It’s Reigning Men


This was supposed to be the year I read more female authors. Call me politically correct, but the data about women in public life tell an undeniably appealing story–the more women are heard, the better. On balance, women are a civilizing force. Any society that features women in its A-list of artists, politicians and professionals has a better shot at being decent than a patriarchy does.

Last year when I reviewed Stephen Pinker’s magnificent The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I highlighted one of Pinker’s boldest conclusions: countries that empower women in politics have lower instances of social dysfunction across the board. The rising tide of female thought leaders, says Pinker, is one reason that developed countries are enjoying an era of decreasing violence and increasing protection of human rights.

Fair enough, you might say, women are great. But why make a special effort to read more of their books? Shouldn’t the free marketplace of ideas just bring them cresting toward me on a wave of excellence?

I suppose there’s is something to that. Middlemarch, by George Eliot, has long been my favorite novel in the English language. It includes better moral instruction and far more depth of feeling than the Bible. For recent social commentary, especially on the American scene, there is no better writer than Joan Didion. She is simply magical. I made no special effort to read these women, nor did I choose them for their “feminine” voices. They were (are) just outstanding writers, and I was hungry for their ideas.

But consider this. In the paragraph just above I tried, but could not follow, Aristotle’s advice to compose lists of threes. Eliot and Didion rose to the surface of my consciousness, but I couldn’t, without effort, conjure the name of just one more woman who had helped furnish my mind. I thought to add Hanah Arendt after the fact, but would I not be forcing a piety at that point? On the spur of the moment, I could only name two women whose writing had really shaped me.

Here’s a plain, solid fact: men predominate my mind, pacific as it is. I once dedicated a whole year to reading Dickens as Orwell understood him. This blog is literally a paean to Orwell. Another thing: glance down through the column of tone-setting quotations to the left and you will see men on parade–Whitman, Conrad, Orwell, Proust, Vidal, Camus, and Wittold Gombrowicz. You might not have heard of the last author, but I bet you can guess his gender. (Oops.) I searched my own posts for a third woman to mention in my introduction to this essay, but all I got back was praise for, inter alia, James Baldwin, Grotius, and Norman Mailer, a man who stabbed his wife in the neck.

charles atlas leopard
Charles Atlas, man’s man

The decision to read more women, then, seems to be a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. If I truly believe women deserve more space in an intelligent reader’s hall of heroes, it is actually right and proper to put more female writers to the test. And to do this, a reader must make a list and start checking it off, a blatant act of positive discrimination.

And so my admittedly trumped-up list for 2018 included Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all of Susan Sontag’s essays and novels, all of Naomi Klein’s recent criticism, and the major novels of Willa Cather. (Cather somehow enriched her soul from the raw materials of life on the underpopulated American plain, something I was unable to do. She also had no use for men except as buyers of her books, if you know what I mean.) I also wanted to discover the novels of Dawn Powell, a little heard-of author whom Gore Vidal praised to high heaven and called simply “the American writer” in an eponymous essay.

My plan has gone great, except for the beginning, and the part since then. Having nothing to read the day before New Years (when my plan should nominally have started), I snuck in Don Delillo’s White Noise rather than getting straight to Morrison’s Beloved. Everything I would read this year, I rationalized, would pass through a filter of post-9/11 American criticism. I would be better off just accepting this assumption, and using Delillo’s depiction of dumbed-down, media-entranced America to articulate my mindset going in.

Don’t get me wrong. I did read Beloved right after White Noise, and it was everything I hoped it would be, but somehow, I had to defer first to the solidities of my masculine self. Reading Delillo was my genuflection to maleness going into the temple of literature.

My regard for masculinity takes on physical size in my library. Several books by men’s men stand as pillars so large on my bookshelf, they pull like gravity. You are thinking it, so I’ll go ahead and say it: yes, pillars are phallic. Let us enlarge on this idea.

Two of the books in question are almost literally the product of a dick-measuring competition. Gore Vidal’s behemoth United States is a 1,200-page volume of essays written between 1952 and 1992, heavy on politics. I worship it: it catalogues Vidal’s magnificence as an American commentator. Norman Mailer liked it too, but in his own way. Not cottoning to Vidal’s faggishness but jealous of his heroic output, Mailer produced the 1,300-page The Time of Our Time to outdo United States. I have to believe he crossed the 1,300-page mark just to notch a victory of physical dimension. But boy foibles aside, The Time of Our Time is also a surpassingly great book. If you want to know, in your gut, what the riotous Democratic conventions of 1968 Chicago and 1972 Miami meant for America, you must read Mailer. And then you may, like myself, find you want to read him on other things as well.

