Monday, August 9, 2004

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I love polemics

As a kid, Daniel Drezner was exceptionally, eerily bright—so bright, in fact, that he was writing op-eds for the Hartford Courant, a pretty fancy paper if you ask me, while still in high school. In marked contrast, my youth was spent watching “Martin.” Suffice to say, I have as yet to recover from this wanton, senseless assault on my brain. To this day, Martin Lawrence has a hypnotic hold over me, not unlike the hypnotic hold Siddharth’s island rhythms have over lovers of soul calypso everywhere, despite the fact that Lawrence has said some needlessly crass and unflattering things about Arabs and Muslims, e.g., the opening monologue in “Runteldat,” during which he celebrates the newfound solidarity between black and white Americans that derives from a profound distrust of a fellow called “Abdul.” In fairness, he also had a brush with death when, heavily laden with jewelry, he went for a jog in searingly hot weather while wearing multiple plush tracksuits—that is, he’s clearly eine kleine nutso, so perhaps he deserves a pass.

But yes, I was watching “Martin” while other kids were devouring serious literary fiction (or, you know, falling into a life of petty crime and cheap thrills, or huffing Elmer’s and popping wheelies), despite the best efforts of my saintly, suffering parents. This is one of my great regrets: I lost a lot of valuable reading time. Eventually, books won, but it wasn’t serious literary fiction that did it—I still have an intense, unthinking aversion to anything I see read on the L train or the F train (the latter of which carried me most of the way to school, forty minutes each way) by the spectacle-set—it was instead a much-maligned genre, the polemic.

I fell hard for the polemic, almost as hard as we scrawny ethnic dudes of Stuyvesant High School fell for the brainy beauties in our midst (our school truly was a place where “all the guys were cheesy / but the girls were mad fly”). I found myself a dog-eared copy of The Present Danger long after the Soviet empire was dead and buried, and I sketched out a movie version starring Wesley Snipes as Norman Podhoretz, with capoeira moves standing in for the old man’s cutting rhetorical thrusts. At the time, there was panic over “the Asian challenge” and the threat multiculturalism posed to our common citizenship and, er, the tax code, all of it grist for daring, insightful, electrifying polemics (most of them dangerously, or just hilariously, wrongheaded) that made me want to (a) learn how to use commas and semicolons (still haven’t quite mastered that one), (b) work harder in school, and (c) find some way to learn as much as I could, the better to enter the ferocious gladiatorial arena I imagined serious intellectual life to be. This was around the time Andrew Sullivan was editing The New Republic and Michael Lind was writing these amazing, bracing, deeply unconventional essays at lightning speed, a time I’ll always remember as a miniature golden age (for my brain).

Something else was going on around this time: the war in Bosnia. Leon Wieseltier’s lead editorials and essays on the subject, polemical in the best sense, were the thing. Righteous anger has its place, and Wieseltier deployed it with devastating effectiveness in the war of ideas that made a serious intervention in the Balkans thinkable.

And now he’s being attacked for writing a deservedly vicious review of a “scummy little book.” Some call it a “technical glitch”—what’s a serious meditation on the coarsening of public life doing in a book review? (The New York Review of Books has a lot to answer for, in that case. It contains meditations so serious, and so unmoored from the commercial imperatives of the publishing industry, that it’ll make your nose bleed.) Others maintain that Wieseltier isn’t treating the “scummy little book” (a better title than Checkpoint, certainly) with the respect it deserves, which is odd; my sense is that he’s treating the book with exactly the respect it deserves, which is to say none at all. Is the review polemical? Yes, and the polemic necessarily lacks subtlety. That’s a loss. And yet there’s also a gain, in sharpness and raw power. I found the review riveting, and I can’t say that of very many reviews. If you want service-oriented reviews, try Kirkus. They’ll help you get value for your book-buying dollar. Or better yet, form a book club comprised of serious, like-minded people. Let Wieseltier be Wieseltier!

I should note that I’m a bozo.

P.S.- There’s a line in Wieseltier’s review that might be of particular interest:

“(About the deranging influence of blogs Baker makes a sterling point.)”

