Reviewing the Review: April 27 2008

Music Politics
Two weeks ago a New York Times Book Review cover article by Niall Ferguson all but endorsed John McCain for President, also referring to a book that called for eternal USA military domination of Muslim nations "the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 -- indeed, since the end of the cold war".

This weekend's New York Times Book Review continues to buttress up the pro-Iraq-War position that is at the core of the John McCain candidacy with several articles about foreign affairs, on the same day that NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus contributes an adoring profile of John McCain to the "Week In Review" section that he also edits. I'm sick of it.

Of course, every journalist or editor is allowed a political bias. But when they exercise this bias crassly or blatantly, objections must be raised. Let's start with Tanenhaus's own article on John McCain, which finds great significance in the fact that John McCain was born in the 1930s:

It is the missing decade. A demographic blip? Perhaps. But it might also be that Americans born in the 1930s lack the particular qualities we look for in our national leaders.

What a trivial idea. I'd just as soon analyze whether a Presidential candidate is a Scorpio or Aquarius as engage in this silly numerology about decades and generations. But this dumb notion is at the core of Tanenhaus's article; the question of whether a person born in the 1930s can be President is the entire piece. Somebody, I think, has been reading too many coffee table books by Tom Brokaw.

Instead of philosophizing about the fact that John McCain was born in the 1930's, I'd rather look for significance in the fact that he was born into an elite military family that prided itself, generation after generation, on patriotic bearing and military honor. McCain's grandfather was a four-star admiral, his father was too, and McCain's son is now fighting in Iraq. The romantic notions of war that must have been instilled in John McCain from his earliest days seem to have shaped his world view a lot more than being born in the 1930s has (and this is one of many reasons I do not think John McCain, though a likable guy, has the breadth of peaceful vision we need in our next President).

This weekend's Book Review again favors articles on political books, featuring old liberal/neo-conservative battle-axe Leon Wieseltier's review of Martin Amis's' The Second Plane. Leon Wieseltier has been editor of the New Republic for 25 years and a firm believer in George W. Bush's Iraq War since day one, while Martin Amis has made a second career for himself as a near Muslim-baiter in the British press. Tweedledee and Tweedledum. That's all I've got to say; I'll let Jim Sleeper mop up the mess.

Dexter Filkins, reviewing The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Ray and The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State by Noah Feldman, sneers at Feldman's suggestion that the traditional Shariah legal system could have a positive effect on Muslim societies. Filkins tells a story about witnessing a horrible execution in Taliban Afghanistan, and I swear I read this same anecdote in The Kite Runner.

The most inexplicable review -- and I apologize here for fixating on USA/Middle East policy, but the NYTBR fixated on it first -- is Leslie H. Gelb's credulous praise for a book called The Man Who Pushed America To War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi by Aram Roston. This book seems to be pushing a new meme that conveniently lets the Bush/Cheney presidency off the hook for a lot of mistakes: it was all Ahmad Chalabi's fault. Well, I happen to know that the men and women who pushed America to war were named Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice, and they didn't do it because a guy named Chalabi wouldn't stop pestering them. Leslie Gelb may be right that this book is worth reading (sure, I'll read it, I'll read any damn book about Iraq). But a less gullible buy-in to the premise of Ahmad Chalabi as "The Man Who Pushed America To War" is called for.

My general disgust with a Sunday New York Times that reads like a big valentine smooch for John McCain makes it difficult for me to enjoy the rest of this weekend's Book Review, even though it contains a wonderful piece by a favorite writer of mine, Richard Hell, a poet who keeps a low profile in New York City but can always be counted on to turn up a gem. Whichever NYTBR editor thought of asking Richard Hell to write this should get promoted. Here Hell smartly reviews Complete Minimal Poems by Aram Saroyan.

What can I say about Lee Siegel, who reviews Fanon by John Edgar Wideman? He is a terrible, bombastic writer, as always:

By the end of this thrilling, important novel, which is by turns eloquent, crude, despairing and heartbrokenly hopeful ...

That's not reviewing. That's adjectives.

I'm disappointed in Stephanie Zacharek's overly zany and distracted review of a good book, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon by Sheila Weller. I browsed this book in a bookstore, reading the interesting parts. Where does Stephanie Zacharek get off saying that Carole King is a better songwriter than Carly Simon or Joni Mitchell? It's hard to beat "The Hissing of Summer Lawns", Stephanie.

There's at least one more worthwhile piece: Katie Roiphe on Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer. I guess I'll get to this book after I finish Ahab's Wife.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: May 4 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: April 20 2008.
8 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: April 27 2008"

by Brad V. on

I pretty much agree with your assessment of the NYT Book Review - it's somehow turning into a big campaign ad for McCain.

What McCain and his cronies don't seem to realize (at least regarding the middle east), is that every time we stick our nose over there where it doesn't belong, things only get worse.

I usually look forward to getting the NYT Book Review in my inbox on Fridays, but lately, it has been pretty painful.

I don’t get the first premise

I thought it was just me, but I couldn't believe how bad the NYT Book Review was this week. Do we really need all this rehashing of the Middle East stuff right now - is that really the most important or interesting books out right now? Glad to see others thought the same.

by dlt on

McCain Is a Likeable Piece of Shit

"Bush 3." His "maverick" days
Is
Long ended

by Caryn on

I guess it's all about perspective.

If Bush and Cheney were "pushed" into war, then they are weak-willed wimps.

by rubiao on

I didn't read the book, but I've seen the Chalabi argument broached a few times, one memorably in Time or Newsweek. I always thought it wasn't a criticism of him as much as it was of our intelligence. We put him into a position where he could dictate our foreign policy, even though he was a known thief and liar, and had personal reasons and a lot to gain by the US going to war. I hope that the book is about the downfall of our intelligence agencies and not the passing of the buck onto the shoulders of Chalabi, who I'm sure would be happy to take it.

We ran all our middle eastern intelligence through a man who had lied to us in the past and that we knew was also working for Iran. Hardly a conflict in interest. Another very questionable move, assuming that we wanted fair and impartial information, by our wonderful administration.