Hating America at the New York Times

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Doctorow’s politics come through loud and clear in his 1971 novel The Book of Daniel, in which he seeks to elicit sympathy for none other than the Stalinist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  How does he do this?  First, by turning the Rosenbergs into fictional characters, the Isaacsons, who were executed as spies but may or may not have been guilty and who, at the time that the novel’s main action is taking place, have been dead for many years; second, by placing at the book’s center not this now-dead imaginary couple but their son, Daniel, now a young man, who, having been robbed of them in his childhood by the American justice system, is haunted by their memory and their political cause, which we are encouraged to view as noble.

By fictionalizing the Rosenbergs, Doctorow is able to remove from the picture the repulsive reality of their treason, the better for us to see them not as having betrayed America but as having been betrayed by it.  And by focusing on the innocent, orphaned young Daniel, Doctorow is able to compel a sympathy from the reader that he could never have mustered for the Rosenbergs alone in a non-fiction book that presented their lives and offenses in a remotely honest fashion.  In short: The Book of Daniel is an extremely slick attempt to remove from the equation the sticky issues raised by the real-life Rosenbergs and, instead, depict their fictional alter egos as pure symbols of a humanitarian idealism that Doctorow quite clearly associates with Stalinist convictions.

So it goes throughout Doctorow’s novels.  He repeatedly makes clear his admiration for people like the Rosenbergs, whom he consistently sentimentalizes into one-dimensional symbols of virtue and victimhood, and his contempt for the rich and powerful, such as J.P. Morgan in Ragtime, whom he relentlessly demonizes as embodiments of capitalist evil.  What’s interesting is that although his novels take place in America at various points in its history (over which time it has, needless to say, undergone a good many changes), Doctor Doctorow is always making pretty much the same diagnosis – and the condition is always acute.

For instance, in his first novel, a Western called Welcome to Hard Times, the dream of conquering the West is shown to be a cruel joke when the characters discover that a gold mine contains only fool’s gold, which, one of them laments, is “like the West…a fraud…a poor pinched-out claim.”  In Ragtime, set in the years before World War I, the members of the archetypal American family at the center of the book (identified only as “Father,” “Mother,” etc.) are shaken from their complacent illusions about the country they live in when they’re confronted dramatically with the fact that it’s in the grip of racist violence, the assembly line, and robber-baron greed.  In The Book of Daniel, the young protagonist’s experience of Vietnam-era disillusion is a not-so-distant mirror of his parents’ experience of the purportedly heartless conservatism and anti-Communism of the late 1940s and 50s.

In Doctorow’s novels, simply put, it’s always hard times.  Which only underscores just how disingenuous the premise of Doctorow’s latest Times article is.  Unexceptionalism?  How to make America unexceptional?  Even a cursory look at this man’s oeuvre shows that he’s never believed in American exceptionalism – not in any positive sense, anyway.  For him, the only distinctive thing about the U.S. has always been its unexampled enthrallment by capitalism, by ill-fated dreams of wealth, and by the pathetic illusion of freedom. The only thing that would ever silence his doom-laden diagnoses would be a Communist revolution.  One wonders what he would write on the train to the Gulag.

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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?'