CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die

CNN delves into a decade of pat neoliberalism and hollow spectacle and, unsurprisingly, comes up with nothing

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die
The Nineties (Credit: CNN)

To anyone who came of age in the 1990s, the current cultural ascent of fidget spinners is likely to induce an acute pang of recognition — equal parts wistful nostalgia, anxiety and woozy terror. The ‘90s were, as any certified “Nineties Kid” can attest, a decade marked by a succession of asinine schoolyard fads.

One can imagine an alternative timeline of the decade that marks time not by year, but the chronology of crazes: the Year of the Beanie Baby, the Year of the Tamagotchi, the Years of the Snap-Bracelet, the Macarena, the Baggy Starter Jacket, the Painstakingly Layered “The Rachel” Hairdo, and so on. What’s most remarkable about our culture’s whirring fidget spinner fetish is that it didn’t happen sooner; that this peak fad didn’t emerge from among the long, rolling sierra of hollow amusements that defined the 1990s.

Surveying the current pop-culture landscape, one gets the sense that the ‘90s— with all its flash-in-the-pan fads and cooked-up crazes — never ended. On TV, “The Simpsons” endures into its 28th season, while David Lynch and Mark Frost’s oddball ABC drama “Twin Peaks” enjoys a highly successful, and artistically fruitful, premium-cable revival. The Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Treasure Trolls have graduated from small-screen Saturday morning silliness to blockbuster entertainments.

Elsewhere, the “normcore”/“dadcore”/“lazycore” fashion of singers like Mac DeMarco has made it OK (even haute) to dress up like a “Home Improvement”-era Jonathan Taylor Thomas. And Nintendo recently announced its latest money-printing scheme, in the form of the forthcoming SNES Classic Mini: a handheld throwback video game platform chock-full of nostalgia-baiting Console Wars standbys like “Donkey Kong Country,” “F-Zero” and “StarFox.” Content mills like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and their ilk bolster their bottom line churning out lists and quizzes reminding you that, yes, the show “Rugrats” existed.

To quote a nostalgic ’97-vintage hit single, which was itself a throwback to ‘60s jazz-pop, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

It’s natural to languish for the past: to trip down memory lane, get all dewy-eyed about the past, pine for the purity of the long-trampled gardens of innocence, and go full Proust on the bric-a-brac of youth that manages to impress itself on the soft, still-maturing amber of the adolescent mind, even if that stuff was total crap like Moon Shoes or a Street Shark or Totally Hair Barbie doll or a bucket of Nickelodeon-brand goo called “Gak.” The 1990s, however, offered a particularly potent nostalgia trap, something revealed watching CNN’s new TV documentary miniseries “event,” fittingly called “The Nineties.”

A follow-up to CNN’s previous history-of-a-decade events (“The Sixties,” “The Seventies” and “The Eighties”) and co-produced by Tom Hanks, the series provides some valuable insight into the nature of ’90s nostalgia. The two-part series opener, called “The One About TV,” threads the needle, examining the ways in which television of the era shifted the standards of cultural acceptability, be it in Andy Sipowicz’s expletive-laden racism, Homer Simpson’s casual stranglings of his misfit son or the highbrow, Noel Coward-in-primetime farces of “Frasier.”

To believe CNN’s procession of talking heads, damn near every TV show to debut after midnight on Jan. 1, 1990, was “revolutionary.” “The Simpsons” was revolutionary for the way it hated TV. “Twin Peaks” was revolutionary for the way it subverted it. “Seinfeld” ignored (or subtracted, into its famous “Show About Nothing” ethic) the conventions of the sitcom. “Frasier” elevated them. “Will & Grace,” “Ellen” and “The Real World” bravely depicted gay America. Ditto “Arsenio,” “Fresh Prince” and “In Living Color” in representing black America. “OZ” was revolutionary for its violence. “The Sopranos” was revolutionary in how it got you to root for the bad guy. “Friends” was revolutionary because it showed the day-to-day lives of, well, some friends. If the line of argumentation developed by “The Nineties” is to be believed, the TV game was being changed so frequently that it was becoming impossible to keep up with the rules.

Despite seeming argumentatively fallacious (if everything is subversive or game-changing, then, one might argue, nothing is), and further debasing the concept of revolution itself, such an argument cuts to the heart of ‘90s nostalgia. In pop culture, it was an era of seeming possibility, where it became OK to talk about masturbation (in one of “Seinfeld’s” more famous episodes) or even anal sex (as on “Sex & the City”), where “Twin Peaks” and “The Sopranos” spoke to the rot at the core of American life. “The Nineties” paints a flattering, borderline obsequious portrait of Gen-X ’90s kids as too hip, savvy and highly educated to be suckered in by the gleam and obvious propaganda that seemed to define “The Eighties.” (The ’90s kid finds a generational motto in the tagline offered by Fox’s conspiratorial cult sci-fi show “The X-Files”: trust no one.)

What “The Nineties” misses — very deliberately, one imagines — is the guiding cynicism of such revolutions in television. Far from being powered by a kind of radical politics of inclusivity, TV was (and remains) guided by its ability to deliver certain demographics to advertisers. In the 1990s, these demographics splintered, becoming more specialized. Likewise, entertainment streams split. The bully “mean girls” watched “90210,” the bullied watched “My So-Called Life,” and the kids bullied by the bullied watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then on Thursday night, everyone watched “Seinfeld.”

This parade of prime-time cultural revolutions betrayed the actual guiding political attitude of the decade: stasis. The second episode of “The Nineties” turns to the scandal-plagued political life of Bill Clinton. “A new season of American renewal has begun!” beams Clinton, thumb pressed characteristically over a loosely clenched fist, early in the episode. For the Democrats, Bill Clinton seemed like a new hope: charming, charismatic, hip, appearing in sunglasses on Arsenio to blow his saxophone. But like so many of TV’s mock-insurgencies, the Clinton presidency was a coup in terms of aesthetics, and little else.

Beyond his sundry accusations of impropriety  (Whitewater, the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky sex scandals, etc.), Clinton supported the death penalty, “three strikes” sentencing, NAFTA, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and countless other policies that alienated him from his party’s left-progressive wing. Clinton embodied the emerging neoliberal ethic: cozying up to big banks and supporting laissez-faire economic policies that further destabilized the American working and middle classes, while largely avoiding the jingoist militarism, nationalism and family values moralism of ‘80s Reaganomics. Clinton’s American renewal was little more than face-lift.

