The Quiet Revolutionary

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Talking Dreams From My Father, In Cold Blood, Noam Chomsky, and Michael Moore with Hendrik Hertzberg, Chief Political Writer for the New Yorker and author of Obamanos!.

Hertzberg is among the very best… the intellectual scrupulosity, the innate scepticism, the uncommon journalistic modesty, the unfailing common sense, the strong sentences, the wit, and the dedication to justice and fair play,” Phillip Roth endorses Politics. Hertzberg’s 651-page masterwork features terrific dispatches from the 1960s (a superb, lissom demolition of the idiotic Weatherman) to George W Bush. Obamanos!: The Birth of a New Political Era covers the times since. His blog and online forums nail important issues such as the Cordoba mosque. In person, Rick is as eloquent, witty, and affable as through his writing. Additional illustration by Matt Kambic.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: You’ve argued passionately that Bush becoming President in 2000 was a coup d’état; that fact seems to be something that many liberal columnists have difficulty acknowledging publicly.

RICK HERTZBERG: They do, and I think it’s clear why they have that difficulty. It’s too awful a reality to face. We’re invested in the wonderfulness of our system and our Constitution and the way we do things. And the idea that somehow a coup d’état could have occurred is just too horrible a thought to have. The idea that we might be as vulnerable to that sort of thing in ways that we associate with places like Venezuela is something that no one wants to face. And both sides had an incentive to ignore it—a short-term incentive, anyway.  The Democrats would have been attacked as bad sports and sore losers if they had harped on the undemocraticness of Gore’s defeat. And the Republicans didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they had actually lost the election.  So nobody really talked about it, and there was no agitation to do anything about it, the way there had been after previous very close elections. After the 1960 election, the 1968 election and the 1976 election, there were strong moves toward doing something about the electoral college system. Very strong moves, especially after ’68. And we came very close to actually dumping the Electoral College.

AB: In Fahrenheit 9/11 Michael Moore highlighted it was mainly African American Congresspeople challenging the 2000 election theft. That was a good part of the film, didn’t you think?

RH: I did indeed. I am sort of a 65% admirer of Michael Moore. The film he made about healthcare was up in the 90% category. I thought he indulged the worst side of himself in presenting Cuba as the Promised Land. He already had France. By then he’d made the case, it was a slam dunk. And bringing up Cuba was gratuitous and unconvincing. But Moore kept his eye on the ball about what happened in the 2000 election and I think it’s dangerous that we haven’t. I spend my spare time, what little I have outside of family and my job, working to try and get the Electoral College changed. Not actually changed, but have a gimmick that will enable us to elect a president in a normal fashion. I write about it a lot on my blog.

AB: I’ve read it.

RH:  You know what I’m talking about. I think that is the one practical reform proposal that would make a profound difference and that also has a chance of enactment. You know, I was eager to come to New Zealand largely because of New Zealand being the country whose revolution consisted of bringing in proportional representation. That’s my kind of revolution. I’m here partly to find out how much of that is my romantic fantasy and how much there’s something to it. I guess the purpose of our conversation here isn’t for you to tell me but for me to tell you, but I’d be interested in what you think about that.

AB: I’m not an expert on MMP. No system is perfect, but I think it’s significantly fairer than what we had previously. Interestingly, there’s going to be a referendum on it.

RH:  What do you think will happen?

AB:  Not sure. It was very close last time.

RH: It was. I think that either it won’t be abolished or this is the last chance to reverse this revolution, this quiet revolution. Am I wrong to think of it that way?

“I am sort of a 65% admirer of Michael Moore. I thought he indulged the worst side of himself in presenting Cuba as the Promised Land in Sicko. But Moore kept his eye on the ball about what happened in the 2000 election and I think it’s dangerous that we haven’t.”

AB: One of the ironies of MMP was a coalition of businesses and conservative interests. Led by a tycoon called Peter Shirtcliffe, they spent a huge amount of money in the lead-up to the referendum demagoguing against it. It’s been argued that it was them putting all that money against it backfired. It’s a popular system. It’s popular among young people, because young people are more liberal, and a more representative system has seen much greater amounts of Maori, Polynesian, young people, women. New Zealand is now one of the most representative democracies in the world.

