Many readers will remember what The New York Review of Books was like in the late 1960s and 1970s. It carried many thoughtful articles on a wide variety of literary and intellectual matters. It also promulgated a virulently anti-American species of (in Tom Wolfe’s perfect epithet) radical chic. Left-wingers like Stokely Carmichael, Noam Chomsky, Tom Hayden, Andrew Kopkind, Mary McCarthy, Jerry Rubin, and I. F. Stone contributed incendiary articles denouncing just about every aspect of American life. The nadir came in August 1967 when the Review published on its cover a large diagram instructing readers on the exact construction of a Molotov cocktail.

The Review never abandoned its programmatic left-wing bias. In the 1980s bitter and contemptuous articles about Ronald Reagan and Bush I were a regular feature; today the same sorts of things are directed at the younger Bush’s administration. Nevertheless, if the Review’s politics haven’t really changed, the volume and level of histrionics has been discernibly lower. Until recently.

Whatever else the preparations for war with Iraq have done, they have galvanized members of what we might call the Old New Left to an extent not seen since the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Like sharks that smell blood, they have whipped themselves into a dangerous frenzy. The media keeps reporting on the growth of an “anti-war” movement. But the real emotional fuel feeding the protestors is hatred of America and hatred of George W. Bush and his administration. The war with Iraq is merely an occasion, a rallying point. The New York Review of Books, always responsive to left-wing political trends, has joined the parade, reverting to an hysterical anti-American rhetoric not seen in its pages for many years. Exhibit A is “Only in America,” a 7000-word diatribe by Norman Mailer in the March 27 number of the Review.

Mailer’s essay, drawn from a speech he delivered to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, is a model Mailer production. That is to say, it is a stew of blustering incoherencies, dire prognostications, and savage indictments of the United States, highly seasoned by infusions of paranoia. This is not the place to review the preposterous career of Norman Mailer: the wife-stabbing erotomaniac, political activist, and conspiracy nut. It has always been a source of profound amazement to us that serious people could ever regard this noisy buffoon as an important novelist or thinker. But so they did, once upon a time. That story belongs to the history of intellectual credulousness. If Mailer’s latest effusion in The New York Review is part of that history, it is also a specimen example of the new “anti” mood: anti-war-with-Iraq, at least incidentally, but predominantly anti-Bush and anti- American.

Mailer begins by refighting the 2000 presidential election, alluding to President Bush’s “investiture through an election that could best be described as legitimate/illegitimate. America,” Mailer continues,

had learned all over again that Republicans had fine skills for dirty legal fighting. They were able to call, after all, on a powerful gene stream. The Republicans who led the campaign to seize Florida in the year 2000 are descended from 125 years of lawyers and bankers with the cold nerve and fired-up greed to foreclose on many a widow’s home or farm. Nor did these lawyers and bankers walk about suffused with guilt. They had the moral equivalent of teflon on their soul. Church on Sunday, foreclose on Monday.

Let’s see, President Bush won a close election: why is that an “investiture”? Why is it “legitimate/illegitimate”? Where in heaven’s name did those widows and greedy agents of foreclosure come from?

All this is merely throat-clearing, however. Mailer has two main purposes in this essay. One is to castigate middle America. “To be a mainstream American,” he says “is to live as an oxymoron.” And this, you see, is one reason for “the odd guilt so many felt after September 11. It was as if untold divine forces were erupting in fury.” Really? Earth to Norman: what most Americans felt after September 11 was rage, not guilt, and it wasn’t an “odd” rage, either. It was the perfectly justifiable rage any normal person feels when his country is attacked and 3000 innocent people are slaughtered by a gang of ravening lunatics.

None of that computes for Noman Mailer. In the aftermath of World War II, he writes, the United States was “exporting the all-pervasive aesthetic emptiness of the most powerful American corporations” to the rest of the world. “There were no new cathedrals being built for the poor—only sixteen-story urban-renewal housing projects that sat on the soul like jail.” Let’s see: would that be the urban housing we built for a war-devastated Europe and Japan? Like many leftists, Norman Mailer cannot abide the word “corporation.” He concludes his essay by warning against “the lower existence of a monumental banana republic”— i.e., the United States—“with a government always eager to cater to mega-corporations as they do their best to appropriate our thwarted dreams with their elephantiastical conceits.” A gold star for anyone who can untangle that elephantiastical conceit.

Mailer’s second purpose in this essay is to expose President Bush’s war plans as a secret effort to embark on the construction of a world empire. Yes, really: “George W. Bush’s underlying dream,” he says, is “Empire!” Mailer clearly thinks big, for by empire he doesn’t mean an empire like those in the old days. He means world domination: “Behind the whole push to go to war with Iraq is the desire to have a huge military presence in the Near East as a stepping stone to taking over the rest of the world.”

In some ways, reading Norman Mailer is like reading a pulp spy novel. There are plenty of conspiracies, hypocritical evil men in high places, and plans for world domination there, too. But no one offers those novels as serious commentary in America’s most influential intellectual book review. In one particularly bewildering passage, Mailer explains how America’s battle for world domination will also lead to puritanical sexual repression at home. Apparently, the military is scheduled to get in on the moral crusade, for Mailer goes on to observe that “Soldiers are, of course, crazier than any average man [but how about any average self-infatuated novelist?] when in and out of combat, but the overhead command is a major everyday pressure on soldiers and could become a species of most powerful censor over civilian life.” Three gold stars for the hermeneutical genius that can unravel that.

Anyone who has followed Norman Mailer’s work knows that such incoherent ranting is par for the course for him. The real question is why any self-respecting editor would publish such stuff. We suppose that, in some circles, Mailer is still considered a “big name.” Would that be enough to induce The New York Review to publish such unadulterated tripe? Perhaps. More likely, Mailer’s effusion, for all its stuttering hyperbole, was judged to express the mood of the time. We fear that the editors of The New York Review might be correct about that. More’s the pity if they are.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 8, on page 1
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