“The Simpsons,” naturally, nailed this devil-you-know distinction in a 1996 Halloween episode, which saw the bodies of Bill Clinton and then-presidential rival Bob Dole inhabited by slithering extraterrestrials. Indistinguishable in terms of tone and policy, the body snatching alien candidates beguiled the easily duped electorate with nonsensical stump speeches about moving “forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”

A 1992 book by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama summed up the ’90s’ neoliberal approach to politics. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Fukuyama posited that the collapse of the Soviet Union following the Cold War had resolved any grand ideological and historical conflicts in world politics. Liberal democracy and capitalism had won the day. Free market democracy was humanity’s final form. History — or at least the concept of history as a process of sociological evolution and conflict between competing political systems — had run its course.

Following the publication of “The End of History,” Fukuyama became an institutional poli-sci Svengali (John Gray at the New Statesman dubbed him the “court philosopher of global capitalism”), with his ideas holding significant major sway in political circles. The 1990s in America, and during the Clinton presidency, in particular, were a self-styled realization of the “end of history.” In the wake of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall, the president’s position was largely functionary: enable the smooth functioning of markets, and the free flow of capital. Such was the horizon of political thought.

Fukuyama’s book has been subjected to thorough criticism for its shortsightedness — not least of all for the way in which its central argument only serves to consolidate and naturalize the authority of the neoliberal elite. More concretely, 9/11 and its aftermath are often cited as signals of the “revenge of history,” which introduces new, complicated clashes of world-historical ideologies.

Though it’s often touted for its triumphalism, as a cheerleading handbook for the success of Westernized global capitalism, Fukuyama’s end of history theory is suffused with a certain melancholy. There’s one passage, often overlooked, which speaks to the general content and character of the ’90s (and “The Nineties”). “The end of history will be a very sad times,” he writes. “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.”

Our fresh new millennium has been marked, in political terms, by cultural clashes between decadent Western liberalism and militant Islamism (both sides bolstering their positions with the hollow rhetoric of religious zealotry), the abject failure of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the reappearance of white supremacist and ethno-nationalist thinking, the thorough criticism of neoliberalism, and the rise of a new progressive-left (signaled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders), alongside a similarly invigorated form of moderatism referred to as “the extreme centre.” Amid such wild vicissitudes, the placid neoliberal creep of Fukuyama’s “post-history” feels downright quaint.

This is the sort of modern nostalgia that CNN’s “The Nineties” taps into: a melancholy for the relative stability of a decade that was meant to mark the end of history itself. Not only did things seem even-keeled, but everything (a haircut, a GameBoy game about tiny Japanese cartoon monsters, a sitcom episode about waiting for a table) seemed radical, revolutionary and, somehow, deeply profound. We are, perhaps invariably, prone to feeling elegiac for even the hollowness of A Decade About Nothing. It’s particularly because the 1990s abide in our politicians, our ideologies, our prime-time entertainments, blockbusters movies and even, yes, in our faddish toys, designed to ease our fidgety anxiety about the muddled present, and keep us twirling, twirling back into memory of a simpler, stupider past.

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of “This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall” (ECW Press).

The night they busted Stonewall

I was there when gay power came to Sheridan Square

June 28, 1969, was just another night in New York City. I had graduated from West Point only a few weeks earlier and was spending my graduation leave renting a loft down on Broome Street before I departed for three months’ training for the infantry officer basic course at Fort Benning, Georgia. I know . . . I know . . . what was a West Point graduate doing in a loft in SoHo? Well, truth be told, I was freelancing for the Village Voice that summer. I know . . . I know  . . . what was a West Point graduate doing writing for the Village Voice in the summer of 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War? Well, I had started writing letters to the editor of the Voice while I was still a cadet and the year before had published my first couple of pieces in the paper. It wasn’t such a bad fit.

The three founders of the Voice, Dan Wolf, Norman Mailer, and Edwin Fancher, had all been infantrymen in World War II, and in an interesting twist of circumstance, Ed Fancher had served in the 10th Mountain Division under my grandfather, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., in Northern Italy near the end of the war. Still, a West Pointer writing for the Voice was  . . . unusual. But I was writing rock criticism — remember rock criticism? — and covering stuff that was all over the map. My first piece was on Christmas Day at the Dom on St. Marks Place with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm, soon to be made famous at Woodstock, and only the week before I had covered a Billy Graham religious revival at Madison Square Garden.

I wasn’t expecting to find a story when I left my loft at Broome and Crosby and walked toward the West Village, looking to spend the evening drinking at the Lion’s Head, the writer’s bar on Sheridan Square just off Seventh Avenue. It was a hangout for writers like Pete Hamill, then of the New York Post; Joe Flaherty, a former Brooklyn longshoreman currently writing for the Voice; David Markson, a novelist just making his mark; Nick Browne, the Lion’s Head bartender who covered the Village bar scene for the Voice; Fred Exley, who had just published the marvelous memoir “A Fan’s Notes”; and Joel Oppenheimer, the Village poet and graduate of Black Mountain College. Somehow I managed to fit into a scene that is still celebrated as a kind of golden age for Village writers with a drinking problem, or drinkers with a writing problem. Take your pick.

I was coming up Waverly Place from Sixth Avenue approaching Christopher Street when I saw the police car lights flashing. A cop car and a paddy wagon were pulled up in front of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar two doors down from the Lion’s Head, and uniformed policemen were hauling Stonewall patrons out of the bar and putting them into the back of the paddy wagon. A crowd had gathered across the street, and some of the arrestees were pausing at the door and pursing their lips, doing as best as they could to blow kisses to the crowd with their hands cuffed behind their backs. I stopped to watch.

The crowd was young, some of them very young, the Stonewall being known for its underage crowd. In fact, it turned out that the purpose of the raid was to bust a Mob blackmail ring being run out of the Stonewall. The Mob was using underage hustlers to entrap older gay men, mainly from Wall Street, and extract money from them. All the gay bars in the Village were Mob owned. There was a “morals clause” in the New York State Liquor Authority laws that outlawed selling alcohol to “immoral” persons, which the authority arbitrarily defined as gay people, so they wouldn’t issue a liquor license to bars catering to gays. The Mob was happy to oblige, however, setting up illegal bars like the Stonewall and selling overpriced watered-down drinks to gays without a license and paying off the cops to stay open. It would take several years after Stonewall until the authority issued its first license to a bar with gay owners, the Ballroom on West Broadway, followed quickly by Reno Sweeney on 13th Street.

