Monday, January 29, 2007

Political Books

In the small local library in my small home town, the librarians still use the Dewey System, and on the shelves in high 900's, just before the biography section, they have placed the political books, specifically the books written in recent years by celebrity journalists and authors. I came upon this section again Saturday while looking for Robert Caro's most recent volume on Lyndon Johnson. (I found Randall Woods' favorable treatment of Johnson during the search, but I will have more on that on another day.) The titles are known to many, including those who will never read them: See, I Told You So, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, The Bush Hater's Handbook, Boy Clinton, Stupid White Men, Truth, The No Spin Zone, etc. etc. We know them because their authors are famous, as they all have radio shows, write for major newspapers, have syndicated columns, and appear nightly on cable TV. What is striking about these books is how many of them there are (I counted over a hundred of them in what is a tiny library), how recent they all are (none of them were printed before the Kennedy Administration, and most were written in the past fifteen years), how angry their famous authors are, and how much the books focus upon the President and those who aspire to become President, as opposed to focusing on, say, Senators, Congressmen, Governors, or the organizations that got all of the above elected. (I will write something more about this latter fixation in another entry.)
There obviously is a strong market for this sort of thing, as the internet, talk radio, and twenty-four hour news channels demonstrate this as strongly as the books do, and those who consume these various media clearly like their views serving steaming hot and partisan. And while angry rhetoric is hardly new to America, the famous commentators of today are breaking new ground here. When William J. Bryant more than a hundred years ago raged that the nation's workers should not be "crucified upon a cross of gold" he was using Biblical rhetoric at a time when nearly all Americans believed in the Bible and would know he was accusing his opponents of committing what most of them would consider the worst crime in history. But what Bryant really wanted was for the U.S. to leave the gold standard; that is, he wanted specific legislation passed. Neither he or his audience actually thought their opponents, the supporters of the gold standand, were murderers; they only thought they were wrong. The men and women who write the political books of today believe in something a lot stronger. They think their opponents indeed are murderers, and they add that anyone who disagrees with what they write are immoral, underhanded scum who are capable of doing worse things than slaughtering the innocent.
The rhetoric has become angrier and hotter (and will become hotter as time passes) because the stakes are higher now. Who rules the American government is more important than it once was because the government now has the power to insert itself into every aspect of our lives, from the taxes we pay to what we purchase at the supermarket to the way cheese is made. America herself has grown more powerful in the world than she once was. She is the sole remaining super power (for the time being, at least) and the engine that drives the world economy, to say nothing of our world-wide cultural empire.
Nor are the famous authors and those who support them merely desiring to pass some legislation and thereby make some small altercations in the nation's behavior. William Jennings Bryant was an economic progressive, but a social conservation, and like all leaders and opinion makers of his day, he was certain of the basic goodness of the nation and society within which he lived. Make some modifications, and he would have been content. At least half of our present-day political celebrities wish to change the entire nation, in fact change all of western civilization, and change it utterly. (I will be coy and not state which half wants this; besides, all the writers think their enemies wish to make a massive change in the country.) The other half are terrified their opponents will some day get their way. Since--as I wrote in another blog--it is absurd to think we will ever come to blows as we did in the 1860s, and since both sides know how to play the political game every bit as well as they know how to verbally assault each other, the big change will never come, and America's wrathful conversation with itself will surely go on and will in time make the shouting matches we have today seem like very mild stuff.


R. C. A. O'Neal said...
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R. C. A. O'Neal said...

What strikes me is the commodification of political ideas. Certainly, for a democratic society to function a wide range of ideas should be available, but I question wether bringing ideas into the public's view because there is a profit motive is particularly healthy for society.