Blogs > Cliopatria > Pamphlets and Politics

Jul 10, 2004 4:58 pm

Pamphlets and Politics

Alan Wolfe, in NYT, has a nice, kinda snarky review of tomes from the likes of Moore, Coulter, Hannity, and many others. He argues that the current crop of"political" books and blogs are no better than pamphlets of 18th and 19th century America. Having read my fair share of pamphlets from c. 19th India, I am in complete agreement. The driving force is not logic, reason or argumentation but demonization of the Other and blatant preaching to the choir. Next, he argues that there is no"filtering" going on in the public sphere by university professors or the publishing execs etc. to judge the merit of these books leading to the anarchy of rabid opinion that rules the NYT non-fiction bestsellers list. He longs for the good old 50s and 60s when the political writers had gravitas and there was The Establishment-"a bipartisan group of bankers, politicians and journalists who shaped the contours of national opinion" - which looked out for rational debate. Still, Wolfe would permit us these pamphleteers:
For all their ugliness of language and unpersuasive fury, then, the current crop of political pamphlets bears a striking resemblance to the increasingly democratic culture in which they flourish. If their authors are poorly versed in American history, so are the young executives talking about the election at the airport bar while waiting for their connecting flights. If these books treat their side as good and their opponents as evil, so do the sermons in our booming evangelical churches. The style is melodramatic, but that is also true of ''Troy.'' Our political culture cannot be immune from the rest of our culture. The model for political argument these days is not the Book-of-the-Month Club but If the only choice we have is between no politics and vituperative politics, the latter is -- just barely -- preferable.
Two observation came to my mind: One, does he have to be so condescending? We live in a polarized political landscape mired in foreign policy turmoil. People want to have opinions. These books are fast-food opinions (crack open any one and examine the typography) designed to be read quickly, in short bites and with key conclusions underlined and bolded. The historian in me shudders but the populist says,"So what?". This pamphleteering started during Clinton years and has continued. If Kerry wins, I think it will lose its steam. Kerry seems like a hard person about whom one can have a strong opinion. If Bush remains in office, we should see it escalated to Hatfield-McCoy territory. Second, given that the adult reading population is dwindling, what does it mean for us academic types who may want a piece of the general, non-fiction pie? Is there any room on B&N's main display left after all these books? Will there be even an audience left? Wouldn't a liberal or conservative reader, accustomed to the pamphlet-style book feel awkward when confronted with an actual work in popular history or politics? Would we be required to be more judgemental, polemical and accusatory in our writing...because that's what that sells? That is, what are the long term effects of these screeds on the publishing and reading worlds?
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Derek Charles Catsam - 7/12/2004

Ahh, yes, Richard. "I was misquoted!" The last bastion of scoundrels. And I like how you claim the high road here. In any case, since you don't actually refute anything I say, (Why exactly is it that small presses are bad, even inferior? And where is the evidence of liberals getting their first books published? And how is it that when I point out liberal books in the very article that is the source of this discussion that are published by small presses thus blatantly refuting your very wrong argument I am somehow "recasting?? Nice bait and switch to try to cover your lame, and I am now presuming willfully wrong, as opposed to just misguided, arguments. Or do you actually have the evidence and you are just too high minded to use it? Do you actually deny that some of the publishers priducing liberal books are not also small? It seems to me that I am not recasting anything by asking for the courtesy of evidence against your little jeremiad against this alleged liberal establishment that is out there. I am recasting nothing. Nice try, though. Very demogogic of you.) Some might say that my "recasting of' your "assertions" might just be that you don't articulate arguments all that well . . . Not me though. You're clearly the hypersensitive lot, and I'm afraid you'll go into a weeping communion with your signed copy of Hannity's latest book (Regan Press -- must be inferior by the Morgan Matrix!). Make better arguments, and at least for fun, sometimes make them make sense, rather than whine about my "artistry".

