Sunday Bookchat

February 2, 2008

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may not have changed everything, but they certainly helped transform novelist and critic Martin Amis into a high-toned version of David Horowitz. At the Guardian, Christopher Tayler addresses The Second Plane: September 11, Terror and Boredom, the new collection of Martin Amis’ mutterings about the state of the world following 9/11. Tayler plumbs the depths of Amis’ thinking and concludes there’s no danger of anyone drowning:

Reading these tirades, it’s hard not to get the feeling that Amis is responding to a writerly need for a steady supply of foolishness to scourge rather than any urgent political threat . . . Amis is taking aim at conspiracy theorists and people who think that the Arab world’s grievances not only help create support for terrorism but make it a good thing: a fairly marginal view. As for what his targets are “reluctant to see” about the true nature of suicide terrorism, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that his cardinal insight into “lethal self-bespatterment,” as he calls it, is that suicide bombers are “abnormally interested in violence and death.” The London bombers, he maintains, were murderous cultists rather than righteous avengers. Again, his embattled tone on this point seems unnecessary.

How did Amis – who has written some good novels and used to be a sharp and funny critic – end up throwing so much effort into arguing that suicide bombers are interested in death?

A few years ago, Martin Amis discovered that Stalin had done terrible things in the Soviet Union and got into a hair-pulling contest with Christopher Hitchens over who was more upset about the gulags and the terror famine. Eventually Amis sat down and wrote House of Meetings, which transmuted his belated discoveries into worthwhile fiction. We can only hope that Amis’ side trip into Bill O’Reilly land will lead him back to write another novel, his true calling.

* * * * *

There is a strain of argument, popular among Civil War re-enactors and hack authors of lame historical novels, that slavery was on its way out in the American South and if those pushy Northerners had simply backed off for a while, the whole peculiar institution would have withered away on its own.

Military historian Stephen Budiansky puts the lie to that notion in his new book The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, which chronicles the vicious guerrilla campaign waged against Reconstruction in the decades after the Civil War, in which revanchist Southerners campaigned to maintain white supremacy and, eventually, crush blacks under the system of Jim Crow laws. Budiansky’s book (reviewed here by the New York Times) follows five extraordinarily brave men who fought, vainly, to realize the vision of a New South based on racial conciliation and mutual prosperity.

While Budiansky deserves his kudos, it would be a shame to let his book completely overshadow Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, Nicholas Lemann’s fine study covering much of the same bloody ground — tainted ground that continues to poison American politics with the likes of Trent Lott and Tom Delay.

Here’s a clip of Lemann’s recent speech before the American Historical Association:

* * * * *

James Wolcott surveys the ever-growing stack of books about King Dubya, and ends up wondering if an elemental truth about the Bush administration has been missed:

So much of the burgeoning Bush literature, both nonfiction and fiction, is built on the premise that the Bush-Cheney autarchy is a disastrous failure that can be diagnosed as a hulking case of hubris coupled with a righteous dose of blowback. (Earlier this year saw the publication of a book co-written by Michael Isikoff and David Corn titled Hubris, unveiling “the Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.”) It’s assumed that the plastic fantastic alternative universe fashioned by the Bushies and the neocons—remember the famous boast to Ron Suskind from the unnamed Bush aide in The New York Times Magazine, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”?—has ignominiously popped upon contact with brute reality, sending a former demigod such as Donald Rumsfeld crashing into the cornfield and ejecting Condoleezza Rice into an endless orbit of mortified futility. But perhaps we’re the ones living in Bizarro World, not the Bushies. Maybe from their vantage point inside the mother ship nearly everything’s worked out as intended, if not exactly as planned, and those in the highest circles have no more reason to examine their consciences or re-trace their steps than the perpetrators of a successful heist. For years, a few voices on the radical edges of the blogosphere have contended that sowing chaos in the Middle East, privatizing war to enrich their corporate sponsors, and letting things slide to hell at home were what the lords of misrule wanted—that the bungling and incompetence of the war and Katrina weren’t bugs, but features. After all, the post-Katrina diaspora has redounded to the benefit of the Republicans with the election of Bobby Jindal to the Louisiana governorship, his victory made possible in part by the dispersement of black voters displaced by the floods.

Comedian Patton Oswalt put it a little more pungently on his 222 album when he said he hated to hear people calling Bush stupid. “He’s not stupid,” Oswalt said, “he’s evil, and there’s a big difference.” Sure, Bush trips over his own tongue when he talks about democracy and justice, but that’s because he couldn’t care less about such things. Get Bush talking about war and destruction, Oswalt said, and “he’s fucking Dylan Thomas.”

Wolcott is right. I’ve talked about this before and nothing I’ve seen during Bush’s tenure in office has caused me to question my conclusion. Viewed in terms of public service and responsible stewardship, the Bush administration has been a catastrophic failure. Viewed in terms of conservative rhetoric about government — that it is the problem and not the solution, that deregulation and corporate tax cuts are the answer to everything — the Bush administration has been a roaring success. For supporters and allies of the Bush administration, it has been an astonishing profit-taking opportunity unlikely to be matched for many decades. When conservatives tell you that government doesn’t work, they’re only giving away half the formula. The complete version is: government doesn’t work, but we sure know how to work it.

* * * * *

Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff’s account of the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, inspired a repugnant review from a writer, Abigail Zuger, who seemed more interested in reheating old cliches about Baby Boomers than dealing with Rieff’s book. Leave it to Katie Roiphe to keep things in perspective, and measure the dimensions of Rieff’s work. As this note makes clear, Sontag inspired some complex reactions, even among her admirers.

* * * * *

In honor of Black History Month, here’s a link to Scott McLemee’s piece on the 40th anniversary of Harold Cruse’s landmark book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Lance Mannion tries to get a fix on Charlie Wilson and his war in Afghanistan. And Firedoglake hosts a Feb. 3 book salon for David Cay Johnston, author of Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill).


6 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. rix Says:

    Why do people still find it so difficult to imagine a slave empire of vast cotton & wheat plantations, & cattle ranches, stretching across the southwest all the way to California & down into Mexico, & even to Cuba. That’s what Southerners imagined for the United States, or the Confederacy.

  2. […] Sunday Bookchat [YouTube] The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may not have changed everything, but they certainly helped transform novelist […] […]

  3. Steven Hart Says:

    Exactly right, Rix. Lee and the rest had already helped steal part of Mexico. Once the Confederacy was established, they’d have stolen the rest and spread their brand of slavery throughout Latin America.

  4. Re things turning out as intended, Naomi Klein’s Disaster Capitalism really ought to be part of the discussion.

    Remember the movie My Blue Heaven? Talking to his gangster friends, Steve Martin’s character Vinnie says, “Where you see a problem, I see an opportunity.” And remember the scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 where the guy at the podium says, “There’s a lot of money to be made in Iraq. A *LOT*!”

    If you haven’t read Klein’s book, now’s the time. NOLA? The public school system has been replaced by a for-profit private school system. Public and affordable housing is being torn down and replaced by expensive apartments for the well-off.

    From the Neocon perspective, both Iraq and NOLA have been great successes.

  5. Peter Says:

    You got it Wayne. And let’s not forget the operating principle of PNAC: “spread the chaos outward”

    There was even some talk among us “leftist loonies” of their *intent* to destroy the US economy and create a “new feudalism”. Chalk up another of their heretofore unrecognized successes.

  6. DBK Says:

    Regarding being stupid or evil: couldn’t he be both?

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