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.”