But on this night, gay bars were still illegal, and as they did every time they busted one, the cops were rounding up and harassing the patrons. The crowd outside was loving it as they came out striking poses, but the cops weren’t loving it. This was not the way gay people were supposed to act when they busted a bar. They were supposed to come out of the bar in cuffs with their heads down, hiding their faces in shame. But not this time. This time they were vamping and calling out to friends in the crowd.

The cops started angrily manhandling the arrestees, shoving them out the door and quickly into the paddy wagon. The guys under arrest were back talking the cops, asking them what their problem was, which only got the cops madder. Some of the crowd started throwing coins at the cops, taunting them. Then the cops pushed a drag queen out of the door of the Stonewall. She was apparently well-known on the street and paused to strike a vampy pose, acknowledging the crowd, calling out to a friend that she’d meet him when she got sprung from the Tombs in the morning. One of the cops pushed her roughly with a nightstick. She said something to the cop, he swung at her, she dodged the swing, and two more cops joined in, grabbing her and roughly shoving her into the paddy wagon.

That was it. Coins rained down. The crowd, which was now probably more than 100 strong, yelled at the cops, cursing them. Someone threw a beer can, and more trash rained down. The cops menaced the crowd, telling them to disperse. They didn’t. When the cops moved on them swinging their nightsticks, the crowd pushed back. Someone picked up a cobblestone and threw it through the window. The crowd yelled and rushed the Stonewall. One of the cops slammed the doors to the paddy wagon closed, it sped away, and the cops ran into the Stonewall and closed the door. The crowd was yelling at the cops, daring them to come out. The crowd had gotten bigger.

The whole street in front of the Stonewall was filled. I got up on a trash can next to the 55 Bar to see better. Someone threw another trash can through the Stonewall’s window. Someone else tried to grab my trash can, but I pushed them away. A guy right next to me  lit a newspaper and threw it into the Stonewall window. I could see the cops inside struggling to put out the fire. Gay people were pissed off that the Stonewall had been busted and its patrons had been arrested and harassed by the cops. There was a riot going on. They weren’t going to take it anymore.

My friend the Voice columnist Howard Smith had gone into the Stonewall earlier to talk to the inspector in charge of the raid, Seymour Pine, and was trapped inside with the cops. The crowd kept throwing stuff at the Stonewall’s window. They pried a parking meter loose from the pavement and a couple of guys used it as a battering ram on the door, but the door held. The cops called for reinforcements and a few minutes later, maybe six cop cars came screaming down Christopher Street from Sixth Avenue. Cops jumped out swinging nightsticks and people started running, but they didn’t run far.

Some of them went around the corner of Seventh Avenue down West 9th Street and right on Waverly Place and came up behind the cops, taunting them with catcalls and curses. That split the cops, some chasing one group east down Christopher Street, some pursuing a crowd across the park, spilling onto West 4th  and Grove Streets. Now there were several hundred people in the streets, the word having spread to gay bars around the Village which emptied into the streets and more people joined the protesters. More cops arrived, sirens screaming. The crowd kept dispersing in every direction and coming back to the Stonewall. Nobody was in charge. The only thing everyone knew was that it started at the Stonewall, and they weren’t giving  up.

This went on for several hours until finally the cops got a sufficient number of reinforcements that they could hold the street in front of the bar and rescue those trapped inside. Jay Levin of the New York Post and I went over to the 6th Precinct around 4 a.m. I don’t recall the exact number, but I think something like 14 people were arrested. The cops wouldn’t give out any names, so my Voice story and Jay’s squib in the Post didn’t record who the heroes of Stonewall were. But they were there. I saw them. And I saw the gay people who poured out of the bars and clubs and  took to the streets.

The next afternoon, the Stonewall reopened with a sign in the window saying something like “We got nothing but college boys and girls in here.” By dark, someone had spray-painted “Gay Power” over the sign. Crowds gathered on the street and it was on again. This time, the cops called in the TPF, the Tactical Patrol Force, with their plastic shields and helmets and plexiglass face masks. A lot of good that did. Word had spread to the boroughs and Fire Island that there had been a protest at the Stonewall on Friday night and the crowd was huge. The TPF didn’t know the twisting, crisscrossing streets of the Village at all, so the crowd had a grand time taunting the cops and leading them down alleys like Gay Street and  Waverly Place and around the block.

About the time the cops arrived back at the front of the Stonewall and thought they had things in hand, a chorus line of protesters appeared behind them doing a kick routine, loudly singing, “We are the Stonewall girls!/ We wear our hair in curls!/ We don’t wear underwear!/ We show our pubic hair!” The TPF would wheel around and chase them, only to have another chorus line appear down the block singing out the same taunt. Soon tear gas canisters flew. People used wet rags and cups of water from hydrants to splash themselves and kept going. Every once in a while the cops would manage to grab one of the protesters and beat them with nightsticks and throw them in a car, but that only served to set off the crowd, which grew louder and larger as the night wore on. If the aim of the TPF was to disperse the riot and shame the gay people back into hiding, it didn’t work. By the wee hours, you could see gay guys walking home from Sheridan Square hand in hand. It was something you never saw on the streets until that night.

Sunday night the crowd was smaller and older, many people having arrived back in the Village from weekend places on Fire Island and upstate. The TPF tried to line up, blocking Christopher at Seventh Avenue, but other bars and businesses were open and complained, so they had to let people through. Occasionally, someone would throw trash at the cops and they would chase a group down the street, but there was no tear gas. The riot was over.

I spied the Warhol superstar Taylor Mead and Allen Ginsberg standing across Seventh Avenue and walked over. They had been out of town and wanted to know what happened, so I told them. Both longtime denizens of the East and West Village, they were amazed. Allen said he’d never been in the Stonewall and asked if I’d take him, so we walked over and went inside. The place had obviously been trashed by the cops, but the Mob guys had erected a makeshift bar and were back to selling overpriced drinks. Loud music was playing in the back room and people were dancing. Ginsberg asked me if I would dance with him, so we went back there and bopped around for a couple of songs and left.

