Reading the essays in this collection is like receiving a first-rate tutorial on the way we live now and how we got here.
By Matt Hanson
Whatever happened to the public intellectual? In a visual era seething with anti-intellectualism and market-driven media hype, the term may sound positively antique. Arts coverage and independent political criticism are shrinking in proportion to the conglomeration of media and the wavering attention span of an exhausted, wary audience. But all is not lost — there are still writers who prove that careful, critical thinking matched with felicitous writing is far from dead.
George Scialabba is one of the critics doggedly carrying the critical torch, and has spent the majority of his writing life mastering the art of the book review. He was called “one of America’s best all-around intellects” by James Wood and been toasted by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Thomas Frank, with the city of Cambridge charmingly naming a day (September 10) in his honor. Scialabba is newly liberated from his day job doing administrative work at Harvard, his alma mater. He has not been lazy. Pressed Wafer has published Low Dishonest Decades (219 pages, $15) has just published an informative and engrossing new collection of his essays and reviews selected from the past thirty years, covering a wide swath of moral and intellectual history.
Reading the essays in this collection is like receiving a first-rate tutorial on the way we live now and how we got here. Scialabba examines the dubious merit of the Electoral College, Henry Kissinger’s disturbing legacy and his fawning treatment by the press, the blueprint of woe that was Reaganite policy, moral evasions and factual elisions in America’s foreign policy, in general as well as specifically in Nicaragua and Vietnam, free-market capitalism and its discontents, the need for effective government regulations ignored by both parties, and the shifting sands of the organized left, to name only a few of the topics being hotly debated in TV studios and across the kitchen table.
The product of a Boston working class Italian immigrant family who painfully shed a devout Catholicism in favor of the life of the mind, Scialabba hasn’t forgotten how policy and history directly affect real human beings. He can eloquently quote Nietzsche and Thucydides while analyzing esoteric policy tomes, but he doesn’t forget what happened to his grandfather, who was “illiterate and worked as a laborer in a factory of the Hood Rubber Company. A few months before he was eligible to retire with a pension, he was fired for no reason; speaking no English, he had no recourse.”
Wearing his formidable erudition lightly, Scialabba declares his intellectual independence by valuing the honesty, decency, rigor, and wit he praises in others. Clearly a man of the left, he firmly criticizes many Democratic mistakes, but what draws some of his fiercest condemnation is the lazy mendacity of intellectuals who “instead of rescuing forgotten truths, devise novel fallacies like New Class theory or the efficient market hypothesis or American exceptionalism. No longer automatically subversive of authority, the intellectual has become authority’s chief of staff.” The fact that this quotation comes from a review of Charles Krauthammer, the onomatopoeically named cheerleader for the Iraq War and military intervention, subtly suggests that when intellectuals court the powerful, the consequences on the ground can be far more disastrous than just intellectual bad faith.
What makes Scialabba’s voice important, especially in today’s jittery political climate, is how clearly and precisely he takes to task standard issue misinformation with a poised, amiable prose style. Modesty and restraint aren’t always traits that one associates with intellectuals; the temptation is often to be incendiary or abstruse, the better to sell books or curry favor with a tenure committee.
Neil Postman’s admonition that clarity is courage describes Scialabba’s method as well as his meaning. As he puts it, “we are so sick of hucksters, of authors trying — like everyone else on all sides at all times in this pervasively hustling culture — to sell us something, that it is a relief to encounter someone who isn’t, who has no designs on our money or votes or hopes, who simply has looked into the depths, into our bleak future, and is compelled to describe it, as Cassandra was.”
Given the self-evident rise of blatant hucksterism in the political sphere, the need for a rigorous and principled resistance is now more urgent than ever. Anyone who was demoralized by the election results needs to get ready for the battles ahead and start studying up, the better to challenge whatever new normal the new administration will try to sell. Reading George Scialabba is a sure way raise the quality of the arguments to come.
The Arts Fuse reached out to Scialabba through email to discuss the new book, the current state of the union, and what might be on the political horizon.
Arts Fuse: What inspired you to publish a new collection of essays and reviews?
George Scialabba: Mostly vanity, of course — it’s nice to see your name in print. But also feelings of civic obligation and helpless indignation. After the generous hopes of the Sixties and Seventies, the last three and a half decades have been a crushing disappointment. And a great many of my fellow citizens (and fellow humans in Central America, Iraq, and elsewhere) have been literally, non-metaphorically crushed by the policies of both Republican and Democratic administrations and legislators.
