After the Tall Timber, by Renata Adler


I confess that I had minimal awareness of journalist Renata Adler before I read this book—a collection of her nonfiction essays. Perhaps I had read one or two of her pieces in my life, but not that I remember. The name itself was familiar, slightly, but I don’t think I would have even been able to identify her as a journalist.

Then I came across a favorable review of After the Tall Timber, and especially liked the description of Adler herself and her work. When I picked up the book, the Preface by Michael Wolff convinced me all the more that Adler was very much my “type.” The picture painted of her was of someone fiercely devoted to truth, as opposed to the much more common phenomenon of public figures—including so-called journalists and other media members—expressing themselves in pragmatic, strategic ways to further certain consequences (whether ideological or self-interested). (I wrote about this same contrast in connection with the collections of essays by South African essayist Rian Malan.) Here’s how Wolff puts it:

As she presciently described long ago, television talking heads (before they were called talking heads) are spokespeople whose positions can always be predicted; Adler’s cannot because they are not based on membership in a particular club or linked to a commercial persona (or, now, a brand), unlike the myriad pundits whose worth is based on the consistency of their views. What is to be made of the usefulness or intellectual integrity of journalists and commentators whose positions are already known? They might as well never write at all—saving time for everyone. And yet, of course, the market accommodates them, whereas unanticipated views are met with hostility and confusion.

(Note, though, that this may overemphasize the predictability element. An oil company shill (which is to say, an alarmingly high percentage of the people given the opportunity to sway public opinion through newspapers, TV, books, etc.) will predictably say about climate change whatever is best for the profits of his paymasters, while a scientist—even one with ideal integrity, objectivity, honesty, commitment to the scientific method, etc.—might predictably say the opposite, but that doesn’t make them equally despicable. If the evidence is pretty clear about some matter, and I’m convinced that a given person is the type to be willing to honestly go where the evidence takes him or her, I can be quite confident what side that person will come down on. That’s different from a person who is predictably on a certain side because considerations other than an honest assessment of the available evidence put them on that side and they are—like most opinion shapers—lying, unprincipled scumbags.)

The description of her as a truly independent-minded person rather than an advocate was alone enough to interest me, but beyond that Wolff describes her as an excellent, and not infrequently funny, writer, and as someone with the physical courage to put herself in harm’s way in war zones and such as a reporter, and the moral courage to put her career in harm’s way by calling bullshit on even those best positioned to give her grief for it (the rich, the powerful, her employers, her media colleagues, etc.).

Yet at the same time he notes that in person she is something of a meek, timid sort, the kind of woman who instinctively brings out a paternalistic, protective side in men.

So I was intrigued. And I’d say on the whole After the Tall Timber met my now raised expectations.

The first piece—Toward a Radical Middle: Introduction, from 1969—is not in fact a journalistic article, but the introduction to an earlier collection of her writings. (After the Tall Timber is made up of pieces taken from multiple earlier, shorter, collections, as well as some that had not been previously anthologized.) It’s a bit dense, but part of what she is saying in it—after an introductory discussion of how she is from the in-between generation whose members had little collective identity, compared to those just older than her who fought in World War II and those just younger who came of age in the radical ’60s—is that the youthful rebels of the ’60s often lack a sense of proportion.

You can oppose, say, the Vietnam War without insisting that it’s as bad or worse than Nazi genocide or whatever. You can recognize that police brutality in roughing up a college kid at a demonstration is unjust, and still acknowledge that it’s really, really small potatoes compared to the oppression that countless others have suffered in other times and places. You can be justified in claiming we are a long way from an ideal and fight to close that gap, yet still appreciate how much progress has already been made and how important it is to safeguard that progress. “I guess a radical middle, in age and in politics, acts out of a consciousness of how much has been gained, how far there is to go, and what there is to lose.”

Once I got to the journalistic pieces, starting with The March for Non-Violence from Selma from 1965, I immediately appreciated her style. It’s a very no-nonsense recitation of descriptive facts, always well-chosen from among the nearly infinite facts available. Not well-chosen in the sense of skillfully furthering some agenda, but well-chosen in the sense of providing the kind of information, context, and nuance to provide the most insight into the events in question.

She does one of the most important things a journalist can do: she uses words to give the reader the closest experience to having actually been there oneself.

While there’s much that I appreciate about the Norman Mailer/Hunter Thompson kind of participatory or autobiographical journalism, with its emphasis on the personality of the writer and how the writer interacted with the story he or she was covering, I’m glad not all journalists try to do that. There will always be a place also for this kind of straightforward recitation of relevant facts, where the writer never becomes part of the story.

This piece is about a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. It gives you a sense of how the various parties behave—Martin Luther King and the other leaders, the celebrities, the federal government officials, etc., and always the creepy Southern white racists, who seem like the very embodiment of ignorance and irrational hatred.

