Hating America at the New York Times

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Recently, taking my daily masochistic glance at the New York Times website, I noticed a link to an article arrestingly entitled “Unexceptionalism: A Primer,” which, judging from the thumbnail description, was apparently a lament about the decline and fall of the U.S., presented in the form of a how-to guide.  I clicked through.

The author explained that in order to “render the United States indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world,” you’ve got to “do the following.”  In the list that followed, there was no mention of, say, stimulus packages, government-mandated health care, subprime mortgages, campus-wide bans on free speech, or the appeasement of Islam.  No, according to this article, the way to achieve unexceptionalism was (in part) to cut taxes, torture terrorists, “react to a terrorist attack by invading a nonterrorist country,” “[s]ee to it that a majority of prisoners are African-American,” “treat immigrants as criminals,” “[p]ortray trade unions as un-American,” “[p]ortray global warming as a conspiracy of scientists,” etc.  And the topping on the cake: “Having subverted the Constitution and enervated the nation with these measures, portray the federal government as unwieldy, bumbling and shot through with elitist liberals.  Create mental states of maladaptive populism among the citizenry to support this view.”

After reading the first few lines of this ludicrous litany, I naturally wondered what lefty from Central Casting was responsible for it.  I looked back up at the byline: E.L. Doctorow.  Well, that explained it, and then some. This kind of tired, apocalyptic, left-wing cant about America is straight out of Doctorow’s playbook.  At the same time, I was surprised.  Was he still at it?  Really?  Believe it or not, the guy’s been banging on like this for over half a century now. If for Ronald Reagan it was always morning in America, for E.L. Doctorow it’s always been dusk.  Doesn’t he ever get tired, I mused, of pronouncing America dead?

Many people first became aware of Doctorow when his 1975 novel Ragtime became a blockbuster bestseller.  What was considered special about the novel (which later was turned into a movie and a Broadway musical) was Doctorow’s incorporation into the list of characters of a number of real historical figures, among them Houdini, Henry Ford, Freud, Jung, Dreiser, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington.  Ever since then, Doctorow has been considered one of America’s leading novelists, and Ragtime one of the pinnacles of modern fiction: the Modern Library included it on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, and Time named it one of the 100 best between 1923 and 2005.

But for a man who is so widely considered a literary master, Doctorow has striking literary deficiencies.  Unlike the truly great authors, he’s not terribly interested in (or gifted at) creating three-dimensional characters – characters who rise off the page, whom we care about and feel we know – and telling stories about them that capture the rich, ambiguous texture of human life.  No, he’s mainly interested in making crude, didactic left-wing points about the evil of America, the cruelty of capitalism, and the futility of the American dream – which, as the anarchist Emma Goldman helpfully explains in Ragtime, is a mischievous invention whereby the masses “permit themselves to be exploited by the few” because they have been misleadingly “persuaded to identify with them.”

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  • KarshiKhanabad

    Another aging anti-American lefty growing more bitter as the revolution fails to arrive. Who cares? Let him stew in his own bile, only I wish he'd do it in Cuba instead of in the country he hates.

  • tagalog

    So how would a country become an unexceptional country by imprisoning a large number of African-Americans? I mean I guess I could see the argument if they were talking about the United States, but how would the hypothetical Outer Slobbovia become unexceptional by doing that?

    Just for the record, I thought E.L. Doctorow was an idiot when Ragtime was published, and nearly everyone swooned over that piece of junk. The Book of Daniel was absolutely execrable, both as a futile attempt at literature and as propangada. It was close to being unreadable.

    Unlike Doctorow, I live in the American West, which is not a fraud. The fraud associated with the American West is the Hollywood version of the American West, which is always wrong. Urban types like Doctorow seem routinely to mistake the Hollywood version of the West for the real thing. They are the pinched-out fools. Doctorow, it seems, has spent some time in Hollywood making movies out of several of his books, so you'd think he'd be aware of the disjunction between Hollywood and reality, but no, he seems to have missed that too in his travels.

    • Questions

      "Ragtime," which came out in 1981, was the only example of a movie based on a Doctorow novel. Were there any others?

      • dysgenic

        The Book of Daniel was also made into a movie.

        • GeorgeCrosley

          Billy Bathgate also.

  • jewdog

    The best way to start one's career as an unexceptional country is to elevate E.L. Doctorow as an exceptional author.

  • BS77

    We take the New York Times from the trash for our bird cage….perfect!!

  • flyingtiger

    I never cared for this guys work, for it was boring. Recently he had a novel about the great Union army under General Sherman that liberated the slaves. He made it seem that Sherman was the bad guy and the slaveowners were heros. I am going back to reading Scirnce Fiction. It is more realistic than anything this guy has ever written.

    • Chad

      Sherman was a maniac and a murderer. The slave owners were the good guys. Had they won we would all be a lot better off.

