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PUSHING BACK LIBERALLY! Anita Dunn pushed back against Fox. Herbert follows suit against Conan: // link // print // previous // next //

We were grateful: We were grateful this weekend to Francine Prose, for her new book about Anne Frank.

Why were we grateful? Explanation below. But first, a few remarks about what is found in Prose’s new book, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife.

We think Janet Maslin does a good job describing this book in her New York Times review. Prose “believes [Anne Frank’s] book to be a masterpiece written by a complicated artist who died too young,” Maslin writes. Prose does indeed refer to Frank’s “genius”—her “literary genius”—at various points in her new book. We had not known, till we read Prose’s book, that Anne Frank, in her last year of life, went back and rewrote her entries from two years before, turning the diary of a 13-year-old child into something quite different—a skilled writer’s memoir. Anne Frank self-consciously wanted the world to read her work—and she may have had a glimmer of her own genius. (“God knows everything,” a friend used to joke. “But Anne knows it better.”)

Prose shows, in some detail, the way the 15-year-old deepened and illuminated the passages she had written two years before—in some cases, before her family was forced into hiding. Maslin mentions this point early on, when she summarizes the contents of Prose’s new book:

MASLIN (10/1/09): Ms. Prose uses her formidable powers of discernment to write incisively about many facets of the Ane Frank phenomenon, from the life itself to the various ways in which it has been willfully distorted. And although Ms. Prose jokes she could hear friends opening magazines as she expounded on Anne Frank over the telephone, she turns her thoughts into a lively and illuminating disquisition.

If there is a central point about Anne [Frank] here, it is that she was a precociously self-aware writer rather than a spontaneous, ingenuous diarist. It takes a real writer, Ms. Prose points out, to hide the mechanics of her work and make it sound as if she is simply talking to her readers. Similarly, it takes a gifted explicator to make it sound as if she is presenting her arguments conversationally rather than creating elaborate, research-heavy diatribes to back them up.

“When Ms. Prose writes about the book, she pays careful attention to Anne's set of revisions and to what they reveal about her writerly choices,” Maslin writes a bit later. “She admires the diary's way of using small household details to reveal each resident's character and underscores how ably she transformed those around her into larger-than-life personalities.”

We were struck by something else as we read Prose’s work—the remarkable number of antique stories present in the history of Anne Frank and her family. This precious jewel hidden among us? When the Franks were arrested, their banal arresting officer naturally wanted to transport their cash and jewels to his superiors. Finding the satchel which held Anne Frank’s work, he dumped its contents out on the floor so he could replace it with trinkets and cash. The hero’s return? When Anne Frank’s father miraculously returned from the camps, he learned that Miep Gies, who had hidden the Franks for two years, had gathered his daughter’s discarded work and kept it in her office desk, hoping for his family’s return.

We started reading Prose’s book on Saturday afternoon. That same morning, we had read the latest consummate drivel from the empty mind of Gail Collins—the kind of drivel which has done so much harm to this country’s interests in the past twenty years. That afternoon, we were grateful that Prose had actually given us something worth reading—and thinking; and caring—about.

We were deeply struck by the contrast. The next morning, there was Maureen Dowd.

More links: For Joshua Hammer’s review from this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, click this.

For excerpts from Prose’s book, just click here.

Special report: Pushing back liberally!

PART 1—WHERE DO OUR NARRATIVES COME FROM: Anita Dunn did the world a favor when she challenged Fox this weekend. But first, Bob Herbert’s column today—which starts with Conan O’Brien.

It isn’t just the Fox News Channel which is suddenly being challenged. People are even asking questions about our comedy elite:

Today, Herbert starts a column about urban misery with a slight side shot at O’Brien. O’Brien has been on a jag of late, telling jokes about crummy old Newark. Herbert lists a string of the jokes, then pushes back with this:

HERBERT (10/13/09): Conan seems like a nice fellow, and I doubt that he harbors any malice toward Newark. But he and his audience are having fun taunting a city that, like many others across the U.S., is in a desperately tragic situation: poverty-stricken, run down, often unsafe, its children and teenagers in too many instances going nowhere fast.