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/12/2004

You know, Derek, there's a trail throughout this website of you recasting my assertions precisely into a form most congenial to your refutation. It's a minor art, but one you've perfected. Congratulations.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/12/2004

Richard --
Mae Culpa on the spelling of Bellesiles. No such culpa on my maintenance that you are throwing him out there like some sort of mantra. Like most mantras it is meaningless., and certainly it is meaningless vis a vis Wolfe's essay. But goodbness, if I admit that you are 1000% right on this, will you for just one post shut the hell up about him. We get it -- you don't like his book. And you see it as the evidence that damns the whole profession and publishing industry, apparently blithely unaware that one case does not much of a trend make. And my guess is that we could be talking about Hungarian cookbook publishing trends and you'd find a liberal conspiracy and then a way to drudge up your Bellesilesian Rosetta Stone.
Further, I see a lot of accusation here without what we historians quaintly like to call actual evidence. You suspect a lot, you believe a lot, but you do not actually have anything concrete to reveal that liberal writers on their first books got into major presses (indeed, once again, it seems that many of the books from the left now are with some somewhat marginal outfits, which in and of itself should consign the argument you are making to the rubbish bin. But let's not let facts get in the way of a screed, especially if we can invoke that name again!). That Coulter's sucky first book did not get published by a major press is evidence of nothing but, perhaps, a brief moment of good taste. It is inane to assert that liberal books all automatically get published. And yet without evidence, you assert it. However you spell it, that is a pretty Bellesilesian style of argumentation. What is true does not matter, as long as you repeat it to be true long enough. Meanwhile my local bookstore has dozens of books by conservatives. And if my local bookstore does here, I would suspect that yours does too. But since you apparently only believe that big publishers are good publishers, I guess the books that are out there front and center on the shelves just don't count. Better to believe in a nonsensical liberal conspiracy that doesn't exist because it gives fodder to your gun club socials. Take off the tinfoil hat, Richard. It's highly unlikely that the conspiracy is going to hit today.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/12/2004

You're right, Derek. That's why I went back to the first books published by Coulter and Goldberg, which weren't taken up by mainstream presses. Seems like they landed more mainstream the second time around, though they couldn't get in the door the first time. Numbers apparently talk, and before there are numbers, well ...

I brought up Bellesiles the second time because you contrasted his case to Coulter, saying his was a moral and ethical breach. I agree. It wasn't just that, though. It was really crappy history (that's right, it sucked, really sucked), even when he wasn't doing his own inventing. The cries from the libs about Bellesiles that they wuz lied to, that they're victims, is well ... just too funny. Like the Martyrs of Toledo, they fairly leapt to their martyrdom. I'm reminded of the expression "willing suspension of disbelief".

The silence about Wolfe is -- pardon the cliche -- deafening (I think that demonstrates that I bothered to read the review). I don't think for a minute that if he had made the equally risible claims that until recently only liberals had issued "pamphlets", or that liberals actually ran the world, that we would see his review in the NY Times. Just a guess. I don't subscribe to the view that any one wing runs the world. I suspect that conservatives run the military and business to a large extent, libs the media and academia to a large extent. Of course, I don't have the fine-grained mind of Wolfe that finds itself in the NY Times.

And actually I said (or I hope I said) that lib suck books don't have trouble finding mainstream publishers, while conservative suck books do (as a guess, I admit). I'm aware of the publication histories of the Coulter's and Goldberg's first works -- I'm not aware that the lib suck books mentioned couldn't find a mainstream publisher.

BTW, it's 'Bellesiles'. French-Canadian, I believe. Pronounced 'belle-eel'. And no matter how many times you deny his relevance with your ex cathedra pronouncements, his equally crappy book was embraced by the media and academic establishment -- that is, right up until a lot of people and several scholars cited chapter and verse demonstrating its true crappiness. His book was a polemic, just a more sophisticated variety, aimed at a slightly different audience -- a difference in degree, rather than kind, with Coulter's . And now I have finally compared the books, where before I was just comparing their reception.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/11/2004

