Why read Time?

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Plus the Altercation Book Club

I've got a new "Think Again" column here, called "Radio Marti: "Hecka of a Job, Kenny."

Brendan Nyhan is having his fifteen seconds of mini-fame over at Time.com, here, because he was let go by The American Prospect. He is posing as a martyr to free speech, but I don't think I've ever read a sillier argument for victimization.

The argument seems to be that The Prospect, a little liberal magazine of extremely limited means, should be compelled to support arguments that not only undermine the magazine's political commitments but do so on the basis of a mindless commitment to "on-the-one-handism" that currently dominates mainstream mores but has next-to-no basis in reality. Look, the far right is in control of this country's political institutions and much of the media. It is using those institutions to invade nations, shred the Constitution, declare war on journalism and free speech, torture innocent people and deny them due process, unleash unprecedented environmental destruction, and undermine the entire basis of empirical scientific inquiry when it conflicts with its ideological prerogatives (and funders' profits). The left runs a few faculty departments, a few cities (mostly in university towns), a few little magazines (of which TAP is one), and parts of Hollywood -- though not the part that, say, invests $40 million to lie to the American people, commercial-free, on behalf of the Bush administration's lies about 9-11 -- and not much else. But Nyhan expected to be paid by TAP to make arguments that implicitly argue that say, a silly statement by a Hollywood actor or independent director deserves the same scrutiny as a lie by the president, vice president, secretary of defense, secretary of state, or attorney general. It's like a doctor saying, "Well, you have liver cancer, but let's talk about that gut; you're three pounds overweight"; or a FEMA official saying, "Well, there's going to be a hurricane in New Orleans that will destroy all the levees, but it's also drizzling in my backyard and I can't decide if I need to water my garden." The archetype of this argument is something that almost all mainstream reporters appear to believe which is something like, "Yes, Bush misled the country into a dangerous, destructive war that is killing thousands, making us more insecure, costing us trillions and ruining our reputation around the world, but at least he's not lying about blow jobs."

It's not that it's factually wrong; it's merely intellectually silly. But it's destructively silly the way liver cancer is destructive if left untreated while you're worried about how to lose five pounds off your gut. TAP was wrong to hire him in the first place, but they rectified their mistake by admitting and letting him go. If Nyhan wants to make his name by parroting the mindlessness of mainstream discourse, he belongs not in TAP but in Time, where he can be joined by his ally, Andrew Sullivan, who argues here that "The Left's Thought Police," here, have been picking on poor Brendan.

Remember, Andy's idea of political judgment is to accuse anyone who understood years ago what he has finally come to understand now of being a member of a "decadent fifth column." His idea of the proper form of ideological diversity in a magazine is to embrace the racist pseudoscience of Charles Murray, the barking lunacy of Camille Paglia, and the destructive lies of Betsy McCaughey.

That Nyhan's whine appears on Time.com, seconded by Andy, raises another, far more important question: Should liberals swear off Time magazine entirely? I say this sadly because its current editor, Rick Stengel, is my old friend, and I know him to be a decent person with decent politics. I knew Jim Kelly, his predecessor, to be the same, and Kelly's predecessor, Walter Isaacson, was also my good friend and also, politically, a perfectly reasonable fellow. I don't know John Huey, their boss, but people who do tell me he gives no impression of being a right-wing ideologue. So maybe it's just a marketing strategy. Maybe it's an accident. Whatever it is, over the past decade, Time has added one commentator after another who viciously abuse liberals -- lying and manipulating the evidence to do so -- and offered nothing at all by way of "balance." Charles Krauthammer, Joe Klein, and Andrew Sullivan all engage in anti-liberal McCarthyism as a matter of course. And Margaret Carlson, its last liberal, got fired -- apparently on orders by Huey. Now Time.com, which features Little Roy as its most visible voice, has added yet another right-wing blog to its stable, Real Clear Politics. The magazine does not feature a single liberal voice, and the website's only liberal is a gossip writer who made her name with stories about "ass-fucking." (Yes, I know, I'm repeating myself. See primarily here.)

