Contradictions of the Left

OR, ABSENCE OF THE AUTHENTIC

nathanjrobinson

WE’VE ALREADY examined some of those contradictions, in our analysis of n+1 magazine and of The Baffler. Today we look at another “hard left” publication, Current Affairs, founded and edited by Nathan J. Robinson.

WHAT readers of his magazine and Robinson himself don’t seem to realize is that any revolution which springs from Harvard University– where Robinson is a Phd candidate– is co-opted from birth. Sold out at the start. It wouldn’t matter what label they put on themselves or their system: “Marxist.” “Communist.” “Democratic Socialist.” It’d be packaging. Labels like the kind slapped on soup cans. At the core of things nothing will have changed. The same people will be in charge. The same careerist technocrat mindset would dominate.

currentaffairs
Why else does someone attend Harvard or Yale (Nathan Robinson has been enrolled in both places) other than to be at the top of the pyramid? After the revolution it’d be the same hierarchy, with a twist in messaging. (Robinson is said to be good at messaging.) Nathan J. Robinson and his Ivy League editorial colleagues carry that stratified hierarchy within them. It’s embedded in them.

Doubt this? Who runs the civilization now? Two of the richest men on the planet, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both attended Harvard. The founders of Google went to Stanford University, which is almost as elite. Jeff Bezos of Amazon went to Princeton.

Politics? Every President of the United States from 1988 on before the present one was a graduate of Harvard or Yale. Or in George W. Bush’s case, both. Donald Trump went to the Wharton School, which is part of the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League university.

Do we see a pattern?

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Oh, but Nathan J. Robinson, like his peers at other leftist magazines, is different. His ideas are different. He’s a socialist. Probably, a Marxist. He cares. He really does.

I suspect that in their New Socialist World they’d be part of Shigalov’s Ten Percent– still at the top of the pyramid, controlling the people– for their own good of course.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Just as in every person there’s a conscious and subconscious, so also there’s the role the person plays– the face shown to the world– and the authentic individual sitting behind the John Keegan “Mask.” They’re not always the same. If ever the same.

Who’s the real Nathan J. Robinson?

Is it leftist radical at the forefront of a neo-Marxist intellectual movement? Or the son of a man who worked in international corporate training? (And no doubt taught young Nathan J. many corporate world tricks.) Scion of money and achievement– is that Nathan’s core reality? At crunch time, would Robinson throw his advantages away? Really?

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THE FLIP SIDE is the person from hardship and poverty passing as an exemplar of class and refinement. This was not only a plotline of many plays (see Pygmalion) and Hollywood movies– it was much of Hollywood reality. Witness the careers of Cary Grant and Clark Gable, who transformed their very beings– their voices, gestures, dress, speech, teeth– to fit the role they wanted to play.

Elvis_Presley_in_King_Creole_1958

A BETTER EXAMPLE is the career of Elvis Presley. Dirt poor. Born in a shack. The embodiment of “white trash.” When he became massively successful he suddenly found himself playing doctors or suave playboys in Hollywood movies. In “Blue Hawaii,” the slumming son of big money.

Did he fool anybody?

That Elvis was out of place was part of the appeal. It was fantasy. He was living the dream. His audiences knew it and loved it.

Elite intellectuals of the Harvard/Stanford variety (except for a few rock n roll fanboy writers) never accepted Elvis as legitimate and to this day haven’t accepted him. Rock music itself was not taken seriously as an art form until middle-class pseudo-intellectual troubadour Bob Dylan began playing it. That’s reality.

-K.W.

Fake Diversity

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NO DOUBT those involved with the National Book Awards are congratulating themselves on the diversity of their selections. Yes, the identity politics crowd is happy. Of the 20 finalists, 11 are persons of color. (Two others immigrated here.) 15 of the 20 are women. Four out of five finalists of the most prestigious category, Fiction, are women of color. For those at home counting, double bonus points. For Fiction alone, there’s a Chinese-American and Korean-American and Cuban-American and African-American.

AS LONG as we’re playing the hyphen game, where are the Polish-Americans and Serbian-Americans and Slovak-Americans? The Croatian/Greek/Hungarian/Ukrainian/Lithuanian/Italian-Americans? Those whose people were brought over here to work brutal jobs in steel mills and coal mines and auto plants– who were never given the privilege to which white skin color supposedly entitles one in the hallucinatory visions of the actual privileged at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford; in the imaginings of those who write the PC rules that organizations like the National Book Foundation now follow.

If one is meant to see representatives of identity at such affairs– where’s mine? They’re not in the white publishers pulling strings behind the scenes, with whom I have nothing in common beyond skin color.

If appearances matter, the Awards appear to have eliminated an entire large swath of America from consideration– especially if one adds in working-class whites in Appalachia, Kansas, the Rust Belt, and other parts of the nation overlooked by Manhattan mandarins eager to appear as correct as possible; those who dominate such “charitable” organizations. (The actual charity involved being minimal.)

