Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Some things just aren't pretty

One of the great pleasures in life is picking up a freshly minted copy of the New Criterion and spending the next few days reading it cover to cover. There really is no journal quite like it, containing in-depth criticism of every art-form from painting to theater, while also carrying pieces that touch on politics and the culture wars. And then there is the small but exquisitely selected collection of new poetry it publishes in each issue.

A staple of that periodical is the music criticism of Jay Nordlinger -- it is erudite without being pretentious, and more than anything else it is suffused with an obvious and deep love for the music he covers.

Nordlinger's criticism is also gentlemanly to a fault -- it is hard to think of an example of him being snitty, of him saying demeaning things about performers, or of him showing anything but respect for musicians and composers alike.

To an extent, this tone reflects the New Criterion's founder, Hilton Kramer, long-time art critic for the New York Times. Kramer's work at the New Criterion has been, from the beginning, one of dissent. His journey from the cultural and political left to the cultural and political right was part and parcel of his rejection of what he saw as a deterioration of post-modern aesthetics.

But while the New Criterion was founded in dissent, it was a dissent grounded in the idea that art is something that can be held to objective standards. Because of that, most criticism in that journal is fair-minded, invigorating and fresh -- and rarely dull.

But it is the art that is subjected to criticism, and only secondarily the artist. One won't find art praised or condemned because of the political views of the artist. In other words, it tends to be fair and respectful, even when submitting individual works or performances to sharp criticism.

There is a legendary encounter that Hilton Kramer had with Woody Allen while still at the New York Times. Allen reportedly asked Kramer if he was embarrassed when he ran into artists whose work he had criticized. "No," he replied,"I expect them to be embarrassed for doing bad work."

So when Jay Nordlinger (whose other job is managing editor of National Review) wrote a piece in the online version of NR responding to a New Republic article by Johann Hari that mocked the speakers and attendees of a recent National Review cruise, it sparked particular interest because of the subject matter.

Nordlinger was primarily offended by what he saw as the personal meanness of the Hari's piece:

One of the most reprehensible things about this article is its physical descriptions — descriptions of our passengers and guest speakers. The article is grotesquely mean — despicably mean...

One of the best parts of Nordlinger's comments was what can only be described as a brief history of his moral development as a writer:

Neither do I say that I haven’t written unfairly or shamefully myself, in the course of producing thousands and thousands of articles (including thousands of reviews).

I have taken my shots, gone for the artful, jabbing phrase or description — performed. But you try not to forget that you’re writing about human beings (when you’re doing so). And you recognize that ridicule is the province of adolescents, not adults.

For the last many years, I’ve said, “The older I get, the less I like ridicule.” Do you find the same? And that is true even when “my side” is doing it.

And it’s a pleasure — deeply satisfying — to write fairly. [ ] This does not mean you have to write dully, or neutrally; it means that you have to keep a sense of proportion.

When one reads the original article, it is indeed far more mean-spirited than full of spirited wit. Nordlinger was on the cruise, so he is in a better position to judge if Hari was fairly portraying the event and its participants or not.

The very fact that most of the cruise attendees Hari describes (in entertainingly demeaning terms) are elderly should alone give some pause to any reader. And again, given Nordlinger's track record as a dispassionate critic, one should be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

One thing is certain, Hari's piece is one designed to preach to a particular choir -- a choir that already believes that conservatives are (as Nordlinger puts it) "a bunch of blithering, bigoted idiots." That takes all the skill of kicking a soccer ball into an undefended net from ten feet away.

For a more thoughtful response from the left, one has to go to James Wolcott's Vanity Fair blog. Wolcott focuses on what is intended to be the grand moment of Hari's piece: his account of a clash between National Review's founder, William F. Buckley, and the bellicose Norman Podhoretz.

Read it for yourself, but suffice it to say that Podhoretz shouted WFB down when the latter raised questions about the wisdom of the Iraq war and confessed his own reluctance to support it in the first place (he recounted that VP Cheney had personally convinced him that Hussein had WMD's primed and ready in Iraq -- one is inclined to believe WFB on this one.)

Wolcott, to be sure, isn't one to require a lot of convincing about conservatives -- his own description of Hari's piece is that they exhibit "fear, prejudice, parochial ignorance, self-delusion, borderline derangement, and sheer inanity." One searches in vain for any indication that Wolcott disagrees.

But on the other hand, Wolcott exhibits a humanity that Hari never does. While Hari portrays WFB as a doddering dinosaur (again playing to his intended audience,) Wolcott puts the affair in perspective:

It pains me seeing Buckley treated so shabbily by readers of the magazine he founded and guided, a magazine that has been hijacked by neoconservatism and has lost all traces of former restraint and self-respect; it's now a war whore like all the others (save The American Conservative).

I have a longstanding reserve of fondness for Buckley personally and professionally. Decades ago, when I was a toxic drip at the Village Voice dreaming of a better tomorrow, I interviewed Buckley on the occasion of one of his spy novels, Saving the Queen. Despite my being a nonentity from a newspaper hostile in almost every shade and degree to National Review, he couldn't have been kinder, more courteous, or generous with his time.

He could have easily given me the buzz-off but he didn't, and neither did his brother James, then-Senator from New York, when I needed to interview him years later--there's something to be said for noblesse oblige when it's gingerly done.

Why Buckley should have to put up with Podhoretz's choleric guff as he lopes into the sunset is beyond me, but then I never understood how Podhoretz wedged his head through the wall at National Review, tunneling into its pages and clearing a big enough hole for unsavory characters such as Michael Ledeen to follow in his wake. The neoconservative colonization of National Review has never been fully documented or explained...

There's more good stuff that follows, but that gives a flavor of the way that Wolcott treats his subject with personal dignity and uses words with a respect for their potentially destructive power.

As a final note, there are some encouraging signs at National Review of late. Editor Richard Lowry seems to be maturing, as evidenced both by his writing in NR and by this snippet from Hari's piece:

(Lowry said:) "The American public isn't concluding we're losing in Iraq for any irrational reason. They're looking at the cold, hard facts...I wish it was true that, because we're a superpower, we can't lose. But it's not."

No one argues with him. They just look away, in the same manner that people avoid glancing at a crazy person yelling at a bus stop.

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