Philip’s Complaint, or Liberal political thinking in a nutshell

I’ve never been able to read Philip Roth’s novels because I cannot stand his navel gazing (or should I say penis-gazing?) characters. They are, for me, profoundly uninteresting — I find them infantile and narcissistic in their concerns. Perhaps my the problem with his writing is his thinking. Why do I say this? Because Roth unloads about politics in Spiegel interview, and pretty much highlights everything that’s infantile and narcissistic about liberal thinking with regard to the Bush administration and the upcoming elections:

Roth: Unfortunately, yeah. I didn’t, until about two weeks ago — until then it wasn’t real. Then I watched the New Hampshire primary debates, and the Republicans are so unbelievably impossible. I watched the Democratic ones and became interested in Obama. I think I’ll vote for him.

SPIEGEL: What made you interested in Obama?

Roth: I’m interested in the fact that he’s black. I feel the race issue in this country is more important than the feminist issue. I think that the importance to blacks would be tremendous. He’s an attractive man, he’s smart, he happens to be tremendously articulate. His position in the Democratic Party is more or less okay with me. And I think it would be important to American blacks if he became president.

SPIEGEL: It could change society, couldn’t it?

Roth: Yes, it could. It would say something about this country, and it would be a marvelous thing. I don’t know whether it’s going to happen. I rarely vote for anybody who wins. It’s going to be the kiss of death if you write in your magazine that I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. Then he’s finished!


SPIEGEL: Do you actually believe that Obama could change Washington or could change politics?

Roth: I’m interested in what merely his presence would be. You know, who he is, where he comes from, that is the change. That is the same thing with Hillary Clinton, just who she is would create a gigantic change. As for all that other rhetoric about change, change, change — it’s pure semantics, it doesn’t mean a thing. They’ll respond to particular situations as they arise.

You got that? Republicans should lose because they’re “so unbelievably impossible,” as fatuous a statement about national politics as I’ve ever heard. And Obama should win solely because he’s black and “articulate,” the favorite liberal code word for a black who isn’t an embarrassing representative of his race. Incidentally, my last, italicized phrase is deliberate, and harks back to the acceptance speech Hattie McDaniel made, at the studio’s urging, when she accepted her Oscar for her performance in Gone With The Wind, the first Oscar ever awarded to a black actress:

“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting for one of the awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.” (Emphasis mine.)

You do appreciate, don’t you, the fact that Roth is completely uninterested in Obama’s abilities, background, politic beliefs, political experience, associates, ideology, indeed anything of substance? All that matters to Roth is that Obama is a credit to his race. How utterly embarrassing that our great tradition of democracy should be reduced to this kind of inane banality.

That same absence of deep thinking colors Roth’s commentary about Bush. Keep in mind that Roth, via his “profound” (but humorous) books, is considered one of the great social thinkers of the Baby Boomer generation. That “intellectualism,” however, assuming it actually exists, abandons him when it comes to describing why Bush is bad. He throws in a few conclusory statements about the war and global warming, but he just can’t get a handle on substance. (As an aside, we’ll assume, just to be nice, that this interview was recorded before recent news that the Greenies’ purported remedies are actually speeding global warming. Of course, that may not be a problem, because we’re possibly entering a period of solar induced global cooling. But let me undigress.) What you really have to do is just take Roth’s word for it that Bush is bad, really, really, really bad. Really bad.

SPIEGEL: What will remain of the current president, George W. Bush? Could he be forgotten once he leaves office?

Roth: He was too horrendous to be forgotten. There will be an awful lot written about this. And there’s a lot to be written about the war. There’s a lot to be written about what he did with Reaganism, since he went much further than Reagan. So he won’t be forgotten. Someone has said he’s the worst American president we’ve ever had. I think that’s true.


Roth: Well, the biggest thing would be the war, the deceptions surrounding the entrance into the war. The absolute cynicism that surrounds the deception. The cost of the war, the Treasury and the lives of the Americans. It’s hideous. There is nothing quite like it. The next thing would be the attitude towards global warming, which is a global crisis, and they were utterly indifferent, if not hostile, to any attempt to address it. And so on and so on and so on and so on. So he’s done a lot of harm.

Of course, it’s not all Bush’s fault he’s so appalling. It’s your fault and my fault too. That’s because we’re brutal. Did you know that?

