Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Journalists through the decades: tenure?

I know I've written quite a bit about the book Radical Son, in which David Horowitz details the process by which he changed from activist leftist to neocon (see here and here for examples of my posts).

But the book is one of those gifts that keeps on giving. One of the most intriguing aspects of Horowitz's tale, at least to me, is found in certain throwaway details that have taken on a different light in recent years, post-9/11.

Although the book was published in 1997 and therefore the portraits Horowitz paints of various figures on the journalistic left are frozen at that point, time has of course moved on and we've seen some interesting changes happen to a number of those people.

Horowitz isn't the sort to pull his punches, so part of his book is an attempt to show how very vicious some of his former colleagues on the left were when he "turned." The phenomenon I described here, in "Condescension and leaving the political fold," was operating very strongly in Horowitz's life when he emerged from a few years of thought and relative political inaction to announce his change of mind in a series of hard-hitting articles and lectures. As apostates, he and his writing partner Peter Collier not only found doors closed to them in the publishing world that had heretofore been open, but Horowitz experienced a great deal of personal animosity from former friends (including a woman who actually spat at him, I seem to recall):

Although we [Horowitz and Collier] were best-selling authors, there were no longer friendly pages for our writings in its influential liberal journals--the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harper's, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and (now that we had shown what our apostasy meant), the Washington Post. These were reserved for our literary executioners--Gitlin, Hitchens, Blumenthal, and friends.

These names may be strikingly familiar to you. Todd Gitlin is a prominent leftist critic of Bush, and Sidney Blumenthal is a former Clinton aide who is well-known as one of Clinton's biggest defenders during the Lewinsky scandal. They are both still on the same side as they were when Horowitz wrote his book.

But the other name, Hitchens, refers of course to Christopher Hitchens. Two of the most negative portraits in Horowitz's book--and, as I said, he's not one to pull punches, so the negative portraits are very negative--are those of Hitchens and the leftist Paul Berman, both of whom Horowitz reports as having been especially cutting and personal in their attacks on him (not very hard to believe about Hitchens, but Berman surprised me).

Both Hitchens and Berman have themselves undergone certain, shall we say, changes since the book was written. Although both still self-identify as being on the left--Berman especially--both have came close to becoming apostates themselves post-9/11 (although neither has gone anywhere near as far as Horowitz has in that respect), and both have gotten flak from former colleagues for their support of the Iraq war.

It is especially interesting to me that these two were vociferously and personally opposed to Horowitz at the time of his turning, and yet later both ended up doing a not insignificant bit of turning themselves, a fact which strikes me as deeply ironic. Now, Hitchens himself has experienced some of the ostracism he dealt out to Horowitz. Of course, Hitchens being Hitchens, he probably couldn't care less (or, if he does, he'll never tell).

But here is Horowitz's vivid portrait of Hitchens back in the late Reagan years, when Horowitz had just said goodbye to the left, and both men were appearing on the public television show "Book Notes," hosted by Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's (in a remarkable feat of media longevity, Lapham remains its editor--and you may recall him as the man whose name recently, like that of Robert Fisk, became a verb, in Lapham's case for his remarkable time-traveling abilities prior to the 2004 Republican Convention):

As a Trotskyite himself, Hitchens had few illusions about the utopias that the Left had built, but--like Tom Hayden and Jim Mellen--he was driven by internal demons that could not be pacified. This inner rage fueled his animus against the country that had treated him so well, and prompted him to compose a recent article which provided a rationale for Shi'ite terrorists at war with the West...Sitting across from me at Lapham's right, Hitchens looked like a badger, his mood black and his head, with hooded eyes that scowled in my direction, sunk deep into his neck cavity. As soon as we began the proceedings, his bile spilled onto every surface; souring the entire mood of the show, which reached its nadir when I mentioned the passage in which I had written about my father's funeral. "Who cares about his pathetic family?" Hitchens snapped.

It is interesting to note that, although Hitchens has for the most part come over to the neocon side, and thus I appreciate and agree with quite a few (although not all) of his articles and points of view, Horowitz's description of him strikes me as spot on. When Hitchens is on one's side, his biting wit and ability to skewer the opposition are appreciated; when he is on the other side, beware. But, agree or disagree with him, he does seem to be motivated by an anger that appears to have some sort of internal genesis, and his nasty remark about Horowitz's father ties in perfectly with strains noted in the recent dialogue between Hitchens and his brother. One can safely say that Hitchens was certainly not then and is not now a sentimentalist about family.

One particularly fascinating detail of the above quote was that, according to Horowitz, Hitchens had written an article that seems to have been some sort of apologia for Shi'ite terrorists. The post-9/11 Hitchens would probably like to forget that.

