas worlds, did you expect to find this kind of thing to be quite as common as it in fact turned out to be? All these vicious, often ad-hominem debates over minuscule pieces of leftist turf -- I found it hard to believe that anyone could take them seriously. Hey, it's a big country; room enough here for plenty of points of view -- such was my initial reaction.

But these people seemed to feel it was a matter of life or death to prevail. These debates concern me so little; I've got no instinct or feeling for them and no background in them. Still, I don't mind making a little effort -- when in Rome, etc. So I studied up a bit and did my best to find the spectacle entertaining. But it always struck me as peculiar too: to whom, outside certain tiny circles, could any of this really matter?

My naivete, of course. Little did I understand that caring deeply about these issues was a prerequisite; if you didn't care deeply about these debates, then (as far as this world was concerned) you didn't qualify as a serious person. But even that baffled me: here I was, apparently being evaluated as a potentially serious person, and being found wanting. Yet how odd: I hadn't been aware of applying for admittance to anything. I'd merely shown up to take part in -- and perhaps even have some fun with -- the culture world. But I was getting the message that I was failing the entrance exam to an exclusive, if bizarre, private school.

In any case: Hooo-ee, was I ever in over my head. Took me years, for instance, to pull myself together and find out what a "red-diaper baby" is -- not too many red-diaper babies to be found in the small town in western NY state where I grew up. (Not too many Democrats to be found there, come to think of it.) And what did I care about these outsiders-squabbling-with-other-outsiders matters? Wish 'em all well, but I grew up in the heartland, am white, male, and heterosexual, and am the offspring of families that arrived in the U.S. in the 1600s and 1700s. The only thing that makes me even a bit of an outsider is that I like the arts. Otherwise I'm about as alien as a piece of apple pie.

So I'd attend these parties or witness these discussions and think: imagine people squaring off against each other over such topics! Imagine thinking it important to pick sides in such debates! When, Lordy, none of it meant a thing to me. Oops, that's right: if I wanted to take part in "culture," at least the writing-and-ideas end of culture, I had to care. But I just didn't, and couldn't, care. Which seemed to mean to the people I now lived and worked around that not only wasn't I a serious person, but that I couldn't possibly be an arts-and-ideas kind of guy. Not a real one, anyway. Because real arts-and-ideas people care deeply about such things.

Do you suppose these debates still matter to many people outside the academic and nonprofit worlds? And how do you react to the LATimes Book Review Section these days? I've run into a few SoCal residents who've told me that the LATimes Book Review Section is their one beacon of true culture in the vast west coast wasteland. Of course, these are probably very serious people.



posted by Michael at November 17, 2003


Seeing how the majority of people who buy newspapers these days do so for the coupons inside, I’d have to say such debates are falling in the area of academic and nonprofit worlds. That is until someone in Hollywood is looking for a movie idea. If a movie comes out of it most likely it will just gloss over key points and motives and they’ll try to make a “human story” out of it that lacks substance or historical truth.

At first glance I am aware of the history of that time period, however, I have no idea who some of the characters are. From the tone and direction it’s a good thing Newspapers have coupons inside.

Odd to me how reflective on days past these writings have become.

What is truly important that should be addressed today?
The chances democracy will take in Iraq?
Is Bush Jr. going to be a one term president?

"If I had to predict, the way things are going, I'd say the chances are about 50-50 that humanity will be extinct or nearly extinct within 50 years," Turner said. "Weapons of mass destruction, disease, I mean this global warming is scaring the living daylights out of me." Ted Turner

Posted by: shipshape on November 17, 2003 8:43 PM

And how do you react to the LATimes Book Review Section these days? Do you suppose the Wasserman-esque debates it features matter much to many readers in Los Angeles?

I love books. I live in LA and have read the LA Times for much of my life. I've never found the book review to be anything other than a thinly-veiled excuse to discuss anything but books. It's a highly efficient vacuum for sucking the fun out of reading. I've found much to enjoy in the New York Review of Books and the NYT's Book Review, so I can take a fair amount of politicking along with my book reviews. But the LATimes's book review stands alone in its joylessness, its utter disregard for the reasons most of us pick up books.