Walking east across 8th St. toward Allen’s apartment, he continued to express amazement at what had happened. “The fags have lost that wounded look they always had,” he said of the people he’d seen on the streets. We passed couple after couple holding hands to Allen’s obvious delight. We reached Astor Place and as I turned south headed toward my loft, Allen called out, “Defend the fairies!” As I once observed elsewhere, as of that night, they didn’t need defending anymore.

As for me? Well, the brand-new second lieutenant of infantry went home to the loft and sat down and cluelessly wrote a story about how the “faggots” had rioted and asserted gay power for the first time. My piece, and one by Howard Smith, ran on the front page of the Voice that Wednesday. Jim Fouratt, who had been one of the protesters over the weekend and had quickly formed the Gay Liberation Front to give some political form to what he had clearly identified as a movement, held a demonstration in front of the Voice protesting my use of the word “faggot” to describe gay people. So the very first protest of the new gay movement was against me. The Voice committed to using “gay” from then on, and so did I. Gay power had come to Sheridan Square.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. He can be followed on Facebook at The Rabbit Hole and on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.

Trump on Jackson and the Civil War: Historical ignorance and the decline of the American presidency

By Tom Mackaman
4 May 2017

In recent comments on American history, President Donald Trump conflated the era of Andrew Jackson with the Civil War and insisted that the latter, known then and since as the “irrepressible conflict,” could have been avoided.

“Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump asked in his May 1 interview on Sirius satellite radio. He went on to assert that the Civil War upset his hero Andrew Jackson—who had been dead for 16 years at the war’s outbreak.

Trump said: “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been [president] a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War…. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

It hardly seems necessary to correct Trump’s false statements, which follow February 1 remarks revealing that the president does not know who the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was. As for his assertion that the Civil War was a calamitous error—in other words, that there was nothing historically necessary about the bloodiest war in American history, the “Second American Revolution” that ended slavery—this is a reactionary and discredited interpretation with its own sordid history.

There is a more salient point: The president of the United States is completely ignorant of the basic facts and chronology of his own country’s history, including its most significant event, the Civil War.

From this troubling fact other inescapable conclusions must be drawn. It is clearly impossible for Trump to draw, in any meaningful way, on the experience of history. He cannot possibly place current events in any broader political and historical context. And if American history is so foreign to him, one can be certain he knows nothing of the history of the countries he menaces with trade war or military attack: Mexico, Germany, North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, etc.

In a narrow sense, Trump’s ignorance is unsurprising. Like the billionaire and multi-millionaire investors and “entrepreneurs” he represents, and for whom money-making is the true and only God, the real estate swindler and reality television personality-turned commander in chief surely sees little use for the past. To the extent that he turns to history, it is transactional. Much like the sale or purchase of a hotel, to Trump every historical event is a unique episode to be selected and interpreted impressionistically from the standpoint of immediate gain.

In a broader sense, however, Trump only epitomizes the long-term decline of historical knowledge in the American ruling class. Consider his predecessor in the White House. While it may be true that Barack Obama did not make such clamorous factual errors as Trump, one will search his speeches in vain for a single memorable or profound reference to the past.

Obama’s knowledge of history was hardly less superficial or dishonest than Trump’s. How could it be otherwise? How could the president who, in the bailout of Wall Street, oversaw history’s greatest transfer of wealth from the working class to the wealthy honestly equate himself to Lincoln, who, in the emancipation of the slaves, carried out the largest seizure of private property in world history prior to the Russian Revolution? How could a president who proclaimed his “right” to assassinate without trial those he alone claimed to be terrorists appeal to the democratic legacy of Jefferson and Madison, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, respectively?

To put such names in the same paragraph—Trump and Obama on one side; Lincoln, Jefferson and Madison on the other—is to be reminded of the breathtaking decline in the personnel of the American presidency. Lincoln, though largely self-taught, was an assiduous student of Shakespeare, mathematics and history. Jefferson and Madison ranked among the great thinkers of their day, their huge and well-used libraries filled with volumes on science, philosophy and classical antiquity.

The decline after Lincoln has been steep and protracted. There has not been a real student of history in the White House in the half century since the truncated administration of John Kennedy (1961-1963), who, like Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) twenty years before him, was at least able to convey the appearance of an individual at ease speaking about the past. Before them, in the Progressive Era, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and the professor-turned-president Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) wrote volumes on history and were named presidents of the American Historical Association after their years in the White House.

These presidents’ use of history was always in the service of an American ruling class, whose revolutionary days had died with Lincoln. For example, Wilson, in his historical scholarship, promoted the myth that the Civil War was a mistake—a false interpretation that Donald Trump now embraces. Wilson did so as part of a larger academic project that sought to bury the revolutionary and egalitarian significance of the Civil War. This was done in the context of the emergence of the US as an imperialist power waging bloody colonial wars abroad while conducting industrial warfare against the working class at home.

Even so, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt sought to promote the idea that their policies were the outcome of the progressive development of US and world history, a process in which they imagined American capitalism and its governmental forms would go on playing a special, even messianic role. They mustered their idealistic interpretations to contend with scientific socialism, whose materialist approach to history, discovered by Karl Marx, attracted intellectuals, artists and growing numbers of workers and youth.

For these and other reasons, presidents in an earlier period promoted the study of history in the classroom. Not so today. It is not just that the White House in more recent decades has been occupied by individuals ignorant of history, including some whose ignorance was of historical dimensions. The presidency is now a “bully pulpit” in the attack on the teaching of history, as well as art and music, in the elementary and high schools, colleges and universities.

Compare Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks on teaching history and art, delivered at the American Historical Association annual conference in 1912, to Obama’s insipid comment on the same subject, delivered in 2014.

Roosevelt: “History, taught for a directly and immediately useful purpose to pupils and the teachers of pupils, is one of the necessary features of a sound education in democratic citizenship… few inscriptions teach us as much history as certain forms of literature that do not consciously aim at teaching history at all. The inscriptions of Hellenistic Greece in the third century before our era do not, all told, give us so lifelike a view of the ordinary life of the ordinary men and women who dwelt in the great Hellenistic cities of the time as does the fifteenth idyll of Theocritus.”

