Monday, July 26, 2004

Politics Worth Reading

Scott McLemme reviews Rick Hertzberg's new collection of writings entitled Politics.

To write about political affairs in these United States in prose that is clean and sharp and smart requires a knack that is not exactly common. Nor is it, in the present circumstances, all that valuable a skill. The demand for it is just too small. The texture of public life is now conditioned, in the deepest folds of its fabric, by the mutually reinforcing effects of cable television and the Internet. The resulting mixture is practically impervious to the use of intelligence -- though it rewards cynicism, which is the lazy person's substitute for thinking.

Increasingly, that cynicism is structural. Ideology and entertainment blur together. It is now possible to claim to be a political journalist while advertising one's complete indifference to facts. The best lack all conviction, while the worst burn with the passionate intensity born of wanting to get on television.

So Hendrik Hertzberg's "Politics" -- arriving in the middle of an election cycle, when all the usual symptoms flourish in excess -- is the most anomalous of cultural commodities: a book by an author who takes politics very seriously but does not yell, and who can be humorous without resorting to sarcasm.

Hertzberg's book is named after the legendary 1940s journal edited by Dwight MacDonald which, as McLemee puts its "with its critique of the military-industrial complex, its support for civil rights and its perfect freedom from illusions about the totalitarian Left, Politics anticipated most of whatever was honorable in the social movements of the 1960s."

If you don't much about MacDonald, check out this review of Michael Wreszin's 1994 bio A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald.

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