By contrast, to cite but one counter-example, Abbie Hoffman, a political clown though a hero to the left, has been the subject of three biographies within a decade of his death, not to mention a book-length exposition of his political “philosophy.” There can be no question that the nostalgic glow around Hoffman’s memory and the interest in his life are integrally connected to the fact that he was a stalwart defender of communist tyrannies in Cuba and Vietnam, and thus in the shared ideals of progressives who now dominate the literary culture and shape its historical judgments.
Russell Jacoby acquired his credentials by writing a book called “The Last Intellectuals,” which bemoaned the vanishing “public intellectual.” This was a label he gave to intellectuals who worked outside the academy, wrote lucid prose and influenced the public debate. The very title of his book was an expression of progressive arrogance. What Jacoby really mourned was the disappearance of the left-wing public intellectual, a direct result of the conquest of American liberal arts faculties by the political left and its distribution of academic perks and privileges to comrades among the politically correct.
Jacoby was well aware that a consequence of this takeover was that almost all contemporary conservative intellectuals were (of necessity) public intellectuals. (Thus the familiar ad hominem trope of leftist discourse which attacks them as “bought” by their sponsors. Jacoby cannot mention Kramer’s magazine the New Criterion, without adding that it is “funded by a conservative foundation.” Of course the Nation for which Jacoby regularly writes is funded by rich leftists and leftist foundations. So what?)
The reason conservative intellectuals gravitated to think tanks like Heritage, American Enterprise and Hoover, and to magazines like Commentary and the New Criterion was because of their de facto blacklisting from the leftist academy. It was precisely the public influence of these conservative intellectuals that Jacoby was lamenting. Yet the pull of the academy’s privilege and security is so great that even Jacoby has succumbed to its lure. Since writing his assault on what he once derided as the “obscurantist” university, Jacoby has given up his own independent existence, swallowed his radical principles and accepted an appointment from his political comrades in the history department at UCLA.
While lack of self-reflection and self-irony are indispensable characteristics of the left in general, Jacoby’s attack on Podhoretz and Kramer is extraordinary in its abuse of them. Not only was his attack directed at two intellectuals who, for political reasons, were denied a platform in the Times, but they were also denied the very academic patronage that Jacoby himself enjoyed. “What can he mean?” Indeed.
Jacoby’s attack was actually one of four non-fiction reviews the Times featured on its cover. Three of these features were of conservative books, all of which were attacked from the left. The fourth was a review of two books on Clinton, both written by leftists, both praised by reviewers from the left.
This issue of the Times happened to be for May 9, 1999, but it could have been any date. In December 1997, the same book review ran the Times’ 100 best books of the year. The list was made up of excerpts from previous Times reviews, and most were a familiar sampling of the literary left, and even of the true believing left (Saul Landau, Martin Duberman, Robert Scheer, and Ellen Willis for example). Among all of them, however, the only reviewer I could detect with the slightest claim to a conservative profile was Walter Lacquer, an academic who had no obvious association with conservative politics, in the way the aforementioned leftists were connected to radical politics.
I learned how the 100 best books were picked shortly after the issue appeared, when I had lunch with Steve Wasserman, the newly appointed editor of the review. I knew Wasserman as a former Berkeley radical and protigi of the Times’ contributing editor Bob Scheer who, in the days of the “revolution,” was promoting the party line of Kim Il Sung and plotting to overthrow the American empire as a member of the red family. Scheer’s politics were still to the left even of the socialist rants of Senator Bullworth in the film he made a cameo appearance in courtesy of friend Warren Beatty. After the 1960s, Scheer had ingratiated himself with Hollywood’s bolsheviks, married a top editor at the Los Angeles Times and become a figure of influence in the Times’ hierarchy, all of which enabled him to secure Wasserman his job.
At Wasserman’s request, I had defended his appointment in a letter to the now-defunct Buzz magazine, when he was attacked in its pages by Salon writer Catherine Seipp. In my letter to Buzz, I praised what I thought were Wasserman’s good intentions to be fair, despite our political differences. The lunch we had arranged was an attempt to rekindle the flame of a relationship that had survived the ’60s.
In fact, given the proper circumstances, Wasserman could himself be an artful critic of the left, within the stringent boundaries it normally set for itself. I have sometimes been accused of “lumping” leftists together and missing the spectrum of “progressive” opinions. The reverse would almost be more accurate. To people like Wasserman, I have often given too much benefit of the doubt in recognition of mild deviations they have been willing to risk, and have failed to see the hard line coming before it smacks me in the face. When I raised the issue of conservatives’ exclusion from the pages of his magazine, Wasserman dismissed my concern out of hand as “bean counting.” He compared it to feminist complaints of under-representation, though there were plenty of feminists and feminist sympathizers on the review’s list.