Obama: “[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

It is not that Roosevelt overlooked the necessity of industrial work. But he paid lip service to the ideal, and backed it up with a degree of government funding, that broad access to history and culture was a positive good. In word and in deed, the recent presidents—Trump, Obama, George W. Bush, etc.— attack the teaching of history and the idea of a liberal education. Educational “reforms” such as Obama’s “Race to the Top” have brought layoffs for tens of thousands of social studies teachers and blocked a generation of history, literature, music and art majors from finding work.

Here it must be added that the attack on history has also been waged from within the walls of the Ivory Tower. Highly paid practitioners of postmodernism and identity politics, many of them the leading “theorists” and most highly compensated professors at elite universities—not only in the US, but also in Great Britain, France and Germany—insist that there is no objectively understandable history at all. It is all simply a “narrative” that one creates or discards for present purposes. The archival record left behind by past generations is treated in the most cavalier manner and the pursuit in history of objectivity, facts and truth—terms that are inevitably placed within quotation marks in postmodern texts—is treated with contempt.

If the postmodernist premise about history is true, then why should Trump’s deeply false “narrative” of American history be less valid than any other? Or, for that matter, German historian Jörg Baberowski’s “narrative” of twentieth century history, which relativizes the crimes of the Third Reich? How is Trump’s argument that the Civil War was all a big mistake fundamentally different from that of the advocates of identity politics, such as Michael Eric Dyson, who view American history as a story of unchanging and unending “white racism?”

It might appear ironic that as history closes in on the ruling class, its understanding of its own history erodes, a process embodied in the American presidency itself.

It is not at all ironic. History is a most unwelcome guest at the lavish banquet where the rich gorge themselves at the expense of the working masses. Its most basic lessons must fill the billionaires and their politicians with dread: That times change and at certain points the oppressed revolutionize their times, that masses of people can learn from history and assimilate its strategic experiences, and that the richest and seemingly most timeless oligarchies have fallen—among them the Capetian Dynasty of the ancien regime in France, the Romanov Dynasty of Tsarist Russia, and, of course, the old slave-owning elite with which Trump so identifies.

Hillary Clinton’s insulting AIDS revisionism

Why her praise of the Reagans feels like such a slap in the face

The Democratic frontrunner says Ronald and Nancy Reagan brought attention to the crisis. History says otherwise.

Hillary Clinton's insulting AIDS revisionism: Why her praise of the Reagans feels like such a slap in the face
Hillary Clinton (Credit: Reuters/Randall Hill)

Sometimes the mistakes Hillary Clinton makes are truly baffling. Take the colossal mistake she made on Friday when she said the following about the late Nancy Reagan and AIDS while appearing on MSNBC:

“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation. When before, nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience, and people began saying, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’”

The mind reels. It is difficult to imagine a more historically inaccurate and insulting way to describe the Reagan approach to AIDS than what Hillary Clinton said.

She is right in one respect: It was indeed very difficult for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. A large part of the reason it was so difficult was because the Reagan administration essentially refused to acknowledge that the AIDS crisis was even happening until well after thousands of people had already died from the disease. Reagan’s silence on the issue is so well-documented that it’s hard to comprehend exactly what Hillary Clinton was thinking when she praised his handling of the crisis. But since she apparently needs a reminder of the basics, let’s review some of them.

We could talk about the infamous, nauseatingly homophobic White House press briefing from October 1982, when Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes and a roomful of reporters literally laughed off a question about AIDS, with Speakes joking, “I don’t have it, do you?” Speakes added that he didn’t think the White House knew anything about AIDS, which was undoubtedly true.

We could talk about the fact that Reagan didn’t so much as utter the word “AIDS” until 1985, and didn’t give a speech about AIDS until 1987, by which point it had killed at least 40,000 people in the United States alone.

We could talk about the fact that Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton’s great low-key hero, decided to be so low-key in her approach to AIDS that she wouldn’t even help her personal friend Rock Hudson get treatment when he was dying in 1985.

These things are so indisputable in 2016 that even Teen Vogue ran a scathing article about Nancy Reagan’s shameful lack of attention to AIDS. Apparently, Teen Vogue has a better handle on the history of the 1980s than Hillary Clinton, who was the First Lady of Arkansas for virtually the entire decade.

Clinton’s comments aren’t just a blatant misrepresentation of the historical record. They’re also a slap in the face to the people who actually did jumpstart the national dialogue around AIDS — namely, the activists whose militancy, fearlessness and love of their community forced the issue into the national agenda. It seems that, in Hillary Clinton’s world, their work, which paved the way for virtually every gain the LGBT community has made in the past 30 years, meant little when stacked up against the efforts of the Reagans.

It’s possible that what Clinton really meant was that AIDS wasn’t an issue for people like her until the president of the United States started talking about it. She has long had a somewhat tortured relationship with the gay rights movement. Her attempts to defend her past support of DOMA and opposition to same-sex marriage have become the stuff of awkward legend. But just because she might have spent years in the dark about what was happening with AIDS doesn’t mean that she’s allowed to distort history and insult the people who died because the president and first lady she had such kind words for couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger to help, as well as the people who put their lives on the line to stand up to the Reagan administration’s bigotry and ignorance. She would be wise to retract her statement in full, and fast.

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

Bernie Sanders is history’s champion: Inside the centuries-long battle between inequality & democracy

The dire effects of inequality are nothing new. A look back in time illustrates why this fight is so important now

Bernie Sanders is history's champion: Inside the centuries-long battle between inequality & democracy
(Credit: Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/AP)

Why does economic inequality matter? This is a question that many on the right continue to ask as inequality continues to soar. While Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has made a campaign out of denouncing the grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality in America, hardly a peep has been heard from Republican candidates on the issue. And when the issue does come up on the right, it is usually to defend inequality by saying things like, “the fundamental producer of income inequality is freedom” (a declaration from George Will in a didactic piece last month), or that the American poor are the “envy of the world,” which America’s richest congressman, Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said earlier this year.

Of course, economic inequality is hardly a new phenomenon, and neither is the apologia that comes along with it. In the United States, this debate goes all the way back to its founding, before the country became industrialized — which would create immense wealth concentration among a few industrialists. Among the founding fathers, wealth inequality was mostly a concern because of the instabilities that came along with it (as well as the inevitable political inequalities).