Even mediocre masculinity takes pride of place on my bookshelf. To wit: there are, to my mind, two ways to understand the crucial concept of the power elite in America. One is to read C.W. Mills’ 1967 book of the same name. But my method of choice is to acquire and read every book ever written about America’s power centers by the great and dull chronicler Bob Woodward. I know in the upper reaches of my mind that Joan Didion is right about Woodward’s crippling inability to draw moral conclusions, but the Herculean task of digesting all of his solemn, hefty books does indeed leave one thoroughly instructed on the exercise of power in the Oval Office, the Pentagon, the CIA, the Supreme Court, and so on. Because I’ve found I can buy Woodward’s books cheapest in hardback, they stand like large fortresses on my bookshelf. They guard a certain something inside me, something “dumb-muscled, slap-bang” and male, as Don Delillo might put it.

What, then, am I trying to say here? I know where the majority-power lies in my mind–in the things that famous men say about the ideas and actions of other famous men. But if the principle of spotlighting the minority report is good enough for the U.S. Supreme Court, is it not good enough for your humble correspondent as well? Should I not make a deliberate effort to showcase dissent, even in the shabby, undiscovered theater of my own mind? And so I carry on with my list of female writers, knowing like Stephen Pinker knows, that it is a good thing, even if it takes effort. Everything worthwhile thing I’ve ever done has taken effort. Why should an education in human decency be any different? Bring on Sontag, Klein, Cather and Powell!



How Quickly We Lost the Peace After the Civil War


I am just finishing up Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson’s 1962 book that analyzes the literature of the American Civil War.

While I don’t feel quite up to a full review of this 800-page monument, I would like to share one or two notes about it.

The first is that Wilson is so comprehensive and so revealing in his exploration of the war literature, you are bound to feel more American after reading it. It is a book that puts you in far deeper possession of your country’s social and political history than a mere chronicle of the war’s battles ever could.

In so many ways, the war was a fulcrum on which the balance of forces in American art, ideas and politics tipped toward modernity. To take just one example, the prolix style of antebellum novels, full of the fripperies of Walter Scott, gave way to hard Northern efficiency after the war. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a mere 272 words, foretold of this stern brevity, a style that goes straight to the heart of the matter and brings the loftiest abstractions down to a practical level, where people of action and theory alike can make sense of them.

patriotic gore

Second, some of the key works Wilson reviews remind us how immediately and thoroughly the peace was lost after Civil War. Hearts and minds really didn’t change much when the shooting stopped, and the established powers didn’t seem to care.

Reconstruction in the South was based on the assumption that slave-holding culture would end automatically with the abolition of slavery as an institution–that there was essentially no political peace to be won. Today we might say that the Union powers assumed that the ideology of white supremacy died when the war ended. Of course we know with hindsight that was not the case, but Wilson documents just how abundant the evidence was that racists intended to hold their positions even after their military defeat.

For many years after the war, the most popular book in the South was A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, by Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy. In it, Stephens argued that the cause of the South remained a just and legal one despite the loss of the war. As the title of his book indicates, Stephens deploys many a constitutional argument to this effect. Thousands of southerners kept his book in a prominent place in their homes after the war, says Wilson, much like a family Bible. It remains the intellectul heart of Lost Cause-ism.

Equally revealing is the genre of historical fiction by Northerners who moved south after the war to do their part implementing Reconstruction. I am reading one of the outstanding novels of this genre now, A Fool’s Errand, by Albion Tourgee. More or less autobiographical, A Fool’s Errand recounts how a former Union colonel moves to North Carolina after the war and tries to revive a plantation and operate it by paying “freedmen”–former slaves–a living wage to work its soil. After 12 years of frustration and disillusionment, the hero sours on the cause of Reconstruction to such an extent he begins to sympathize with the reactionary attitudes of his racist neighbors.

Also not to be missed in this vein are the novels and essays of George Cable, another Northerner who moved south after the war, to New Orleans. Cable was a staunch early supporter of freedmen’s rights, but he effectively stopped arguing his case in print by the 1890s, at which time African Americans had been “silently disenfranchised,” as Wilson points out.

