Wednesday, September 08, 2010

American Taliban and the Politics of Cool

I just heard from Nancy McWilliams, Carey McWilliams's daughter-in-law. She was kind enough to send me two of Carey's books (Ill Fares the Land and Louis Adamic & Shadow America) from Iris McWilliams's library. That means a lot to me.

I've been thinking about Carey McWilliams for other reasons as well. Much of that has to do with the reception of Markos Moulitsas's American Taliban, which compares some American conservatives to their Islamist counterparts. (I acquired the book for PoliPointPress.) Jamelle Bouie, a young reviewer at the American Prospect, rejected the premise of the book, claiming that a) American liberals should leave hyperbole to conservatives, and b) that conservatives haven't gained politically from their rhetorical tactics.

Digby and Hunter refudiated those claims, and I cited a Robert Kuttner article in the American Prospect that made some of the same points as Markos while reviewing Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah. (In fact, Kuttner's article is titled "American Taliban.") Evidently, it's OK for Bob Kuttner to deploy that term in the American Prospect, but when Markos explores it, he gets a lecture.

Naturally, conservative critics (and some liberal ones) have touted the review in an effort to dismiss the book, but the online commentators overwhelmingly support Markos and make some interesting points of their own.

What to do about tone, especially when political passions are running high? When I gave the Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA, I spoke admiringly about McWilliams's style and "the politics of cool." I said he was a classic stylist in the sense described by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth. "Hyperbole is useful in some situations," I noted, "but the classic stylist renounces it. The readers he imagines don't need it, and resorting to tricks would only diminish his hard-earned credibility."

I then asked: "Is there an audience for this style in the age of sound-byte politics, overheated talk radio and blogs, and hyper-theorized scholarship?" The answer is yes, but that audience is a small, elite one. Probably very much like the American Prospect's. "Elite" here doesn't mean you can't join that group; anyone who subscribes to the tenets of critical analysis is welcome. But that community in America, Carey once told Victor Navasky, consists of about 250,000 souls.

The politics of cool, I continued, often holds up well over time but isn't very responsive to the passions of the day, and this limits its intellectual reach as well as its appeal. McWilliams didn't feel in his guts what other Americans did--for example, the fear and resentment of those who voted for Nixon twice. And that meant he couldn't quite fathom the political implications of those emotions. At first he thought Nixon had fooled voters. Later in life, he realized that Americans had understood Nixon perfectly. The times called for a bastard, and Nixon fit the specifications. That's the scarier thought, and I think Bob Kuttner understands its applications today.

Two of McWilliams's books were more polemical: Factories in the Field and Witch Hunt. The first took on farm labor in California and remains one of his classics. It appeared in 1939, during the Great Depression and while European fascism was expanding in force. McWilliams had already traced the links between what he called "farm fascism" and its continental counterpart. Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy, which examined the onset of McCarthyism, appeared in 1950, too soon for most Americans to see the links between the persecution of Communists and earlier heresy trials. Arthur Miller's The Crucible came later (1953) and has been the touchstone ever since. Carey later admitted that he got carried away with the historical parallels, and the book never caught on. But in both books, Carey linked an American political vice (labor exploitation, McCarthyism) to something creepy and obviously un-American (fascism, hysterical persecutions).

I'm not sure there are any hard-and-fast rules here, but I agree with Kenneth Burke's point that tolerance, a classic liberal virtue, is an inadequate response to rabid intolerance. And as I've aged, I've been struck by the limits of logical argumentation alone in American public life. I wish that kind of high-minded exchange mattered more, but in this culture, overshooting the mark is sometimes the best way to hit it. Hyperbole is a matter of raising the subject excessively, and we often need it to start or reframe a particular conversation. The American right, by the way, understands this idea very well and has been using it to advantage at every turn.

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