Further, if Richard actually bothered to read the review in question, which conveniently provides the full publication information for each of the books, he would realize that his argument that the liberals all go to major presses and the conservatives to minor ones is nonsense. I might even wonder if it is not a bit of a lie. Or are we really saying that Crown is minor and the Nation major as far as publishers go? (And if we are saying this then we are building lies upon lies, now aren't we?)
Richard -- you are amazing. You keep going with Bellisles. Bellisles is irrelevent here. Utterly not germane. No matter how. Many. Times. You. Bring. It. Up.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/11/2004

Richard, Coulter was vaulted into best seller status by a big buy or several big buys from a private source or sources. A buy is a buy, of course, but some markets get manipulated. Then, the right has the nerve to call them "free markets".

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/11/2004

I bring up the Coulter book because books from left of center that equally suck just don't seem to have a problem finding an establishment mainstream publisher. In fact, establishment mainstream publishers, for the most part, have been only too willing to step over the profits to be had from selling Coulter books that suck, while publishing Carville books that suck -- you'd think that, as publicly owned entities, they'd be profit-maximizing, but that ain't so. Instead, they see it as their mission (though using stockholders' money to do so) to "shape opinion" (where did I hear that phrase?).

I wasn't trying to insult your intelligence with Bellesiles. I do reject the notion that Bellesiles problem was simply one of truthfulness, or the lack thereof. Even when he borrows from others, he sucks, sucks, sucks.

He markets himself in Salon and elsewhere as some kind of arms enthusiast, but his knowledge of revolutionary arms is next to non-existent. He has American riflemen using mallets to drive their balls home. That method was bandoned in even the precursor Jaeger rifles when the square grooved bores became the norm. Instead, almost without exception, revolutionary rifles have patch covers, where they kept greased patches for enveloping the ball. It was then pushed home by hand, using a wood ramrod -- the mallet method demanded a heavier, often metal, ramrod, and the mallet method deformed the ball, deposited lead, and lessened the effective range (and it took longer to load).

Where could he have gotten such nonsense? Garry Wills of course, who cites Scheer and Rankin (and promotes them to 'military historians'). It should have been a clue that the Scheer and Rankin source dates from 1957, but hey, when you're cherry-picking erroneous sources, you sometimes don't have much choice.

Ditto with the idea of militia weapons in storehouses -- an idea the Emory Committee found as fanciful as New Englanders descending on the redcoats retreating from Lexington and Concord, axes in hand. Wills takes it from a proposed amendment (proposed by Trenchard) to laws for shooting in buts, which proposed that they keep some flintlocks on hand for shooting tournaments on holidays -- and crafts that into a requirement to keep all militia arms in storehouses. Bellesiles picks it up and runs with it. He had help inventing -- he's not that imaginative on his own, so let's not say his problem was simply one of lacking truthfulness -- he relied on others too. He was just smart enough to feed Wills somme of his own bologna, when Wills reviewed his book. That was, of course, after Bellesiles praised Wills in his JAH article. Ah, the wonderful world of academic logrolling.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/11/2004

Um, one probolem. Coulter's book sucked. It should have been rejected by every press. Sucked sucked sucked sucked sucked. And since you have already acknowledged as much, why are you then saying it ought to have had a better publisher? You are not doing your best work here, Richard.
And again, I'm not certain why you're telling me the Bellisles story. Do you really think I did not know all that? I am neither retarded nor have I been living under a rock. Belliisles book was a nightmare. But no matter how often you sound this one note, it's still one note that is pretty shrill.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/11/2004

It's not the books or the authors I'm comparing, it's the reception based on the politics. And if you read my post above, you'll see that it's a good thing Coulter gets criticism.

As for Bellesiles, Lindgren showed his work to his buddies in quantitative history, and they couldn't understand how it got published, much less a prize. It not only got published, Bellesiles thanked the editor of the JAH for his enthusiasm (where his article won the prize for best article of the year). Hell, it got fawning reviews in the NYTBR and the NYRB. I'm sure the politics of the book had nothing to do with its reception in establishment organs, or the fact it was published, or got a prize. Based on what I've seen, I certainly agree historians are privileged.