But I've never asked this question before. My earlier blog posts and columns about Time got a lot of attention. Time is well aware of its imbalance. And yet, all it has done since the problem has been called to its attention is to make it worse. Newsweek, as I also keep pointing out, is nothing like this. George Will is a right-winger but a much less lockstep Bush ideologue than Krauthammer (as well as a much more felicitous writer). And he is balanced by Anna Quindlen. Robert Samuelson is pretty conservative, but Jonathan Alter is pretty liberal. So is Eleanor Clift. It's not that it's a liberal magazine; it went crazy over Clinton's blow jobs. But in contrast to Time, where liberals exist only for the purposes of abuse, at Newsweek they are given a fair opportunity to make their case.

So I ask again: Why read Time? Why embrace our own abuse? Hasn't that been a big part of our problem for the past three decades; we love our muggers too much? What do we get from Time, aside from attacks, that we can't get from Newsweek, which presents the same down-the-middle reporting without the vicious, unsourced, indefensible, anti-liberal vitriol that dominates its commentary pages? Does anyone have an answer? Believe me, I don't say any of this lightly.

And by the way, none of this means that liberals should not criticize other liberals. I do it all the time. In fact, I feel one coming on ...

Charlie Rangel could hardly be more wrong if that's what he were trying to do (here ). You don't have to agree with what Chavez said to appreciate his right to say it. And, for the record, Rangel was wrong about Chavez coming into "my congressional district" -- Chavez made his comments at the United Nations, which is not technically even in the United States. I'm not bothered by what Chavez said, however outlandish. I am, however, bothered by the suggestion that he doesn't have the right to say it.

I got a chance to talk to ex-President Clinton last night at a party the Clinton Global Initiative threw for the press, though I actually saw a lot more bloggers there than reporters). Anyway, I mostly engaged Clinton on the topic of David Remnick's New Yorker profile of him, which, when I read it, struck me as nearly superhuman -- among the best half-dozen or so profiles I can ever remember reading, merely in terms of reporting and writing technique, which left me open-mouthed, awestruck, although I disagreed, intellectually, with much of its content and focus. Clinton, naturally, focused on the latter and offered up some cogent criticisms of the piece, especially in those areas where he felt it reflected some of the more reflexive MSM attitudes toward his presidency, particularly for someone who had written -- and again, I'm paraphrasing Clinton -- so brilliantly and originally about the Soviet Union. I've gone on record a few times calling David the profession's single most talented (and diligent) writer/reporter. (He's also a famously great guy, which is no mean feat when everybody's always telling you what a great guy you are.)

But if you read the piece, I think Clinton had a fair point. Back in the '90s, I was among those liberals who frequently criticized Clinton for not fighting harder for progressive priorities. But these battles need to be seen in context. Yes, Clinton could and should have done a lot more about a lot of things -- most painfully and particularly Rwanda -- but look at the context. Look at that lunacy he was up against, and which is now in power. Yes, he should have done more about AIDS in Africa, but where in the political system was there any significant support for this? The same goes for single-payer health insurance, and by the way, for going after bin Laden, whose threat to which, I, like many liberals, moderates and conservatives, paid no attention whatever. Good intentions without effective politics are a form of personal vanity. Clinton had to pick his battles. I disagree with many of those choices, but it's not fair to hold him responsible for not seeing, at the time, what almost no one did either.

But anyway, read the profile if you can, but it's not online, alas.

I don't see how anyone can complain about the Council on Foreign Relations' decision to invite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, here. We need to ask the man questions, don't we? What was unforgivable, I thought, was when the Council allowed itself to be used as a backdrop for a Bush speech where no questions were allowed. All those fancy people allowed themselves to be used as extras in a propaganda ploy. Say what you will about Mr. Ahmadinejad, he's not afraid to take tough questions, unlike some irresponsible, ideologically obsessed, dangerously dishonest warmongers we know.

Quote of the Day: "Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself. The country thought Bush was a pleasant, down-to-earth guy who would not rock the boat. Instead, swayed by some inner impulse or the influence of Dick Cheney, he has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution. " -- David Broder.

Um, two things, Dave:

1) "The country" did not elect Bush, bub. The Supreme Court did. Bush lost the popular vote, remember?

2) And remember this?