As with most things, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had different views on inequality, partly because Jefferson believed in a romantic agrarian society, while Hamilton was at the forefront of America’s industrialization. Even though Hamilton was outspokenly anti-democratic, he saw the dangers of great concentration of wealth, and believed a strong middle class was “needed to become energetic customers of businesses in the entire economy.” Jefferson, on the other hand, believed in widespread ownership of land, so that each person could have the “property of his labor.” (Jefferson’s view of property was greatly influenced by the Lockean theory that property comes from one’s exertion of labor on natural resources.) While in France, he wrote to James Madison:

“I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and practicable one.”

While Jefferson’s view of property was a product of his time (preceding industrialization), his view of economic inequality remains important when considering what kind of balance between liberalism and democracy the founders had in mind. The consensus among the founders seemed to have been that the larger the inequality in property, the greater the threat to the Republic and liberty itself. John Adams advocated the “distribution of public lands to the landless to create broad-based ownership of property,” while in 1792, Congress passed a law subsidizing the cod fishing industry, giving five-eighths of the subsidy to the fisherman and the remainder to the ship owners — but only if the owners shared profits. (If Fox News had been around in those days, they’d have probably labeled the founding fathers job-killing socialists).

Even the father of classical economics, whose invisible hand is promoted by all free marketeers of today as an ultimate truth, spoke out against economic inequality in “The Wealth of Nations”:

“Servants, laborers, and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.”

In a post-Citizens United America, the vast economic inequality of today directly challenges political equality (the American political tradition has historically considered economic and political inequalities to be intertwined). It is clear that those with higher incomes and levels of wealth, who can afford to donate large sums to political campaigns and hire lobbyists to further their interests in Washington, have much more political power than the majority of people who do not have money to throw around. Studies have found that in the United States, where inequality is among the highest in the developed world, “political institutions and public policy are indeed most heavily influenced by the policy preferences of the wealthiest segments of the citizenry, while middle and low income citizens have virtually no impact on politics.”

While voter suppression of poorer Americans and minorities is becoming increasingly common around the country, in theory, every citizen is supposed to have equal political power (with their vote), and elected officials are supposed to represent the majority. But this is clearly not the case. In a government where representatives rely on large donations to run political campaigns, political power will inevitably be disproportionately held by the wealthiest.

Not only does inequality and its close relative of poverty create political inequality and social instability, but economic instability. It should not be taken as a coincidence that the two biggest economic crises of the past hundred years occurred during the greatest periods of inequality. As Thomas Piketty writes in his acclaimed book on inequality, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century”:

“In my view, there is absolutely no doubt that the increase of inequality in the United States contributed to the nation’s financial instability. The reason is simple: one consequence of increasing inequality was virtual stagnation of the purchasing power of the lower and middle classes in the United States, which inevitably made it more likely that modest households would take on debt, especially since unscrupulous banks and financial intermediaries, freed from regulation and eager to earn good yields on the enormous saving injected into the system by the well-to-do, offered credit on increasingly good terms.”

Most of those on the right shrug off income and wealth inequality as a natural result of varying innate abilities — the capitalist apologist Herbert Spencer popularized this notion when he transferred Darwin’s theory of biological evolution into the social realm, with his famous saying, “survival of the fittest.” All humans obviously differ in aptitude and attitude, but this idea that all inequalities of today simply come from innate differences is hilariously ahistorical, and it completely ignores the economic institutions of today. In our globalized world of capitalism, where massive corporations have immeasurable power on governments and the ownership of property and capital (productive and intellectual) tend to determine one’s wealth, this notion is rather old-fashioned. Indeed, it had more truth to it in the preindustrial time of Thomas Jefferson, when individuals toiled on their land (many, albeit, with slave labor) and artisans individually crafted products or provided services. It is as if those on the right, particularly libertarians, believe in a kind of lemonade-stand capitalism, where every individual is economically autonomous — which is obviously not the case.

For many people, economic inequality is considered a moral issue, as is social/political inequality and poverty. Though the two latter are undoubtedly moral issues, it is debatable whether income and wealth inequality are “morally wrong,” or how much inequality should be put up with in a society (there will always be a certain degree of inequality in an open society — how excessive this inequality is is the main concern). This is a philosophical question that cannot be answered here, but there is little doubt that economic inequality creates societal and economic instability, and causes political inequality as well — which is indeed a moral issue.

Sen. Sanders has put the excessive inequalities that have grown rapidly over the past 40 years at the forefront of the 2016 election, and the debate over inequality will only become more contentious in the coming year. Sanders (and Clinton, to a degree) has been very vocal about how inequality has corrupted American democracy, and this has created a growing movement among the discontent (particularly the young) — but it would be even more effective if he discussed the other practical problems that economic inequality inevitably causes. Social and economic stability was the main concern of the founding fathers and the progressives and New Dealers who came after them. Today, challenging the inequality that has grown is not only a question of fairness and democracy, but a practical question of social cohesion.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

The Hitler gun control lie

Gun rights activists who cite the dictator as a reason against gun control have their history dangerously wrong

The Hitler gun control lie

This week, people were shocked when the Drudge Report posted a giant picture of Hitler over a headline speculating that the White House will proceed with executive orders to limit access to firearms. The proposed orders are exceedingly tame, but Drudge’s reaction is actually a common conservative response to any invocation of gun control.

The NRA, Fox News, Fox News (again), Alex Jones, email chains, Joe “the Plumber” WurzelbacherGun Owners of America, etc., all agree that gun control was critical to Hitler’s rise to power. Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (“America’s most aggressive defender of firearms ownership”) is built almost exclusively around this notion, popularizing posters of Hitler giving the Nazi salute next to the text: “All in favor of ‘gun control’ raise your right hand.”

In his 1994 book, NRA head Wayne LaPierre dwelled on the Hitler meme at length, writing: “In Germany, Jewish extermination began with the Nazi Weapon Law of 1938, signed by Adolf Hitler.”

And it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense: If you’re going to impose a brutal authoritarian regime on your populace, better to disarm them first so they can’t fight back.

Unfortunately for LaPierre et al., the notion that Hitler confiscated everyone’s guns is mostly bogus. And the ancillary claim that Jews could have stopped the Holocaust with more guns doesn’t make any sense at all if you think about it for more than a minute.

University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt explored this myth in depth ina 2004 article published in the Fordham Law Review. As it turns out, the Weimar Republic, the German government that immediately preceded Hitler’s, actually hadtougher gun laws than the Nazi regime. After its defeat in World War I, and agreeing to the harsh surrender terms laid out in the Treaty of Versailles, the German legislature in 1919 passed a law that effectively banned all private firearm possession, leading the government to confiscate guns already in circulation. In 1928, the Reichstag relaxed the regulation a bit, but put in place a strict registration regime that required citizens to acquire separate permits to own guns, sell them or carry them.