Yes, but who’s doing the deranging? I’m thoroughly convinced that my brain is infected by devils.

posted by Suzanne Nossel on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM


OK, I'm sold. Er . . . link?

posted by: trotsky on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

It's gotta be all that Curry.

posted by: Bithead on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

And this marks the first and last time the words "my brain is infected by devils" appears on Drezner's blog...

whither tenure, with this in the Google cache? And how do we really know it's not Drezner himself?

hee hee!

posted by: Tony on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

I used to watch Martin (shouldn't that be MAHHHT-en) too. What's so wrong with that?

Oh, and I have no desire to read that 'scummy little book.' Not even in the interest of being fair and balanced (most overused phrase, like, ever)

posted by: MD on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

Oh, and there's still a panic over the 'Asian challenge'. Outsourcing is to 2004 as Japanese efficiency is to 1987. Wait. You just made that point, didn't you? Never mind.

posted by: MD on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

I've decided that I think you should start writing fiction. Not to say that your non-fiction isn't good--it's great, actually.(I've read a bit of the body of work, or at least what's googable) Try fiction....

posted by: Carleton on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

I hate to be a voice of reason, but...

huffing Elmer's wouldn't do anything for you.

Oh, & why the big deal about this review when Slate & the WashPost both offer the same criticism?

posted by: Spencer on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

Others maintain that Wieseltier isn’t treating the “scummy little book” ... with the respect it deserves, which is odd; my sense is that he’s treating the book with exactly the respect it deserves, which is to say none at all.

Can I assume you've read the book?

posted by: alkali on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

Yes, but you neglected to answer the most important question...what year did you attend Stuyvesant? I must agree that most of the boys were scummy and all us girls were "fly".

posted by: Kate on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

Thanks for the link and the resulting traffic. Downright neighborly of you. Unforunate, though, that you misrepresent my point - a serious meditation on the coarsening of public life would certainly be welcome (although Leon didn't actually pen one in this case; his review is unserious to the point of caricature); but it still must be part and parcel of a larger examination of the book itself. You know, the book? That bundle of paper with words on it that was the impetus for the assignment? As the man who gave the world the reviews of Dale Peck, Leon has already shown us just how serious he is about coarsening the public discourse. Discerning readers look for more than angry name calling in their book reviews, and on this score he's failed miserably.

And, still wondering - have you read the book?

posted by: TEV on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

Oh, and PS - do you think that Leon's thoughts on the "deranging influence of blogs" might be driven by his own experience with Gregg Easterbrook's anti-semitic rantings on his own TNR blog?

Hypocrisy thy name is Wieseltier.

posted by: TEV on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

I spent my years at Stuy watching Designing Women on Lifetime; Delta Burke now has the hypnotic effect on me that Martin Lawrence has on you.

posted by: Phoebe on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

I too like polemics, if they're by the top tier polemicists: Wieseltier, Hitchens, William F. Buckley if he's at the top of his game.

This was a great polemic, and, as you say, it treated the book with the exact level of respect it deserved. The novel was obviously a political work. Saying an explicitly political review wasn't an appropriate response is like saying that you can review Fahrenheit 9/11, or The Corporation, or Control Room, or The Manchurian Candidate somehow without referring to politics.

If Baker really wanted to write a novel about his supposed themes here: the effect of the internet on individual psyches, or obsessive hatred, or whatever exactly the real, deep theme supposedly is, he could have told the same story but changed the setting in some way. Instead, he chose to make it about exactly now, to ground it completely in the current reality, a reality in which the tables at every Barnes & Noble across the land groan under the weight of countless copies of Bush is the bastard offspring of Hitler and a retarded baboon, Bush is a big poopy-head, Bush stole my bong etc. etc. Inasmuch, the book deserves to be judged in the context of all the other artifacts of the deranged Bush-hatred of the moment.

The only way that Baker could avoid having his book criticized in this manner would be if he was actually using some device to distance himself from his characters, and to comment on deranged Bush-hatred rather than simply celebrating it. Wieseltier obviously doesn't buy whatever attempts Baker makes to create this distance, and so his review is a completely appropriate response. Like the rest of Baker's work, its interest (apparently) lies solely in its in-your-face gimmick. At that point the only thing left worth discussing is what the fact that respected novelists now write books which take to the point of view, "I know it would be wrong to assassinate the president but . . ." means for the country.

posted by: Eric Deamer on 08.09.04 at 08:15 PM [permalink]

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