In 1979, a voice on the radio attracted the attention of George Scialabba ’69. It was “gentle and earnest, logical, persuasive, politically astute,” he recalls. “I was surprised to hear it was Noam Chomsky, whom I knew only as a linguist.” Scialabba (shih-lob-uh) soon read some of Chomsky’s books, including The Political Economy of Human Rights, then just out, a two-volume series that, he felt, would “set American political culture on its ear.” Yet, six months later, “the culture remained upright,” he reports. He saw no reviews of Chomsky’s work. Bemused, if not outraged, Scialabba wrote his own 3,000-word review and sent it to Eliot Fremont-Smith, literary editor of The Village Voice. Scialabba admitted that he wasn’t a writer and had no expectation of publication, but wanted to suggest the kind of serious attention Chomsky’s work merited. Fremont-Smith wrote back to disagree, telling Scialabba that he was a writer, and that the Voice would publish his essay.
That was in 1980; more than 350 essays and book reviews later—in The Nation, The Boston Globe, Commonweal, Dissent, Grand Street, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and dozens more—Scialabba’s credentials as a thinker and writer are well established. He publishes as a freelance critic while working a “day job” at Harvard, where he has been a staff assistant at what is now the Center for Government and International Studies since 1980.
Many of his pieces are collected in his three books, whose covers display some striking testimonials. He is “one of America’s best all-round intellects,” according to James Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism. Social activist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich notes that “T.S. Eliot once observed that, for a literary critic, ‘the only method is to be very intelligent.’ George Scialabba raises the bar. He is not only astoundingly intelligent, he knows just about everything—history, politics, culture, and literature.”
In his newest collection,For the Republic: Political Essays (Pressed Wafer, 2013) Scialabba (www.georgescialabba.net) takes on numerous public intellectuals. In “Zippie World,” his takedown of Thomas Friedman’s 2005 bestseller The World Is Flat, he remarks at the outset that there is one quote in the middle of the text that “towers over the intellectual landscape of the rest of the book the way a mountain towers over low hills.” This quote, alas, comes not from Friedman but from Marx and Engels—their celebrated prophecy of globalization in the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air.” Scialabba adds, “Friedman has apparently just discovered it and is ‘in awe of how incisively Marx detailed the forces that were flattening the world during the rise of the Industrial Revolution….’ ”
Soon, he deconstructs what he sees as Friedman’s naive enthusiasm for “Zippies,” young Indian employees with “a zip in the stride” and a ready embrace of technological Western corporate life. “It’s tempting to smirk at this ad-copy prose and at the rest of Friedman’s hymn to the Grand Global March of Productivity,” he writes, later observing: “That information technology might have the effect of making life, at least in some respects, less gracious, subtle, sensuous, and profound, but instead more sterile, frenetic, shallow, and routine—there is no inkling of this in The World Is Flat, indeed no evidence that Friedman could even comprehend the notion.” There have been, Scialabba says, a fair number of “people expressing reservations about the hyper-connected world,” but there are also “geeks and techno-worshippers who haven’t a clue as to what this downside might be, and Friedman is clearly one of them.”
Scialabba can accomplish a great deal with a few words and a wicked sense of humor. He notes in passing that as a young man, the neoconservative writer Irving Kristol “…became an apprentice machinist but alas, did not persevere.” He calls Gore Vidal’s Selected Essays “a kind of crème de la crème with strawberries,” quickly adding that Vidal is “perhaps best known for his raspberries.” In a piece that both praises and excoriates Christopher Hitchens, he calls the late polemicist a “compulsive name-dropper,” noting that in one short book, “the words, ‘my friend,’ followed by a distinguished name, appear dozens of times, giving the reader’s eyebrows a considerable workout.”
Reviews begin either with an offer from an editor or a proposal by Scialabba, who scrutinizes publishers’ catalogs of forthcoming books and Publishers Weekly. He begins by “setting all my physical and imaginative energies to procrastination,” which includes reading previous books by the author and “reading around” the subject in related works. “I like to make the reviews vehicles for organizing my thoughts on a topic,” he says. “I have strong opinions, but I’m too lazy and disorganized to fashion original essays, so I write reviews.” He takes notes on index cards, not in margins (“I don’t like disfiguring books”), and, like many writers, completes his essay just before deadline. In his acceptance speech for the National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 1992, Scialabba declared, “What I prize above all in the writers I most cherish is a certain disposition or virtue, call it disinterestedness. I mean that rare and (for me, anyway) supremely difficult ability to care more for getting things right than for winning arguments, for understanding rather than for being admired.”
Though he identifies himself as a radical, in the sense of “a Michael Harrington-type democratic socialist,” Scialabba cites Oscar Wilde and George Orwell as his real heroes—the former for his “delicious wit” and “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” and the latter for his lack of self-importance. “The literary consequence of that was Orwell’s plain-spokenness,” he says. “He made it an art.” Though Scialabba’s politics are well left of center, his ethical code is hardly unconventional. “My moral through-line,” he says, “is the Sermon on the Mount.”
Four years ago I reviewed George Scialabba’s For the Republic: Political Essays in CounterPunch and am pleased to now review his latest collection Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015, whose title is borrowed from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, a poem written on the eve of WWII:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Although the book stops a year before Donald Trump’s election, there is no better way to understand this low, dishonest president than by reading Scialabba’s take on those who paved the way for him, especially Ronald Reagan. While I certainly understand how surprised some Americans are by Donald Trump’s awfulness, as if he was some sort of historical deus ex machina, I cannot escape a sense of déjà vu as if the years 1981-1989 were being replayed. Are we being forced to endure horrible reactionary presidents for all of eternity like Bill Murray enduring Groundhog’s Day? God help us.