Herbert seems like a nice fellow too—and God knows that people like Herbert never really criticize folk like O’Brien. Later, Herbert semi-excuses Conan again. (“Conan was just trying to be funny, but the reality behind his late-night humor is horrifying.”) But we were glad to see that Herbert was actually annoyed by Conan’s light-hearted humor. Later in the week, we’ll also say it’s worth considering the Monica jokes that Letterman and Leno both told.

In some ways, this is a typical Herbert column. The author lists a string of major problems—without making the slightest attempt to say how they might be addressed. But in suggesting that our major comedians might give some thought to their subject matter, we think Herbert offers a public service—just as Anita Dunn did on Sunday’s Reliable Sources.

Ever since the press waged war against Clinton, then Gore, the liberal and Democratic worlds have done a very poor job pushing back against this type of misconduct. Granted, it was harder to do in the Clinton/Gore years. On Sunday, Dunn went after Fox alone; it the 1990s, the bull-crap was much more widespread. It was hard to distinguish the mainstream press corps’ Clinton/Gore-trashing from that of its conservative counterparts. (On at least two major occasions during Campaign 2000, Bill O’Reilly took the lead in defending Candidate Gore. Chris Matthews, Jack Welch’s best boy, took the lead in the insults and slanders.)

But in Dunn’s remarks on Reliable Sources, the Democratic Party has finally made some full-throated claims about somebody in the press corps. Voters have heard conservative claims against the press since Hector was a liberally-biased pup. In pushing back liberally against the press, Dunn served the public interest.

Last night, O’Reilly devoted several segments to pushing back against Dunn. Needless to say, Juan Williams was utterly baffled by what Dunn had said; so was Bernie Goldberg in a later segment. Earlier, Special Report’s all-star panel had been utterly bollixed by Dunn’s remarks too. (In that instance, Williams was joined in his incomprehension by Charles Krauthammer and Steve Hayes, a pair of conservative stalwarts.)

We were glad to see Dunn pushing back—just as we were glad to see Herbert clearing his throat at Conan. Can we talk? Narratives enter the public’s mind from a variety of sources. Due to the weakness and failures of the liberal world, the public has very few tools with which to evaluate the ideas it gets from its pundits—and from its comedians. Should we fact-check comedians? Of course we should, though many have rolled their eyes at the notion. Meanwhile, Fox apologists draw bright lines between their news and their opinion programs—as if people who offer opinion should never be criticized either.

Duh. Comedians and opinion commentators should both be fact-checked when their facts are wrong. Beyond that, both groups should be critiqued—and criticized—for the topics they choose to stress. But alas! Over the past twenty years, liberals and Democrats have often left this sort of thing to those on the right. The public has been handed conservative frameworks—very few from those on our side.

In the past week, pundits have rolled their eyes at the thought that comedians should be fact-checked. As they do so, our weak-minded pundits show us, again, the weakness of the analytical tools now driving our public culture.

What types of critiques should be brought against Fox? What critiques should be brought against our comedians? Pundits have fumbled both questions in the past few weeks. But then, you live in an unintelligent land—a land which may already have become a full-blown idiocracy.

Tomorrow—Part 2: Dunn on Fox

Why we laugh: “Conan was just trying to be funny,” Herbert writes, “but the reality behind his late-night humor is horrifying.”

Why do we laugh at what is horrifying? Uh-oh! Immediately after reading Herbert, we read David Brooks’ new column. In an interesting piece about brain research, he describes the ways of the tribe:

BROOKS (10/13/09): Many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds. The anterior cingulate cortices in American and Chinese brains activate when people see members of their own group endure pain, but they do so at much lower levels when they see members of another group enduring it. These effects may form the basis of prejudice.

Conan seems like a nice fellow, Herbert says. But when we laugh at his Newark stuff, we’re laughing at “members of another group.” Let them eat cake! Let them endure pain, our cingulate cortices tell us.