Speaking of forgetting, I wondered whether, now that Horowitz and Hitchens have moved closer together in policy matters and have shared the strange experience of losing friends and colleagues over it, they are now on speaking terms with each other despite their conflicted history.

Well, it turns out they are; apparently politics does make strange bedfellows, unmakes them, and then makes them once again. In this 2002 article by Horowitz, he writes, "Christopher [Hitchens], who is also my friend..." And then there is this, promoting a rather remarkable excursion, "Tour London with Christopher Hitchens and David Horowitz."

Horowitz's book is replete with names from the past that still resonate now, in addition to Hitchens. The same crew of commentators and journalists seems to have been around for decades: Alexander Cockburn, Lewis Lapham, Seymour Hersch, Sidney Blumenthal, Eric Alterman, Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, Hendrick Hertzberg, and Martin Peretz. All have roles, small or large, to play in Horowitz's book, and all are still writing in very influential periodicals today. Most of them are more or less on the same side now as they were then; only a few are "changers" like Horowitz and Hitchens.

It made me realize the huge influence a rather small number of people has had in shaping political perceptions in the US and around the world for many decades. In how many other fields would a book written about events occurring mostly in the 60s through the 80s contain so many names that were still highly influential in the year 2005? Do journalists, like academics, have tenure?


At 3:26 PM, July 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it's tenure.

I think it's nostalgia. As a professional musician, I am keenly aware of the influence of nostalgia on thought and style. Most people form a sort of brand identity to a kind of music and to certain musicians by the time they are teenagers. And, they lose the ability almost entirely to listen to any sort of new music, or musicians they are not familiar with, by the time they are 25. As they say, nothing says your age like the way you dance.

Likewise, we are transfixed intellectually by the events of our adolescence and early adulthood. Few people want to know of ideas or events that might change or contradict the opinions they developed in their youth.

The villian here is nostalgia, and you can see it thoughout the left's response to the war in Iraq. Everything is the Vietnam War. This is not just because they are making intellectual connections. If Iraq is the Vietnam war, then leftists are young again, and their ideas and music are relevent and young, as well.

I remember attending a party in Woodstock in the late 1980s, with Dylan playing on the speakers. The host, a woman in her late 40s had taken LSD and laced her hair with flowers. She ran out the door of her cabin and yelled: "The 60s are coming back again."

As foolish as it seems, if Iraq is Vietnam, then 60 years old leftists can think of themselves as teenagers again.

At 4:03 PM, July 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it's accurate to characterize Gitlin as not having had any political shifts. He supported US action in Afghanistan, and after 9/11, famously hung an American flag outside his Greenwich Village window. Though against war in Iraq, he was opposed in an intelligent way that didn't diminish the evil of Saddam and the need to confront him, and is also one of the most trenchant critcs of the anti-American left (see below.) I think you're putting way too much stock in Horowitz as a reliable narrator. The man's always been a self-promoting ideologue adept at personal attack, from the left and now the right.


To the left-wing fundamentalist, the only interesting or important brutality is at least indirectly the United States' doing. Thus, sanctions against Iraq are denounced, but the cynical mass murderer Saddam Hussein, who permits his people to die, remains an afterthought. Were America to vanish, so, presumably, would the miseries of Iraq and Egypt.

In the United States, adherents of this kind of reflexive anti-Americanism are a minority (isolated, usually, on campuses and in coastal cities, in circles where reality checks are scarce), but they are vocal and quick to action. Observing flags flying everywhere, they feel embattled and draw on their embattlement for moral credit, thus roping themselves into tight little circles of the pure and the saved.

At 7:06 PM, July 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WJA. I spent some time in Mississippi in the Sixties in civil rights.
Your explanation brought back, as a smell of magnolia--or dusty back roads, or something--those days, or at least the people with whom I worked.
Coincidentally, I just finished a retrospective requested by one of the organizers from a third of a century gone. Yup. You nailed it.

At 12:03 AM, July 20, 2005, Blogger neuroconservative said...

Provocative post and comments, neo. One aspect of tenure is never having to say you're sorry, which makes it all the more remarkable for those who have.

But for those who still sing the same tune, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is no corrective mechanism within the punditocracy. Until now.

At 11:10 AM, July 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Martin Peretz quite fits with those you mention who "are more or less on the same side" today. He's been very much in support of Bush's foreign policy and also clear-eyed about political correctness and other leftist nightmares. Check out some of his articles in The New Republic. He's often the lonely sane voice there these days. I think Horowitz has also posted some of his work at frontpagemag.com.