SPIEGEL: Since your book is set in that week during the 2004 elections, can you explain why Americans voted for Bush once again?

Roth: I suspect it was the business of being in a war and not wanting to change, and political stupidity. Why does anybody elect anybody? I thought highly of John Kerry when he began, but he couldn’t stand up against Bush. The Democrats aren’t brutes, which is too bad, because the Republicans are brutes. Brutes win.

Funnily enough, a lot of the brutal behavior, lately, seems to be coming from the rank and file Democrats, not the Republicans. An easy example is the fact that Democratic speakers on the circuit don’t need to hire bodyguards. Republicans do. That’s because Republicans get physicall attacked when they speak on college campuses. Ann Coulter was attacked. College Republican student organizations are attacked. Condi Rice was threatened by a Code Pink loony tunes who got within inches of her. The list goes on and on and on. You can add your own, but you’ll be hard put to find corollaries on the other side; that is, conservatives attacking liberals. But back to Roth….

“Brutes.” “Hideous.” “There is nothing quite like it.” This man, this spokesman for a generation, clearly hasn’t thought beyond the Democratic parties’ last list of talking points. He’s got all the nasty conclusions of the kindergarten set, but with a more sophisticated vocabulary:

“Mommy, I hate Tommy.”

“Why, darling?”

“Because he’s a meanie.”

“But what makes him a meanie?”

“He does mean things.”

“What mean things does he do, darling?”

“He’s mean to me.”

And so on, ad nauseum. It’s tolerable in a child because you know they’ll attain reason and leave that phrase behind. It’s intolerable in a literary lion, a spokesman for his generation, who has never been able to emerge from his prolonged and clearly debilitating adolescence.

I’ve vented my spleen, so I’m going to leave the last words to that great philosopher, Bugs Bunny: “What a maroon. What a nincowpoop.”

UPDATE: I’ve switched to a new server, so you can feel free to look around here or check out my new site, which not only has the old stuff, but also will move forward into the future with all my new material.

UPDATE II:  I rejiggered the first paragraph of this post to reflect a point Boran made which, when I finally understood it, was a good one.


24 Responses

  1. […] Bookworm has another example from the desert. […]

  2. […] they see us Posted on February 10, 2008 by Bookworm In my post about Philip Roth, I pointed out that he characterizes Republicans as “brutal” (unlike Democrats, of […]

  3. BW,
    Roth’s comments are par for the course in Europe. Every Hollywood type, writer, artist and silicone-enhanced airhead who visits the continent delivers such drivel as an admision fee. Those who bravely speak truth to power are certainly conscious that catering to the prejudice of potential consumers will be reflected in the bottom line. They also feed their errroneous belief that such behavior makes them relevant. They may receive an award, as did Susan Sontag, or they may be remembered as icons long after Americans have ceased to seek their counsel, as in the case of Norman Mailer. It’s all about being in the in crowd in a place where the common man must bow before his betters. Yep, they want to get up there with Michael Moore.

  4. This business of race intrigues me some times.

    I cannot help being curious as to how much “race” you need to put you in one category or another. In the case of Obama, we know that he had a white mother and a black father. So, apparently that makes him black–at least when it is convenient to be black. We have various stories about the culture that dominated his childhood. Since his black father abandoned him early on, I am not sure why we would assume it was a black culture, more that an Indonesian or white one. In fact we do know that except when he was in Indonesia (and educated as a Muslim?), he was apparently educated in a predominately white environment.

    I have tentatively concluded that a person’s race in circumstances such as this often what is most advantageous. I have a good friend who is about one-fourth Cherokee. She has never lived in the American Indian culture. Other than strikingly black hair she has few physical characteristics that would identify her as Indian. Yet it is to her advantage to be defined as American Indian because the U.S. Government sees fit to pay her a monthly stipend; presumably to indemnify her for her (non-existent) suffering. (That is a hoot because her husband is a retired Captain from a major airline and they are very well-off). I am desperarately trying to confirm that my father’s family has a certain per centage of Plains Indian blood (which I suspect) because although I am of a conservative nature, I do love government checks.

