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A Newsletter With An Eye On Political Media from The American Prospect
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Republicans ‘Quietly Pursue’ Traditional Policies, Says Politico
Like what? Insurrection?
The New York Times recently ran a piece entitled With Disruption and Trolling, Greene Reflects G.O.P.’s Shift” that focused on the style of newly elected Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. It explained that while she had been “expelled from her congressional committees as punishment for conspiracy mongering and violent statements, she embraced her exile, declaring that she had been ‘freed’ from the obligation to participate in the drudgery of legislating.”

I suppose it was good of the Times to mention why Greene had been expelled, though the piece declined to say just what her “conspiracy mongering and violent statements” consisted of. (Here’s a short greatest-hits package.) That was more than could be said of the article’s all-but-contextless references to Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert, and Newt Gingrich. Its thesis—that “A growing number of lawmakers have demonstrated less interest in the nitty-gritty passing of laws and more in using their powerful perches to build their own political brands and stoke outrage among their opponents”—is hardly false. And its stated concern, that “The trend has contributed to the deep dysfunction on Capitol Hill, where viral moments of Republicans trying to troll their colleagues across the aisle—often in the mold of President Donald J. Trump, who delighted in being disruptive, often on social media—generate far more attention than legislative debate” is also true. The problem is the use of euphemisms such as “less interest” and “contributed to” in the above. Honesty would demand terms like: “purposely dishonest,” “hate-mongering,” “lunatic conspiracy-minded,” and “deliberately designed to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people die unnecessarily.”

This lack of concern for the substance behind the made-for-media shenanigans invites what comes next. You guessed it: an intellectually indefensible feint toward bothsidesism. You come across “conservatives who say they want to be their party’s answer to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, a second-term progressive who has excelled at using social media to raise money and hurl barbs at political opponents.” Never mind that AOC has come up with detailed policy plans that actually address the concerns she so effectively articulates. That would upend the false equivalence that the Republicans set up and the Times plays along with, even when it is covering the very phenomenon that demonstrates its falseness.

As if to demonstrate what it can do when its reporters and editors are apparently in the mood, the Times ran another piece headlined “Assaulting the Truth, Ron Johnson Helps Erode Confidence in Governmentthat not only provided the evidence to support its thesis, it contextualized the argument it sought to make as more than just a media strategy. For instance: Johnson’s “continuing assault on the truth, often under the guise of simply ‘asking questions’ about established facts, is helping to diminish confidence in American institutions at a perilous moment, when the health and economic well-being of the nation relies heavily on mass vaccinations, and when faith in democracy is shaken by right-wing falsehoods about voting.”

This is the kind of reporting we desperately need if we are to defeat the neofascist forces seeking to destroy our democracy. We see precious little of it owing to a number of reasons, but most prominent among them are the mainstream media’s addiction to the sort of bothsidesism cited above, and its members’ belief that politics is just theater in which “the play is the (only) thing.”

Politico recently offered a lengthy examination of the Republican commitment to “Owning the Libs” to the exclusion of everything else. This piece too is filled with false equivalences, though they are implicit and usually put in the mouths of the pundits it quotes. But it also gets to a useful comparison between today’s Republicans and yesteryear’s threat to democracy, Joe McCarthy. Like the disgraced Wisconsin red-baiter—misnamed a “red-hunter,” though he never actually exposed Communist spies anywhere and never even really tried—today’s Republicans seek to undermine our democracy and rights to freedom of expression and association. Also like him, they rely on the mainstream media’s commitment to the ideology of objectivity—or at least its facsimile—to publicize their lies and conspiratorial musings as if they are no more or less valid than the truth. This piece, committed to the tried-and-true mores of Washington insiderdom, claims that the contemporary Republican Party “offers bread and circuses for the pro-Trump right while Republicans quietly pursue a traditional program of deregulation and tax cuts at the policy level.” Really? That’s all? What was January 6? What was all that gassing of peaceful protesters and threatening to turn U.S. troops on them? What about the assault on voting rights under way virtually everywhere Republicans enjoy legislative majorities? This is “a traditional program of deregulation and tax cuts”?

This is not just old-fashioned lipstick-on-a-pig-style source greasing. Given the threat we face, this sort of irresponsible obfuscation functions no differently than if its practitioners had made a conscious decision to run interference for those who would destroy our democracy, rather than to expose them.

And now for something completely different, here’s a guest comment I prevailed upon the novelist and critic Brian Morton to write on Blake Bailey’s new Philip Roth biography:

The poet said we’re forced to choose between perfection of the life or of the work. Philip Roth liked to tell the world that he’d chosen perfection of the work. “Usually I write all day,” he told David Remnick in a New Yorker profile in 2000. “I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And the emergency is me.” If you Google “Philip Roth” and “monastic,” you get upward of a million results.

One of the many virtues of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography is that it shows that as work-obsessed as Roth was, he had plenty of time for other things. Love affairs, breakups, intense friendships, volcanic feuds. Bailey shows us a Roth the force of whose personality is almost overwhelming.

Bailey writes winningly, and he has just the right attitude toward his subject. He’s like a friend who can lovingly call you on your bullshit. The catch is that although he tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the life, he has little to say about the work. As Joshua Cohen, speaking in the voice of the departed Roth, puts it in his clever review in Harper’s, “MY BIOGRAPHER HAS NO INTEREST IN MY WRITING!!!!” You could come away from the biography with a picture of Roth as a guy who had a lot of sex, held a lot of grudges, and somehow popped out a book every couple of years. I’m not sure Bailey can be faulted for not being a literary critic. But it would have been nice if he’d tried to capture something, if not about the writing, then about the writing process—the immense labor involved in writing 31 books, the feats of patience and solitude and stamina, and the extraordinary aesthetic and intellectual resourcefulness involved in undertaking so many aesthetic transformations. Everyone always claims that it’s impossible to say anything interesting about a writer at work, but I think the titanic artistic struggles Roth engaged in at his typewriter might be the stuff of high drama in the hands of the right biographer.

Roth wasn’t one of those great writers who marry their astonishing gifts with astonishing curiosity about the souls of others. He wasn’t Chekhov; he wasn’t George Eliot. (Here I had some critical remarks about Roth and women, but Alterman wouldn’t let me keep them.)

But he was a great writer. I can’t think of another contemporary novelist who produced as many masterpieces as Roth did. Everybody’s got their own personal list; mine would include Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Ghost Writer, Patrimony, and Sabbath’s Theater, with another four or five books just a step and a half behind. For much of his career, critics used to get on him for staying with the same supposedly small set of concerns. This was foolish. Newark was to Roth what Paris was to Balzac, what Yoknapatawpha County was to Faulkner, what Cairo was to Mahfouz. I don’t think these comparisons are exaggerated. His work will last.

ODDS AND ENDS


Need a movie you’ve never heard of to watch this weekend? Here are three that come with an Altercation seal of approval:

  • Mr. & Mrs. Adelman, free on Prime or Kanopy, and in French.
  • Between the Lines, directed by Joan Micklin Silver, who died recently and does not get nearly the credit she deserves for being a feminist pioneer in the indie film world.
  • Mistress America, my favorite of Greta Gerwig’s performances, with a terrific Noah Baumbach script.

See you next week.

~ ERIC ALTERMAN
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse (Basic, 2020). Previously, he wrote The Nation’s “Liberal Media” column for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman

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