Nathan Robinson subjected himself to Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book, which, as he summarizes, “argues that today’s Democratic Party is attempting to turn the United States into a giant slave plantation and Trump may be our Abraham Lincoln.” If it wasn’t clear as soon as you heard the author’s name, and it still wasn’t clear after you read the summary, Robinson reports that this is a bad book: “deranged,” “offensive,” marred by “catastrophic” failures of logic, and plainly published merely to be “inflammatory.” Which raises a reasonable question: Why waste time on this garbage? Robinson acknowledges that he hears that question a lot: “People have asked me why I spend so much time taking apart bad right-wing books.” A fair question. After all, life is short, and D’Souza’s particular brand of pseudointellectual trolling is available in bite-size form—for free, although it’s worth even less than that—on Twitter. (No, I won’t link to his truly execrable feed; instead, read this characteristic riposte from historian Kevin Kruse, who has perfected the art of dunking on this conservative troll turned convicted felon turned recipient of a Trump pardon.)
Robinson has an answer: We need to read books by right-wing trolls because right-wing trolls are running the world. Pointing to the recent vote in Brazil and the state of the United States under Trump, Robinson argues that “it’s no longer possible to avoid ‘engaging’ their ‘ideas.’ Like it or not, their ideas exist. They need dealing with.” Without “persuasive left responses,” lots of people who could be convinced to think otherwise will be drawn to D’Souza-esque arguments. It’s a reasonable response to a problem for which there is, obviously, no simple or straightforward solution.
Few of the people who willingly put down money for new books by the likes of D’Souza, or Coulter, or Shapiro are likely to be receptive, much less exposed, to rebuttals by sources they trust, and there are many others who are exposed to those views, but encounter them only indirectly—at work, on daytime radio as they run errands, on the TV in the doctor’s waiting room. These people may also be difficult to reach, but in a different way: Conservatives figured out long ago that most people don’t really distinguish between information and entertainment, and they’re now reaping the benefits of having saturated everyday life with their particular brand of newsy demagoguery. After years of deluging the public, these demagogues have turned simple refrains into entrenched clichés of American political discourse—government bad, markets good; higher taxes bad, lower taxes good; Democrats weak, Republicans strong; and so on. These tropes are rarely subjected to direct scrutiny, because they exist at a kind of level beyond argument; they’re just taken for granted. And rebuttals to them must confront demagoguery’s built-in advantages: emotional manipulation, misleading simplicity, appeal to prejudice. Unless the goal is to replace right-wing demagoguery with left-wing demagoguery, counteracting the accumulated effects of the conservative media machine will take time.
There’s another factor at work, though—one that’s newer, and more subtle, and more difficult to game out. It’s close to what I thought Robinson’s piece would be about, given its headline: “WHY REVIEW BAD BOOKS?” For while there are lots of bad books, and many of those are worthy of bad reviews, the art of a bad-book takedown is often a subtler, and more rewarding, task than the one presented to an author by the likes of D’Souza. Often it involves pointing out the flaws with a book that’s not obviously dumb, but which nonetheless falls far short of what it might have been. Or it could simply involve a long-overdue reassessment of a writer riding a crest of excessive praise. And that’s a genre of literary criticism that seems less and less in vogue these days. Buzzfeed made headlines, and captured something of the emerging mood, a few years ago when it announced that it would no longer run negative book reviews. One hears less and less these days of those much-discussed takedowns that once featured so prominently in certain corners of the book-review world. In part, I think this is due to the emergence of new, younger, less-established voices. Amidst their emergence, nasty reviews—the sort one can comfortably watch when it’s two established writers engaging in the literary equivalent of a heavyweight match—can read quite differently. Moreover, the left versus center and intra-left disputes that often marked such exchanges seem almost quaint now. As Robinson’s piece suggests, there are much worse things—and much worse books—to worry about.
It may be the case, then, that political circumstances and the changing world of literary journalism augur a future with more dutiful takedowns of third-rate conservative trolls, and fewer delectable skewerings along the lines of, say, Isaac Chotiner on Malcolm Gladwell. That’s understandable, perhaps, but it doesn’t come without loss. For one thing, it simply takes some of the sporting fun out of reading testy exchanges between bright and able writers. And more seriously, it directs scarce time and attention from debates and divisions whose salience may have faded, but has by no means disappeared. Most of all, however, it threatens to dull minds which have been sharpened, over the years, by confrontations with thinkers who are, well, thinkers. If there’s any truth to the counsel that you’re only as smart as the people you’re arguing with, then we have reason to be concerned.