But let's compare, say, Coulter with Moore. Or better yet, Coulter and Goldberg, with Moore, Carville, and Franken. Take a minute and match up the publishers with the author. I'll give you a head start. Warner, Dutton, Random House, Regnery, and Three Rivers Press. Then do a little search on the net and see how many publishers Coulter and Goldberg got turned down by, and tell me whether you think they were establishment presses they were turned down by, and whether who they were published by ended up being establishment presses. Then do a little work on sales figures. Then come back and tell me that establishment presses don't discriminate on the basis of politics -- unless of course you believe that Moore, Franken and Carville are that much more devoted to the truth.

I read Alterman's book last year. Besides the bad mispellings, the ommissions of fact, etc., he has hundreds of Republicans pounding on the counting room door in Florida. He got that from the Times. Unfortunately, Jake Tapper (not exactly a Republican) and several other reporters were there, on site (as apparently the Times' reporters weren't) and reported a couple of dozen (as was shown on TV -- apparently another source Alterman missed). Alterman's book is essentially a cut and paste job, citing Times' stories to provide a negative account of Republicans, in defense of the thesis that there is no liberal press (though I'm not sure I see the relation) -- you can't say he doesn't have a sense of irony, though the concept of self-contradiction eludes him. In any case, as bad as the book is -- and it is as bad anything Coulter wrote -- it was published by Basic Books -- I guess they privilege "historians" too.

Now tell me, Derek. As an historian, do you agree with Wolfe that at one time these "pamphlets" were restricted to the right? And as an historian, do you agree that conservatives run the world? Just doing a reality check. Or does Wolfe get a pass because he's writing "history"? I submit that if conservatives did run the world, Bellesiles never would have been published, and Moore, Carville, and Franken would be the ones shopping their mss around to countless establishment presses before landing on the boggled and the botched. But that's just my "one-note", I guess. You certainly hit the nail on the head when you said Coulter's breach was "political".

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/10/2004

Dude, enough with the Bellisles thing. You're coming across as a Johnny one-note. Belisles-Coulter is neither a logical nor a sensible comparison. Perhaps Coulter-Moore. While Bellisles may have been politically motivated, you cannot possibly see his book and Coulter's as comparable, although Coulter's is even worse history. But nonhistorians get a pass when it comes to crappy history, apparenty. That is a good thing, but it is also why some of us do value and priviledge historians when it comes to writing, you know, history. Bellisles' was an ethical and moral breach, not necessarily a political one. Coulter's is explicitly political.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/10/2004

You don't seriously want me to compare Vietnam and Iraq in terms of damage, do you?

Ralph E. Luker - 7/10/2004

Of course, Derek, you are quite correct to point out the publication of right-wing missives in the post-World War II marketplace. Even so, with the possible exception of Goldwater's book, I don't think one could claim that they had nearly the cache or the sales figures that Moore, Coulter, et al, claim today.
Richard, one only need cite the administration's pre-war claims about Iraq as evidence of propaganda, which is _eventually_ deconstructed, but which nonetheless we have acted on and, having acted on it, cannot undo what we have done. We can no longer recall those lives lost, those resources poured into a sinkhole, those domestic securities unprotected. Whose "establishment" has done the greater damage?

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/10/2004

You don't have to look very far to find dippy statements. In fact, you can find them before even looking at what I wrote. Wolfe offers two gems:

1. these pamphlets are no longer confined to the right

2. Conservatives never tire of complaining that liberals run the world when actually conservatives do

What shall we call those? Change-ups? I call it the same old whine in new bottles.

Let's refine the analysis. The Establishment, if such ever existed, is crumbling. They used to agree, if not on a particular set of issues, at least on a range of acceptable opinion, and a range of acceptable expression of said opinion. Such was the "shaping of opinion" whose passing Wolfe laments.