The books Wilson reviews describe a one-two punch that knocked out any kind of moral victory the war was supposed to win. Southerners did not really accept their defeat, and Northerners could not force them to do so. There is an instructive political lesson in the speed of this development: the immediate collective response to the civil was to nullify the very cause for which it was fought. If you are trying to make sense of the racial divide that persists in America, it is helpful to recall how naturally it seemed to set in after the war, and how tenaciously its advocates clung to power.

Why I Write: A Postscript


This post continues a thought I started a couple years on why I bother to write.

I make no claim to originality in this blog. Its title is taken straight from Orwell. Many of its ideas come from him as well, or from other writers, even where I fail to give them credit. I have stolen almost everything you might possibly read here.

And, as Orwell pointed out on the first page of “Charles Dickens,” the essay that got me addicted to literary criticism, some authors and ideas are well worth stealing.

Take this idea from H.L. Mencken, which I came across this morning in his essay “The American Tradition.” Menken is attacking book critics who promote Anglo-Saxonhood by censoring “foreign” ideas out of American literature:

I have come to believe in [their] inferiority thoroughly, and that it seems to me to be most obvious in those who most vociferously uphold the so-called American tradition. They are, in the main, extremely stupid men, and their onslaughts are seldom supported by any formidable weight of metal. What they ask the rest of us to do, in brief, is simply to come down voluntarily and irrationally to their own cultural level–the level of a class that easily dominated the country when it was a series of frontier settlements, but that has gradually lost leadership as civilization has crept in. The rest of us naturally refuse, and they thereupon try to make acquiescence a patriotic matter, and to alarm the refractory with all sorts of fantastic penalties.

The main thing to notice here is not Mencken’s attack on the stupidity of the middlebrow white supremacist, which is bracing and pungent, yes, but old hat. Read any 100 pages by the old mammal, and you will find this trope in 70. (Enjoy, by the way.)

PP79.1261 Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
H.L. Mencken

What struck me with the force of an electric current though, was Mencken’s identification of fear as the defining characteristic of bigotry, and even more than that, how the forces of bigotry use fear’s gravitational power to try to pull the civilizing few down to their level of misery.  And no sooner had I processed this idea than I realized one of the cardinal reasons I keep this diary: to resist this gravitational pull. I write to resist the injunctions of fear and bigotry, which threaten to pull decent folk down into brutality and swinishness.

Mencken’s words remind me that keeping this journal is an attempt at self respect. I may be wrong in my optimistic belief that human dignity is possible: fear may be humankind’s natural and proper response to a world ruled by the law of the jungle. But now that we have built this experimental city on a basis science, reason, law and art, I cannot bring myself to throw away the chance it affords us to become decent. Writing is the best way I know to defy the powers who ask me to voluntarily throw this chance away. Fear may have dominated our country when it was less civilized, but we need not let it do so today. Times change.



Review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist


All the books I review here are important in some way. They shine a critical light on an unsolved problem or extol the mystery of human existence. They lead me to places I hadn’t yet discovered, unlock voices unheard. Often they attack ideas I dislike, which makes for a lot of fun. Such pleasures, though,  are mostly private. I write about them solely so I can remember them later.

But occasionally I read a book so important, so insightful that I think everyone should read it, and I badger my friends and family to do so. Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is this kind of book. It will change your conception of America and what it means to be American. It’s a book that requires courage but will also increase your store of it.

baptist half never told

We all know, or at least suspect, that American school books have for many decades proffered a sanitized history of African slavery in our country. In Baptist’s groundbreaking book, he argues that the official version has made it impossible for Amercans to understand what slavery really meant to the formation of our national identity and why so many of slavery’s consequences remain unresolved up to this day.

The official version, says Baptist, rests on three assumptions, all of them wrong.