In a happier world, I would have liked nothing better than to spend my life reading novels, poems, philosophy, and intellectual history. And I’ve done some of that. But I kept getting distracted by the malice and mendacity of the powerful and the suffering of the powerless.
AF: I noticed that the book’s title and one of the epigraphs are from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.” What makes that poem resonate for you and for this book?
Scialabba: It’s just a marvelous poem. The best answer I can make is to quote the last two stanzas:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
AF: You’ve been praised for writing for a general audience rather than just other intellectuals or academic specialists. Is that a deliberate decision for you as a critic?
Scialabba: Not really. That’s the way it comes out. You just try to put down the right words in the right order.
AF: In one review you describe a familiar scenario: arguing with your working class, inner-city parents who are outraged over things like affirmative action, etc, and how you, as “the college boy” at the table, exasperatedly argued for liberal policies. A lot of people are talking about the election in terms of working class anger and cultural backlash against “the elites.” Do you think this is a justified critique or an over-simplification?
Scialabba: I think there’s a lot to it. It’s true that a great deal of Trump’s support came from suburbs as well as rural (though maybe it would be more accurate to say de-industrialized) districts. Different people were obviously angry about different things. And of course Trump obfuscated and even lied a lot, as Republicans have tended to do since Reagan and even before.
But the American economy has in truth been laid waste by “free trade” (actually investor protection) agreements, by financial deregulation, by the destruction of unions, and by technologically enabled cost-cutting (also known as laying off workers), and the Democratic Party has been fully on board with all those policies, or at least has never lifted a finger to prevent them.
Trump and Sanders at least acknowledged all that pain and devastation, while Clinton kept insisting, in response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” that “America Is Already Great.” That was an insult to the intelligence of all those people who, out of their own experience, knew otherwise.
AF: At one point you say “the quality of leaders matters less than the quality of citizens.” Considering the general ugliness of the last election and how it ultimately turned out, it’s very tempting to question the quality of citizenry who voted for what one can reasonably consider an obnoxious, inexperienced, former reality TV star.
Scialabba: Yes, the American citizenry is all too apathetic, ignorant, and gullible. But unless you simply want to mock them, you have to ask why they’re that way. And the answer is obviously that their education and environment have failed to help them become informed, self-confident, and critical. This failure — though it may be misleading to call it that, since after all, does the corporate sector, which ultimately calls the shots, actually want an informed and critical citizenry? — is complex and multi-level.
There are the schools, to begin with, which Republicans determinedly underfund at all levels and try to turn into corporate profit centers and which both parties degrade with their insistence on “standards” and “teaching to the test.” Then there’s the media, which are themselves large corporations and not particularly interested in fulfilling any civic responsibilities that aren’t simultaneously profitable, and hence have dumbed American politics way, way down — Paul Krugman keeps pointing out that during the campaign the major networks devoted essentially zero time to discussing policy rather than personality.
Then there’s the enormous business propaganda machine, devoted to misleading the public about everything from smoking to sugar to global warming to Social Security to education “reform” to health care, and on and on. There’s the cyber-world, with its continuous, overwhelming distractions, which make it hard to think long, deep, and hard about anything. And there’s economic insecurity and stress, which make people want to look for relief — often in the form of mindless entertainment — in their leisure time rather than for something more challenging.
I don’t mean to deny people’s personal responsibility for not being informed and critical. But as with everything, those with more power and privilege — the educated, i.e., us — have more responsibility.
AF: With everything that’s contributing to the dumbing down of American policy and discourse in general, does it worry you about how much effect a book like yours can have? Who will be interested in reading it or be able to follow along?
Scialabba: Of course, I have no way of knowing how much or little effect anything I write will have. People do sometimes tell me that something or other I’ve written has been important to them, and I can only hope they speak for others whom I haven’t heard from. You just try and pass along what little wisdom you think you’ve achieved. Sow the seed and hope it takes root.
AF: Praising Alexander Cockburn, you mention that he “drew attention to the fact that the U.S. is a class society” and that this pushed him into the margins of the discourse: “Very Serious People do not make a fuss about class. It is not a Very Serious Subject.” This might be true for the elite pundit types, but what about recent populist surges like Occupy and Bernie Sanders? Do you think they are making class issues more vital?
