Brian Morton, a fine novelist and engaging public intellectual, recently tweeted: “Leftists should stop sneering at @ezraklein. If we’d had liberal policy wonks as solid as Klein in the 1970s neoconservatism would never have attained the stature that it did. It would have been intellectually checkmated.” These tweets elicited some responses from me and a few other interested parties but my thoughts on this are a bit more complex than can easily be fitted into 140 characters, so I’m posting a longer argument here.
I understand the impulse behind Brian’s tweets. One of the most heartening developments in recent American politics is the emergence of a generation of passionate young left and liberal writers who have been very effective in challenging the lazy hegemony of conservatism that has dominated elite opinion since the 1970s. Ezra Klein is a convenient synecdoche for this generation. To see him go after blowhards like David Brooks or Bob Woodward is a rare example of a witnessing a salutary public service that is also bracing and delightful.
In the two decades before his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was far and away the most admired black man in America. He was almost unique in having many supporters in both black and white America. This was a period when black America reached its post-slavery nadir in virtually every area of life – socially, economically, politically. In the South — where 90% of black Americans lived — the successful counterrevolution against Reconstruction meant that Jim Crow was firmly and ferociously in place. In the north, blacks enjoyed more political rights but socially and economically were at the bottom of the ladder.
To this dire situation, Washington offered a path for progress for improving race relations which was designed to appeal to both blacks and whites. In his famous 1895 speech in Atlanta, Washington advocated a compromise whereby African Americans would give up the demands for equal political rights in exchange for assistance in a mutually beneficial program of education and economic improvement. In words of Washington’s most intellectually rigorous critic W.E.B. Du Bois, this program consisted of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.”
David Frum and I have had an interesting twitter debate about the merits of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (you can read the dialogue here). I have a much higher regard for Trollope than Frum does and I thought it might be useful to spell out at greater than 140 character length why he’s one of my favorite novelists (and also quote some sharp critics on Trollope).
I’ve had a soft spot for Trollope ever since I started reading his novels a teenager. It’s good to start young when delving into Trollope because it takes a lifetime to survey his work. He was one of the most prolific writers of good fiction. He had 47 novels under his belt, many of them hefty tomes weighing in around the length of Bleak House, Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov. As if those novels were somehow insufficient there are also five volumes of (quite excellent) short stories and miscellaneous but still voluminous books of (solid, informative) travel writing and other non-fiction (including an excellent, rewarding memoir). All of which adds not just to an oeuvre but almost a mountain range, a formidable requiring time and perseverance to conquer.