RH: What about these right-wingers in that little right-wing party, ACT? Don’t they like it too?

AB: That’s the curious irony. They wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for MMP. I don’t understand how that sort of silly cognitive dissonance works.

RH: ACT is against the system?

AB: They have been hard against it in the past. More recently they’ve become less critical.

RH: I bet, I bet. Now that they’ve discovered that the tail’s swinging the dog… I’ve got the feeling Prime Minister John Key understands that his party have actually got ways they can work with people they normally wouldn’t work with. They can pat the Greens on the head and the Greens all purr.

AB: John Key HQ is a very slick operation and they’ve managed to work with other parties, including the Greens and the Maori Party.

RH: It may not get them any more support from people who are strongly Green-minded or Maori Party-minded, but I bet it will get them some from nice suburban ladies who wouldn’t like it if they were just clubbing the Greens like they were baby seals.

AB: Dreams From My Father is very impressive isn’t it?

RH: If Obama’s even a halfway successful President, that book will be a part of the American literary canon. Because it matters not just how good a book is, but who wrote it in certain circumstances. Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs are a part of the literary canon; they probably wouldn’t be if Ulysses S. Grant had not been who he was, just on merit alone. As for Dreams From My Father, I wouldn’t necessarily argue that strictly on its literary merits it deserves to be in the pantheon, but it is a work of genuine literary merit. And it casts more light on the person who wrote it than any other American political autobiography. I can’t think of any parallel to it. You can look at the early writings of Theodore Roosevelt and you get some idea of who Theodore Roosevelt was. You certainly get an idea that he was energetic and protean. But you don’t really get that much of a glimpse into his soul the way you do with Dreams From My Father. Wonderful book.

The Audacity of Hope’s good too. And there’ll be more, if he manages to live through his four or eight years. He’ll still be a young man as a former president, and I expect that he’ll do a lot of writing. Jimmy Carter has made a living as a writer. He’s actually—weirdly, except for Grant, Carter is the only former president who’s made his living as a freelance writer. Partly that’s because he’s chosen not to be on corporate boards and be a consultant to the Saudis, or give speeches for huge amounts of money—the sort of thing that former presidents typically do. And he writes these books himself. And some of them are not bad.

AB: “Rick Hertzberg is the most eloquent defender of mainstream American liberalism writing today,” Michael Kinsley describes Politics. What do you want an audience to take away from reading it?

RH: I guess it’s the idea that you can be fiercely in favour of social justice and what you might call social refinement and tolerance and secular humanism and all the things like that, without being overly moralistic and judgmental about politicians. And that—it’s a small point, but not all that many people make it as boringly and repetitively as I do—that politicians really are not that bad. Actually I think they are, on the whole, better than average people. And that before you denounce some politicians, put yourself in their shoes and imagine—how many of us regularly do things that would enrage our employer and get us fired from our job? And it’s a real problem in the United States more than other democracies, I think, because of how outdated and full of perverse incentives the particular mechanics of our system are, that our system doesn’t properly harness the natural cowardice of human beings. And it should. I like to think—maybe it’s a fantasy of mine—that other kinds of democratic arrangements like the one you’ve got actually take advantage of the banality of politicians, which is just a subset of the banality of human beings generally, to make it come out in the public interest.

You know, the way markets are supposed to work. We have no problem with markets, and understanding that at least in theory, the combined selfishness of everybody can result in some socially advantageous results. But when it comes to politics, we at least in the US, we say, “That guy, all he ever thinks about is re-election.” Well, yeah. That’s supposed to be how it works. He’s supposed to think about re-election, and that way he’ll do what the people want and therefore the people would be able to govern through their politicians. It’s just that our system is shot through with peculiarities that mean that cowardice will lead them to do things that are not in the interests of the people—that are in the interests of some narrow group that has its finger on the jugular. That’s the take away, I hope.

“I’ve got the feeling Prime Minister John Key understands that his party have actually got ways they can work with people they normally wouldn’t work with. They can pat the Greens on the head and the Greens all purr.”