Posted by: Alan Bickford on November 17, 2003 10:08 PM

I just realized that I had plumb forgotten that the LA Times _has_ a book review section.

Steve Sailer,
Los Angeles

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 18, 2003 5:06 AM

I've read the L A Times' Book Review section for years, mostly as a sort of picture-window into a particular mentality, the left wing political-artistic complex. And yes, in many ways, I would say that the L.A. Times' Book Review section has been more faithful to the LWPA complex than that of the N Y Times Book Review section has been. (Granted, since the L. A. Times was sold a few years ago the politics have been toned down, but previously, in its heyday, the Book Review section was more reliably hard-left than the L. A. Times' editorial page--and that was an institution that used to reliably print the musings of Robert Scheer (Vietnam-era student radical and boyfriend of the op-ed page editor) as well as a collection of truly looney urban legend editorial columns in which the most paranoid visions of the African American community could be aired.

As for the Red Diaper Babies and the McCarthy era and the New Left...I was never sure whether American Communism was a rival to or more a variant of Judaism (despite the party's explicit policy of never permitting a Jew to serve as its head.) The long entanglement between the American Communist Party and the Jewish community (my own, by the way) has led to many displaced feelings and tortured arguments over the years, pro and con. I believe that the outrage, still bubbling in some quarters (like Hollywood) over the McCarthy hearings, the blacklist, the Rosenberg trial, etc., was the result of a conflation of anti-Communism with anti-Semitism. Otherwise the complete willingness of the outraged to take note that the so-called victims of this "witch hunt" were supporters of Stalinism and thus about the most appropriate witches to be hunted in history is hard to explain.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 18, 2003 10:54 AM


In America, many of Communism's staunchest opponents were also Jewish. Today, our most prominent conservatives are Jewish, and they share a commitment to human freedom along with a hatred of socialism, communism and fascism.

Three out of three ain't bad.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 18, 2003 2:21 PM

I'm not making any blanket comment about Judaism or the political leanings of all Jews. (Remember, I'm Jewish and a conservative myself.) I'm just remarking on the--I think uncontroversial --notion that the whole issue of anti-Communism was a touchy subject for Jews because most Amercian communists were Jews. And I think it is equally uncontroversial that some anti-Communism was tinged, for some bigots, with anti-Semitism.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 18, 2003 5:01 PM

I'm just remarking on the--I think uncontroversial --notion that the whole issue of anti-Communism was a touchy subject for Jews because most Amercian communists were Jews.

Like Alger Hiss? A history of the Communist Party in America reveals an uncommon number of guilt-ridden WASP oligarchs (as Whittaker Chambers revealed in Witness).

You're right to note that in the 1950s, anti-communism was often linked to anti-Semitism. That's where we got the idea that a large number of American communists were also Jewish.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 20, 2003 3:18 PM

At the same time, an amazingly high percentage of American communists and radicals were Jewish.

As were, come to think of it, an amazingly high percentage of the leaders of '60s left radicalism. Hey, here's a good Stanley Rothman book about how the earlier-in-the-century (often Jewish) radicals gave birth to the (often Jewish) leaders of the '60s radicals. Fascinating sociological stuff, maybe especially if you lived thru the '60s.

Why should it be that so many American radicals were Jewish? Rothman offers a number of explanations. The one I retain best is that Jews who go secular often seem to flip for radical quasi-theologies such as Communism or Freudianism; he notes that (if I remember right) Jews who remain religiously Jewish are often quite conservative, and remain so. Many of those who go secular, though, seem to feel an overwhelming need to devote themselves to something radical, something ... rather like a religion.

Which, just to rattle on for a sec, reminds me of some thoughts I had years ago when I was wrestling with Freudianism and Marxism. The better I understood them, the more they seemed to me to be secular projections of Judaism -- they're both redemptive theologies with structures that parallel each other (working class equals the unconscious, for instance). They certainly aren't sciences; they're mesmerizing moral mythologies with prophet originator figures -- er, Moses, anyone?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 20, 2003 5:04 PM

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