Fiction Finalist Jesmyn Ward says of the notion of a color-blind America: “I don’t know that place. I’ve never been there.” (This despite achieving degrees at both University of Michigan and Stanford.) Except there’s no choice but to live in a post-racial America if there’s to be any kind of harmony in this chaotic nation.

More important for an arts organization than superficial diversity of the cosmetic or hyphenated kind is diversity of ideas. At the big Awards ceremony Wednesday night one can be assured there will be NONE.

Will there be a single individual holding an opinion on politics and culture different from the rest of the audience? (A Trump voter, for instance?) If there is, the person won’t announce it! (First reaction if did: “How did he get in here?” Second reaction: Naked hostility. Third reaction: Career over.)

Which brings us to the token straight white male among the Fiction Finalists: Elliot Ackerman. A white guy? How did he slip in there??

Working-class whites are readily thrown overboard when equality and diversity become an issue– though few were on board to start with. But there’s always room for the super-elite, or children of the super-elite, and Elliot Ackerman is proof.

Eliot_ackerman_8929(Elliot Ackerman.)
A genuine war hero in the war in Afghanistan, Ackerman, methinks, is on his way to becoming a U.S. Senator. JFK anyone?

(We’ll assume, for the sake of his own survival Wednesday, that he’s a proper liberal. Likely a neo-liberal. Afghanistan may be tough, but inflamed ideologues in a mob are another matter.)

A Marine for eight years, Elliot served as a CIA Special Operations Officer as well. More recently he was Chief Operating Officer of Americans Elect, a political organization founded and chaired by his father. Elliot was a White House Fellow in the Obama Administration. He’s written for every establishment publication in existence, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, and others. Conspiracy theorists out there can note he’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

THE FATHER
Elliot’s father Peter Ackerman has been a liberal icon, an international scholar, a consultant to student protesters in China, and on the boards of several liberal political organizations. He’s also worked for the investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert where he made an estimated 300 million-plus dollars, was involved in the Michael Milken junk bond insider trading scandal, and paid a $73 million settlement with the FDIC. In 2005 the U.S. Tax Court ruled that Peter was involved in an illegal $1.7 billion tax shelter. He’s had either an exciting establishment career, or a typical one, depending on how you look at things.

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How did Elliot get his book in the Awards, indeed!

Why focus so much on the writers, anyway? Writers are merely the outward excuse for throwing a lavish party for Bigs of New York publishing, with accompanying tax write-offs. The party, not the writers or writing, is the point.

-MORE TO COME-

K.W.

The Wise Men

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Who steered the direction of American literature after World War II?

Editors like George Plimpton, Robie Macauley, Reed Whittemore, Robert Silvers, and William Phillips. Men on a mission who, as much as they professed no artistic ideology, very much pushed an artistic ideology. They’d been formed by various factors, whether by privilege, or the war, or by disillusion with Communism. By 1950 all were Wilsonians out to save the world by making it “Safe for Democracy”– their own special internationalist version of democracy.

Literature was their tool– they fully believed in the importance of the art. Paris Review (like Encounter magazine in the UK) was founded as a cultural ambassador for Anglo-American liberal ideals– presenting an intellectual alternative to the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Communism. Liberal Cold Warriors, these editors disdained– or had rejected– the populism of the American past. John Steinbeck and his kind were out. Henry James as the ideal cosmopolitan author was in.

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For our cultural aristocrats, literature, to be safe, must never engage too strongly in ideas. As an editor at New York Review of Books told me in a note in the late 1990’s, characters must never serve as mouthpieces for ideas. George Plimpton told me essentially the same thing on the one occasion I met him, at a literary debate held at CBGB’s in 2001. To these people, burdened– as they saw it– with the task of preserving literature, a broad view of the world was considered dangerous. An Ayn Rand or Frank Norris wrote beyond their well-regulated lines.

Focus moved instead to the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois self. American literature became gnostic: insular and solipsistic. Cleansed, nuanced, refined; denuded of its loud voice but also much of its energy. For prose: John Updike. For poetry: John Ashbery.  Aesthetics was not the only weapon. No longer could a writer appear off the street like Thomas Wolfe or Jack London and be taken seriously. Writing programs and markers of breeding ensured all who entered the Halls of Approval were thoroughly screened.

Did these men and their journals have influence? Tremendous influence. They understood the concept of leverage; that a publication with a readership of 10,000 could determine who did or did not receive a large book contract– chiefly because that small readership was powerful and elite.

The change in aesthetic direction made the wise men– as well as their sources of money– very happy. Literature came under the control not of the unpredictable American people, but of themselves. The Elect.
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American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

The thing to know about these men and their journals is that the faces they showed the world were misleading. George Plimpton was a smiling bon-vivant but also much more than that. The notion that he didn’t know the source of Paris Review‘s original funding is an absurdity.

