… and we’re not talking about cover prices, although they’re expensive enough (it really does make palm-to-forehead sense to subscribe to any magazine you regularly read). No, the real price for reading a lot of the Penny Press is the garbage you confront on your way to reading the good stuff. This is true in the sports-and-healthy living magazines like Men’s Journal, which are so choked with tobacco ads that you practically need a face mask to read them, and it’s true of the glossy fashion magazines like GQ and Esquire, which bombard you with perfumed pages and ads for $10,000 wrist-watches before letting you pass on to first-rate fiction and feature writing.
And it’s nowhere more true than the political magazines, which try to pad out their partisan screeds in the front half of the magazine with well-commissioned book reviews in the back half of the magazine.
The July 21 issue of National Review is a good case-in-point. Since I’ve been reading the magazine for years, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the opening pages, so I turned right away to the book reviews in the back.
I was amply rewarded, as I always am. There was Joseph Postell writing very intelligently about F. H. Buckley’s thought-provoking book The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. And there was Ryan Cole, turning in a smart but far too lenient review of Fierce Patriot, Robert O’Connell’s smart but far too lenient biography of William Tecumseh Sherman. True, the most Michael Bishop could do with Lawrence James’s bloviating Churchill and Empire was bloviate a bit more, but that was a small inconvenience when laid aside John Bolton’s thunderous take-down of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. Like the rest of the people in the world, I winced when Bolton was made U.S. representative to the United Nations, since the man is a blowhard and a bit of a blockhead, but lord knows, those things don’t disqualify anybody from being a book reviewer! He lays into Clinton’s book with gusto, declaring that the book is all the more unimpressive for being so well-vetted:
Her defenses in the book are the best that years of political-spin strategizing and word massaging could produce. None of the arguments presented there will improve with time, so it is significant how little there is in Hard Choices to support a second Clinton presidency, based on Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state.
It’s naturally that tenure – and the Benghazi attack that will forever be its signature – that draws Bolton’s most personal ire, especially when he’s contemplating the fact that Clinton left her office right before the thick of it:
This is stunning. I have worked for six secretaries of state, very different in background, style, and demeanor. I am convinced none of them would have gone home that evening. But Hillary did.
So yes, the back half of the magazine pulled its weight as always – but dear God, the price to be paid was steep this time around! I refer of course to Charles Cooke’s cover piece on Neil de Grasse Tyson and “America’s nerd problem.” I’ve read a lot of vile nonsense in National Review over the years, but this piece goes in the Hall of Fame.
The piece’s argument – such as it is – boils down to: real Muricans don’t need no fancy thinkers to get the job done. In complaining about the “extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States,” Cooke starts by singling out every public figure who’s ever finished a sentence on camera without shouting and then flailingly broadens his scope to include – well:
One part insecure hipsterism, one part unwarranted condescension, the two defining characteristics of self-professed nerds are (a) the belief that one can discover all the secrets of human experience through differential equations and (b) the unlovely tendency to presume themselves to be smarter than everybody else in the world. Prominent examples include MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox‘s Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman, the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and morel precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.
I don’t know which is worse here, the schoolyard-bully (and Maoist, with his “Cultural Revolution” street thugs beating up anybody with an education) taunting about wearing glasses or the patently obvious fact that in Cooke’s context, “babbling” about statistics is the same thing as consulting statistics. At a time when the modern world has never been more complex or faster-moving, Cooke’s ridiculous essay is a proud, cornpone rallying-call for people to stop thinking and go with their gut – it’s an embarrassment, and none of Cooke’s editors should have let it through into print.
Yet they did, and they let worse through as well. Cooke saves his most repulsive rhetoric for Tyson himself, and because he and his editors know National Review shares newsstand space with publications not still ideologically mired in the South Carolina 1950s, he has to resort to the kind of oily code-speak his kind always use when they’re not 100 % sure of their audience:
The movement’s king, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has formal scientific training, certainly, as do a handful of others who have become celebrated by the crowd. But this is not why he is useful. He is useful because he can be deployed as a cudgel and an emblem in argument – pointed to as the sort of person who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.
I wonder what “sort of person” that would be? Astrophysicist? Harvard graduate? Or might it be something a bit more innate? Might that be why Cooke, who has just enough technical knowledge to turn on a light switch, refers to Tyson’s multiple degrees, honorary degrees, peer-reviewed articles, and books as “formal scientific training, certainly”? Might it be why he dusts off some of the most hoary racist lingo in referring to uppity Negroes as mere “useful” tools of … well, it’s not hard to guess who, right? It never is, with this kind of rhetorical filth.
I know, I know – I shouldn’t have read it. I should have known better and read only the back half of the magazine. But the waste of doing that irks me, since I paid for the whole thing. But isn’t that just the way with my kind? You know, the kind who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.