When Books Disappear

The disappearance of book culture from the mainstream media will allow propaganda to triumph over truth, writes Eric Alterman.

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A Barnes & Noble Bookseller is seen in Woodmere, Ohio. (AP/Amy Sancetta)
A Barnes & Noble Bookseller is seen in Woodmere, Ohio. (AP/Amy Sancetta)

The New York Times’s Sunday Business section ran an extremely long investigation this week on the precarious financial state of the Barnes & Noble book chain. The irony of the story was both obvious and painful:

Not long ago those of us concerned with the role of books in our culture were bemoaning Barnes & Noble’s role in forcing the mom and pop bookstores of the nation out of business. Now we are all worried that the now beloved last holdout of “bricks and mortar” book chains will not survive the new era of bookselling and we will be left with nothing.

Like everything else, the demise of the bookstore is hardly monocausal, and certainly among the myriad reasons, the most obvious is the relative ease and convenience of Internet shopping, and another, rarely discussed notion: the concomitant death spiral of the newspaper. The papers that remain alive have done so at the expense of virtually every “nonessential” aspect of newsgathering and dissemination, and apparently first on everybody’s list was book coverage.

As I noted in the current Columbia Journalism Review:

… newspapers “rarely pay attention to books anymore. The New York Times is the only paper that still publishes a stand-alone book review section, and fewer and fewer papers devote any daily space to even a single review. (In late July, the Los Angeles Times laid off every one of its already freelance book reviewers and columnists, leaving the job to just four remaining staffers.)

You can cry for the would-be authors whose path to financial security has all but disappeared if you like. I do. But even if you don’t, one issue that people fail to notice is the fact that a number of phenomena in our society are simply too complex, or require too much background information for anyone to understand without book-length treatment. This is true even if one does not read the books themselves; the debate the public consumes now lacks the information and arguments that would previously have filtered into the ecosphere of political and cultural debate because nobody else is aware of them either. (After all, there was never a time when everyone could read everything.)

Because I try to be a friend to such books in my columns and my blogging, a lot of them cross my metaphorical desk. And I don’t have time to read a fraction of them and my guess is neither do many other writers, journalists, editors, producers, bloggers, and what have you. And so while the information and understanding contained in them may be known to its readers, usually numbering in a few thousand, they no longer play the role in our democratic discourse that they did in the days when newspapers and magazines provided a robust forum to debate and discuss their ideas for the larger public.

So here is my attempt just to give a small flavor of what we’re missing—not by reading and reviewing all the books I discuss below, but rather by providing a few examples of new, important books that should inform our discourse. Alas, I don’t expect to have time to read them all anytime soon but they do demonstrate the kinds of books that, in the past, might have helped shape the larger public’s understanding of cultural and political issues for the better (and perhaps inspire some readers of this column to pick them up as well).

First up is The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on American Children by Katherine Stewart. According to The National Memo’s website:

In 2009, Katherine Stewart learned that the Santa Barbara public elementary school her children attended had added a class called “The Good News Club” to its afterschool program. The Club, which is sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, bills itself as an after-school program of “Bible study.” But Stewart soon discovered that the Club’s real mission is to convert children to a fundamentalist form of Christianity and encourage them to proselytize their “unchurched” peers, all the while promoting the false but unavoidable impression among the children that its activities are endorsed by the school.

Astonished to discover that there are 3500 Good News Clubs in public elementary schools around the country — and that the Supreme Court has deemed this and other religious programs in public schools constitutional — Stewart, who had previously written for Newsweek International and Rolling Stone, set out on an investigative journey across dozens of cities and towns to uncover their effects on our schools, children, and communities.

According to Stewart’s research, the CEF’s fundamentalism follows the pattern established by other Christian Nationalist groups, such as Coral Ridge Ministries (now Truth in Action Ministries), Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America. A central feature of this fundamentalism, for the CEF just as for the others, is a narrative involving the loss of national and moral “purity” and an anxious drive to recover or reclaim that purity. For many groups, this purity was often historically imagined, either explicitly or implicitly, as a “white purity.”

And did you know that Condoleezza Rice has a cousin named “Connie” Rice, who does not ignore briefings about likely terrorist attacks; empower foolish, counterproductive invasions; and accede to illegal torture; but is in fact one of the most dedicated, successful, and inspiring civil rights attorneys in America? I did. We were at a conference together once upon a time, and I thought she was so amazing, I tried to get The New Yorker to let me profile her. I did not succeed, but I see now that she’s written a memoir, Power Concedes Nothing, and in it she tells a story about struggles in inner-city Los Angeles and its awful public school system that would be pretty much impossible to read anywhere else.

