Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Just Words -- Book Review

Leave it to a liberal bombasticator to claim that everyone with whom he disagrees is a liar. Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore come to mind, but they're just two of the more visible gasbags and blowhards.

Don't Blame Mary McCarthy

Oh, for the days of Lillian 'Pants on Fire' Hellman. Now accusations of lying often just mean: I disagree with you

At some point in the mid-1990s, academic authors in the humanities began to use the verb "complicate" when they didn't have anything useful to say. They were always talking about how some new consideration or alleged insight "complicates" our understanding of this or that. "Such a view of early Victorian culture," they'd say, "complicates our understanding of Tennyson's metrical romances."

Well all right, one thought, but could we get to the part where you uncomplicate it? But they never did. They felt that it was sufficient to point out that something was more "complicated" than was hitherto thought.

Alan Ackerman's "Just Words" falls firmly into that tradition. Mr. Ackerman, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, is typical of academics in the humanities in this regard: He feels that he has done his job by making his topic more confusing than it was—no need to clean up the mess. The book "challenges assumptions" and "raises questions" on page after page, but nowhere amid all the assumption-challenging and question-raising is there any sign of resolution.

On the face of it, the premise of "Just Words" is an interesting one. Its point of departure is Mary McCarthy's famous quip about Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' " McCarthy, a grande dame of American letters, made the remark on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1980. She had said the same thing in interviews before, but this time Hellman was watching, and she sued for libel.

By then Hellman was an elderly woman; she had made her mark first as a playwright in the 1930s, then in the early 1950s as a suspected communist or communist sympathizer who refused to answer questions before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. Mr. Ackerman thinks that the lawsuit against Mary McCarthy, which dragged on until Hellman's death in 1984 and cost McCarthy enormous sums in legal fees, tells us something about a "crisis in American moral discourse" dating back to the 1930s.

There are at least two problems with Mr. Ackerman's idea. The first is that it's never clear what sort of "crisis"—or "failure of public conversation"—he is talking about. The nearest he comes to describing the "crisis" is this: The Hellman-McCarthy lawsuit "represents a clash between two models of language: one, as McCarthy saw it, that reports transparently on matters of fact, and one"—presumably as Hellman saw it—"that is self-consciously rhetorical and shaped by desire." Unless I'm mistaken, that's a highfalutin way of saying that the question of what constitutes truth in particular utterances is often disputable. I'm not convinced that we need a 300-page monograph to tell us that.

The second problem with Mr. Ackerman's idea is that, although McCarthy intended her remark to be witty rather than strictly true, it wasn't particularly witty and came awfully close to the truth.

Hellman was, in fact, a chronic liar. She wrote three memoirs: "An Unfinished Woman" (1969), Pentimento (1973) and "Scoundrel Time" (1976). Reviewer after reviewer during the 1970s and 1980s—including Irving Howe in Dissent, Hilton Kramer in the New York Times, Alfred Kazin in Esquire, Martha Gellhorn in the Paris Review and most devastatingly Samuel McCracken in Commentary—showed beyond any doubt that these books were full of outrageous omissions and flagrant departures from the historical record.

In the worst instance, a story in "Pentimento," Hellman claimed that she had gone to heroic lengths to aid a young American woman named Julia in supporting anti-Nazi conspirators in Germany. In due course it emerged that the real Julia was a woman named Muriel Gardiner and that Hellman, who had heard her story from someone else, had simply stolen it and put herself in the lead role.

I say all this is a problem for Mr. Ackerman's thesis because if there is any "crisis in American political discourse," it is the nonchalance with which eminent commentators and now even politicians make accusations of dishonesty. A "liar" is now someone who simply holds a contrary opinion or who supports a policy with which one strongly disagrees. But Lillian Hellman's lies were actually lies; she based the latter half of her literary career on intentional, egregious untruths about herself and others.

But there is at least one corrosive tendency in America's "public conversation" that is nicely illustrated by Mr. Ackerman's book—though unintentionally. Academics on the political left often spend so much time talking to one another, both literally and through their books and articles, that they develop a way of expressing themselves that fails even to recognize the existence of anything outside the small world of left-wing academia.

Mr. Ackerman writes of the "widely noted corruption of political language" by the Bush White House (the statement doesn't have to be supported, Mr. Ackerman seems to think, so "widely" was it "noted"). He uses the name Rush Limbaugh as shorthand for debased political discourse. Paul Johnson is a "conservative journalist," but Mike Barnicle, a liberal, is just a "journalist." And so on.

There is nothing astonishing about any of this, of course. But it is highly irritating, and one might have expected more from an author concerned with the "failure of public conversation in America."

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