Ann Coulter’s success, I suggest, can be largely traced back to this psychological need. Her writing is so indulgently one-sided that, if you’re disposed to agree with her, you’ll find yourself as one shadow boxing before the TV screen, cutting and thrusting as she lands blow after artful blow on her dazed opponent. Never mind that the opponent is a straw man of her own construction. This is a sport, and must be appreciated on its own terms.
Now, for my tastes, Coulter goes too far and ruins the fun. That was my sense at any rate last summer when I went through her Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America. For her the French Revolution, with its radical and naive utopianism, is the prototype of everything that has gone wrong since then, from Lenin to MSNBC. And that simply asks too much. Yet, I must say I really did enjoy her tour through the French Revolution, as she recounted in great detail just how turbulent and savage it was. It served as a nice corrective to my sophomore year survey of European history, which presented the Revolution as a generally benign and rational dawning of egalitarianism. Having done some sporadic reading on the subject since then, I find myself more inclined to side with Coulter.
(I must add that without my Kindle I would have been denied the pleasure of her writing entirely, as I would be loathe to visibly tote her trademark décolleté from playground to playground. But there’s a downside to this, too. How many conversations have I not entered into because my Kindle’s anonymous leather cover has hidden my purpose?)
Now as it turns out, Kimball’s book really does not chronicle this march at all, but instead trots out an array of popular names hand-selected from the far left in order to spotlight their fanaticism up to and during the 1960’s. Further, he largely dismisses whatever associations these figures had with social movements: Civil Rights and Vietnam were little more than proximate causes for such extremists, he argues, or rather, asserts. So The Long March not really a history but a montage, or even freak show. But, my, what a freak show. A selection:
Allen Ginsberg: Self-styled spiritual guru. Active supporter of the North American Man Boy Love Alliance (“I don’t know exactly how to define what’s underage”, he once said). Sexual predator and object of boundless adulation. Regarding Howl: “In romanticizing the madness of those he met in the psychiatric institution where he was incarcerated for eight months in the late 1940s or later when he became a prophet of psychedelia, Ginsberg deliberately falsified their suffering”. Podhoretz put it better: “There was something cruel about drafting such pitiable creatures into the service of an ideological aggression against the kind of normal life to which they would have given everything to return [though we might ask how N.P. claims to know these creatures wanted]. And it was all the more heartless for parading itself as compassion.” I actually saw Ginsburg read in Richmond in the early 1990’s, finger cymbals and all.
William S. Burroughs: Another sexual predator. Actually killed his wife doing a William Tell while stoned. Together with Ginsberg endlessly experimented with all manner of drugs. (Kimball rightfully quips: “Incidentally, why is it that drug abuse is always described as an ‘experiment,’ as if some important scientific enterprise were at stake instead of hedonistic self-indulgence?”) Heir to a family fortune going back to his grandfather's invention of an adding machine. Reported to have said, in a fit of paranoia, that women were extraterrestrial agents and that “maybe you had to exterminate all the women or get rid of them one way or another. Evolve some sort of male that could give birth by parthenogenesis.” But as his readers will know, this doesn’t go beyond anything he writes in The Naked Lunch. The fact that this book has since taken up residence at your university library as mild-mannered PS3552.U75 N3 2001 would, I’d say, add to Kimball’s infestation thesis.
(Incidentally, readers of Milton will know that nothing in what Burroughs is alleged to have said above goes beyond what Adam says of Eve:
O why did God,
Creator wise, that peopl’d highest Heav’n
With Spirits Masculine, create at last
This noveltie on Earth, this fair defect
Of Nature, and not fill the World at once
With Men as Angels without Feminine,
Or find some other way to generate Mankind?
Paradise Lost, 888-894)
Jack Kerouac: Similar to above, only that his eventual return to Catholicism sat very uncomfortably with his votarists. Kerouac's dabblings in the underbelly of society never sat well with me, even in high school.
Norman Mailer: Novelist, or better, purveyor of filth. Never personally read any; I'm just going on what Kimball says. I won’t reproduce any of it here, but if you want to sample Kimball’s selection of passages check out his article on Norman Mailer for the New Criterion. Or, if you want just skip to the very worst. At the very least read that last one, pretty please. It speaks volumes about the coolerati back then that they’d allow that. And I think it even works against Kimball’s thesis. Reckless speech like that wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s world of letters because our society, whatever the infiltration of radicals, has maintained some semblance of dignity. And I’m really, really hoping no one has the ammo to disprove me here.
Susan Sontag: Again, I'm relying exclusively on Kimball here. Following her meteoric rise through the University and into the world of letters, Sontag sought to undermine judgments of artistic taste and the intellectual foundations on which they are founded: “one important consequence of the new sensibility (with its abandonment of the Matthew Arnold idea of culture) ... [is] that the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture seems less and less meaningful.” Reread Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct with this notion in mind: it’s as if he’s dredging up evidence to scientifically flesh it out. Among some of the other gems Kimball lays out for us: “the task of the writer is to promote dissidence”, “the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization”, “the white race is the cancer of human history”. Cherry-picking, I know, but such is Kimball.