AB: You were working for the New Yorker when Truman Capote was writing In Cold Blood?

RH: There were some internal complaints about that. The New Yorker’s usual rigorous editing standards weren’t applied.

AB: I’m pleased you’ve criticised the brutal treatment people get at LA airport.

RH: I think it was pretty brutal even before September 11, 2001. 9/11 isn’t really an excuse—it was awful before, it got a little more awful after. I hate that; we don’t mean to be so unfriendly, it’s just that there’s no-one being rewarded for being friendly. I assume that here, if a whole bunch of foreigners complain “We don’t like the way we’re treated when we come to your country,” the government will hasten to do something about it. But no, not there. There are a bunch of foreigners, and not that many of them, and not much of our economy depends on it, so why bother?

AB: It’s a shame, because even Republicans who I’ve met and disagreed with, they don’t seem innately hostile and gratuitously rude!

RH: No they’re not. It’s the system of randomly thrown together incentives. So many of our problems in the United States are due to having too many governments. There’s probably a half-dozen governments involved in airports.  And all of them kind of independent of each other, none of them responsible for the whole thing. And this is such a pattern for us. It’s one reason why Americans have this feeling of being over-governed and over-taxed, even though by international standards they’re under-governed and under-taxed. It’s because the whole pile of machinery is so incredibly clumsy. But we don’t think in those terms. That kind of analysis is, I keep harping on about it, but not too many other people do.

AB: I like that Obama is looking at areas where savings could be made, as well as lots of great new spending.

RH: Well, systemic things, like his plans for computerising health records. I’ve wondered for years why we weren’t doing that. It seems a pretty obvious thing that if you can put everybody’s health records in one big database, then unexpected patterns will emerge. Often a drug, for example, is introduced for one purpose and then it turns out to have what are first thought of as side effects to the therapeutic effect, something entirely different. I think we’d be able to find all sorts of patterns about diet and exercise but also about pharmaceuticals and life habits and all kinds of things that either make you unhealthy or make you healthy. And encouraging people to do the things that makes them healthy is a lot cheaper than waiting until they become deathly ill and putting them on life support. I think Obama does have—well, maybe I’m just projecting on him, we do that with politicians we like—but I think he has a sort of systemic view of things, and a longer horizon about cause and effect. So he’ll do something now that he doesn’t expect to see the results of for a couple of years. And he may even have already discounted the short-term political trouble, whatever it is it’s going to cost him, because the ship will come in.

AB: Your op-eds, such as the importance of gun control, are incisive.

RH: Gun control legislation isn’t on the cards at the moment. I don’t know what it will take to reinstate the assault weapons ban. It might require two or three more large-scale massacres, something like that. But Democrats are so thoroughly traumatised by what happened to them in the wake of that particular former assault weapons ban, they stay away from it like a cow staying away from an electric fence. More than they need to. There are plenty of other reasons why the Democrats lost the 1994 election, the one after Clinton was elected. Plenty of other reasons, especially the failure of the healthcare plan. Particular people lost particular seats over that issue.

And it’s the advantage that any group has that is willing to essentially be political suicide bombers over a single issue—there’s obviously 70% of the American public that would like to ban assault weapons, but the 30% who wouldn’t are willing to vote on these issues. They’re willing to put everything else aside and vote strictly on that issue. And we aren’t, the rest of us, the 70%. We’ll vote for somebody who won’t ban assault weapons—just like I voted for, we voted for, Bill Clinton, even though he was for capital punishment. Or said he was for capital punishment; I don’t believe for a minute he was in favour of capital punishment. But he said he was, and well all understood why he was saying that. And we gave him a pass on it. But the National Rifle Association doesn’t give passes.

AB: Jesse Jackson Jr. features in one of Politics’ memorable pieces. He should have been Obama’s replacement, it’s a shame that didn’t happen after Blago.

