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November 30, 2003 Books Briefly Noted

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Three items.  1.) Pop Culture Essays.   2.) A counter to Ann Coulter.   3.) What passes for thrills and heroism these days.

Quick View One:
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto
Chuck Klosterman; Scribner: 256 pp., $23
Anyone who writes the following cannot be all bad.
  • "Science fiction tends to be philosophy for stupid people."
  • "The newspaper industry is now controlled by page designers."
  • "Half the time, [Bruce] Springsteen writes like someone typing a PG-13 letter for Penthouse Forum."
He calls himself "America's best-loved semi-pro freelance conversationalist."
It's a collection essays.  As Mark Rozzo says in the Los Angeles Times:
Klosterman is, after all, his own best subject, even when he's deconstructing the manner in which Pamela Anderson performed her wifely duties on Tommy Lee or arguing that Shania Twain is "better at expressing the human condition" than Bob Dylan.  His many tastes and anti-tastes add up to a portrait of the essayist as a young curmudgeon or just a random guy who lived on your hall freshman year.  He has no objection to the wince-inducing term "Generation X," and that makes perfect sense: The Klosterman who emerges in these ranting disquisitions represents nearly everything you need to know about persons born between, say, 1969 and 1979.
Ah yes, but who needs to know that stuff? 
He knows way more than you do about TV's "Saved by the Bell."  He thinks born-again Christians are cool.  He really can't stand Coldplay.  He used to work with a guy who went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer.  He has occasional bouts of diarrhea.
... Klosterman's pop-culture appetite is like that of a hungry trucker at a Sizzler salad bar.  It's his very voraciousness that gives him an aura of ex cathedra authority.  He's John Ruskin for the Sid and Marty Krofft generation.  He's perfect junk food for the soul.
Perhaps one might browse through these essays.  Perhaps not.
Quick View Two:
REDS: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America
By Ted Morgan. Random House. 685 pp. $35
This might be seen as a counterweight to Ann Coulter's Treason, her latest effort in which she argues that Senator Joseph McCarthy was a true American hero who did much more good than he did harm, if indeed he actually did any harm at all.
Well, its not all Ann.
As Ronald Radosh points out in the Washington Post:
... in 1996 liberal columnist Nicholas von Hoffman began the revision, claiming that "point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him."   In 2000, historian Arthur Herman offered a biography of the senator from Wisconsin that attempted to vindicate him.  Most recently, the writer Ann Coulter has made McCarthy the hero of her screed Treason, in which she asserts that the portrayal of the senator "as a wild-eyed demagogue destroying innocent lives is sheer liberal hobgoblinism."  Indeed, Coulter argues that "what the country needed was Joe McCarthy," whom she calls a "brave man" from whom "the American people heard the truth."
Ah well.  And of Morgan he says:
Those believing such balderdash will do themselves a great service by reading Ted Morgan's Reds.  Unlike those on the far left who believe that there never was any communist threat and that the anticommunism exemplified by McCarthy and company moved America away from a progressive future, and those on the far right who believe that McCarthyism was a nonexistent entity devised by liberals and Democrats to cover up their appeasement of communism, Morgan gets things right.  In his nuanced and thorough overview of our nation's confrontation with communism at home and abroad, he reaches conclusions that will challenge and even offend partisans but that bear the mark of solid history.
Wow, could this be (gasp!) fair and balanced? 
Scrutinizing McCarthy's work with a careful lens, Morgan shows how from the start the senator was a rank opportunist, a man who defended Nazi SS murderers and attacked the U.S. Army in his first Senate investigation, showing himself at his "posturing, blustering, wrongheaded worst."  A latecomer to the anticommunist cause, McCarthy used a lag in perception about communists in government to engage in the kind of scattershot and irresponsible charges that made him headline news.  He sometimes had a valid case about people who presented serious security risks still holding places in government, but he ruined it by overstating and by changing the numbers of those who supposedly still were implanted.  His facts were wrong, but his timing - coming after the exposure of Alger Hiss's treachery and the fall of Nationalist China - was perfect.  Rather than really being concerned with improving security, McCarthy was more interested in discrediting the Truman administration and using his investigations to gain political influence and power.  There were no spies left in the State Department by February of 1950, although security could have been tightened.  But McCarthy did not study carefully what files he had obtained, nor did he cull his list.  Instead, as Morgan writes, he concealed sources and sought to overwhelm the Senate "with the bogus momentousness of his findings."
This does sound familiar.  The Army-McCarthy hearings and the fellow's fall from popular opinion (thanks Edward R. Morrow and CBS), and then his death are familiar stuff.   Morgan does end his book by accusing the Bush administration of resurrecting McCarthyism in all its manifestations.  And just as there was a real communist threat that was not addressed, there is a real terrorist threat, which the left tries to ignore by claiming that the only issue is the administration's violation of civil liberties.
Sigh.  This stuff never ends.
Quick View Three:
Why are the Elizabeth Smart and Jessica Lynch books so lame?
You might want to check this out:
Captive Audience
by Rebecca Onion
The New Republic Online
Post date: 11.21.03

A good opening:
Blonde pixies Elizabeth Smart and Jessica Lynch are back in the public realm - stick-straight hair, blank eyes, and all.  Being unabashedly fascinated, this reader rushed out to buy the tell-all books: Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope, penned by Lois and Ed Smart and featuring a frighteningly monochromatic jacket photo of the Smarts and their six blonde children; and I Am A Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, by ex-NYTer Rick Bragg.  Both tomes lean heavily on wide-spaced fonts, tearful homecoming scenes, and a near-complete lack of new revelations (besides Lynch's anal assault records, which were all over newspapers during I Am A Soldier's publicity push). In the case of the Smarts' book, you get a bonus: helpful quotes from the Book of Mormon.

Can anybody blame us for feeling cheated?
Rebecca Onion (her real name?) then goes on to say The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) was far better. 
Perhaps it was.  Check out the analysis.  Read any of the three.