  1. The first is that slavery was an outlier of industrialization, fundamentally different from the innovations that created our immense wealth and power. The empirical data, though, flatly and massively contradict this assumption. Over and over Baptist shows that, starting from the 1810s, American planters’ use of low-cost slave labor drove long, steep gains in the production of cotton, the world’s most valuable commodity. Americans are taught to believe that slavery was an anachronism, a national embarrassment that had nothing to do with who we “really” are as prosperous, forward-thinking mercantilists and industrialists. Nonsense, says Baptist. Slavery made us rich and powerful. And our wealth brought us to the top of the international order.
  2. The second false assumption is the hindsight-enabled belief that slavery was bound to lose to the forces of liberal democracy and laissez faire economics. History is irrepressibly just, runs this myth, and right will always win out. Markets are ruthlessly perfect, and they will inevitably crush inefficiencies. But again, the data tell a different story. Slavery won for a long time, and there was nothing inevitable about the war that eventually defeated it. Lincoln’s heart was in unionism, not abolitionism. From an economic perspective, the slave system became highly efficient under the planter’s whip, and the “democratic” demand for it increased as southern planters amassed more and more wealth. Far from dying out, slavery was at its strongest just before the Civil War. And the war was a real fight that could have gone either way; it was not a pre-determined set piece.
  3. The third assumption is that slavery’s main offense was that it denied slaves political freedom, a mere abstraction. This, though, is an outrageously antiseptic version of what slavery really was. The truth is that in the cradle of liberal democracy, real Americans dictated over a tyrannical state-within-a-state based on sadism and exploitation. Even as our political insitutions were maturing at a dizzying speed and enabling unprecedented growth in the freedoms and civic virtues of white people (the America de Toqueville justly admired), black slaves lived in forced labor camps that might just as well have been run by the Gestapo or the NKVD. Torture drove slavery, and it is morally instructive to face this deeply unpleasant fact head on rather than burying it under denials, half-truths and abstractions.

A book that rebuts these assumptions will have to avoid mere editorializing. We all know slavery to be wrong, and our condemnations of it can so easily become mawkish. But the task Baptist sets himself is not just to decry slavery but to move it from the margins of American history into the mainstream, where we must face its full impact. This he acomplishes through a single muscular argument that runs throughout The Half Has Nevere Been Told. To adapt a phrase from Edmund Wilson, Baptist sweeps the reader through a canyon whose walls are built of granite statistics, on a stream of powerful, exhilirating historical narrative.

The United States of America has not always been rich. When we came within a hair’s breadth of losing our young independence in the War of 1812, we had almost no wealth for mounting a national defense. Barely out of that crisis, we were a country deep in debt. All that changed over the course of just a few decades, and by the eve of the Civil War, we had in fact become rich and powerful. How?

There exists a clear record of how this transformation happened. Between 1800 and 1860 America shifted from raising subsistence crops to cash crops, and it began to industrialize. The largest of the cash crops was cotton. And cotton growers, along with all the other businesses in their supply chain, kept detailed books. For whoever has eyes to see (and read), the historical record is there. We know the growth by-acreage of cotton plantations over the decades between 1800 and 1860, how much cotton enslaved people picked, how banks and the US government strategized to expand cotton growing, and how downstream industries at home and abroad profited from the whole system.

The story these data tell is that America became a leading capitalist economy–in fact the leading capitalist economy–on the back of slave labor. From the time the first slaves arrived in America in 1619 to roughly the period after the Revolutionary War when the global price of tobacco crashed, slavery in North America actually was more or less what we are taught in the school books–cruel and exploitative, yes, but primarily a class marker of the aristocratic agriculturists. Call this the Thomas Jefferson model of slave ownership (my term, not Baptist’s): you have slaves to show that you are somebody, not to enable the grubbing of money.

But all this changed with the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the opening up of the United States’ southwestern territories on the Mississippi River basin. Here cotton grew. And as it grew, it fed the mills of Connecticut and England and fueled the transatlantic industrial revolution. Baptist explains:

By 1815, the rapid expansion of Mississippi Valley slave labor camps had enabled the United States to seize control of the world export market for cotton, the most crucial of early industrial commodities. And cotton became the dominant driver of US economic growth.

Suddenly, slavery became linked to the world’s largest revenue stream. Slaves were no longer on plantations merely to keep the grounds and reassure the owning class of its master status–they were there to make serious money. And this is when slave drivers became methodically cruel. Under the lash, slave productivity skyrocketed. How do we know this? Enslavers kept daily records of how much cotton their “hands” brought in from the field. Too little meant a whipping of course, or worse. Baptist recounts that slave masters sometimes used demonstrative executions of low producers to show what would happen to “slackers.” Moreover, employing a trick that communist regimes would discover in the 20th century, many enslavers placed shock-workers in the ranks, pickers whose huge daily intake was meant to set a superhuman pace for the “ordinary” slaves. Few could keep up, but many died trying.

Through the calibrated use of cruelty and guile, enslavers drove the productivity of slave labor inexorably upward. As Baptist records,

The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860, when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds.

So productive had slave hands become by 1860 that the real price of cotton sank to one-quarter of its 1790 value despite a 500 percent rise in demand. Read that sentence twice. The cotton-based industrial revolution was making England and America rich by 1860, and the efficiency gains driving it were so high that the owning class was reaping its wealth from a commodity that was consistently sinking in real value.