The 1938 law signed by Hitler that LaPierre mentions in his book basically does the opposite of what he says it did. “The 1938 revisions completely deregulated the acquisition and transfer of rifles and shotguns, as well as ammunition,” Harcourt wrote. Meanwhile, many more categories of people, including Nazi party members, were exempted from gun ownership regulations altogether, while the legal age of purchase was lowered from 20 to 18, and permit lengths were extended from one year to three years.

The law did prohibit Jews and other persecuted classes from owning guns, but this should not be an indictment of gun control in general. Does the fact that Nazis forced Jews into horrendous ghettos indict urban planning? Should we eliminate all police officers because the Nazis used police officers to oppress and kill the Jews? What about public works — Hitler loved public works projects? Of course not. These are merely implements that can be used for good or ill, much as gun advocates like to argue about guns themselves. If guns don’t kill people, then neither does gun control cause genocide (genocidal regimes cause genocide).

Besides, Omer Bartov, a historian at Brown University who studies the Third Reich, notes that the Jews probably wouldn’t have had much success fighting back. “Just imagine the Jews of Germany exercising the right to bear arms and fighting the SA, SS and the Wehrmacht. The [Russian] Red Army lost 7 million men fighting the Wehrmacht, despite its tanks and planes and artillery. The Jews with pistols and shotguns would have done better?” he told Salon.

Proponents of the theory sometimes point to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as evidence that, as Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano put it, “those able to hold onto their arms and their basic right to self-defense were much more successful in resisting the Nazi genocide.” But as the Tablet’s Michael Moynihan points out, Napolitano’s history (curiously based on a citation of work by French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson) is a bit off. In reality, only about 20 Germans were killed, while some 13,000 Jews were massacred. The remaining 50,000 who survived were promptly sent off to concentration camps.

Robert Spitzer, a political scientist who studies gun politics and chairs the political science department at SUNY Cortland, told Mother Jones’ Gavin Aronsen that the prohibition on Jewish gun ownership was merely a symptom, not the problem itself. “[It] wasn’t the defining moment that marked the beginning of the end for Jewish people in Germany. It was because they were persecuted, were deprived of all of their rights, and they were a minority group,” he explained.

Meanwhile, much of the Hitler myth is based on an infamous quote falsely attributed to the Fuhrer, which extols the virtue of gun control:

This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!

The quote has been widely reproduced in blog posts and opinion columns about gun control, but it’s “probably a fraud and was likely never uttered,” according to Harcourt. “This quotation, often seen without any date or citation at all, suffers from several credibility problems, the most significant of which is that the date often given [1935] has no correlation with any legislative effort by the Nazis for gun registration, nor would there have been any need for the Nazis to pass such a law, since gun registration laws passed by the Weimar government were already in effect,” researchers at the useful website GunCite note.

“As for Stalin,” Bartov continued, “the very idea of either gun control or the freedom to bear arms would have been absurd to him. His regime used violence on a vast scale, provided arms to thugs of all descriptions, and stripped not guns but any human image from those it declared to be its enemies. And then, when it needed them, as in WWII, it took millions of men out of the Gulags, trained and armed them and sent them to fight Hitler, only to send back the few survivors into the camps if they uttered any criticism of the regime.”

Bartov added that this misreading of history is not only intellectually dishonest, but also dangerous.  “I happen to have been a combat soldier and officer in the Israeli Defense Forces and I know what these assault rifles can do,” he said in an email.

He continued: “Their assertion that they need these guns to protect themselves from the government — as supposedly the Jews would have done against the Hitler regime — means not only that they are innocent of any knowledge and understanding of the past, but also that they are consciously or not imbued with the type of fascist or Bolshevik thinking that they can turn against a democratically elected government, indeed turn their guns on it, just because they don’t like its policies, its ideology, or the color, race and origin of its leaders.”

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon’s political reporter. Email him at, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

Joan Didion vs. mythic America

The evolution of a literary legend

Biographer Tracy Daugherty tells Salon about Didion’s political transformation during the Reagan era

Joan Didion vs. mythic America: The evolution of a literary legend
(Credit: AP)

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

These were the words Joan Didion famously wrote in her seminal 1968 essay, “The White Album.”

But as the emerging counterculture of the late 1960s gave way to the hedonism of the 1970s — where rising crime rates, violence and the darker side of drug culture began to rear its ugly ahead in American public and private life — Didion pretty quickly began to doubt all the stories she had ever told herself.

If Didion began her career as a journalist who, rather naively, placed her trust in the power of American mythologies — namely, American exceptionalism with the west as the final frontier. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, she began to distrust those fairy-tale fables entirely, searching instead for meaning that was hidden underneath complicated political power games, which increasingly began to resemble a television soap opera rather than an egalitarian democratic process.

As Didion began to write about politics from outside U.S. borders, she started to understand that much of the public rhetoric from American politicians was camouflaged in the cosy language of symbolism, where the cold-hearted reality of murder, bombing and ongoing war — conducted in the name of so-called American freedom — was the very thing that made affluence and prosperity within the United States’ own borders possible.

In her essays especially, Didion works out of a classic European tradition that is highly influenced by Montaigne and others. In this discursive and personal literary style she is able to admit her limitations to readers: attempting to figure out how the society she is living in is constantly evolving. For Didion, honesty, truth, language and authenticity are just as important in making a journalistic piece work successfully as winning an argument is.

In “The Last Love Song,” author Tracy Daugherty gives us a meticulously researched biography of Didion that functions as both an exploration of late 20th century America cultural values, as well as an incredible insight into the life of an extremely talented woman of letters.

Despite attempting to get Didion’s cooperation and approval for the book, Daugherty had to approach his subject in complete isolation. I caught up with the biographer to discuss the paradoxes of Didion’s writing, why she feels so at home in the essay genre and why her journalism is far more compelling than her prose fiction. 

Did Joan Didion believe that language gave her a certain amount of power in life?

Yes. Didion once said the only time in her life when she feels in control is sitting at the typewriter, because then she can control the story. And her language is so tight, powerful and direct that you can see on the page how hard she works to maintain that control. For Didion, whatever happens in life, you can always form it into a narrative which you can control.