RH: That was really heartbreaking. I’m not sure how much, how seriously, they take the notion that he did anything wrong. But he certainly got into a lot of trouble. The atmospherics were all wrong, and it was enough to set his career back, whether permanently or temporarily, I don’t know. I had, and still to some extent have high hopes for Jesse Jackson Jr. It just happens that he happens to be interested in the same weirdo issues. I’m on the board of this organisation called Fair Vote that promotes electoral reform, and he was on the board of it. He’s for the national popular vote plan, he’s for instant run-off voting, he’s for proportional representation, all the things I’m for. So it was particularly wounding for me to see him derailed like that. I think he would have been a terrific senator.

AB: It’s not over yet, is it?

RH: I guess not. He’s still pretty young. The Illinois electorate has been known to overlook certain kinds of alleged misbehaviour. He could still have a future.  It’s just a bit farther down the road.

AB: Rush Limbaugh is such an obnoxious figure.

RH: Really so much worse than you can imagine. I do sometimes listen to these guys on the radio, and they are—Rush is not even the worst of them. Michael Savage is probably the worst. Mark Levin is another one who’s hard to distinguish from Michael Savage—they both have a whiny, insinuating, snake-like quality. Rush has a sort of rich avuncular tone. And so if you didn’t speak English you might actually find his voice pleasant to listen to. But with Savage and Levin, you don’t even have to speak English to know that these guys are scumbags.

img_noamchomsky-mattkambicAB: Why is Noam Chomsky still popular?

RH: He’s a niche product like Rush Limbaugh is. I mean, obviously Noam Chomsky is a hell of a lot smarter than Rush Limbaugh, and maybe I’m being unjust to him. I have to admit that I haven’t read his books. I’ve listened to two or three of his very long lectures.

AB: I’m not a fan.

RH: The problem is he always ends up in the same place no matter what the circumstances. And it’s always the evilness and awfulness of the United States and its ruling circles that is the explanation for everything. And I just have a problem with any ideology that no matter what the input is, the output’s always the same.

AB: His worldview seems bereft of nuance.

RH: It does, and in that sense it’s very much like the worldview of the hard ideological right, which also always yields the same output. No matter what you put into it, it always comes out with lower taxes. That’s the answer to every problem. How can the same thing be the answer to every problem?

AB: It seems to me that he’s obviously more intelligent and does more research, but at the end there’s that same sort of ideological straightjacket—almost like Ann Coulter.

RH: That’s right. And you point to your voluminous footnotes as proof that you’re right. Which is actually what you hear Ann Coulter herself point to, her footnotes. The footnotes may all only be to Human Events and FreeRepublic.com, but they are footnotes. The disease happens at the moment, and it has been for a generation, inflicted on the right more than the left. I think there was a time when it inflicted the left more than the right, but not in the memory of anybody under 40 years old. I can remember when left-wing rigidity and arrogance was a genuine problem, but it’s been a hell of a long time since that’s what we needed to worry about. And I don’t see that Chomsky’s got a hell of a lot of influence on the left.

AB: Do you think there’s going to be a significant further-left challenge to Obama in 2012?

RH: I doubt it.

AB: Obviously no one in their right mind can take Ralph Nader seriously, but someone else?

RH: If two things happen—if his economic policies do not produce hope by the next election, if instead it becomes obvious that they were too timid—and if the war in Afghanistan goes seriously bad in a way that causes serious American casualties and Afghani casualties, then I think it is possible that there might be a challenge from the left. Those are not unthinkable ifs, they’re clearly plausible.

AB: Some liberals, like Paul Krugman, have been critical of Obama’s economic policies like the Bailout. I have to confess I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about the intricacies of economics. You’re still fairly happy?

RH: It’s not an area that I have a great deal of knowledge on either, and that’s why in fact my usual analytic tools are not of much use in trying to evaluate Obama’s economic policies. I’m better at telling cruelty from kindness, and good from evil, and effective from ineffective, when it comes to this level of complexity. Of course if somebody comes up to me and frames the issue as, “Well which do you think would be better? Bail out the banks or nationalise the banks?” every jerk of my knee will tell me nationalise the banks. But on the other hand I know that that’s just sort of a leftover ideological automatic response from my childhood, my youth. And it’s certainly not a reliable guide to anything. So I just have to hope that Paul Krugman is too pessimistic.

