Wednesday, October 18, 2006


My brother called me this morning to tell me that I'd been dissed in the Los Angeles Times. In a review of the recent I.F. Stone bio, media critic Tim Rutten wrote:

As a young editor, I had the privilege of working with three authentic heroes of American journalism: One was Phil Kerby, a champion of civil liberties who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials against government secrecy and judicial censorship; another was Carey McWilliams, the radical journalist and historian who edited the Nation for so many years; the third was I.F. Stone. Of the three, his contribution was the widest and most consequential. McWilliams and Kerby still await the biographies they deserve, but Myra MacPherson's All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone is a work equal to its subject — carefully and thoroughly reported, keenly thought out, by turns judicious and appropriately sympathetic (emphasis added).

Ouch! Had he missed my McWilliams bio, or had he decided that McWilliams deserved a better one? (This despite a positive review in his paper's Sunday book review a few months ago?) Not good either way, but I offered to send him a copy of American Prophet if he hadn't already made that judgment.

By the way, I wonder about the claim that Stone's contribution was "the widest and most consequential" of the three men he mentions. I'm especially dubious about the "widest" part. Stone was a famous and first-class muckraker, but he wasn't as versatile as McWilliams. McWilliams served in state government, drafted Supreme Court briefs, critiqued modern literature, and edited a major journal of opinion. His bibliography is comparable to Stone's, despite the fact that he released only one book in the last 30 years of his life. McWilliams's work is still highly regarded in academic circles in a wide variety of disciplines, including labor history, city planning, California studies, Chicano studies, etc., and he inspired the screenplay for what may be the finest Hollywood movie of its generation, namely, Chinatown. Need I go on? I didn't think so.

But comparisons are odious. Stone reviewed McWilliams's Factories in the Field favorably when it appeared in 1939, and I suspect that their relationship was based on mutual admiration and shared politics. And so it goes.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Nicholas Lemann on "Paranoid Style"

Nicholas Lemann's piece in this week's New Yorker discusses recent documentary films about Iraq (especially Why We Fight, Uncovered, and Hijacking Catastrophe) against a backdrop of what historian Richard Hofstadter once called the paranoid style in American politics.

There's an odd tension in the piece that arises from Lemann's standards of evidence. I wonder what would persuade him at this point that neoconservatives and certain corporate interests helped push this administration toward a disastrous policy in Iraq. He suggests that the films should choose whether the neoconservatives or the corporations pushed the war. (To conclude that both groups did so is to risk incongruency.)

But then he says that the bigger problem with these films is that the political world is "not so neatly explicable"; sometimes tragedy can be traced not to malignancy but to "people screwing up." Here he suggests that the films are pursuing a false precision that disallows the possibility of profound tragedy. But if malignancy and human error can blend to create bad outcomes, why not neoconservative ideology and corporate interests? Come to think of it, why can't all four things cooperate to create those bad outcomes?

There are other tensions as well. For example, he worries that documentaries don't lend themselves to clear, rational argumentation but instead depend on associative leaps and logical shortcuts. He acknowledges that there's already "a substantial shelf of well-documented books covering the same sort of subject matter," but he still wants to see the films as paranoid, not just popular versions of the more replete and analytical books on the same subject. Hey, I like books, and I wish more people read them--or at least bought them! But I also know most people prefer a 90-minute film to a shelf of serious books.

And here's where I go philosophical. If we substitute "poems" for "documentaries," we have a rehearsal of Plato's decision to banish poets from his ideal Republic because they weren't truthful and logical enough. The real problem for Plato, of course, was that more people listened to poets than to philosophers because it was easier and more fun. Could it be that Plato was a little paranoid himself?

I know there are lots of kooky theories and films out there, but I've seen a couple of these documentaries and thought they were pretty good.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lewis Lapham in Berkeley

I went to hear Lewis Lapham in Berkeley last weekend--big turnout, very interesting. Lewis, whom I met in New York City last month, wrote the foreword to the UC Press reprint of Carey McWilliams's California: The Great Exception. The book first appeared in 1949--the state's 100th birthday--and it holds up remarkably well. In fact, many of its insights and predictions are uncanny, and even professional historians regard it as a minor classic.

Lewis was in Berkeley to discuss his new book, Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration, and the event was a fundraiser for KPFA and Global Exchange. By the way, Lewis was born in San Francisco, where his grandfather was mayor.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Review in California History

I tracked down the review of American Prophet in the current issue of California History. Robert Cherny, a historian at San Francisco State, did the honors. By coincidence, he was also scheduled to address the SF State course I've been babbling about, but his duties as undergraduate dean intervened. There's no online version that I know of, so please share the print copies amicably.


Monday, October 02, 2006

California Dream--Wednesday Night

I'll be part of a panel on Wednesday night at San Francisco State University (Humanities 133, 7:15). It's open to the public. The topic is the California Dream as a backdrop to this fall's state elections. My piece will be on the California Dream from 1939 to the present--the state's expansion after World War II, the Pat Brown era, the 1960s and the Reagan backlash, Proposition 13, all the way to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Along the way, I'll touch on Hollywood, Disneyland, the Beach Boys, Haight-Ashbury, the Free Speech Movement, Charles Manson, Silicon Valley, Rodney King, etc. The other speakers on the panel are Maxine Chernoff and Harriet Rafter.