Scialabba: Yes. Bernie and Occupy are certainly gleams of hope, especially when you consider that they’re most popular among the young. But the young are facing tremendous pressure to buckle under and conform in order to survive economically.
It’s on the rest of us to help keep alive the ideals and critical perspectives they’ll need.
AF: When you talk about the young being under enormous pressure to conform economically, what specifically do you mean by that?
Scialabba: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when I was young, we took economic survival for granted. Urban living was much cheaper, and there were always decently paying part-time jobs in libraries, labs, publishing houses, bookstores, record stores, offices, restaurants, driving a taxi, or any number of other things. If you needed to save a little money, you worked full-time for a year or two. And once you’d found yourself and decided what you wanted to devote yourself to, school was affordable and jobs were reasonably available. That sort of voluntary casual employment in anticipation of a secure career path has vanished.
Competition and consolidation has forced large and small business to cut costs — which usually means labor costs, including benefits — relentlessly, and both tuition and urban rents have skyrocketed. Kids know from a pretty early age that the economy now is a shark tank — that’s one reason economics has become the most popular major at elite schools and business the most popular major at the others.
Of course if your interests and aptitudes are technical/scientific, you’re in a better position, but even there, you can’t count on just studying or researching what interests you; increasingly business finances scientific education and research and demands work with commercial potential. Liberal education, as William Deresiewicz argued eloquently in Excellent Sheep, is an endangered species.
AF: In 2008 you reviewed a spate of books discussing where to take policy after Obama’s election. There’s some guarded optimism in that piece about what the new administration could accomplish. What’s your take on Obama’s legacy now that he’s leaving office?
He’s a decent man with a keen intelligence and considerable rhetorical gifts. And he was faced with vicious, relentless, uncompromising political opposition from Republicans every step of the way. But he didn’t fight nearly hard enough: for unions, for single-payer health care, for mortgage relief, for financial reform. His policies on education, energy, and “free trade” were pretty mediocre; likewise his foreign policy. Of course he’ll look like Lincoln, compared with Trump.
AF: A lot of the issues that these reviews examine: free market obsessions, jingoism, militarism, Rot at the Top, all seem to be recurring problems. Some of the reviews from the ’80s and ’90s still feel like they could be written today. Robert Reich, whose books you reviewed in the ’80s, is still making similar criticisms on Facebook today. It makes me wonder how cyclical it all is — do you think that these are historical processes at work, or it more that people in high positions are repeatedly pushing the same agendas?
Scialabba: The latter. Agendas don’t come from nowhere. American society has a structure: decisions about the livelihood of the majority — that is, decisions about investment and employment — are made by the corporate sector and its political servants. That gives them enormous power.
They have an unvarying set of interests: weak or no unions; a meager safety net for the poor and unemployed; low taxes on business and the rich (which means sharply limited funding for social welfare policies); minimal government regulation of environmental pollution, occupational safety, deceptive advertising, and financial manipulation; privatization of everything possible (education, water, municipal services), both to create profit centers and to delegitimize government; and perhaps most important, the largest possible role for money in politics.
There is, and always has been or at least since the advent of industrialism), a class war in America: big business against the rest of society. What’s new is that one side seems to be completely unaware of it.
AF: Do you mean the GOP or the Democrats?
Scialabba: Neither, actually; I mean the corporate sector and the rest of us. The corporations have plenty of allies in both parties (especially the Republicans, of course, but certainly among the Democrats as well), and the rest of us have … Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and a handful of others. Most people don’t seem to realize how relentless, well- financed, and well-coordinated the corporate assault on their well-being has been since 1980, and even before. That’s what I mean by a class war with only one side fighting.
AF: Now that we have Trump coming into the White House, do you have any predictions about his administration? What’s the most effective way of fighting back?
Scialabba: Trump will do what every one of the other Republican candidates would have done: work with the Republican Congress to destroy what’s left of the New Deal and the welfare state, to dismantle every protection we’ve managed to achieve for working people, the poor, and the environment, and to transfer wealth from the 90 or 95 or 99 percent to the 1 percent. In other words, exactly the same things all Republicans have been dedicated to doing since Reagan.
How you fight back depends on where you are, what you know, and who you know. You should do exactly what you should have been doing all along: educate yourself about the issues, then talk to the people you live and work with (and listen to them, too), and try to form or link up with groups that can help to achieve your common goals. We have Trump and a Republican Congress (with a gerrymandered majority) because we haven’t been good enough citizens. We’ve got to be better ones.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.