This is the heart of the slavery history that has never been told in America–the plain fact that African slaves became “fuel for the American system,” as Ta Nahisi Coates has put it. We pride ourselves on the range of life opportunities that hard work, disicipline, and innovation create in our country. Apply yourself, pay your dues, and this great country will let you be great. Even better, success breeds civic virtue. We believe that people who have mastered the system are capable of greater political enlightenment. Why else would we listen to Bill Gates talk about politics? But consider this about the supposed connection between economic development and the expansion of social virtues:

In those societies that [economic development] benefitted the most, the transformation built fundamentally on one key shift: increasing the amount of goods, such as food or clothing, produced from a given quantity of labor and land.

Efficiency gains. That’s what drives modern economies. At a critical juncture in history, we won the contest of extracting the most output from the least input. We remain justly pround of efficiency as a principle of American prestige. We’re renowned as a people who gets things done. But economic theory is profoundly agnostic about how to achieve efficiency: it doesn’t care whether efficiency gains are made morally or immorally. Machines can do it or enslaved humans can.

We remain steadfastly ignorant of the concrete means by which we so dramatically increased efficiency in the 19th century and climbed to the top of the mercantilist heap. Here, then, are the unwelcome facts: we used slave labor to keep pace with industrialization and to seed the very technologies that drove the industrial revolution forward. This was the basis of the wealth that grounded our peace, security and freedom. And as Baptist coldly points out, enlsavers were making an economically rational choice when they opted for slave labor. It increased their margins in a way that no other available labor source could.

Incidentally, the rest of the capitalist system does not get a pass. Several chapters of Baptist’s book show how northern bankers, industrialists, politicians and land speculators colloborated to turn slave labor into the paper investment instruments–land deeds, loans, bonds, and shares certificates–that drive economic growth in a capitalist economy. All of America shared in the profits of slave labor.

Why do we not wish to hear this message? Because to do so is to contemplate that the American dream is built on an economy “whose bottom gear was torture,” as Baptist writes. If we accept this history, we can no longer dismiss slavery as a minor crime that was committed by a small minority of misguided Americans, and which in any case has been redeemed by the good intentions of the majority. No. We consciously chose African slavery at a time in our history when it mattered to everyone, and to the wider world. It made us rich, and it made us who we are.

So, read Baptist. Read him for any reason that motivates you. Maybe you think he must have gotten everything wrong. Maybe you suspect he is right, but you want to see the evidence for yourself. Maybe you think I am a self-hating liberal who has cherry-picked Baptist’s ideas to reinforce my sickly worldview. Maybe you want to hear a voice unlike your own, hear claims about who we are that differ from your own ideas. I plead rank Platonism: I am congenitally unable to lead an unexamined life. And I am concivnced you too will be moved by this history of America, no matter what your starting assumptions are. Read Baptist.

A Short Political Essay, with Mudslinging


After last week’s government shutdown, a couple of my friends Facebooked that we obviously needed a new Congress. True representatives of the People would never hold national security hostage to pathetic partisan grandstanding. Brave soldiers manning the wall were going unpaid!

In a way my friends are right. A normal parliament finds ways to pass laws that do not depend on playing political Chicken over the country’s operating budget. So throw the bums out. Isn’t that one of the bedrock principles of democracy–if you don’t like your government, elect a new one?

Except it won’t work that way. Even if we vote in a new govenment, it will act just like the old one, falling into the same old gridlock. Why is this?

Rather than threading my way through the issues and processes that really underpin this problem, today I’ve decided to blame it on particular people. This is for two reasons. One, it is fun. Who does not enjoy using oversimplifications to slander people they dislike? Am I going to let some cud-chewing political “expert” tell me the things that outrage me have complex, “structural” origins? Not today.

Second, you, gentle reader, might take more away from my by-name slagging of prehensile creeps than you would from a placid analysis of abstract issues, no matter how insightful. People actually form their political perceptions based on cant, identity, emotions and intuitions rather than knowledge of facts or rational calculation of expected payoff. When you go to the polls, or put pen to paper to argue politics, you are not the objective oberver or rational actor you think you are; you are your mood, disposition, and skin color. If you don’t believe me, read this study, or this one, or this one. In fact, just take a week off to read, and see if you ever feel like voting again.

But back to my topic. The idea is, I get a good hate on and you come away with a clear idea of what I think is really wrong with the government.