Fly Translove Airways from 1967 is an in-depth description of the hippie (though she calls them not “hippies,” but “longhairs”; was the former term not in common usage yet?) scene in LA, in the Sunset Strip area specifically. She focuses especially on the younger members of the counterculture cohort, the teens. To some extent they manifest (not surprisingly, mostly simplistic) anti-Vietnam War and anti-Establishment attitudes, but I’d say are focused on music number one and drugs number two.

Law enforcement and the aforementioned Establishment in general seem rather flabbergasted by the turn the youth have taken. They know they don’t like it, but beyond that they seem more puzzled than anything. They react with a certain amount of clumsy oppression—banning dancing inside a club if you’re under a certain age, banning playing a guitar or any other kind of music or entertainment in an establishment that doesn’t have a certain kind of license, enforcing drug laws more tightly, etc.—creating a cat-and-mouse situation where the kids and their supporters adjust to each measure from the powers-that-be, necessitating additional measures to try to regain some semblance of control of the streets.

My assumption reading stories like these is that Adler sympathizes more with the civil rights marchers and the teenage longhairs than with their respective opponents, but that’s probably mostly because I assume any sensible, caring person would than because of the actual content of the stories. She pretty much seems to present all sides as they were. If there’s a “bias” that makes one side sound more justified than the other, I’d say it’s because the facts themselves are uneven, not because she stacks the deck.

It’s not like she shies away from describing the aspects of any individual or group that will put them in a bad light. Many of the kids in Fly Translove Airways, for instance, come across, in certain respects, as immature, irresponsible, overconfident, short-sighted, etc.—which I’m sure they are, since they’re kids after all. But there’s still that sense that they perceive something oppressive and soul-killing about the adult world they are expected to accept and adjust to, and that they refuse to go along with the plan and choose a different path. They are highly imperfect throughout the whole process, and surely make more than their share of stupid choices along that path, but there’s something about that initial break from supposedly unchangeable social reality, the way they make their very lives a protest against the system, that I can’t help but admire.

In any case, this is journalism as history. This is put-it-in-a-time-capsule-and-then-whoever-digs-it-up-will-find-out-just-what-life-was-like-on-the-streets-on-the-Sunset-Strip-in-that-turbulent-age writing, and it’s of great value as such.

Starting with Letter From the Six Day War from 1967 I feel like Adler is giving herself permission to editorialize more in her pieces. There’s still the hyper-realistic and insightful descriptions of who is saying and doing what, but it’s accompanied by more commentary concerning whether their right or wrong in doing so.

Letter From the Six Day War is Adler’s report from inside Israel about the very brief war that Israel won that year in stunningly rapid, one-sided fashion against multiple Arab foes. And as the reporting comes from Israel, it’s very much from the Israeli perspective. We are told how they felt, what they believed, what they feared, how they reacted to events, how they justified their behavior, what cheered them, what upset them, etc. There’s precious little corresponding account of how the Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, etc. leaders and masses perceived things. Nor for that matter do we get the perspective of non-Jewish Israelis, of Palestinians living in Israel.

I find it jarring in a way how clearly she seems to side with Israel, the way she accepts the position that they want only to live in peace, but are an underdog surrounded by irrationally hostile neighbors and let down by supposed allies or neutral arbiters like the United States and the United Nations, that their pre-1967 borders are absurdly and unjustly difficult to defend, how they have no choice but to do what they do or be wiped out. (She cites documents captured by the Israelis supposedly establishing that Nasser intended a Holocaust-style Final Solution to the Israel problem—actual extermination of the Jews—if Israel were defeated militarily.)

I know that’s pretty much required in the mainstream media and in most areas of American society, but I’ve come to expect people on the left—or even a mavericky centrist or whatever she would consider herself—to condemn much of what Israel does, either in addition to or instead of condemning its enemies.

And I’ve certainly become gradually less sympathetic toward Israel over the years. But that didn’t make me resentful of this article. I think it makes points that need to be made, points out things that people need to know. As one-sided as it is, it’s not the whole picture, but it’s an accurate description of a certain portion of the picture. There really are a lot of very good reasons so many Israelis feel the way they do about the Arabs, and about the necessity of being ever-vigilant, and ever-willing to use military force or whatever is called for against those who stand against them.

That doesn’t mean that when you take into account all the evidence then it’ll turn out that the Israelis are always right, only that among the factors you need to consider in weighing all the evidence are the sorts of things Adler includes in this piece.

(I’d really like to hear the other side of that Nasser thing, by the way. I wasn’t familiar with that allegation before I read this piece. Is it really unambiguous that if the Arabs had won the war in 1967 they would have exterminated the Jews of Israel?)

The Black Power March in Mississippi, from 1966 (and hence out of chronological order—unfortunately, since I was interested in following how her writing may have changed over time) brings us back to the civil rights struggles in the South. Here she’s somewhat more critical of the white allies of the Movement, dinging them for their paternalism, for their impracticality, for their limited attention spans, etc.