    So, Roth wants Obama to be elected because he is black. I cannot help but wonder if his maternal family every wonders when and how they became totally discounted. I would guess that it happened about the time he decided to enter politics, or perhaps when he completed his application to Harvard.

    Well, I just wonder when we will start evaluating Mr Obama on his credentials and his governing principles (as G. W. Bush phrased it so well on Fox News Sunday this A.M.).

  5. […] In my post about Philip Roth, I pointed out that he characterizes Republicans as “brutal” (unlike Democrats, of course). I just saw the same theme crop up in an article about the insanity that promises to envelope Berkeley’s town council meeting on Tuesday as the town considers rescinding its ill-thought out letter to the Marines. To begin with, there may be a lot of people there: Hundreds of protesters from across the country and the political spectrum are expected to descend on City Hall with bullhorns, drums, banners and plenty of vitriol in anticipation of the City Council’s debate over the Marines’ recruiting station in town. […]

  6. Book, Philip Roth was born in 1933, which means he isn’t anywhere close to being a Baby Boomer. The year that he published Goodbye, Columbus, the oldest Boomers (using the orthodox definition as beginning in 1946) were just old enough to be Bar/Bat Mitzvahed.

  7. You’re right, neocon, that he’s too old to be a Baby Boomer, but I, on the tail end of the Boomer generation, always understood my fellow Boomers to believe he was one of theirs. Maybe I just misunderstood! 🙂

  8. BW,

    Davids Medienkritik also deals with Roth and has an interesting comment on German resistance to differing viewpoints.

  9. Excuse me, but have you ever read anything by Philip Roth? Your comments about his work are risible. You say that Roth never emerged from adolescence, but you yourself write like you’re in kindergarten.

    By the way, I am a conservative and disagree completely with Roth’s political views. But I’m not stupid enough to say that Michael Jordan was a lousy basketball player because he endorsed Bill Bradley. Separate Roth’s art from his politics, genius.

  10. Boran, it doesn’t work to castigate me by asking “have you ever read anything by Philip Roth?” as if to shame me for not reading something, when it’s apparent that you haven’t read what I’ve written. If you had, you would have seen that, in my very first sentence I say I haven’t read anything by Philip Roth. I’ve tried, Lord knows I’ve tried, but I find him unreadable. His writing style and outlook on life so quickly offend and bore me (and that’s my purely subjective opinion), that I’ve never put myself to the task of reading a book of his in its entirety. To me, the gold standard for writing and thinking is Jane Austen. Roth is the un-gold standard — the polar opposite of what I value in a writer. Whether he is “good” is irrelevant to me. I can’t read his stuff.

  11. Boran, a novelist trades in ideas, perceptions, and social observation; his or her work is primarily intellectual where the work of an athlete is physical; especially for a man of Roth’s generation, his politics are much more wedded to his politics than Michael Jordan’s ability to move a basketball are wedded to his, if he has any that are substantive. Would you separate the work of Orwell or Arthur Koestler or Solzhenitzyn from their political viewpoints?

  12. What we now characterize as Baby Boom
    attitudes infected that generation (my own)
    in the ’60s but actually migrated into the
    mainstream from the Marxist intellectual
    elite of the previous generation, so Roth and
    his contemporaries, tho’ older, are
    in ideology and philosophy etc identical to
    the Baby Boomers themselves. They are also,
    as we see, equally incoherent. Roth’s ‘The
    Human Stain’, however, is excellent and
    deals with race and Political Correctness in a
    startlingly thoughtful and provoking way
    – and with a kick-ass twist.
    The smugness and priapism inseparable
    from Lefty EngLit don’t get in the way once
    you fight past the opening pages. The guy’s
    got talent and brains and an intellectual
    avoir du pois lacking in younger novelists.

  13. In response to Bookworm: I assure you that I somehow managed to read your meandering, whiny rant against one of America’s most accomplished artists. How can you write that you can’t stand Roth’s navel/penis gazing characters if you “haven’t read anything by Philip Roth”? What basis could you have for making such an extraordinarily dismissive judgement? Did you read the Cliff Notes for one of his 20-or-so novels, or did you perhaps crib your opinions from a better read friend? You say that Roth is somehow a bad writer because his style and outlook “quickly offend” you. You emphasize your “purely subjective” literary opinions. You also say that what is “good” is “irrelevant” to you, in comparison to your own unlettered perceptions (which shallowly and arbitrarily set Jane Austen as the “gold standard” for literature). With these comments, you sound a lot like the eagerly offended, aesthetically relativistic liberals and feminists I used to clash with back in college. It deeply upsets me to see a conservative using feminist/liberal arguments to trash a writer whose worth is beyond debate at this point. Aren’t conservatives supposed to defend the culture from relativism and political correctness?