I blame three people for what’s wrong. What these villains have wrought will guarantee continued government gridlock even if we elect fresh faces this fall. Who are these Enemies of the People? Oh, let me tell you.

It all starts with Newt Gingrich. Up until this serial philanderer¹ and crackpot historian from Georgia started jockeying for Speaker of the House in 1989, Congressmen had always (tacitly) observed Clausewitz’s old distinction between politics and war. War meant fighting to the death; politics, although a competition with serious stakes, did not. You still had to get along with your adversary. Gingrich disliked this idea of comity among rivals and set out to wreck it. Rather than going after the Democrats on the issues, Gingrich sought to debase their character, poisoning the very well of the party’s policy ideas.


Although Gingrich lacked a fancy social sciences degree, he uncovered a facet of human stupidity, now robustly confirmed by cognitive psychologists, that unlocked immense political power in his favor: if you consistently describe your adversary using single, focus-grouped negative buzzwords (and your own in positive ones), you need never use actual sentences to win your constituents’ support for complex issues. They will simply fall into line, as slavishly as Teheran’s denizens do every Friday, chanting “Death to America” on queue. And if you spend enough money weaponizing this tactic lifted straight from 1984, you can win most of the elections, most of the time.²

Congress has never been the same since the Gingrich revolution. Congressmen and -women are now locked in permanent war, a combat funded by wealthy interests, designed by lobbyists, and waged constantly in the media. In setting this complex of machinery in motion, Gingrich switched on a George Jetson-like electioneering treadmill that politicians can never get off. They will die if they do. The treadmill never slows down and never stops spinning off clever strategies for dumbing down the electorate and amping up tribal hatreds. So thanks for that, Newt. You’re a fucking asshole.

Then, there’s Gerald Cassidy. Wait, Gerald Who? Cassidy is the most successful lobbyist in American history, worth $100 million when he retired in the late-2000s. He took the lobbying game to a whole new level, and, like Gingrich, he unloosed forces that have permanently damaged our government’s ability to deliver democracy.

Lobbying didn’t start out all that bad. The germ of the idea is that the people have the right to petition the government. The Constitution says we do. But what we lack is access to goverment officials and knowledge of how they make things happen. This is where the lobbyist comes in. He (it’s almost always a he) usually comes from Congress or an industry that has learned how to cozy up to the government to get its way on issues that matter to it.

In 1975 Cassidy had gotten good at helping left-leaning interest groups compel the government to enforce fair labor standards. He was a young idealist. But after he started getting paid well, he began to realize that what he was selling–access and influence–were politically neutral commodities. He got very good selling these things, and he worked both sides of the aisle. As long as the cash was rolling in, he really didn’t care what kind of political outcomes he was fostering.

Cassidy’s “greatest” accomplishment was his innovation of the earmarking process, by which line-item appropriations could be attached to bills about entirely different things. Congressmen had always done some form of slicing and dicing elements of bills to win rivals’ votes to their cause, but Cassidy blew the lid off this practice. In 1977 he helped Tufts University win a $27 million research center, utterly untransparently and without competition. When the dust settled and Cassidy and Congress realized they would not be called to the principal’s office for what they had just done, it was off to the races. A sort of Oklahoma land rush, but on earmarks ensued. It changed the way laws got made. Rather than engage in substantive debate on, say an air pollution bill, Congressmen would simply trade votes on line-item expenditures attached to the bill instead. You vote for my pork, and I’ll vote for yours. Who cares what else is in the bill!

But, outrageous as they are, earmarks didn’t do the real damage to democracy. That has been done by all the campaigning services that spun off Cassidy’s original work as a lobbyist. After Gingrich declared war in Congress in 1994 with his “Contract with America,” Cassidy and other lobbyists immediately started weaponizing all the things politicians would need to survive the arms race of the permanent campaign. Thus were born, among other things, political action committees, the shell companies that convert interest groups’ money into votes and reduce political campaigns to the mass manipulation of prejudice and ignorance.

Lots of fat cats pay lobbyists lots of money to keep you, gentle reader, ignorant and angry, but of course they are making much, much more money by the manipulation of the legislative process made possible by your ignorance and anger (or, let’s face it: plain old apathy). Cassidy didn’t set out to wreck democracy in this way, but he did see the damage start to occur as his business began ballooning, and he simply didn’t give a shit. So, for that, you, too, Gerald Cassidy, are a fucking asshole.³

Finally, there’s Billy Graham. Yes, that’s right, Billy Graham. So far we have been able to cast my Enemies of the people as distant elites, villains who maneuvered their way into power and then lorded it over the undeserving common folk. But unfortunately, my morality tale of democracy gone off the rails has a twist. It unveils a shadowy an enemy within, and it is us.