"Democrats will have no difficulty finding rhetoric and policy stands by both Cheneys that will raise liberal hackles," he noted in a July 26, 2000, Washington Post op-ed. "But his manner gives him immunity from the extremist label. Voters who saw his televised briefings during the Persian Gulf War remember the calm voice and thoughtful expression that are his natural style." By choosing a man whom Broder considered "a grownup" to be his vice president, Broder wrote, Bush "gave evidence of his own sense of responsibility."

You can find it here.

Who is a Jew?

[George] Allen's heritage became an issue in the Virginia Senate campaign Monday, when television reporter Peggy Fox raised it at a televised debate in front of 600 business executives in Fairfax County. Allen repeated what he has said in the past: "My mother's French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her. And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian."

In fact, Allen had just recently learned about their Jewish roots when he made those comments. Allen declined to comment, but his mother said she had sworn him to secrecy.

More here.

Like Judah Benjamin, Allen appears to be the kind of Jew who swears a curious fealty to the Confederacy. In any case, this ought to be fun.

The Altercation Book Club:

The following is from The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday) by Damon Linker:

The End of Secular Politics

George W. Bush has gone out of his way to blur the line between religion and politics in America -- this is acknowledged by his strongest supporters no less than by his most strident critics. What is much less widely recognized is how extensive these efforts have been. The president has nominated judges who advocate a greater role for religion in the public life of the nation. He has created a network of offices throughout the Washington bureaucracy whose task is to direct billions of dollars in annual grants to churches, synagogues, and mosques. He has acted to curtail abortion rights at home and abroad. He has endorsed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He has thrown his support behind "abstinence-only" sex education in public schools. He has empowered the Federal Communications Commission to levy massive fines against television and radio stations that broadcast "indecent" material. He has strictly limited government funding for embryonic stem-cell research. He encouraged Congressional Republicans to intervene in the "right to die" case of Terri Schiavo. And he routinely describes the United States as a nation on a messianic mission to spread democracy and "end tyranny in our world."

Taken together, this extraordinary list of policies and statements represent a concerted, coordinated effort by the executive branch of government to advance a religious agenda -- and even to move the political culture of the nation in an explicitly religious direction. The president himself has admitted as much. In an on-the-record conversation at the White House with a group of religious editors and writers in May 2004, Bush declared that "the job of a president is to help cultures change" -- and that the government can bring about such a cultural transformation by "standing with those who have heard a call to love a neighbor." The direct funding of religious organizations, for example, "recognizes that there is an army of compassion that needs to be nurtured, rallied, called forth, and funded" by the state. In undertaking such explicitly religious projects, the government plays an important, even essential role in "changing society one soul at a time."

Though his supporters emphatically deny it, Bush's extensive advocacy of religion is unprecedented in American history. It is so exceptional, in fact, that as his second term enters its final years most political analysts remain disoriented, unsure what to make of the president's push to increase the power and presence of religion in the United States. By far the most common explanation points to evangelical Protestants and their ascendancy as a potent force in American politics since the early 1980s. According to one version of the story, the president and his political strategist Karl Rove have deliberately (and cynically) cultivated the evangelical vote by telling conservative Protestant voters what they want to hear. Bush's decision to champion several items on the social conservative agenda, like his ample use of religious rhetoric in his speeches, is thus merely an example of political expediency. A second version of the evangelical story focuses on the depth of the president's own piety. For those who prefer this account (including the president himself), Bush's religious policies and rhetoric should be seen as an outgrowth of his "born-again" experience in the 1980s. Simply put, Bush is himself an evangelical Protestant working to foist his idiosyncratic faith on the nation.

That evangelicals have played an important role in the rise of theological politics in the United States is undeniable. Yet their influence has been far less decisive than the mainstream media would have us believe. As I argue in the pages that follow, the overtly religious policies and rhetoric of the Bush administration have been inspired by an ideology derived from Roman Catholicism. With its deep historical roots and universalistic aims, Catholic political and cultural ideas provide George W. Bush and likeminded politicians in the Republican Party with a nondenominational language and morality that appeals to a wide array of Americans, transcending any one demographic group. This language and morality has gone a long way toward unifying the conservative movement, and many on the right clearly believe it has the potential to permeate American political culture to such an extent that the separation of church and state as we have known it will cease to exist.

