The new pamphleteers
Alan Wolfe has a long essay in the New York Times Book Review about the rise of the überpartisan political book. Here’s how it opens: Whether or not you can tell a book by its cover, you can generally tell a country by its books. If most political books are any indication, the way we ...
Alan Wolfe has a long essay in the New York Times Book Review about the rise of the überpartisan political book. Here's how it opens:
Alan Wolfe has a long essay in the New York Times Book Review about the rise of the überpartisan political book. Here’s how it opens:
Whether or not you can tell a book by its cover, you can generally tell a country by its books. If most political books are any indication, the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs; it’s all ”gotcha” commentary and attributions of bad faith. No emotion can be too angry and no exaggeration too incredible. Yet if the technologies used by bloggers and hardballers are new, the form is older than the Republic. While they appear as books — and are staples of the best-seller lists — today’s give-no-quarter attacks, as George Packer noted recently of bloggers, have their origins in the pamphlets of the colonial era. ”Whatever the gravity of their themes or the spaciousness of their contents,” Bernard Bailyn has written of these 18th-century op-ed articles, ”they were always essentially polemical.” Long before deconstruction, we were fond of a hermeneutics of suspicion. We had partisanship even before we had parties. Our framers warned against the dangers of faction because we so rarely stood together. If you prefer your invective unseasoned by decorum, check out what the anti-Federalists had to say about the Constitution or how the Whigs treated ”King Andrew” Jackson. Judge our contemporary culture warriors by the standards of books, and they disappoint: logic, evidence and reason are conspicuously absent. Judge them by the standards of pamphleteering, and they may be doing democracy a favor, reminding our apathetic public why politics matters. Let me, then, apply the pamphlet standard to a slew of recently published volumes in which liberals and conservatives have at each other. Pamphleteering flourishes because in both publishing and politics, established elites and institutions are no longer able to ensure consensus and insist on moderation.
One does wonder which blogs Wolfe reads — while I don’t deny that some of them fit his description of “today’s give-no-quarter attacks,” that’s hardly a fair chatacterization of the blogosphere as a whole. Furthermore, while Wolfe focuses on books, one could make the case that documentary filmmakers actually fit the phamphlet niche even better than authors or bloggers. Hey, in fact, Robert Boynton makes this very point in a New York Times Magazine story on an upcoming documentary about Fox News. One highlight:
The populist MoveOn and the more centrist Center for American Progress collaborated with [documentary filmmaker Robert] Greenwald on ”Uncovered.” Both sensed that film was becoming an important medium for disseminating their anti-Bush, antiwar messages — different though the organization’s politics are — and both provided financial support and helped spread the word. Podesta says that this kind of multimedia, multiorganization project is an effective way of reaching a younger demographic, which policy groups traditionally have difficulty courting. ”Given the choice between sponsoring a policy book that nobody reads and a documentary that sells 100,000 copies and is seen all over the country,” he says, ”I’ll opt for the latter.” In the first half of what Greenwald calls his ”upstairs-downstairs” distribution model, Podesta saw to it that every member of the United States Senate and House of Representatives was invited to a screening of ”Uncovered”; the Center for American Progress also sponsored additional screenings at other elite institutions in Washington and Cambridge, Mass. Meanwhile, ”downstairs,” MoveOn alerted its 2.2 million members to the film and sponsored about 2,600 ”house parties” on the night that ”Uncovered” was released. From Anchorage to Boston, people plugged their ZIP code into MoveOn’s Web site, located the nearest party and watched and discussed the film with a few dozen of their fellow citizens. Lawrence Konner, a screenwriter and producer whose production company, the Documentary Campaign, made ”Persons of Interest,” a film about Muslim detainees in the United States, says that ”Uncovered” ”demonstrated to the rest of us that there was a new way of marketing a documentary.” The film’s grass-roots success attracted a distributor, Cinema Libre, which took it to Cannes and sold it all over the world. A new version with additional material is scheduled for theatrical release in the United States on Aug. 13. Greenwald’s office is now a veritable progressive-documentary incubator: future projects include a brief film for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and ”Unconstitutional,” a movie about post-9/11 civil liberties violations that is supported by the A.C.L.U. Some in the entertainment industry argue that the collaboration between Greenwald and his political partners promises a new paradigm — one in which Hollywood entertainers contribute their skills to a political cause rather than just their cash and left-leaning pieties. ”It used to be that the only time political people came to Hollywood was to go to parties and raise money,” says Julie Bergman Sender, who has produced films like ”G.I. Jane” and made short issue-advocacy films for political groups like America Coming Together, the grass-roots organization backed by George Soros. ”But now we’re showing them that we can do more than write checks.” Jim Gilliam, a 26-year-old former dot-com executive and a producer of ”Outfoxed,” is enthusiastic about the way Greenwald’s projects meld grass-roots politics with the culture of the Internet. He predicts a future — augured by events like MoveOn’s competition for the best 30-second anti-Bush advertisement — in which young political filmmakers will be as likely to wield a camera phone as a digital camera. ”It won’t be long before people will be shooting and editing short documentaries that they’ll stream from their blogs,” he says. If the Internet, as media critics like Jon Katz have suggested, has resuscitated the fiery journalistic spirit of Thomas Paine, guerrilla documentaries offer to put that polemical attitude in the director’s chair.
