On the Bookshelf
Propaganda old and new
Reams and reams of articles and blog posts, yes, but no flotilla books quite yet. Don’t be surprised, though, if a future edition of Megan Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday, June) includes a few pages on the maritime fiasco and its fallout. Stack, a foreign correspondent for the L.A. Times, spends her time in more interesting places than her native Connecticut; the book recounts her years reporting from Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, including a little anti-Semitism she observed in Yemen. Though currently working the Moscow beat, she visited Istanbul as recently as a few weeks ago, so it seems her article last week on the flotilla story’s Turkish angle probably won’t be her last word on the subject.
With hand-wringing and finger-pointing on all sides, now’s as good a time as any to consider how differently Zionism might have turned out as a political movement. Noam Pianko’s Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn (Indiana, May) focuses on three interwar intellectuals for whom the promise of Zionism as a political movement was as “an alternative to nation-sate nationalism”—as “an opportunity to redefine national membership … beyond the concrete borders of homeland and state”—rather than to establish a Jewish country that would be just like all the others.
In the midst of all the flotilla propaganda and counter-propaganda on YouTube and Twitter, who wouldn’t want to take a nostalgic trip back to a charmingly old-timey era when governments distributed propaganda through the publication of hardcovers and paperbacks? John B. Hench’s Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II (Cornell, June) details the collaborations between the American book industry and the U.S. military that aimed to shore up support for the Allied cause, often through publications of highly regarded modern German belles lettres—works by Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, and so on—that had been deemed verboten by the Nazis. Many of the key players in these propaganda efforts were German- and American-born Jews, including Gottfried Bermann-Fischer, Kurt Enoch, Harold Guinzburg, Hans Sahl, and Fritz Landhoff. Hench argues that in addition to aiding the war effort, their projects transformed the book trade.
Decisions about what gets published during wars are often unusually consequential, particularly in setting legal precedents about freedom of speech. One perennial question is how a government should balance the public’s right to know about its war activities with the military’s need to keep its plans classified. Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former editor of Commentary and author of 2004’s The Return of Anti-Semitism, explores the history of this issue in Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law (Norton, May). For Schoenfeld, the New York Times’ 2005 revelations about NSA wiretapping handicapped military operations for the sake of a scoop. At the same time, he calls the investigation of AIPAC lobbyists for espionage the result of entrenched “anti-Semitism within the FBI.”
The new biography of a contemporary master propagandist, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One (Sentinel, May), comes to us courtesy of an author, Zev Chafets, himself schooled in the art of political persuasion. Though he may be most familiar to Tablet’s readers for his contributions to the New York Times Magazine—see, for example, “Obama’s Rabbi” and “The Sy Empire”—as a young man the Michigan-born Chafets also served under Prime Minister Menachem Begin for five years as director of Israel’s Government Press Office. In fact, he credits Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 as inspiring his recent, half-serious suggestion that Limbaugh and President Obama might be able to reconcile some of their ideological differences over a friendly round of golf.
When the Anti-Defamation League accused Limbaugh of anti-Semitism in January of this year, among his most vehement defenders was the iconic ex-editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz. That a publication that once printed Paul Goodman’s eager call for anarchist education now serves up justifications for Limbaugh’s sloppiness is a perfect symbol of the magazine’s incredible transformation. Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right (Public Affairs, June) surveys the history of the journal that once upon a time set the standard for Jewish intellectual discourse in America.
An excerpt from Balint’s book, here on Tablet, describes how, among other signal accomplishments, Commentary supported the authors who revolutionized American fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike many magazines of its vintage, Commentary continues to publish fiction today—a rather large percentage of which tends, in recent years, to be contributed by the essayist and all-purpose man of letters Joseph Epstein. His latest collection, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June), includes 14 tales mostly about, as one character phrases it, “Jewish intellectuals who feel the world has screwed them in some vague, deep way.” While the magazine’s politics have almost completely reversed themselves, then, its fiction has simply diminished: Charming as Epstein’s fictions can at times be, they do not approach the power of the Malamud, Bellow, and Roth stories they consistently echo.
If you’re finding yourself overwhelmed by the selfishness and malice of all the political bickering lately, take solace in nature: Isn’t it fascinating that selfless generosity exists despite the evolutionary deck being so stacked against it? That’s the question that drives The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (Norton, June), by the Israeli historian of science Oren Harman. The titular eccentric was a half-Jewish “Rain Man sort of character,” who taught chemistry at Harvard, contributed to the Manhattan Project, and later devised a mathematical explanation for why ants and bees sometimes act, altruistically, in others’ best interests. Tragic as Price’s own fate was—dismayed by what he had proved, he committed suicide after a conversion to Christianity—his story offers at least a little hope: After all, humans might one day emulate social insects and find a way to show one another some kindness.
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