AB: He’s come around on a lot of the other stuff, Krugman has.

RH:  I guess he was always immune to the charms of Obama. And that has enabled him to be a more disinterested critic of Obama’s policies than those of us who fell in love with Obama. On the other hand I think it makes him a little bit deaf to certain realities that can’t be measured in economic tables, but I don’t know that that means he’s wrong. I tend to think if you tell me that Krugman thinks something, I’m inclined to say “Well that’s pretty good evidence that something is true.”

AB: Everyone makes mistakes, Krugman made a few during the Democratic primary, didn’t he?

RH:  Yeah, but those were the political—he made some bad political judgements in the campaign. When he’s making judgments in areas where I consider myself competent, I value my own judgement—but in areas where I consider myself less competent, not so much.

AB: He was onto Bush earlier than most, and in a brave fashion. One always has to respect that.

RH: One certainly does. Frank Rich and Krugman are kind of lodestars. Frank was wrong back in the case of Clinton, but as far as I can tell he’s been right on for the last five years at the very least.

AB: I like how Rich fuses culture and politics, brings it all together.

RH:  I don’t know how he does it, really. I admire and envy it. If you can weave them together, I think that as Frank has shown, there’s what you might call a market for plucking things out of the cultural zeitgeist and clothing political opinions in them.

AB: Blogger Matthew Yglesias reckons Jeb Bush is going to be president.

RH: It still could happen. He could somehow, if he’s smart enough, figure out how to turn the sow’s ear of being a Bush into a silk purse. He could probably market anti-Bushism as a form of racism. Does Matt say that, really? Well, when you look at the poverty of choice that they have, maybe so. And people will be curious about him. It’s not so much they’ll want to give him a chance, but they’ll want to tune in to see if he’s any smarter than his brother, which he is.  I hadn’t thought of it before your question, but he could actually benefit from being a Bush.

AB: From the bottom of the world, I find the concept of the Bush dynasty bizarre.

RH: If you think of the Republican Party as a sort of India, and the Bushes as the Nehru Gandhi Dynasty, it starts to make sense. Nehru Gandhi’s Dynasty does fine even though every once in a while one of them goes terribly wrong.

“I can remember when left-wing rigidity and arrogance was a genuine problem, but it’s been a hell of a long time since that’s what we needed to worry about. And I don’t see that Chomsky’s got a hell of a lot of influence on the left.”

AB: It was disappointing to see the reaction to the New Yorker’s satirical Obama cover.

RH: I understand the reaction to that cover and I think it was not entirely unjustified. Because the cover—though I think its satiric meaning was obvious to regular New Yorker readers—was flawed as a piece of satire in that the object of the satire was nowhere pictured. And Andrew Borowitz, who writes humorous stuff for the New Yorker, pointed out that if the artist had just put a Fox News logo in the corner of that cover, there would have been no problem. As it was, it sort of invited what happened, which was to be put up on Fox News as a kind of “where there’s smoke there’s fire” thing. “Okay, they may be making fun of the idea, but obviously there’s something to it or they wouldn’t be putting it on their cover!” So I don’t know what we’d do differently if we had it to do over again. Seems to me that there was something about that that was misunderstood, you can’t just blame the people who misunderstand it.

AB: I thought the ridiculousness of it was fairly clear.

RH: I thought so too. Of course I thought it was absurd when people, a couple of thousand people, wanted to cancel their subscriptions. “Well I love your magazine and I can’t wait for it every week but I’m so outraged by this that I’m cancelling my subscription!” I just thought that just failed the test of elementary logic, that reaction. And it was a reminder of the kind of liberal suicidal tendencies that we would like to believe we got rid of.

AB: “Gary Hart has now become the first American victim of Islamic justice. He has been politically stoned to death for adultery,” you wrote in ‘Sluicegate ’88’. Puritanism still seems to swirl around American politics?

