Journalism

Is it Better to Be Misunderstood or Ignored?

December 21, 2010

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After I recently savaged Rich Lowry’s syndicated review of Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Dignity, Professor McCloskey indicated that I have no right to discuss her work until I”€™ve read it from cover to cover. I explained to her that I”€™ve nothing against her work, only Lowry’s embarrassing commentary on it. For all I know, her book is better. There is no way it could be worse than Lowry’s review.

This leads to a cost-benefit analysis of having one’s work publicized in the national press. Given the generally low intelligence and/or ideological hobbyhorses of those who typically write puff pieces in the national press, one should not expect accurate, comprehensive analyses of scholarly works. What one gets instead are botched, selective readings aimed at politically definable readers.

Recently, a US News & World Report commentator clearly misunderstood my point when referring to my American Conservative article about Glenn Beck’s misrepresentation of the Progressives. But (what the hell!) the editors who published my essay gladly accepted the publicity.

David Brown, a colleague of mine who published a very balanced biography of American leftist historian Richard Hofstadter, saw his book reviewed in The New York Times by someone who seemed more interested in canonizing Hofstadter than in analyzing the book. But David didn”€™t grouse. He thought a national newspaper’s extensive review would translate into book sales. And it did.

The alternative to such treatment is being ignored, a fate that my friends and I have suffered from running afoul of those in power. Two years ago my longtime acquaintance Lee Congdon produced a masterful biography of statesman and political thinker George F. Kennan. Despite being described by Swarthmore political science professor James Kurth as an “€œabsolutely brilliant and entirely accurate biography, one that grasps its subject’s essential conservatism,”€ Lee’s book has sold fewer than 500 copies (perhaps even fewer than my Encounters), and except for my review in Society, I”€™ve not run into any published discussions of it.

“€œGiven the generally low intelligence and/or ideological hobbyhorses of those who typically write puff pieces in the national press, one should not expect accurate, comprehensive analyses of scholarly works.”€

When Jim Kurth asked me why such a work has not sold well, I noted that Lee had not taken a politically useful perspective. The left will only tolerate a view of Kennan as an anti-anti-communist critic of McCarthyism. The neocon-controlled GOP and the conservative movement have even less use for the real Kennan, who made constant fun of global democratic missionaries creating foreign policies.

An even more glaring example of being unfairly ignored was Sam Francis’s Beautiful Losers, one of the most thoughtful works on American conservatism ever published. It was not until his death that a nationally distributed “€œconservative”€ magazine even mentioned Sam’s magnum opus. Sam used to express hope that someone at The New York Times or Wall Street Journal would denounce his work for fascist tendencies so that his publisher could sell more copies. It is hardly surprising that Beautiful Losers and sundry collections of Sam’s polemics are now being sold as opportunities to spit in the conservative establishment’s face.

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