At 8:30 PM, July 20, 2005, Blogger Unknown said...

Good post and good comments, all. I second them all.

Brad, I gave up on Harper's years ago for the same reason. You nailed it with the identity politics: When my party, the Dems, called the County Fair the "whitey fair" I realized I was not welcome. So I left.

At 3:53 PM, July 22, 2005, Blogger Ivan Janssens said...

Christopher Hitchens and David Horowitz indeed are friends these days. On his site Horowitz regularly and approvingly publishes pieces by Hitchens. Hichens more than once mentioned Horowitz in a friendly way. I think the frienship started when Horowitz defended Hitchens when the last one went after Clinton and came under fire from people like Blumenthal. I can't find the article however. The trip to London got cancelled by the way.

At 7:07 PM, July 22, 2005, Blogger Robert said...

Hey, a thoughtful blog! You come higly recommended by a fellow conservative who frequents my modest blog, United Possums International [UPI].


I don't have the HTML savvy, so cut and paste, and drop by. That link is a long screed about the sorry state of journalism today.

At 3:06 PM, July 25, 2005, Blogger vbspurs said...

I think it's nostalgia. [...] And, they lose the ability almost entirely to listen to any sort of new music, or musicians they are not familiar with, by the time they are 25.

Perhaps I'm not original by saying this, but I've always thought exactly along these lines regarding music, especially.

I am not a musical person, tending towards reading and film much more, but it's curious that I am stuck in the late 80's, early 90's in my musical tastes (when I was a teen), and yet have diametrically opposite tastes of films when I was younger. It's a Jan Morris-like turn, without the sex change.

I wonder why music has that effect on one since film and reading are just as cultural and as shared activities?

Either way, this tendency we have to shut ourselves off by age 25 from what a younger generation is listening to, or profess to like, is part of the tension one notices in generational conflict.

It starts when you stop liking/respecting the ones coming up behind you.

A longer commentary than I wanted to make about this, but there you are.

BTW, I mention protest marches in my own blogpost of today. Seems a certain generation has been caught sleeping...but alas, so has mine.

As foolish as it seems, if Iraq is Vietnam, then 60 years old leftists can think of themselves as teenagers again.

Again, Stephen, you've hit the nail on the quick.

More than one person has noticed that the anti-Iraq protest marches, are peopled by those over the age of 40, than the youths who protested in the Vietnam era.

In "The Millenials Rising" authors Neil Howe and William Strauss stress that this new generation, born post-1980, above all, hate the preachiness of the generation before them.

But that's alright, isn't it, because if there is one generation that can understand generational backlash are the boomers. They of the Vietnam era, realise that cramming down your views on your kids can be stifling, and that they will turn 180 degrees away from you in retaliation if you're too doctrinaire. Yes, the Vietnam generation are very well positioned to understand that.

...oops. Guess not.

Finally, don't be too hard on nostalgia.

Nostalgia has nothing on bureaucracy, elitism, and cabalism.

Those are the real bugbears we should blame in searching for reasons why people like Lewis Lapham are still around.

Besides, nostalgia makes possible Norman Rockwell, TV Land, and VH-1's "I love the 80s", and all told, that's not that bad.


At 3:19 PM, July 25, 2005, Blogger vbspurs said...

It is interesting to note that, although Hitchens has for the most part come over to the neocon side, and thus I appreciate and agree with quite a few (although not all) of his articles and points of view, Horowitz's description of him strikes me as spot on. When Hitchens is on one's side, his biting wit and ability to skewer the opposition are appreciated; when he is on the other side, beware.

Once, in a bookstore in Georgetown, I saw Christopher Hitchens (whom I had previously met at some 'do' in DC), and as I approached him to re-introduce myself, he recognised me, took my hand, and gave it a gallant Gallic kiss.

(An almost unthinkable gesture from one Brit to another, had we been in Britain)

I wonder what he would've done to me, had he known that at the time, I considered him a drunk, a wastrel, and (as was mentioned) a self-promoter of the most ridiculous kind?

Again, as noted in the blogpiece, he's since changed his views, and it now meshes more with mine, but I am under no illusions about him.

This is a man accutely conscious of the effect he makes on others, the kind of person who self-consciously takes a glass of whisky to the defunct HBO Dennis Miller show, and is not-so-secretly tickled pink when Mr. Miller squeals, "that is so cool!".

The funny thing about Chris Hitchens is that he's very sincere in his insincerity.

It makes it difficult for one to dislike him.

It reminds me of stories of another very boorish self-promoter, who nevertheless had a rapier wit, and not inconsiderable intelligence:

Winston Churchill.

How frustrating he must've been to know, but how grand.


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