Something seemed to change in Joan Didion as a writer during the 1980s: what was it?

She became more politically aware. Earlier on in her career she had been asserting the loss of narrative. By the 1980s, however, Didion believed the collective mythology that many Americans had bought into was a bit of a distraction. And that it doesn’t tell us what is really going on beneath the surface, which is people in political power involved in covert activities.

Didion began to find in her writing a more accurate way to describe the political culture. 

Can you talk about the paradoxes in Didion’s writing? You suggest her real interest is language: its inaccuracies, illusions and the way words imply their opposites? In this sense, was she influenced by the work of Orwell ?

Very much so. That is what is at the heart of Didion’s writing; it’s always about language.

She believes we have to use language that is accurate and true. Otherwise our politics will bamboozle us and get us in deep deep trouble.

Would you agree that the honest nature of Didion’s writing where she seems to admit her limitations as a writer is why readers feel so at home with her work?

I think so. It’s disarming and even charming when she begins by admitting her own confusion, saying, “I don’t know what this is about.” And we get to see the movement of her mind on the page.

This is another attractive quality to her work. She doesn’t begin with a fixed answer and say, “Here is my thesis and I will prove it.” It’s more her saying, “I don’t know what is going on here so let me talk about it for a while and figure it out together.” That really draws readers in.

Also, I don’t see her as a confessional writer. She is certainly confessing on the surface: to her confusion, neurosis and faults. But she withholds as much as she reveals. She is a candid writer, but definitely not a confessional one.

Is this the tradition of the essay, where a writer is allowed to kind of wander off and just think about things, rather than try to provide answers?

Yes, I see Didion in the same tradition as, say, Montaigne, in that essays tends to meander and go off on tangents rather than hammer home a specific argument. Which is not to say that she doesn’t have judgments and ideas that she wants to get across. But she is more interested in exploring the side path. And that draws readers in: allowing us to participate in her thinking process rather than be lectured.

Didion claims that her politics have never changed. Would you agree with this?

It certainly appears at first glance as though she began as a conservative and ended up as a liberal. She claims that actually, she hadn’t changed, but the world changed. In the 1980s what really galvanised her [to move towards a more liberal persuasion] was the rise of Ronald Reagan in California. She had interviewed Nancy Reagan, and knew the Reagans. She thought they were not real conservatives: that they were false and manipulated their image. And that’s why she became politically concious. She was watching the image-making: how politicians manufacture an image of themselves that’s not true to life.

But Didion was part of that world herself. Was there a sense of personal guilt from her side?

I think so. Her critics charge her with living in a world of privilege, and it’s certainly true. That is part of who she is. So she really does know the world she is writing about. For Didion, it’s not so much that she dislikes privilege, it’s that she wants people to be honest and authentic. She bristles at people who try to manufacture a false image.

You write in the book that blind romanticism and political realism are two extremes in Didion’s life. Was it a juxtaposition between these two things that made her work so great?

Well, Didion romanticized where she came from. She also romanticized certain types of people.

It really goes back to this notion of myth-making. And as a young child she really bought into a lot of the American myths. Then during the 1980s, when she began covering the political campaigns for the New York Review of Books, she saw through a lot of the myths, into the realities of how power worked. So she made the shift from being a blind romantic to being a very pragmatic political thinker.

Can you talk about Didion’s relationship with the New York Review of Books, and how it sparked perhaps the most productive phase of her career? What did Robert Silvers, her editor there, intuitively grasp in her as a great writer and social commentator?  

He saw that Didion was not ideological in her writing. And also that she was willing to take an argument and consider it from different points of view. That appealed to him, as did Didion’s desire for authenticity. And whatever a person’s political persuasion was, Didion would always try and hold that person to a principled truth. She would puncture any mythologies that they would try to create. Robert Silvers was probably her most astute editor. And Didion credits him for her political education. Didion always looks for the contradictions and wants to get beneath the spin and beneath the surface. So she says, you look at the official record, and then you start to take it apart. That’s where the story is for her.

It’s almost like deconstruction theory?

Yes. This goes back to her university eduction, which meant reading a book very closely and analyzing it, sentence by sentence. That was the way she learned to read literature. And then she turned around and said: that is the way I read everything. She read journalism, fashion, people’s facial expression, even all of life that way.

Everything for Didion becomes a text, and she analyses it. That’s her way of approaching most stories.

During the 1980s when Didion travelled and reported from outside of America, did her political outlook shift, particularly spending time in Latin America?

Well, her fiction during this period is a good way of getting into her non-fiction, because she starts setting her fiction in hotels. But yeah, she did begin to look at America from a different angle.

She begins to think, once you get outside of these borders, you start to look back at it. Those hotel settings are fascinating because they are very public places, but where intimate activities take place too. This is really the intersection where Didion’s work becomes interesting: where a private life interacts with a public life. And she has become that figure. She is very public but also very private. So those hotels are perfect settings because the public and private overlap.

You seem to imply in this biography that Didion has a kind of distance from grief, after both the death of her husband and her daughter. Why do you think this might be?

Shock was certainly part of what she was experiencing. But it may also go back to this idea that Didion is a candid writer but not a confessional one. She has a reputation of being a confessional writer, but really, she is not. She confesses only what she needs to in order to set up an intellectual argument. In this way, she tends to approach the world intellectually rather than emotionally.

Her first response is to analyze, and not to wallow in the feeling of it. So when she feels grief or shock, she is partially protecting herself by putting on this aloof persona. Her natural inclination is not to say, “What am I feeling?” but instead to say, “What does this mean?” I think she wants to analyze things rather than experience them. 

If we are to rate Didion the novelist vs Didion the social commentator/journalist, what kind of comparisons do you think we can make?

Well, her journalism is her real strength. The fiction is just not as strong as the journalism.

This may be because Didion doesn’t really delve into the emotional lives of her characters so much, so her novels are very much intellectual constructs. And that is appealing to certain readers.

But many other readers want to read a novel so that they can think emotionally into another world. And Didion doesn’t offer that. Her best fiction is a rare thing in American literature, in that it is overtly political — particularly her novels of the 1980s.

For example “Democracy,” which is about the fall of Saigon, and “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which is about the last years of the Iran Contra scandal, are both icy books, emotional speaking. But they are very sharp politically.