Has the Establishment crumbled? It no longer holds monopoly power, if it ever did. Better to say it has lost some power that it never monopolized. For the most part, the type of books by Coulter et al, though turning a quick fortune, somehow couldn't manage to find publishers associated with that crumbling establishment -- say Knopf -- like Bellesiles did. Strange. It seems to be changing, though. Stockholders have a say in that.

I happen to think it is a good thing that Moore and Coulter, as well as being published, are held to account, for the most part not by members of the crumbling establishment, but by the very means that are part of disassembling the establishment's prior and remaining power -- say, blogs. The collective intelligence of people linked by the net is so many orders of magnitude greater than the establishment remains, or the counter-establishment, that there will never be a new concentration of power in "shaping opinion" as there has been. You can mourn that. Or you can look at the up-side. The capacity to pump propaganda unanswered into people's heads is restricted, no matter which direction that propaganda comes from.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/10/2004

Ralph --
I did not ascribe the "establishment" assertion to Richard. i simply said that it is a stupid, stupid concept in today's media culture.
I think you are generally on the mark here, though, although
off the top of my head, without even a Google or database search, I can probably think of a dozen prominent conservative tracts that came out in that post WWII era, from Buckley to Goldwater, and let's not forget that it was that era that gave us, inter alia, Carlton Putnam's "Race and Reason." The very existence of these books flies in the face of the argument that this supposed establishment was keeping conservatives from publishing books.
In any case, why are conservatives now whining about the free market they are supposed to so venerate?

Ralph E. Luker - 7/10/2004

To be fair, Derek, it was Wolf who used the term "Establishment" in the first place, not Richard. Wolf's point, which is fairly well taken, I think, is that it is fairly easy to identify an "Establishment" in the post-World War II era, but rather more difficult to identify such a monolith today and the its absence is one of the major factors contributing to a polarized society. But _if_ that's the case, if we no longer have some identifiable "Establishment," then, as you suggest, Richard's "fastball" is, indeed, a misguided missile. You can't both acknowledge the collapse of some monolithic "Establishment" and then hold it responsible for foisting Bellesiles and other follies upon us. Rather, we have clashing claimants to establishment. Surely the NRA and its allies have such ambitions and those who brought Bellesiles to judgment had, for the most part, respectable establishmentarian credentials.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/10/2004

"The Establishment." I love this utterly dopey nonsensical construction. "The establishment," "The media." People who use these absurd meaningless boilerplate terms, and then couple them with nonsense about conservatives being denied publishing opportunities (!!!!!) in the past probably ought to get a library card. C'mon Richard. This is both intellectually lazy and factually devoid. Can't you do better than this? I hope so. It's sad when conservatives lose their fastball.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/10/2004

Wolfe sort of gives the game away when he says such literature is no longer confined to the right. Too funny. Was it ever confined to the right? No mention of Carville and Begala. Wolfe suddenly discovers the phenomenon when rightwingers get published too, after being denied print for years by the Establishment, who treated publicly owned publishing houses as their private preserve, a private means for forwarding their ideological agendas.

Who published and promoted, and rewarded Bellesiles' fabrications masquerading as history? The Establishment. There has never been a healthier situation in the history of the republic than the present one -- where bloggers bring the Establishment to account. Has the Establishment ever been, in the history of this country, more closely held to account for sloppy and dishonest work than they are now?

Ralph E. Luker - 7/10/2004

Manan, I'm glad that you high lighted Wolfe's essay in the NYT for us at Cliopatria, because I think that the parallels that he draws with 18th and 19th century pamphleteering are quite apt. As I recall, he also suggests that the communications context in which these snarky books appear is evident by or even shaped by the snarky world of political blogging in which the swift, albeit not very accurate, retort is highly valued. I agree with him that these kinds of books are to be preferred to no books at all and even preferred to a heavily censured book market. I suspect that he even ignores a _very_ snarky post-WWII book market shaped by McCarthyism and other ills. It happens in a democratic society and capitalist marketplace, where the premium is on what sells. Still, much is lost where lowest common denominators crowd out thoughtful books.

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