TCS Daily


Who's Screwing Up America?

By Edward B. Driscoll - August 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Talking on the phone with me, Bernard Goldberg is angry. "The very people who seem to be most concerned about the environment", he exclaims, "somehow think that the cultural environment doesn't matter!? Somehow it just doesn't matter what goes on in the culture. And I think that's because the one thing that liberals don't want to be is judgmental. But when did being judgmental about those who trash the culture become such a bad thing?"

Goldberg's newest book is titled The 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37). Its author came to judging the culture somewhat accidentally.

In 1996, Goldberg was a producer with a nearly 30-year career at CBS. He ran afoul of Dan Rather after writing an op-ed on media bias forThe Wall Street Journal. As he wrote in Bias, some people have called that article courageous, "but as I look back at it, it was pretty stupid."

Immediately upon its publication, Goldberg called Rather to discuss the article, during which the veteran anchorman responded, "Bernie, we were friends yesterday, we're friends today, and we'll be friends tomorrow." As Goldberg once said, this was Dan-speak for 'Bernie, you're dead'. "From that day in February 1996 until this very second, my friend Dan Rather literally has not uttered a syllable to me."

These days, Goldberg reports on HBO's Real Sports series, where he's won his eighth Emmy Award, and has released a book roughly every other year since 2001. Fleshing out that fateful op-ed in the Journal, Goldberg's first two books, 2001's Bias and 2003's Arrogance, were his bestselling looks at the news media. Along with the simultaneous rise of the Blogosphere, they did much to dispel the mainstream media's argument that it maintained an Olympian objectivity free of bias, a topic Goldberg discussed last year in a two-part interview with Tech Central Station.

Goldberg's newest book, a broader look at the American culture war including, but largely beyond its newsrooms, is divided into two sections, a collection of introductory essays explaining how modern America arrived at this point, followed by his list of 100. While the list is lots of fun, for many, the real meat of the book is the essay section. As blogger Ed Morrissey recently commented when he interviewed Goldberg, "One of the other things I found remarkable about your book is that the first fifty-four pages is the heart of your book, I think...the list is almost like dessert".

Punitive Liberalism

One of those essays in those first fifty-four pages quotes a piece that James Piereson wrote for The Weekly Standard.com on the occasion of President Reagan's death last year. Called "Punitive Liberalism", it's a great touchstone connecting the patriotic liberals of the FDR through LBJ era with those who came afterwards in the wake of George McGovern's failed 1972 presidential campaign.

Goldberg says, logically, that most liberals have never heard of Piereson's phrase. But its symptoms resonate with them nonetheless, "because they see themselves as more sensitive, and more concerned about their fellow man. They say, 'well, this is a country that polluted our air and water', which it did. 'This is a country which had racist policies towards blacks', which it did. 'This is a country that treated women as second-class citizens', which it did."

Goldberg is quick to add, "All these things were wrong", repeating the phrase slowly for added emphasis. "But most of us say, 'let's fix it. Let's make sure we don't do that anymore, and move on.'" In contrast, he says, the modern left dwells on these past transgressions. "It doesn't occur to them somehow that people are literally killing themselves to get to this country. That poor people all over the world want to come to America, because this is a land of great opportunity.

Despite that, Goldberg notes that many, but not all of America's cultural elites are uncomfortable with America's power (and possibly with the idea of power itself). "I think it stems from the fact that we do have a history where we did things wrong in this country. But for them it's always yesterday-they can't look forward. They enjoy that. They enjoy the fact that America isn't the perfect place. And it isn't."

"But you know what?", Goldberg asks rhetorically, "It's a lot more perfect than most other places."

"Why Don't You Just Wear Black?"

If Vietnam unhinged the left and created its modern, punitive attitude, 9/11 and its immediate aftermath did little to cool its effects. As Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote, during the fall of 2001, "There was only unity in this country between September 11 and October 6, when a large minority of Americans felt our victim status gave us for a golden moment the high ground".

But even during that brief interregnum in the culture war, the far left was not happy about one aspect of 9/11's immediate aftermath, a wholly understandable spontaneous patriotism amongst the vast majority of Americans, no matter their ideology.

Virtually everyone on the left thinks that what happened on September 11th was wrong, "but that's the price of admission to get into the conversation", Goldberg says, adding that "it takes them about three seconds afterwards to find fault with the United States."

For his examples, Goldberg refers to Katha Pollitt, number 74 in his book, and Barbara Kingsolver, number 73.

At the time of 9/11, Pollitt, a contributor to the far-left publication, The Nation, lived only blocks from the World Trade Center, In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, her teenage daughter wanted to fly the American flag from her mother's apartment.

Pollitt banned the flag from the living room window, because it "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war", but compromised: her daughter could fly it out of the bedroom, because that was her room.

"Now, what kind of person, who lives within the World Trade Center, says to her daughter, just days after 9/11, I think the American flag 'stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.'"

And then there's Barbara Kingsolver. When her daughter came home from her Arizona kindergarten shortly after 9/11, she told her mom that her school wanted the kids to dress up in red and white and blue. As Goldberg describes it, her mom became exasperated and asked why. "And the girl says, 'For the people who were killed!'

"Barbara Kingsolver can't figure this out? She says, 'Well, why don't you just wear black?' What is it about these people that in the country that has treated them so well, the country in which they've done so well, they can't bring themselves to say, 'this was wrong, what they did to us, and let's come together, at least for this.'"

As Goldberg writes in his book, "When a little girl sounds -- no, make that is -- smarter than her mother, you know there's a problem".

So What's The Solution?

As enjoyable as the book is, I wish it didn't end as abruptly as it does, with a short essay after Goldberg's pick for the number one person who is screwing up America. (Two guesses who that is.) Goldberg's done a great job of identifying liberalism's malaise, and who the most extreme examples of America's haters and miscreants are, from both sides of the political aisle. But what to do about fixing the mess?

Goldberg stresses that he doesn't believe that legislation or Tipper Gore-style hearings are the answer. "I don't want any laws against this stuff -- I want to underline that", he says.

Instead, when it comes to the media, he believes that market forces can impose change. "If enough people decide that they're sick of the kinds of shows currently on at 8 at night, or 7 central time, TV will put on something else.

"If enough people say that 'gangsta' rap is demeaning, not just to women, but to black people too, then they won't sell enough to CDs."

It's already impacting the news. "Somebody asked me at National Review Online, 'You put Dan Rather on the list. Do enough people watch CBS to even care?'

"I said, 'That's a good point! He's on the list for one reason: MemoGate. But [the news media] are becoming more and more irrelevant, that's for sure."

And, although not mentioned in the book, the stocks of most major mainstream media companies are down over the last few years.

Ending where he began our conversation, Goldberg stresses, "The culture matters a lot -- it matters a whole lot. Now you may not be offended by certain things on TV, and we can disagree. But it affects the culture. Just as it would if people walked down the street on their cell phones, and every other word is the F-bomb. It matters. I don't want a law against it, but it matters!"

What to do about fixing the mess? Is naming it and pointing to it enough? Certainly a book like this is a good start. Although for those of us who've been tracking on this problem for several years, there were few surprises, it's a great book for those who are "coming out of the closet" in terms of their frustration with some of the excesses of the left.

One problem is that as much as you'd think that Goldberg's credentials as a member of the mainstream media for so long would be rock solid, it seems like every time someone like him does shine a light on the left, he or she is immediately cast out as a heretic.

Hopefully the success of books like The 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America and the continued growth of a wide range of alternative media will make it more and more difficult for such attacks to be fatal to a career, as well as simultaneously dilute the damage that one person can do to the culture at large.


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