I also wish I had the time to read Ira Shapiro’s The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis. I did thumb through it and I think its thesis is more than a bit overstated. I’m not sure that the U.S. Senate of the late 1970s was characterized by “courage and statesmanship”—much less, as it says in the PR material, “capable of greatness”—any more in the late ‘70s than it was at any other time in its history, including today. But I do agree that “The right’s sweep of the 1980 elections shattered that Senate, leaving a diminished institution in its wake,” and that the inability of senators to agree on almost anything today can be traced to that moment.

The primary culprits in the institution’s dysfunction are a combination of the radicalization of the conservative movement, including its wholesale rejection not only of normative science but of much of the legacy of the Enlightenment, coupled with the power of big money to game the system to get what it wanted. In the olden days, senators saw it as their job to compromise and “get things done.” This is still true of liberals and moderates, but conservatives see themselves threatened by charges of such willingness and are protected from paying any penalties for doing so by the money they are able to raise and the armies that the Christian right has been able to amass.

Sure the system worked better before all this took place, but it was hardly a matter of heroics; rather it was business as usual in the context of a culture that rewarded such behavior. Today the rewards are almost entirely on the other side of the ledger. (But hey, let’s all read the book and see if I’m right.)

Shapiro’s book should probably be read in conjunction with Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, which got a nice front-page review in The Times and so does not need much help from me here. Neither, apparently, does Thomas J. Edsall’s The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, which has received extremely interesting and provocative critiques from Matt Yglesias in Slate and Mark Schmitt in The Times, and I’m sure elsewhere. Tom’s new book demonstrates some of the consequences of the dynamics discussed above, and few people, if any, can claim a better record of employing hidden contemporary data to foretell the future of American politics.

If you find the coverage of the Tea Party rather sensationalistic and simplistic—and if you don’t, my guess is you’re not paying attention, then your views will undoubtedly be enriched by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s data-heavy The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. They draw on:

… grassroots interviews and visits to local meetings in several regions, they find that older, middle-class Tea Partiers mostly approve of Social Security, Medicare, and generous benefits for military veterans. Their opposition to ‘big government’ entails reluctance to pay taxes to help people viewed as undeserving ‘freeloaders’ – including immigrants, lower income earners, and the young. At the national level, Tea Party elites and funders leverage grassroots energy to further longstanding goals such as tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of business, and privatization of the very same Social Security and Medicare programs on which many grassroots Tea Partiers depend. Elites and grassroots are nevertheless united in hatred of Barack Obama and determination to push the Republican Party sharply to the right.

First off, they find that the movement is largely made up of:

… older, white, middle-class conservatives, many of whom had been previously involved in politics or local affairs, were demoralized after the electoral defeats of 2008, and looking for new leadership. Second, conservative media outlets, particularly Fox News and talk radio, helped mobilize and direct these grassroots conservatives. Third, long-standing extreme free-market advocacy groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, took advantage of the new activism to build connections with grassroots conservatives and to push their agenda in Washington.

A more alarming (or alarmist, depending on your point of view) depiction of the same phenomenon is Arthur Goldwag’s The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, which takes a historical view of the ideas and rhetoric that have animated extreme, mostly right-wing movements throughout American history together with their “disturbing pattern of fear-mongering and demagoguery that runs through the American grain.” According to Goldwag, “The most depressing thing about the demagogues who tirelessly exploit it—in pamphlets and books and partisan newspapers two centuries ago, on Web sites, electronic social networks, and twenty-four-hour cable news today—is how much alike they all turn out to be.”

The problem of the loss of knowledge contained in these unread books is one without ideology. But it is much more serious for progressives than conservatives because the latter have constructed an entire media/think tank/foundational network for the dissemination of their ideas that dwarfs those on the progressive side (despite the decade of catch-up we have been playing).

I was reminded of this Tuesday morning upon reading a New York Times op-ed in which former Wall Street Journal editorial writer and Weekly Standard editor David Brooks is touting yet another book by Charles Murray as a book that “compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.” Murray, you will recall, is co-author of the pseudo-scientific racist tract The Bell Curve, as well as Losing Ground, an equally flawed and only slightly less nefarious work. His work nevertheless had an enormous impact on public debate owing to the ability of the conservative ideas network to insert into mainstream discourse. (I wrote about this back in 1999.)

The left has no such network. The disappearance of book culture from newspapers, magazines, etc., will leave yet another unequal contest in which propaganda can easily triumph over truth simply by virtue of the ignorance of the audience.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also a columnist for The Nation. His newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama to be published in April. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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Charles Murray and the Power of Mainstream Media Amnesia
Journalist David Frum, pictured at left, offered a critique of Charles Murray’s <i>Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010</i>, stating that Murray's conclusions “are pure dogma, not only unsupported but even unrelated to anything that went before.” (Flickr/<a href=Urban Mixer)" data-srcset=" 450w, 450w, 450w, 450w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />

Charles Murray and the Power of Mainstream Media Amnesia