      • Ghostwriter

        Please tell me you're kidding! Many slave owners beat their slaves. It's DOCUMENTED HISTORY!!!! I think you've read "Gone With The Wind" one too many times.

  • Ray Olson

    I disagree with flyingtiger about The March and Sherman. The novel is one of the best I've read by the current poor crop of critically esteemed American novelists. The general was a beast and, perhaps, one of the earliest practitioners of plausible deniability, which is how Doctorow portrays him, I think very piquantly if not completely persuasively.

    I also disagree that torturing terrorists, invading nonterrorist countries, having an African-American majority of the imprisoned, treating immigrants as criminals, and portraying trade unions as un-American, global warming as a scam, and the federal government as unwieldy, bumbling and shot through with elitist liberals–and even cutting taxes–are the stuff of American greatness or–that loathsome word–exceptionalism. America will be great to the extent that she is virtuous, and I see no virtue in any of the practices Doctorow decries. Well, except for cutting taxes, which is virtuous more often than not.

  • Red Baker

    1. Torturing terrorists – we waterboarded three men; the top two 9/11 operatives, and the top USS Cole bombing operative. Good. We got lots of great information against genocidal plots and the organization. None were permanently harmed. We also waterboard our own pilots, spies and others as part of their training. Are we "torturing" them too?
    2. Invading nonterrorist countries – we owned Iraq under the ceasefire ending the Gulf War. Saddam violated his agreement. We should have hanged him after the Gulf War. We freed Iraq and reformed it. Good, if it holds.
    3. AA majority of imprisoned – don't be a criminal. Justice treatment of blacks is the same as for others.
    4. Trade unions – nonsense. Who says un-American? Nobody.
    5. Global warming – warming stopped in 1998. It is a scam. It is a liberal/greenie belief, not a fact.
    6. Federal government – it is wasteful and stupid, and the greatest danger to US prosperity and culture, and is now firmly on the path to bankruptcy and economic catastrophe.

    Liberalism is a complete catastrophe. Like Obama, it cannot run on its own record. It must constantly attack America as a diversion from its own hideous record. All its arguments and beliefs are crap.

  • Ray Olson

    Mr. Baker,

    I don't dispute what you say, but it's beside the point, since what I said was that the things Doctorow objects to aren't virtuous and aren't anything with which we'd argue America's goodness.

    As for liberalism, I agree it's bad, but I include classical liberalism–with its free markets and free trade, its democracy, its anti-Christianity, its libertinism (aka libertarianism), its imperialism, its violence, its solipsism, its reflexive cursing and bad language, its congenital dishonesty, and its opportunism–in my definition of liberalism. Unfortunately, all those things are the watchwords of the moral deadheads and scoundrels who call themselves conservatives in America.

    • stevefraser

      So we should go back to the tribalism that preceded classical liberalism, the emergence of the private self with the correlated concept of private property? That was a great time….oh wait, a world without money, markets or private property was already tried: J. Stalin.

  • radicalconservative

    Huh? Sorry dude you don’t know conservatives very well. You lumped anti-Christianity and free markets and free trade?! Libertinism and imperialism? All under “classical liberalism”?!? um, hello? Many American conservatives refer to themselves as “classical liberals” by which we mean folks who promote “freedom” (properly understood) for the masses. Economic freedom. Liberty. Who are these deadheads and scoundrels you refer to?

    • Ray Olson

      Disciples of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and that gang. For that matter, disciples of Adam Smith, too, who systematically deny the man's sporadic bursts of fellow-feeling and make of his economics a rigid ideology whose dissenters are to be ignored, excluded, and eliminated. In fact, I'd say anyone who exalts economics over all other human activities and calls himself a conservative is a dangerous phony. Such people invariably give Christianity lip-service while carefully quarantining its influence away from politics and business, in particular. Face it, there are no conservatives in the Republican party today. Indeed, it's hard to find anything conservative in any of the administrations of Republican presidents, from Lincoln on.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    I avoid anyone who writes for the defunct New York Times or who has written for them………William

  • S.G. Schaffer

    Why do these people that hate America stay here? Most of them have more than enough money to move to Another country. They can move to France, England, Spain, Holland, The Scandinavin countries, There are endless amount of choices. Tahiti, on and on and on. Will someone Please tell me why they stay in America? The country they hate so much. I do not understand it. It makes no sense to me.

  • Sweller3

    Doctorow has boiled the collective consciousness of the liberal elitist brain down to a very scary skeleton in his NYTimes piece: “Unexceptionalism: A Primer”. Be afraid!

  • Goodale

    What did Doctorow say that isn't true? Remember, disagreeing does not mean it isn't true.
    Where in the article or in any of Doctorow's writings does he state that he 'hates America?'