Likewise, New York Review of Books, founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, postured for a long while as a radical Leftist publication– yet it was started with Random House money during a New York newspaper strike as a way for the giant book companies to advertise their new releases. It’s always been an extension of New York-based Big Corporate Publishing. Sophisticated PR for them, one might say.

In the New York literary world, nothing is ever as it seems.

The Lit Scene Now

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All sides represent contradictions, as American literature is in a state of flux and objective(?) observers such as ourselves wait for things to sort themselves out. For the moment, intellectual thought about all matters literary is polarized.

THE RIGHT
We pass over long-time conservative journals like Commentary and National Review, which are adjuncts of an internationally focused intellectual establishment based in Washington D.C. and New York. We’re talking about the new Right.

What is it? Can it be defined? We wait for someone to define it. There is new thought, new energy coming from that end of the spectrum. To us it seems a badly put-together Frankenstein monster; a contradictory amalgam of Nietzschean paganism and tradition-leaning Catholicism. Its origins are found in intellectual journals like Taki Mag, with writers ranging from libertarian to libertine to anarchist to all things. Hardly conservative– many have opened Pandora’s Box. The aesthetic attitude is often snobbish and effete, and as such, out of synch with the mass of populists who voted for Trump. The impact to date on the literary world of these writers is small.

THE LEFT
The energy on the Left comes from a spate of journals like Jacobin Mag, The Baffler, and n+1— along with at least one interesting new one which we’ll discuss at a later time. All espouse some variety of Marxism. All editors, writers, and interns of these journals are from real privilege. Are they the Left? A curious form of it. Their common origin point is the Ivy League. What the publications present in their essays, editorials, poetry and prose is the skewed “View from Harvard Yard.” The tops-down acceptable narrative from cogs and creators of the established machine. Each individual has paid dues within the current literary system. They’re artistic conformists in every aspect.

Today’s nobility, representing a tiny sliver of America, peering at the Unknown from their Brooklyn/Manhattan fortress. Living a 2017 variation of Margaret Mitchell’s Plantation Madness.

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(Former overseer Jonas Wilkerson and “white trash” Emmy Slattery getting thrown off the Tara estate.)
Well-bred aristocrats united with loyal retainers of color against the Enemy: white populists of sketchy background who carry the potential to upset their flimsy Potemkin facade. That high and narrow construction of paste and plywood labelled “LITERATURE,” which they present as the legitimate article– when it’s clearly NOT.

To understand these journals and editors and the role they play in literary culture, one first has to understand their predecessors. We’ll examine those in our next post.

 

Death of the Alt-Right

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While it will likely stumble on in the political sphere a while longer, the so-called alt -right is finished in the literary realm. Didn’t take much to end it. An alt-right site, Excavation– digging up the underground, was forced to shut down by an aggressive antifa campaign. Its editor, Michael Marrotti, has vanished from view. From what evidence I’ve seen, the criminalized words he used ranged from “Jewish Sharia” to “white pride.” As epithets,  fairly mild– but still thought crimes in this well-regulated time. The poets who’d published their work at the site didn’t realize he was a white supremacist until told about it.

Marrotti himself is a working class poet from the rust belt city of Pittsburgh– not a person of any power. “Supremacist” is a misnomer. “Defensivist” might be more accurate.

“It’s all about pain
steak knives used
to warm the soul
from a frigid planet”
-from Marrotti’s poem, “Optimistic Poetry”

Another alt-right site, Casper Magazine, changed its name several months ago when the ideological weather vane began changing– at the same time its original editor, “Pozwald Spengler,” either radically changed his identity and belief system, or sped away without a whimper of protest, not to be heard from again.

At least two stories were expunged from the site, “Cathy” by Ben Arzate, and “Scumbag,” by Alice Florida Xu. They’ve been safely flushed down the Orwellian memory hole. No complaints heard yet from either of the two writers. Given today’s hysterical McCarthyist climate, one can understand their silence.

Other alt-right figures who were once buoyant about creating an intellectual alternative to today’s p.c. monolith have backed off from, or recanted, their ideas.

OUR CONCLUSION is that it was never much of a movement– more straw man than army. Its few writers and editors were easily intimidated. If any remain they’ll be rounded up by the antifa posses, publicly chastized and silenced.
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How much of a danger did alt-right-leaning writers pose? Could they have posed?

It’s noteworthy that these advocates of “supremacy” had not a sole representative at any of this nation’s major cultural and literary institutions. Not at publishing’s Big Five, nor at the Washington Post or New York Times, nor at The New Yorker magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, New York Review of Books, Bookforum, LARB, etc. etc. etc. Instead, individuals of marked privilege themselves at these bastions of influence have used the opportunity to themselves denounce any trace of alt-right thinking in literature today, to adopt a posture against privilege, and approve and endorse the angry antifa posses.

In the literary sphere, there are dangers and then there are dangers.