A decline, and then a rising

So, the depression started late last week. I was sitting in on a panel that featured media columnist Eric Alterman, critic and professor Ellen Willis, and Peter Osnos, the publisher of Public Affairs Books. Ostensibly, they were supposed to discuss “The Politics of Publishing”—the myriad number of decisions that scholarly presses (Full disclosure: I work for one) think about when publishing politically sensitive books—but the whole thing had devolved into a whine-fest within five minutes.

I should have known. The night before, I’d bumped into Alterman’s editor at The Nation. Inspecting her name tag, I mentioned in passing that one of her writers—and a writer whose work I admire—would be speaking tomorrow. She snorted, gently. I couldn’t take a hint. “So, I hear he gives lectures a lot,” I said. “What’s he like on stage?”

A perfectly timed pause. “I like his writing style.”

So, the panel consisted of three Leftists complaining about the state of the world and preening about which one knew I.F. Stone well enough to call him “Izzy.” At a low point—and there were several—Alterman actually spent four minutes whining that university presses just didn’t pay him well enough for him to work with them. Willis at least tried to reign in the boys, and to broaden her specific concerns to encompass the larger world of scholarly publishing. Still, it was obvious that none of them were prepared to do much more than grandstand.

I suppose that, if I were a social or economic conservative, I could have giggled smugly at the ineffectiveness of modern liberalism. But I am a Leftist, despite some of the sites I link to on the left side of the screen, and the 75-minute session was sickening, dispiriting, and dull. (For balance, it would have been useful to have an honest-to-god conservative on the panel—say, the publisher of Ivan R. Dee Books. At least then it would’ve been lively.)

So, I came home from Philadelphia, oddly content despite all this, in part because I hadn’t opened a newspaper in a week. But back to the six-o’clock news: more copter crashes, more suicide bombings, more soldiers dying, more of Tom Cruise’s manic glare radiating from my TV screen. I tried to tune it out, knowing that I was getting more and more depressed, but I was feeding on the madness.

Somewhere in the midst of this, Karl Rove made a speech that essentially said that I—and others like me—would rather be a lily-livered conceder than a constructive citizen of my country. E.J. Dionne slaps down this argument here with gusto, but the column wasn’t enough to keep me from wondering if American liberalism still had a fighting chance. Then, fifteen Senators actually decide not to sign a bill apologizing for the American legacy of lynching. All were Republican. One was probably from my state, but we’ll never really know. The concept of the bill was condescending, to be sure, as Debra Dickerson points out.* Still, this one’s a no-brainer, and it’s hard to imagine the logical steps that would lead to a Senator refusing to sign it without my getting more depressed.

Yesterday, though, was the killer. A colleague mentioned that he had watched—against his and his wife’s better judgment—the AOL “100 Greatest Americans” show on the Discovery Channel.

“Who do you think was voted the #1 Greatest American?” he asked.

I hadn’t seen the program, nor had I heard much about it, but I knew what the answer had to be: Ronald Reagan.

Reagan wasn’t even the most greatest Republican president—that honor belongs to either Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. Does anyone seriously believe Reagan is as great, as innovative, as worldly, or as influential as Benjamin Franklin? Is there anyone over 40 who thinks Reagan was more important to the shaping, for better or worse, of this country than George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr., or James Watson?

There are no women in the top five—Oprah weighs in at #9, I think, but there’s no Eleanor Roosevelt, no Harriet Tubman, no Clara Barton. There are few artists or writers in the top ten.

I had officially hit the doldrums. I’d boycotted Alterman’s blog for a week—Why? Does he care that I think he’s arrogant and sniveling in person?—but came back to find that he’d redeemed himself. Somewhat. He linked to Democrat Senator Barack Obama’s commencement address to Knox College. He gets away from the nitpicking, the backbiting, the snark, and the cant to deliver a meaningful message about America’s potential and how to achieve it. He’s specific in his commentary, but also expansive in his outreach, and ultimately warmhearted and intelligent. It’s great reading, regardless of your political affiliation, and it’s pulled me out of the muck. Please read it.

*Seeing the Salon column means you’ll have to sit through an ad wall. It’s worth it.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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3 Responses to A decline, and then a rising

  1. C says:

    I was fortunate enough to be warned by the host (Matt Lauer?) himself on The Daily Show. He was thoroughly disgusted with the whole thing- and he was there to promote it! Apparently it was all online voting.
    I grieve mostly for the Discovery Channel. I think I used to like it.

  2. QB says:

    Wow. When even the show’s host complains, you know things are bad. I’d read a little about the problems with the voting methods, and the whole thing seems ridiculously unscientific and unsupportable. But that won’t stop a maelstrom of crowing at the Free Republic or kvetching at Daily Kos. What depressed me is that this thing is getting lots of traction, and in the meantime covering up stories that are actually significant.

  3. dad says:

    This was a key opportunity in american history, voting positive & coming clean for the wrong of lynching. Instead the senate chamber was virtually empty of this country’s representatives. You would think that, since 9-11, that our leaders would recognize that we are all in this soup bowl as one, but…. I still remember the news broadcast of 9-11, when people exited the burning towers prior to its collapse, the gray ashes covering their faces and we all looked the same and felt the same as one. As a country, how quickly we forget.

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