Gingrich and Cassidy would never have scaled such heights of evil ingenuity had we not conspired in their cause. Yes, the things they did took place inside the halls of power, sanctuaries where plumbers, typists or farmers could never hope to enter. But nonetheless, We the People have an obligation to be vigilant and to call bullshit at the first outward sign of government mischief, before it is institutionalized. The villains who worked with Gingrich and Cassidy and their ilk to poison democracy needed us to be dimwitted and docile, and we obliged them. More than anyone else, it was Billy Graham who enabled America’s mass yokelism by putting a positive valence on ignorance, obedience and magical thinking.

Before Graham began his barnstorming evangelical rallies of the 1950s, there had been  certain sanctions on being forthrightly stupid in public. The Scopes Trial of 1925 emblemized how things worked. Opinion leaders marked off the boundaries of what could be confessed without drawing censurious laughter and what couldn’t. If you believed, say, that the world would end in your lifetime with the advent of a seven-headed seamonster, you would need to file that one away. We have day jobs to do, and we can’t focus if we think our colleague is basing any of his public decisions on such extravagant private fantasies.

Today, though, we are taught that literalist religious nonsense has a proper role in public policy. This did not happen by accident. Starting with the Eisenhower Administration in 1952, Graham assiduously applied to multiple presidential press secretaries to win his way into the White House and create the position of religious valet to the Commander-in-Chief. Although Ike was sympathetic to Graham, he kept the gangly North Carolinian at arm’s length. It was not until the presidency of that well-known Quaker holy man Richard Nixon that Graham won his way through and became a fixture of national politics in America, kneeling in prayer with the president and chummily insulting Jews.4

Is it any wonder that our heads of state eventually ordained Graham and took him into their counsel? They would have been fools to turn him away, for Graham delivered up a pearl of great price. In addition to empowering rank stupidity and blind obedience among the masses, Graham midwived an unprecedented person in American politics–the single issue voter.

Think about this: if you are a politician and you advocate for position of the single-issue voter, you win his or her support for absolutely anything else you wish to append to your platform. Anything. This is what nerds call a killer app. It does exactly what you want it to, and it kills competitors–in this case, things like nuance, debate and argument–with ruthless efficiency.  And if an opposing politician wins partisans to an equal and opposite single issue, voila, you have permanent polarization of the electorate. No voter will ever move off their position, and the politicians get to keep adding whatever planks to their platforms they wish. Pretty, isn’t it?

So for persuading the masses and elites alike that it is virtuous to be dumb, but especially for enabling single-issue voting, you, too, Billy Graham, are a fucking asshole.


  1. Ordinarily a politician’s domestic life doesn’t bear much on my estimation of his value. Gingrich, though, did things that challenged my coldblooded ability to compartmentalize. In 1980, he notified his first wife of his intent to divorce her as she lay battling cancer in the hospital. Although certain “aspects” of this story have been distorted over the years to be even less flattering to Gingrich, the fact itself is not in question. The moral callousness of such an act surely approaches what any reasonable person would call sociopathic. In 2000, when Gingrich divorced his second, younger wife, it was so he could sanctify an affair he’d been having with a (still younger) junior staffer for seven years. Now the affair itself is run-of-the-mill stuff for Congressmen, and I risk violating my own principle of being blase about politicians and sex, but I must point out that for years Gingirch had been promoting himself as a family values politician and a vanguard warrior for the Bible Belt’s growing faction in America’s culture wars. If this level of hypocrisy doesn’t support my argument that voters will shamelessly slag their own principles for the sake of tribal loyalty, nothing does. Among his other sins, Gingrich enabled massive voter hypocrisy.
  2. For a summary of Gingrich’s innovations, see the chapter about him in George Packer’s excellent 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.
  3. You can read about Cassidy in Robert Kaiser, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, from which I take my facts.
  4. Graham’s machinations were also helpful to big business, a discussion I had to leave out here. See Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, for the facts I cite about Graham.


A Certain Power


As a child I was a profligate liar. I lied to exaggerate my accomplishments at school, to decorate my past, and in many cases to try to get out of trouble. It was probably in the course of that last effort that I finally figured out lying was more trouble than it was worth. To be honest I don’t remember when I finally broke the lying habit, but I do recall I was old enough to feel shame. I should have known better.

