MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has a new book out, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. I don’t know if it is a good and important book because I haven’t read it yet. If her publisher sends it to me, I will read it and will have her on the show to discuss it in detail. Maddow has a big platform, and there is a chance that her book is good and important. I don’t think that chance is particularly high, but I won’t dismiss it without reading it.
Many left-of-center authors produce very good books. The most important book of the past decade, The Looming Tower, was written by Lawrence Wright and he is most definitely a left-of-center journalist. My radio pals Jonathan Alter and E.J. Dionne have both authored important and good books in the past few years –Alter two of them– books with which I disagree but which from which I gained a great deal of important information. The willingness to read the other side’s arguments, histories and even polemics matters a great deal to the direction of American politics.
I won’t waste time on obvious screeds by people with no claim to seriousness or for whom there is no previous evidence of learning or any kind of judgment. Thus I won’t pick up a silly book by Bill Maher or many other of the usual suspects of the nutty left. Maher simply has no credentials, but he does have a vast record of ignorant and vulgar displays of childish ranting. He doesn’t deserve a hearing. Maddow does. Alter and Dionne do. Lawrence Wright quite obviously does.
Which brings me to my interview with Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, the transcript of which is here.
The back story to this interview is straightforward.
I follow Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic on Twitter via @Conor64. I also subscribe to his “Best of Journalism” service. He is a fine young writer of ambiguous politics but very excellent talent when it comes to pushing nouns against verbs.
Conor does not care for my friend Mark Levin, which is fine. Many people don’t care for Levin or me, Rush or Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bill Bennet, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager or Michael Medved. We are controversialists, and controversialists provoke strong reactions.
Conor took his dislike of Levin a step farther however, and expressed skepticism about Ameritopia, Mark’s new book which is another New York Times’ best-seller. I had read Ameritopia and found it good and important, spent an hour talking with Mark on air about it, and challenged Conor to read it, which he did, and which resulted in a negative review, which is here.
The review and the book itself are the subjects of our on air conversation. My point was that journalists generally and public intellectuals specifically need to articulate one standard about what makes a book “good and important,” and then stick with it, and that standard should be easily applied to the host of titles that flow out every year. “Good” in this case doesn’t mean “virtuous,” but something closer to “useful.” “Important” means influential, at least among elites who are making decisions inside the Beltway, but usually far beyond that. Very few books move hundreds of thousands of people to think differently –Mark Levin’s books do appear to do that– so whether a book is “good and important” isn’t usually a question of numbers. If President Obama is reading your book, it is an important book, even if it isn’t good and even if he doesn’t like it at all. The standard is hard to articulate, but I know a good and important book when I read one, and if it is on the left, I will say so.
So my conversation with Conor is really about intellectual honesty. Do the people working in the public square have any standards at all when it comes to assaying quality books and articles, and by extension broadcasts and conversations? Conor suggests that Levin’s books’ success is owed to his marketplace power and suspects that those who praise him are self-interested. That is a pretty big indictment of everyone who has ever been blurbed by Mark –including me– and everyone who has ever appeared on Rachel Maddow’s show who in turn praises her book. It is a rejection of the very idea of objectivity about a book’s impact and quality. It is a very slippery slope, and one that has to be rejected. Books can be evaluated, as can arguments.
Some arguments are better than others. Paul Clement’s were by far the best arguments in the Supreme Court this week, for example, and Mark Levin’s Ameritopia is full of powerful arguments based on history and experience, as are Jonathan Alter’s and E.J. Dionne’s books, as may be Rachel Maddow’s. It simply doesn’t work to dismiss whole categories of authors as “successful but not important because they are successful,” and whole ranges of arguments because they have been made by people with whom we disagree.
The reality is that there is one big argument cursing through American history, and Levin puts his finger on it, and the Court had that one big argument before it on Monday through Wednesday, and the fall campaign between President Obama and Governor Romney will be about that one big argument as well: Is the America envisioned by the Founders and ordered by the Constitution the best sort of government, or does that order need replacing, or even wide-ranging renovation based on innovations imposed via extra-Constitutional means?
The election will turn on the answer to that question –again. To understand why some people answer one way and others the opposite, it is best to read widely and fairly from the best books on both sides of the divide.