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.”
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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