Anyone who has ever lived with a long-term lie knows the relief of putting an end to it. The lie in question doesn’t have to be a whopper; it could be the smallest of omissions or distortions, kept up for the sake of comity or covenience. But the fresh start of breaking with falsehood and living up to the truth is a healthy, cathartic experience. It can hardly be a coincidence that one of the most enduring books in Western civilization is St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the fifth century, still in print today.

George Orwell captured the tonic power of truth-telling in a single phrase. In one of his essays (possibly “Why I Write”), he was inventorying his talents when he mentioned that his main gift was not so much a skill or technique as it was a certain power for facing unpleasant facts. The more you read Orwell the more clearly you see the quality that most of his “unpleasant facts” had in common–they were lies the English people told themelves about how good and great they were.

In America, it is Martin Luther King Jr. who plays the unwelcome but deeply necessary role of puncturing our most cherished myths. Without King, our whole national story remains a lie. The Founders declared with a great flourish that all men were created equal, even as the slaves they owned worked under the whip and built the mercantile power on which our country as founded. Certainly men with eyes as clear as Thomas Jefferson’s could see the depth of this lie. It took a lot of effort to keep it covered up for so long.

I don’t have time or space to trace the lie and all its variants down through the course of American history. We all know it well enough to acknowledge its presence. Besides, I want to keep my point short, and it is this: for exposing this lie, Martin Luther King is an American hero on par with the founders of our republic. He saved the national project. Without him, we would still be telling ourselves that our experiment in political freedom had succeeded. We would still think slavery was a mere aberration, and its consequences would eventually blow over if we just let time and forgetting do their work.


I grew up in places where people saw King as “belonging” to the civil right movement. He was made out to be a special-purpose activist, someone who helped right wrongs that existed somewhere else but not here. Since then, I’ve come to see King as he truly is: a leader and prophet for all Americans. In fact he is possibly the greatest American of all.

Anyone can create national myths and purvey national values, but it takes a true hero to hold the nation to account for them. If, some 50 or 100 years from now, Americans look back and perceive that we have crossed over into the promised land of political equality, I am convinced it will be King who deserves the credit for it. His power for facing unpleasant facts means we don’t have to live a lie anymore, and we don’t have to be ashamed of ourselves. We can still reach the promised land, but only if we admit we are not there yet.


First Thoughts on V.S. Naipaul


Just about every great novel showcases one or another liberal piety. Middlemarch shows how political change can never be made to benefit the poor unless the rich feel sufficiently guilty to lead the way. The great American novel, Huckleberry Finn, invites white Americans to ask how we managed to subjugate and terrorize millions of blacks and keep faith with the Sermon on the Mount and the Bill of Rights.

I won’t multiply examples. But suffice it to say, the novel’s leftward bent is so consistent and robust to force one to ask why the sentiments of the right are so absent from the novel. Novels are the books that ask why we are here, what we ultimately are up to, what it means to be human.  Maybe there is something about these animating questions that bind the novel organically to the temperament of the left.

V.S. Naipaul is having none of this. I’ve just started reading his 1979 A Bend in the River, which opens with a clarion call that comes unmistakeably from the right. Of course I don’t know how the book will end, but its opening sentence proclaims a world which is in no way amenable to liberal pieties. “The world is what it is,” Naipaul declares. Furthermore, it contains two kind of men–those who assert the power of their traditions and thus leave their mark, and those who go with the flow and are drowned in history’s tide. The latter man, Naipaul says, amounts to nothing, is nothing. Strong stuff.

a bend in the river

Obviously I haven’t gotten to the bottom of A Bend in the River yet. Naipaul’s antagonist, the ethnic-Indian trader Salim, may prove to be an unreliable narrator. Liberal pieties may still lurk in the distance. But for the moment, Naipaul’s novel is the most bracing kind of tonic for any serious political thinker–a capable challenger to one’s accepted doctrines.  As Salim tries to revive a defunct trading post in interior east Africa, his life comes unmoored from the cosmopolitan society of Portuguese, Persians and Arabs that once hummed on the east African coast and made it what it was. Now, violent revolutions have freed African colonies and drained the polyglot coast of its sustaining cultural power. Salim begins to discover how fragile political order is, and how humans revert to older, possibly stronger traditions in the absence of it.

This is going to be good.