Adam Bellow agonistes.

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July 17 2008 7:18 PM

Adam Bellow Agonistes

A culture warrior does battle with himself.

Adam Bellow's In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History

Adam Bellow—prominent conservative book editor, author of In Praise of Nepotism, and son of the late Nobel laureate in literature —thinks I should lighten up. In the summer 2008 issue of World Affairs ("Skin In The Game: A Conservative Chronicle"), Bellow responds to a "Hot Documents" column ("Coulterized Conservatives") that I posted two years ago. The document in question was Doubleday's spring catalog for 2007—or, rather, two pages from that catalog that publicized Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation From Mussolini to Hillary Clinton (the subtitle was toned down, on publication, to The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning) and Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left And Its Responsibility for 9/11.

In the commentary accompanying the reprinted catalog pages, I argued that judging from Doubleday's descriptions of these two books, Ann Coulter's shrill style was starting to be mimicked by more serious conservatives.

Maybe it's sheer greed; Coulter has certainly demonstrated that extremism sells books. Maybe it's the reward structure of cable-news shows, which love to sic right-wing mad dogs on seemingly clueless moderate liberals. But I'm inclined to think the main driving force is the bankruptcy of contemporary conservatism as represented by the Bush administration. An aggressively interventionist foreign policy has stumbled badly; a sharp cutback in taxes has failed to bring prosperity to the middle class; and, since Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, citizens have come to regard governmental incompetence less as a reason to vote Republican than as a reason to hold Republicans responsible for indifferent stewardship.

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My column didn't mention Adam Bellow, but as the editor of both books, he now writes, "I paid close attention to Noah's attack and carefully weighed its significance." Judging from the ambivalence he expresses in his essay, Bellow is still weighing.

Part of Bellow—we'll call him Bad Adam—wants to justify his role in publishing these books. He makes this case through a series of contradictory assertions characterized by escalating cynicism.

  1. Noah wrote "a snarky little item" that the "typical Slate reader might have glanced over … grunted in assent, and moved on with his prejudices satisfyingly confirmed." (Translation: The Slate column didn't matter.)
  2. If that "Hot Document" had any significance at all, it was as "a favorable sign—an indication that we had in fact done something right," because clearly Goldberg and D'Souza "hit a nerve." (Translation: The Slate column did matter, but not in the way Timothy Noahintended.)
  3. Whenever you publish a controversial polemic, "the controversy itself, not the argument, becomes the book's essential raison d'etre, providing a kind of X-ray or intellectual Rorschach of the state of debate on both sides." (Translation: The books didn't matter.)
  4. "In the looking-glass world of the culture war, Bad is really Good." (Translation: The books did matter, precisely because they were bad.)
  5. As a commercial publisher, "I reserve the right to stoop and pander when it suits me. … [L]ighten up." (Translation: Nothing matters. Get off my case!)

Another part of Bellow—we'll call him Good Adam—wants to bemoan the obviously degraded state of contemporary conservative discourse.

  1. William F. Buckley is dead, and with him the "refined patrician spirit" that once governed conservatism.
  2. "Was [Noah] right? Had I missed some obvious flaw in these two books?"
  3. Then Andrew Sullivan piled on. Uh-oh. Andrew is a fellow conservative and onetime ally in the culture wars. In 1994, he "put his reputation on the line" by excerpting Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve (which Bellow edited)in the New Republic (which Sullivan edited) "in the face of an all-out revolt by his writers and staff."
  4. "I had to admit the irritating grain of truth in [Sullivan's] attack. I wasn't just a helpless cog in a vast media machine but an experienced editor who occupied an enviable perch in the New York publishing establishment."
  5. In his youth Bellow was apprenticed to Erwin Glikes of the Free Press. Glikes, now deceased, was a neoconservative editor renowned for publishing classy books like Francis Fukuyama's The End of History as opposed to the "red meat for the [right-wing] yahoos" put out by Regnery.
  6. With the collapse of communism, political debate turned to a grab-bag of issues, many of them trivial.
  7. "I strove to maintain the intellectual standards of the Cold War while adopting to the very different environment of the culture war, [but] it proved to be a difficult task."
  8. Cable news and blogs turned political debate into "an unedifying race to the bottom."
  9. After 9/11, "the Republican establishment, which had leaned heavily on its intellectuals in the long march to political power, now discarded them in favor of cheerleaders and demagogues."
  10. "I feel an obligation to [Glikes] and my other mentors, as well as to the next generation of conservatives, to maintain a certain standard of intellectual seriousness."

Bad Adam concedes that D'Souza's and Goldberg's books were conceived and packaged in deliberately "outrageous" fashion. Good Adam defends the books as reasoned and intellectually serious.

My own view, after reading The Enemy at Home (see "Dinesh D'Souza's Mullah Envy") and Liberal Fascism (see "Am I A Fascist?") is

  1. Yes, these books are more deeply researched than the typical Coulter screed and deserve to be taken seriously.
  2. Taken seriously, these books reveal themselves to be nonsensical, overwrought, vile, and quite obviously wrong.

Whether Bellow will go to hell for publishing either work is not a question that interests me. I've interviewed him by phone a couple of times—we've never met face to face—and I found him congenial and intelligent. (Also—full disclosure—when I first started writing this column, he sent a complimentary "if you ever want to write a book" note.) Unlike Sullivan and Bellow, I experience no distress when I contemplate conservatism's intellectual bankruptcy. Not my religion, and therefore not my problem. But I'm not too fine a person to enjoy Bellow's torment and vacillation in reaction to something I wrote. Yup, it sucks to be a conservative today. Have a Maalox on me, pal.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.