Conservative writer Joseph Bottum has sent out the clearest warning, asserting that those who fear the rise of public religiosity are "right to be afraid." Non-Catholic ways of talking and thinking about morality -- be they secular liberalism, nonreligious strains of conservatism, or "emotive evangelicalism" -- are on the verge of losing "the battle to set the nation's rhetoric." According to Bottum, advocates of these outmoded ways of thinking and speaking about American politics "are welcome to come along for the ride," but from now on "the nation will be moving to the beat of a different political philosophy." The President of the United States (as well as the bulk of his Party) intends to overthrow secular assumptions about how to order the political life of the nation and to replace them with an outlook derived from none other than "Christ the philosopher."

For readers accustomed to mainstream journalistic accounts of American politics, these assertions may seem bold -- even implausible. Is it really conceivable that in pursuing its spiritual agenda the Bush administration has been motivated by, and has actively sought to promulgate, a comprehensive religious ideology? The argument of this book is that, however fantastic it might sound, this is precisely what has been happening in the United States during the past several years -- and that responsible American citizens owe it to themselves and their country to become acquainted with the origins and aims of this enormously influential but little-understood ideology, which I call theoconservatism.

Theoconservatism teaches that a secular society is both undesirable and unsustainable; that for most of its history the United States has been a thoroughly Christian nation founded on absolute moral principles that make no sense outside of a religious context; that the liberal and secular drift of American culture since the 1960s is the result of an organized effort by liberal and secular elites in the nation's education and media establishments to impose its corrupt views on the nation through anti-democratic means (especially through the courts); that the practical consequence of secularization is a sex-saturated popular culture, the collapse of crucially important social institutions (such as traditional marriage), a general separation of law from religiously based moral principles, and the rise of a "culture of death" in which abortion and euthanasia are widely permitted and practiced; that the solution to secularization is to bring modern America (back) into line with the moral strictures of biblical religion; and that this reversion can be accomplished by allowing the country's Christian essence to reassert itself democratically -- primarily by citizens voting for conservative Christian politicians who advance religion in public life through public policy, court appointments, and constitutional amendments, but also by proposing popular referenda (such as the anti-gay marriage initiatives that passed overwhelmingly in twelve states during the 2004 election cycle) that frustrate the tyrannical ambitions of secularists.

This is the revolutionary religious ideology that is transforming the political and cultural landscape of our time. When Karl Rove speaks (as he often does) about fashioning a GOP governing majority that will last for over a generation, he means that he believes it possible to use theoconservative ideas to unite a broad and stable electoral coalition. Evangelicals will be an important part (perhaps even the core) of this coalition, but they will not be its only members. A large portion of Catholics (52 percent of whom cast ballots for Bush in his campaign against the Catholic John Kerry) will join it, as will significant numbers of suburban and so-called "exurban" voters, many of whom are concerned about moral trends in the country during the past several decades. If Rove is right -- if this coalition consistently unites behind candidates who champion theoconservative ideology -- then the explicitly religious stance of George W. Bush's presidency will come to be seen not as an electoral and historical aberration, but rather as the first stage in a cultural counterrevolution whose ultimate goal is nothing less than the end of secular politics in America.

For more, go here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: David Yaffe
Hometown: Syracuse

Dear Professor Alterman,

Thanks for reading me on the subway. For the record: I was asked to review both Gennari's book and Prial's book, but the review of Prial was cut for space. It was just as well, as far as I was concerned. It gave me no pleasure to write an honest review that I would have been unhappy to receive myself. But now I have been criticized for not writing that review. Here is what I wrote about Prial's book:

Hammond is also the subject of Dunstan Prial's The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of America, but while Gennari puts a distinctive spin on the most written about A. & R. guy ever, Prial's book is a competent but hardly revelatory cut and paste job. It's not that Prial, an Associated Press writer, didn't conduct new research. His chatty notes in the back of the book let you know that he has talked to the right people and combed the appropriate archives. But his intrepid reporting usually gilds a previously published lily. He apparently thinks he has broken the news that Bessie Smith didn't die because she was refused admittance to a white hospital, a scandal manufactured [-- or at least sincerely misreported --] by Hammond. In an endnote, he writes: "The discrepancy between Hammond's version of Bessie Smith's death and what is now understood to be the truth was pointed out to me in an interview in February 2001 with Smith's biographer Chris Albertson, who was a colleague of Hammond's at Columbia records." In fact, that discrepancy was one of the key scoops scored by Albertson's 1972 biography, a well-known find that elicited a response from Hammond himself in his 1977 memoir. Prial therefore interviewed Albertson to pick up a fact he -- or, say, a student writing a research paper -- could have gotten by simply reading his book. In another note, Prial writes, "The Ralph Ellison quotation was taken from material provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society," but he doesn't mention that he was merely quoting Ellison's widely anthologized essay, "The Charlie Christian Story." The book that precedes these creative citations is a standard potted biography: a sincere, earnest, well-meaning, and readable extended Wikipedia entry, in which we learn that John Hammond had a spiky crew cut and a broad smile, grew up in a fancy Upper East Side brownstone with an elevator, put the legendary "Spirituals to Swing" concert together, and propelled artists -- from Billie Holiday to Stevie Ray Vaughan -- from obscurity to megastardom. Prial's writing is clear and engaging, and for an introduction to Hammond, The Producer is perfectly serviceable. But anyone who already knows something about Basie, Holiday, Dylan, or other figures in this book will find little in the way of genuinely fresh observation or groundbreaking research. Maybe Prial could have called his book The Reproducer.

Now you know the facts. I was just doing my job as a critic. I hope you continue to fight the good fight against academic snobs from the perch of your tenured full professorship at CUNY.

Eric replies: Well, thanks, but as I said, I think negative reviews can be painful to write but important and necessary when one's intellectual honesty demands them. I have no problem with the paragraphs above or printing them here, though I don't happen to agree. What do I have a problem with is the one-sentence kiss-off of a work takes years to produce and is honestly undertaken. So I still don't understand why the single sentence was included. And for the record, I don't have tenure yet.

Name: Marty
Hometown: Boulder

Eric,

I'm glad you found a new forum for Altercation. It would be impossible to get through the day without reading your blog.

Regarding Zak Starkey and the Who: I first saw Zak perform live with his father's All-Starr Band in 1997 in Wallingford, Conn. At first, I thought he was only included because his dad was the boss. Among the rock-n-rollers in Ringo's band that year was John Entwistle on bass. Each band member got a chance to showcase a couple of their old hit songs, and Entwistle performed the obligatory "Boris the Spider," which was fine but not overly impressive. When Entwistle got the chance to perform his second number, "My Wife," I was absolutely amazed at Zak Starkey's playing. It was as close to Keith Moon's drumming as you could get (and much better than I remembered Kenny Jones' being at Shea Stadium in 1982). When I read that The Who hired Starkey shortly afterword, I was sure that Zak's playing with Entwistle in Ringo's band was the reason. I got a chance to see The Who again (with Starkey) a few years ago in Denver (before Entwistle died), and, again, I was impressed with Zak.

Name: Ben Trafford
Hometown:
Waterloo, Ontario

Dear Dr. Alterman,

You may have heard that the Maher Arar affair has largely concluded in Canada, with a detailed finding that he was an utter victim in the "war on terror," with our police providing false information to the U.S. This led to Arar's deportation to Syria, where he was tortured and imprisoned for a year.

Interestingly, Alberto Gonzales had this to say on it:

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters in Washington that Arar was legally deported under immigration law.

"Some people have characterized his removal as a rendition. That is not what happened here. It was a deportation," Gonzales said.

(from CBC news - http://www.cbc.ca/story/canada/national/2006/09/20/arar-reaction.html)

Now, you've got to be amazed at Gonzales' gall. Yes, Arar was born in Syria. But at the time of his detainment by U.S. authorities, he was carrying a Canadian passport. He is a Canadian citizen.

Since when does "deportation" mean sending people to random countries? Who is Gonzales trying to fool?

Canada screwed up with Maher Arar, big-time. And up here, heads are going to roll over it.

In the U.S., it looks like business as usual.

Name: Rich Gallagher
Hometown:

Dear Eric,

The mainstream press hasn't picked up on it, but Al Casey, one of the great sessions guitarists of the Rock 'n' Roll era, died on Sunday in Phoenix.

http://www.azmusichalloffame.org/casey.html

Al played the famous descending bass on Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " and he was one of Brian Wilson's favorite guitarists. Al played on most of the Pet Sounds tracks, as well as "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains."

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