    To Zhombre: A fiction writer does indeed trade in ideas, perceptions, and social observation, but his work is not “primarily intellectual”– it is primarily aesthetic. To say otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand literature, to mistake the vocation of the fiction writer for that of the editorial writer or the political scientist. One can absolutely separate the artistic merit of Orwell, Solzhenitzyn, and Koestler from their political views. Undoubtedly, these are some of the most courageous and admirable men of the 20th century; they are excellent writers, but fall short of the very best. Personal greatness or having sound political views have little or nothing to do with being a great artist. The literary titans of the 20th century–Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Bellow– were profoundly wrong about many things, including politics sometimes. That does nothing to diminish the fact that they wrote better than anybody else (in their century, at least). This brings me back to the core of my disagreement with Bookworm: it seems that Roth’s flimsy political views (at least as they were expressed in that interview) were taken as an opportunity to take a number of cheap shots at his writing, which is anything but flimsy.

  14. Boran, when I say I can’t read, I mean that I try and bog down. I’m a fairly experienced reader and can tell quite quickly when an author’s style or sensibility doesn’t work for me. And why is it shallow or arbitrary for me to set as my own personal standard Jane Austen? I’m allowed to like who I like and dislike who I dislike — or is that not how things operate in your world. Because you like Roth, must I?

    And I wasn’t using feminist liberal arguments. I didn’t say a word about Roth’s view about women. I just said I didn’t like his books, perhaps because I don’t like his books. I don’t like his subject matter, his outlook or his style.

    Your attacks sound as if you take this very personally. As it is, others in this string have defended Roth’s writing without attacking me.

    You keep up this aggressive approach and I’m going to think that you had run-in’s in college, not because you were offering genuinely ideological challenges to your fellow students, but because you like to pick fights.

  15. Bookworm, I don’t contest that you may be an experienced reader, but experience doesn’t always lead to wisdom. Of course you are allowed to like who you like. But your writing indicates that you believe that there are no criteria for judging art aside from personal taste— this is essentially the liberal, relativistic argument against the literary canon (which your Jane Austen belongs to), and the sort of thinking that has led to the marginalization of the humanities at American universities. Literary merit is not simply a matter of personal taste (though as I said before, you would have no difficulty finding liberals and feminists who share your viewpoint that it is just a matter of taste). Saying that the worth of an artist depends on whether or not his art “works for me” is simply not a worthy way of thinking about art, at least to anyone who works from the premise that art is valuable and important.

    I’m not saying that you have to like Philip Roth because I do. But I question the literary judgment of someone who so glibly trashes such a serious writer. Your “gold standard,” Jane Austen, is not my cup of tea, though I read a couple of her books in school. She didn’t quite “work for me,” but I would consider myself a complete philistine had I not picked up on the wit, subtlety, and overall genius of her writing. I disparaged your gold standard of Jane Austen not because there is anything wrong with her, but because you demonstrated a lack of rigorous or even coherent aesthetic standards in discussing Roth. My five-year-old could tell me that Einstein was the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, and she would probably be correct, but her statement would be shallow and arbitrary because she has no understanding of physics.

    You claim I’m taking this discussion “personally,” but on the contrary, I’m arguing in favor of objective aesthetic standards, whereas you seem to be saying that the only standard of artistic worth is personal like or dislike.

  16. Okay, Boran. I get your point, and apologize for disparaging the way you wrote. As I understand it, you think I said he is a lousy writer. I don’t think I did — or, at least, I didn’t mean to. But you’re right that my third sentence is ambiguous, where, after having said that I don’t like his writing — a personal statement — I suddenly switched to the global “the problem with his writing,” which sounds like an objective analysis. I was still thinking in terms of my personal dislike.