Kimball is really on to something when he points out the role of psychologist Wilhelm Reich in the fusion of the sex and the politics in these and other radical figures in the 1960’s. I myself had never heard of him. “At the center of Reich’s teachings were two convictions: that ‘the sexual question must be politicized;’… and that establishing ‘a satisfactory genital sex life’ was the key not only to individual but also to societal liberation and happiness…” This idea, which might be familiar from the writings of Marcuse, came from somewhere, after all. Someone, after all, had to have taken Freud’s work on the centrality of the id and, using the credentials of a professional psychologist, inverted Freud’s findings (or perhaps, “findings”) into an imperative—recall that Freud himself voluntarily embraced celibacy in middle age, perhaps as a heroic expression of scientific detachment. Now maybe it was Reich who did all this, and maybe it was someone else. Or maybe several were involved. The fact stands: run this basic sentiment through the crucible of youth and revolutionary fervor and you get not only the passage of Mailer's I refuse to include in my blog but also the following passage of Sonntag’s that Kimball quotes no less than three times: “rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature—really grooving on anything—unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life.” I think the entire story of the genesis of the basic ideas we find in Reich would be fascinating to know. It is doubtless that they are still very much alive, playing a large but tacit role in the culture wars. The fact that they have bathed and had some basic grooming over recent decades has only made them more appealing.
Interspersed with Kimball's parade of narcissists are a number of reasonably relevant historical snapshots. There’s the famous story of the faculty’s capitulation on the campus of Cornell in 1968, so prominent in The Closing of the American Mind, and the activism at Yale in 1970. Anyone remotely entertaining the thought of Hillary in 2016 needs to bone up on her role in undermining some pretty straight-forward justice during that time. And the rise of the New York Review of Books, whose first issue in 1963 featured Sonntag, Mailer and Mary McCarthy on Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. And that, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, “in California alone, 20 explosions a week rocked the state during the summer of 1970.” That’s 20 explosions a week! Which brings to mind the Greenwich Village townhouse incident of that year and with it the Weather Underground in general, which plays an important role in Coulter's Demonic. Recounting the ultimate absorption of Ayers & Co. into academia certainly would have squared with Kimball's thesis had he included it.
A final note. My real hope in picking up Kimball was in reading more of what Allitt mentions in reference to him, viz., Kimball’s negative reception of The Beatles. Given Kimball's infestation thesis, he would have done well to treat them at length. Who could better exemplify what Kimball means? No one, and no one, challenges The Beatles these days. You hear instrumental arrangements of their songs in the cheese aisle on your way to checkout, where nostalgia for their breakthrough visit to the US half a century ago lines the tabloids. A cover band plays their hits in a county sponsored concert in the park, and afterwards, when you go to Ledo’s Pizza, you look at the menu to find, among the droll collection of bric-a-brac, an old button: “I’m a Beatles Fan”. And let’s not forget the almost hushed reverence that accompanies any mention of their name on NPR.
Of course, in their day they had plenty of critics. But what were they criticizing? Their clothes? Their personal lives?—They were, after all, utter degenerates, but we could just as easily say this of Paganini and Gesualdo. Their music?—I mean, from the point of view of music, which is rarely done. Regarding The Beatles, Kimball only gives us this:
A watershed moment came with the apotheosis of The Beatles in the mid-1960s. Now, there is no denying that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were talented song writers, or that The Beatles (and their technicians) brought a new sophistication and inventiveness to rock music. It is also worth noting that in their proclamations of peace and love (blissed-out on drugs, but still) The Beatles stood in stark contrast to the more diabolical pronouncements of many other rock stars preaching a nihilistic gospel of (as the The Rolling Stones put it) “Let it Bleed” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” Nevertheless, The Beatles, like other rock musicians, were unmistakably prophets of Dionysian excess; and they were all the more effective on account of their occasional tunefulness and their cuddly image. The dangerous Dionysianism, however, was overlooked in the rush to acclaim them geniuses. Even today, some of the claims made for The Beatles are breathtaking. The literary critic Richard Poirier was hardly the only academic to make a fool of himself slobbering over the Fab Four. But his observation that “sometimes they are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s” in the Partisan Review in 1967 did establish a standard of fatuity that has rarely been surpassed.
The only other lead, if I can call it such, I have on critical reception of The Beatles comes from Jeff Guinn’s excellent book on Charles Manson:
To those appalled by student radicals and war protesters, Charlie and the Family were proof that longhairs were not only disruptive but dangerous. It didn’t matter that they were neither students nor protesters. They looked like they could be, and that was enough. For anyone concerned that drugs had the potential to turn normal young people into kill-crazy lunatics, information about the Family’s regular use of LSD confirmed their worst fears. Atheists and agnostics could and did cite Charlie’s garbled, violent interpretation of Revelation as evidence that religious fundamentalists were monsters. Critics of rock ’n’ roll pointed to Charlie’s fixation with the Beatles— see how such music incited disaster?
As Guinn points out, Charles Manson was a real gift to Nixon in the 1968 elections, a tidy bow with which to wrap together all of that feces-lobbing anti-Americanism that seemed to encroach from every side. My question is, did criticism of The Beatles ever go beyond this sort of loose association? I think the only way to address this is by a visit to the archives (and I see that subscribing to the NYT gives you electronic access to every issue from 1980 all the way back into the 1800's!)
In seeking what controversies surrounded the Beatles in their day, my aim would not be to hurl mud on the altar, even if I were to enjoy a tiny thrill at doing so. I was at that concert in the park, and I could not but admit that there was plenty of musical/artistic substance to the Beatles. Their fame was clearly more than a matter of radio attrition. But as anyone who has seriously dealt with Richard Wagner knows, artistic prowess can only cover over so many personal sins. And beyond this, if we look correctly, we see such figures bathed in the greyish light of their cultural penumbra. History's a mess, and so are its artists.