A Cultural Hijacking

Leftist shenanigans at the National Book Critics Circle.

Never underestimate the determination of left-wing ideologues to take over social, cultural, and political institutions – or the willingness of fools and knaves to whitewash the history of those takeovers. Joe McCarthy has become a symbol of unjust persecution, but there were Stalinists in the State Department. The Blacklist has become a byword for political intolerance, but the Hollywood Ten were all Party members, taking orders from Moscow and fiercely dedicated to the overthrow of American democracy. In the years between the wars, Communists took control of one trade union after another, often succeeding simply because, relentless and brutally unscrupulous in their lust for power, they managed either to wear their enemies down or terrify them into submission.

In his fascinating 2015 book Hollywood Traitors, Allan H. Ryskind writes that during World War II, “a cabal of top Communist writers” taught newbies how to work Stalinist ideas into scripts. Seven of the Hollywood Ten – the screenwriters, all Party members, who were blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 – were part of this cabal. The protégés got career boosts; the anti-Communist holdouts often suffered professionally. But while Blacklist victims are still celebrated as heroes, Hollywood writers whose anti-Communism damaged their livelihoods got bupkus.

Ryskind also recalls the powerful Screen Writers Guild (SWG), which, while consisting in 1940 of about 400 members, was run by a small board dominated by Stalinists like Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. When in 1944 anti-Communist filmmakers formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), the SWG joined other Moscow-directed unions in attacking it – with flagrant dishonesty – as “fascistic and anti-Semitic.” So effective was this savage campaign in damaging the MPA’s reputation that Ryskind’s father, Morrie, writer of Penny Serenade and His Girl Friday, felt compelled to defend the MPA in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature. It didn’t help: the smear continued.

I mention all this by way of background. In early June, the board of the National Book Critics Circle responded to the George Floyd killing with a simple statement deploring racism. A board member named Hope Wabuke, however, then extended this document into a j’accuse charging the entire publishing industry with stifling black voices. As I wrote in an earlier article, another board member, Carlin Romano, reacted strongly to this screed, saying that it smeared generations of white editors and publishers who’d helped black writers. Wabuke, in response, called Romano a racist and demanded he be censured. When she failed to get her way, she posted his comments on Twitter – a violation of the board’s confidentiality rules – and quit the board. Her action triggered the resignation of fifteen other board members. Some opposed her; others thought that by quitting they could bring the edifice down and help rebuild it in “woke” fashion. 

You see, while many other American cultural institutions have long since been fully captured by the left, the NBCC has lagged at least somewhat behind. The main reason: its 800-odd general members. They’re spread across the U.S., red states as well as blue; most of them review books for small local newspapers and websites; many are conservatives or centrists. There’s no political test for joining: anyone with the publishing credits can get in. It’s these general members who pick the 24-member board, and while that board definitely leans left, it’s never been entirely lockstep: it’s always been possible for prominent non-leftists to get elected to the board and have their voices heard. This state of affairs gives the NBCC a different feel from other literary organizations with which I’ve been familiar over the years. Compared to those organizations – snobby, cosmopolitan, reputation-obsessed, New York-based – the NBCC has always felt friendly, collegial, and almost quaintly democratic.

What to say about Wabuke’s charges? No, New York editors and publishers aren’t racist. Nor is the NBCC. Nor is Romano. Who, then, you ask, is Wabuke? Until this dustup I’d never heard of her. It turns out she’s a poet whose parents fled to America as refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda – but who hasn’t let this keep her from maligning America in her poems as, yes, racist. Perusing those poems, I find an intense hatred for white people. Clearly, the only racist here is Wabuke herself.

But on with our story. At a June 17 meeting of the nine remaining NBCC board members, Jane Ciabattari (pictured above), a writer for the BBC and NPR, was named acting NBCC president. This would appear to have been an illegitimate move, given that NBCC bylaws prohibit official action by fewer than 21 board members. On July 6, Ciabattari e-mailed eight of the nine board members – she excluded Romano, another apparently illegitimate move – cancelling a July 21 board meeting and calling a “special” meeting, via Zoom, for July 14 (that is, today). At this meeting, she explained, Romano would be removed from the board, the eight remaining board members would then appoint 15 new board members, and the bylaws would be altered to give board members financial benefits for the first time in the organization’s 46-year history.

Ciabattari included with her e-mail a list of fifteen critics who’d agreed to be selected for the vacant positions. Among them: Diego Baez (“I'm committed to centering the lives and experiences of writers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color”); Rod Davis (“My literary approach is…informed through my political orientation and awareness of critical theory”); Tara Wanda Merrigan (“I look forward to working with other board members to promote diversity in American literature and strengthen the NBCC's support for minority writers”); and Ben Olguín (“I received an NEA grant to inaugurate the Voces Nuevas: New LatinxAuthors Series…We are very excited about featuring the diversity within the diversity of the Latinx communities”). In short, Ciabattari had already chosen her new board; the idea was simply for the eight remaining board members to ratify her choices.

Just to be clear, this was the very height of irregularity – and chutzpah. It’s the job of the NBCC’s 800-odd general members – not the president, and not the board itself – to elect board members. To compound the audacity, Ciabattari kept the plans for her “special” meeting secret from the general membership. An inside source confirmed that Ciabattari had privately expressed her determination to make the new board politically homogeneous, so that it could move beyond the awarding of literary prizes into “political activism.”

What are we to make of this situation? Allan Ryskind would know what to make of it. His father would’ve known, too. So would Ronald Reagan, whose successful fight against Communist influence in the Screen Actors Guild is memorably recounted in Ryskind’s book. What Ciabattari is trying to engineer at the NBCC is nothing short of a good old-fashioned Communist-style power grab. But one man is standing in her way: Romano. When he got wind of Ciabattari’s high-handed plans, he e-mailed the NBCC’s general members, telling them what she was up to and urging those who objected to contact her and the other board members.

So things stand at this juncture. Why does all this matter? No, the NBCC isn’t hugely powerful: the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award have more cultural prestige. But that’s not the point. As the leftists know full well, every little bit matters. They’ve taken over every broadcast news operation, every major newspaper, and every major publishing house. And they’re not done yet. Ciabattari’s attempt to subvert the NBCC’s bylaws and weaponize it politically is one more despicable step on the left’s long march through the institutions – one more effort by a member of the "woke" crowd to control and exploit a cultural organization to her own ends. Let’s hope that Carlin Romano – along with whatever allies he’s able to find among the NBCC membership – manages to prevent this brazen hijacking.

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Photo credit: David Shankbone

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