RH: It hasn’t gone away entirely. I think there has been some progress. Certainly—I haven’t thought this through—but for some reason on the Republican side, they’ve got plenty of people who have been caught with their pants down and it doesn’t seem to have done their careers that much damage. Obviously David Vitter was caught with a prostitute; there’s Newt Gingrich, any number of embarrassments there. Maybe it’s more harmful to left politicians than right ones, because the right ones are supposed to be selfish bastards anyway. So it doesn’t go against peoples’ expectations. The left ones are supposed to be sensitive males who look out for other people’s feelings.

AB: Is Palin’s sidekick Joe the Plumber going to be around next Presidential election?

RH: Joe the Plumber has reached his sell-by date. He will go down in history, along with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as an example of American political zaniness and bogus populism. Be careful what you pluck off the shelf and present to the public, because sometimes it turns out to be a little weirder than you think it’s going to be.

It’s a symptom of the played-outness of conservatism right now. That doesn’t mean conservatism won’t come back, even if it remains played out. If you don’t like what happens under the Democrats, the only alternative is the Republicans, and if they’re still completely bereft of constructive ideas, that won’t necessarily matter in terms of their political fortunes. But it is interesting to a liberal like me, kind of gratifying to see the Republicans go from this undeserved reputation as the Party of Ideas to a general recognition that they have no ideas.

AB: Al Gore choosing Joe the Senator as his running mate in 2000, wasn’t that the worst decision of his political career?

RH: I don’t think so. I think it was actually a fairly clever decision in itself, a decision that if John McCain had made the same decision with the same Joe the Senator, might conceivably have got him elected President. Gore chose Lieberman for one reason, basically: that Lieberman had attacked Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That was the reason he chose him; that was his selling point. The mistake that Gore made, in my opinion, was once having done that—having established that he, Gore, was not responsible in any way for the Monica Lewinsky side of Clintonism—he failed to then embrace the other side of Clintonism, the part that everybody loved. Having inoculated himself with Lieberman, he should then have gone and given Clinton a great big hug and appropriated unto himself everything that people liked about Clinton. But he didn’t do that.

I fault his judgement for that, but I think it has to be remembered at all times that Al Gore did what a presidential candidate was supposed to do. He won the election. He got more votes. And if you’re going to linger over all the terrible ways that Al Gore failed to connect with the American public, then you also by that logic have to linger over all the terrible ways that John F Kennedy failed to connect with the American public. Al Gore’s majority or plurality was three or four times that of John F Kennedy. And if Al Gore was an out of touch elitist, what about John Kennedy? If what had happened to Al Gore had happened to John Kennedy, then for the next generation we’d hear about the lessons of the Kennedy disaster, and how even after eight years of Republicanism when people were kind of disillusioned with the status quo and wanted something new, Kennedy failed to come through. Why? Well look at the guy, he was an elitist, he went to Harvard, he liked to go sailing off of Cape Cod, he read books, he hung around with people like Arthur Schlesinger, he had a trophy wife, he just wasn’t  a real American. That would be the lesson—not that Richard Nixon had a five o’clock shadow.

AB: Journalism is battling a number of challenges at the moment. Are you hopeful about the future?

RH: No [laughs]. No, although I’m not particularly upset about the present. I know that I do spend an awful lot of time reading blogs, time which hasn’t really come at the expense of reading newspapers and magazines—I just read more in general. And I realise that that’s kind of an unsustainable pattern—it’s a bit like the housing bubble or something. All these blogs I’m reading, which depend for their existence on the newspapers and magazines that they’re leeching off of; and I know it can’t go on forever. I kind of like the way it is right now, but I really don’t have any solutions. I figure it’s not my problem.  You know, I’m old.

AB: You’d happily encourage your son into journalism?

RH: No no no. I’m very relieved that he shows no interest in it. Because he considers what I do to be what he calls a desk job. He does not want a desk job.

Alexander Bisley’s past interview subjects include Robert Fisk, Pico Iyer, and DBC Pierre. Thanks to Christine Linnell for her assistance with this article.

MAIN IMAGE: © Katrina Hertzberg.

ILLUSTRATION © Matt Kambic 2014. All Rights Reserved. Contact: mdkambic@gmail.com.

Filed under: ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews

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Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.