OK, so maybe blogs are a form of pamphleteering — but they’re not the only form, and they have other uses. [On a side note, Michelle Kung makes a similar point about documentaries in an Entertainment Weekly article on the rise of documentarians (subscription required). The nut graf:
Fed by the reality TV craze and led by [Michael] Moore’s advocacy approach (pioneered in ”Roger & Me”), documentarians are taking a page from the portly provocateur’s handbook and infusing their films with punchier writing, flashier editing, and hipper soundtracks. Movies that wear their agendas on their sleeve are resonating with media-savvy audiences who want some passion and POV with their popcorn.
In a sidebar to the story, it turns out that six of the top ten grossing documentaries have come out in the last two years.] To get back to Wolfe’s essay, his conclusion deals with decline and fall of the Establishment consensus:
We cannot expect today’s political books to stand up to the weightier tomes of the 1950’s and 60’s, since the Establishment that sponsored the latter no longer exists. Our pamphleteers spend so much time debating each other’s media prominence because both sides recognize that there is no national interest for which any one journalist can speak; when the war in Iraq ends, it will not be because a television anchor pronounced it a futile enterprise, as Walter Cronkite famously did during Vietnam. Right and left continue to debate the 2000 election because even the Supreme Court proved itself incapable of making an impartial decision. They accuse each other of treason because no ”wise men” can be found with the ability to define the proper use of American power. Pamphleteering is what happens when no one — editorial writers, university professors, publishing executives — is doing much ”filtering.” Without strong political parties and powerful labor unions, Arianna Huffington’s and Sean Hannity’s politics is the kind of politics you get. For all their ugliness of language and unpersuasive fury, then, the current crop of political pamphlets bears a striking resemblance to the increasingly democratic culture in which they flourish. If their authors are poorly versed in American history, so are the young executives talking about the election at the airport bar while waiting for their connecting flights. If these books treat their side as good and their opponents as evil, so do the sermons in our booming evangelical churches. The style is melodramatic, but that is also true of ”Troy.” Our political culture cannot be immune from the rest of our culture. The model for political argument these days is not the Book-of-the-Month Club but TruckWorld.com. If the only choice we have is between no politics and vituperative politics, the latter is — just barely — preferable. Of course this could change if we recreated an Establishment that decided which television programs we would watch and how much dissent we would permit — a prospect as unlikely (because the Establishment is gone) as it would be unwelcome (because it would constitute censorship). In the meantime, we argue about politics and even argue about how we argue about politics, just what you might expect when no one is in charge but ourselves.
Two quick, slapdash thoughts on this:
1) If the establishment is on the wane, it’s not a recent phenomenon. David Broder wrote about the decline of the Vital Center in The Party’s Over: The Failure of Politics in America back in 1972. Some will say that we’ve been experiencing an inexorable slide towards greater partisanship since then. I think it’s a bit more cyclical, and while we’re undoubtedly in a hyperpartisan mode right now because of the election, these things do wax and wane. The desire for “normalcy” is a powerful one in the United States, and should not be lightly dismissed. 2) Nevertheless, one wonders if, as I wrote about earlier this week, there is a macro-scale effect in the extent to which partisanship is an increasing function of political participation. As more people become politically active, the greater the extent of partisan pamphleteering as opposed to more moderate discourse. In other words, I wonder whether Wolfe has his causality backwards. It’s not that the decline of the Establishment elites have led to greater democratic participation and hence, greater rancor. It’s that technological innovations like blogging software and digital video have
generated a secular increase inreduced the transaction costs for democratic participation. Since those on the fringes tend to have a greater incentive to participate, these technological innovations help to crowd out the establishment.
I’m still trying to get a grip on this latter point — but readers should feel free to tell me whether I’m actually on to something — or if this is just an exercise in shrill hackery. UPDATE: One other graf struck me while I was reading Wolfe’s essay:
Brock also fails to grasp the conflicts that have emerged within right-wing punditry since he served in its ranks. Chris Matthews was not a supporter of the war in Iraq and Bill O’Reilly has serious questions about it. Lou Dobbs now sounds like Dick Gephardt when he discusses outsourcing. Andrew Sullivan’s position on gay marriage is anathema to many other conservatives. Conservatives may well have shared a party line when they were out of power, but now that they have an actual president advancing their worldview, their ideas suddenly have consequences — and turmoil is the inevitable result. Libertarians attack Bush’s statism; fiscal conservatives, his big spending. This kind of behavior among liberals is called political suicide.
Y’know, for someone who appears to disdain blogs, Wolfe seem awfully familiar with the content of some blogs.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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