    I’m capable of appreciating things even if I don’t like them. With his writing, it would be impossible for me to engage in a positive critique, because he turns me off, but I don’t challenge that he has virtues as a literary being. I was just riffing off of my dislike and taking it global to the infantile approach he has to politics. For me, it was an easy step from his self-involved novels (my view of them) to his self-involved, facile political analysis. I think you have a good point, though, and I should have mixed the two concepts so readily.

  17. […] Bookworm Room, “Philip’s Complaint, or Liberal Political Thinking in a Nutshell” […]

  18. Bookworm, I don’t contest that you may be an experienced reader, but experience doesn’t always lead to wisdom.

    Why don’t you apply that to yourself, then continue writing.

  19. Ann Coulter was attacked. College Republican student organizations are attacked. Condi Rice was threatened by a Code Pink loony tunes

    I’d like to see them attack somebody in my presence. I really do.

    who got within inches of her.

    The closer they are to me, the closer I am to them.

    Perhaps my the problem with his writing is his thinking.

    For me, it was an easy step from his self-involved novels (my view of them) to his self-involved, facile political analysis. I think you have a good point, though, and I should have mixed the two concepts so readily.

    Book, some people just have compartments in their brain that don’t touch each other. Concepts and thoughts are unrelated and not connected. You shouldn’t let that bother you, because those folks will not see the connections that you or I see. And there’s nothing you can do about that, not on a permanent basis. Each specific incident you can use your time to solve, but it will keep on going on. After all, men and women know the differences between male and female thinking, but has that changed anything fundamentally? Not really.

    Btw, instead of wasting your time reading people like R, you should spend that time watching Firefly and reading material that is based upon a more correct view of the human condition.

    That way, Book, you won’t have to spend time arguing or even thinking about how the train crash occured. You can just enjoy the view of the countryside, without worrying about a crash.

    By the way, I am a conservative and disagree completely with Roth’s political views.

    This is called a Parthian shot, Book. Where they run up to you, hit you with a hail of arrows, and then ride away, all the while shooting back at you. The riding away is the defensive trick, the rhetoric about being a conservativ. And I presume you already know about the hail of arrows, Book.

    But I question the literary judgment of someone who so glibly trashes such a serious writer.

    It’s a conservative quirk that they attack people that believe in the same themes and policies as they do, because of personal dislike. You don’t see that on the Democrat side, at least I don’t. The Democrats will ally with and be buddy buddy with KKK members and Syrian dictators if their interests and policies align. Same can’t be said for so called Republicans and conservatives. McCain, right now, is just one example of a multitude of examples of the problem with a Big Tent focused not on party loyalty but on individuality.

    Instead of attacking and criticizing R for being ideologically and politically different in his writings, this person chooses to criticize you, Book. If you don’t find that interesting, then certainly I do.

  20. The only thing you might have had any need to correct, Book, is to expand your sentence that said you haven’t read anything by R.

    I’ve never been able to read Philip Roth’s novels because I cannot stand his navel gazing (or should I say penis-gazing?) characters.

    That sentence, is already expanded with “able”. That communicates the idea that there was an attempt but not a complete success. Which is justified and reinforced by your comments about R’s characters. How can one know the characters in a book enough to dislike them, if one hasn’t even attempted to read the book? Why would a person even bother commenting about the characters then.

    In the age of the internet, there is a new standard to literacy. You might be surprised at the number of people who came to Neo-Neocon’s blog early on and completely demonstrated their incapacity to read and comprehend. Semi-literacy. Back before the internet, just being able to read and write made you literate. The internet, though, has a bit higher standards for literacy.

    People can easily tell the difference. And any difficulties they experience, has to do with not basing most of their communications on the written word. Reading and writing=literacy? Of course it does. Which is why flaws are so obvious and why they obviously need to be hammered out, personally.

  21. Quality of communication defines artistic skill, and some modes and content just don’t cut it with some people. Sender and receiver both count. Some don’t “get” Shakespeare!

    don’t try so hard. It’s “avoirdupois”, one word, though it does derive from the bits you separated.

  22. thanks for your lesson

  23. i want to know the comparison and difference between liberal and illiberal democracy

  24. I personally want to book mark this blog, “Philips Complaint,
    or Liberal political thinking in a nutshell
    | Bookworm Room” on my website. Do you really care
    in case I actuallydo it? Thx ,Delmar

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