Reagan, whose hair was as artificial as that of the current authoritarian occupant of the oval office, leveraged television fame into a career as a rightwing politician. As with Trump, the connections between garbage on TV and garbage in the White House is palpable.
Like me, Scialabba tends to review books by authors for whom he has an affinity. In “The Reagan Counter-Revolution”, written for the Boston Phoenix in 1985, the parallels with Trump stick out like a sore thumb. The article was occasioned by one written that year by Walter Karp in Harpers titled “Liberty Under Siege: The Reagan Administration’s Taste for Autocracy”. Karp, to whom Low Dishonest Decades is dedicated, died in 1989. In putting this new collection together, Scialabba will bring young readers’ attention to some of the outstanding scholars and journalists of the left, some of whom like Walter Karp and Alexander Cockburn died far too young.
Citing Karp, Scialabba points out that “On orders from the White House budget office, the Environmental Protection Agency consulted with the chemical industry on how to circumvent toxic-waste laws; when Congress tried to investigate, the president refused to release internal EPA documents.” Rings a bell, doesn’t it? In fact, rather than searching for predecessors for Trump in Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, nearly everything that Trump is now trying to do comes out of the Reagan playbook but, of course, raised to a higher power. What is Trumpism? Reaganism on steroids.
For Scialabba, one of the main preoccupations in the various reviews and essays is how we ended up with someone like Reagan. He is searching for an explanation of the “Reagan Democrat”, the forerunner to Trump’s “deplorables”. Indeed, we discover in a review of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas” titled “Prairie Fire” that his parents were just the sort of people who could have been seduced by Reagan or Trump:
For years the battle raged across my family’s kitchen table. My second-generation, inner-city, working-class parents complained angrily about welfare fraud, affirmative action, the coddling of criminals, too-welcoming immigration policies, and overly generous foreign aid, while honest, hardworking Americans like themselves, “born in this country,” couldn’t get a break. My older brother sometimes joined them but mostly sat back and enjoyed my exasperation as I, the college boy, insisted shrilly but unpersuasively that all their anecdotes were just exceptions, that liberal policies were essentially fair and rational, and that instead of blaming the unfortunate they should make common cause with other little people against the rich, who, for some reason, were completely off their radar screen. Fortunately, the habits of a lifetime kept them from ever voting Republican. But what Thomas Frank calls “the Great Backlash” had won their hearts.
As is the case today, liberals and radicals alike wrestled with the question of why white working-class voters voted for someone like Reagan who was so inimical to their material interests. For Frank and so many others, the answer was that the Democrats had forsaken their New Deal roots and emphasized cultural politics that alienated “the deplorables”. When Scialabba wrote this review, the rightwing was exploiting outrage over “Piss Christ”, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix submerged in his urine. Today, the outrage is over the transgendered taking a piss in the “wrong” bathroom. Bodily fluids once again trumping reason and humanity.
“Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015” is a book that will be richly rewarding to young activists trying to get a sense of the historical background that led up to the Trump presidency. Since many of the reviewed authors are economists or social scientists, their analysis is worth considering even if it often misses the mark or in the case of Charles Krauthammer, misses the wall that the mark is drawn on. In his characteristically elegant prose (a scalpel rather than the meat cleaver I prefer), Scialabba takes the neocon con artist apart in a review of his “Things that Matter”:
For the tragic waste of Krauthammer’s considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can’t surprise yourself, breathe deeply and get to the bottom of things in 800 words or twenty seconds.
I would only add that Twitter is far worse. With a ceiling of 140 characters rather than 800 words, I wonder why any thoughtful person would bother. Then, again, there is Donald Trump.
I admit to being puzzled by Scialabba’s decision to read and review Krauthammer’s ponderous tome. Written for The Nation, was it a project they imposed on him? As someone who writes movie reviews for fun rather than money, I am glad that I don’t have to write about Adam Sandler movies to pay my rent.
Of course, he was writing reviews mostly as an avocation. For nearly his entire adult life until his retirement in October 2015, Scialabba was a building manager at Harvard University—an administrative job that allowed him to enjoy a parallel career as one of America’s most esteemed public intellectuals. I only wish I had been at the retirement party that The Baffler, where he now serves as a contributing editor, had thrown for him as reported in The New Yorker :
On August 31st, he retired from the day job.
A week and a half later, the magazine The Baffler threw him a campy retirement party, “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge. There were toasts by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, Rick Perlstein, and Nikil Saval. The Cambridge City Council had just passed Resolution 658, making that day, September 10, 2015, George Scialabba Day. The whole idea was a cackling jab at the pomp and officiousness Scialabba himself so utterly lacks. The City Council’s resolution noted that Scialabba had “diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years” and asked Cambridge residents “who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks” and celebrate his marvelous deeds.
“I really don’t see any justification for it,” he’d told me the day before. To his admirers, Scialabba is something of a literary monk, shuffling virtuously in the background, spurning public attention. His writing completes the portrait: his measured essays generally concern better-known thinkers, more roaring, titanic writers whose own work stomps imperiously down the page. “As far as I know, I’ve never had a genuinely original idea,” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t a boast.
Trust me. George Scialabba, who I am glad to know as a friend, is filled with original ideas. Buy a copy of “Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015” and you will find them leaping off each page.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.