She also in this piece is dismissive of nonviolence when taken as an absolute rather than as a tactic appropriate for some circumstances and not others. Being a Gandhian I disagree with her, but I certainly respect that position, acknowledge that it’s far and away the most commonly held position even of those who consider themselves supporters of nonviolence (and who isn’t a supporter of nonviolence when it “works” after all?), and that it has a great deal of prima facie plausibility. I just think that there’s a deeper level at which Gandhi was basically correct, that nonviolence is morally superior and obligatory even against a seemingly implacable foe who appears unwilling to “play by the rules” and reciprocate your nonviolence.

But her position is that of course when you’re attacked violently by white supremacists, in a situation where there are no soldiers or cops or whatever present who will take your side and defend you with the necessary violence, that you need to turn to violence yourself, and she admires those in the Movement who recognize that. “When a memorial service in Philadelphia, Mississippi was engulfed by a white mob armed with hoes and axe handles, the marchers fought back with their fists, and no one—not even the vocal pacifists—protested.”

Radicalism in Debacle: The Palmer House from 1967 is an account of the National New Politics Convention, which evidently had some potential to be something serious—many prominent leftist figures attended, with Martin Luther King giving the keynote address—but soon degenerated into “a travesty of radical politics at work.”

“Travesty” is an understatement. The overwhelming majority of attendees seem to be loons or worse—dangerous in some cases, but then again probably too stupid to be as dangerous as they otherwise could be.

It’s the kind of thing you really couldn’t lampoon, because the reality is so ridiculous already. As much as people hate or make fun of the politically correct crowd today, probably only about the 2% most absurd, extremist, out-of-touch, academic feminists and such are as far gone as the average person at this convention.

King is there just long enough to give his speech and then leave, and most folks with any sanity seem to also quickly make themselves scarce when they get a sense of the dynamic at this convention.

The main theme—there are many related lesser ones, including celebrating violence, the more futile and pointless and sure to provoke a backlash the better—is sucking up to blacks. But not just any blacks, but specifically whatever blacks happen to show up to this event expecting to be sucked up to. As Adler points out, the overwhelming majority of blacks wouldn’t agree with what these people are doing and saying, so they aren’t the ones being so eagerly placated.

As Adler also points out, the sucking up is so blatant and extreme that in its way it is just as patronizing as any other white behavior toward blacks at the time is.

For example, a resolution is passed approving in advance whatever demands the convention’s Black Caucus might make. That is, before the demands even exist, the attendees have already decided that they are obligated to affirm them solely due to the fact that black people are making them (or again, that specifically these black people are making them).

And what is this Black Caucus? An informal and frequently changing group of black delegates to the convention, elected by no one, claiming with no particular legitimacy to represent the oppressed black masses, who use threats of violence against any other black person who gives any indication of considering opposing them.

Only the loudest, pushiest, most violent or potentially violent, demagogic black bullies are recognized as legitimate blacks by the white attendees. All others—any blacks who don’t demand that Whitey kiss their ass—are dismissed as Uncle Toms.

It’s important to remember when we’re feeling superior to right wing kooks that in the right circumstances leftists will arise who behave at least as ridiculously.

I’d say, for instance, that the leftists in this story are worse than the typical Donald Trump supporter. They are probably closer in absurdity to the most fringe militia groups, the pathetic, paranoid, gun worshippers lost in their fantasies of saving the country from communist, Muslim, liberal, illegal aliens or whoever they think is oppressing them.

As Adler concludes, again in a decided understatement, “The New Politics, black and white, seems to have turned from a political or moral force into an incendiary spectacle, a sterile, mindless, violence-enamored form of play.”

One final point about this essay to keep in mind, though. It’s not like the people at a gathering like this are somehow representative of the political left of the time. This is a sideshow, and they are the sideshow freaks.

It’s just like the way today the political left is not some monolithic body of aggrieved campus radicals bleating about “micro-aggressions” whenever someone says or does something that deviates one iota from whatever their preferred dogma happens to be. Those people are clowns with little function beyond providing right wingers on talk radio with examples to fire up their listeners. I’ve been reading people who would be considered leftists in periodicals and books, and to a lesser extent following them on TV, radio, and online, for decades, and I virtually never come across people like that.

In order to claim “the left” is made up solely of dogmatic loons, you’d have to argue that Noam Chomsky, 99% of the people who have written in The Nation since I started subscribing to it between 30 and 40 years ago, Rachel Maddow, pretty much all Democratic officeholders, and more journalists, commentators, academics, etc., etc. than I could ever list aren’t leftists, or are insignificant exceptions to the general rule. I don’t always agree with such people, but they’re mostly sane, reasonable, caring people of integrity (which I would not say about the vast majority of whoever their counterparts are on the right), who ought not be lumped in with the contemporary version of the attendees of the National New Politics Convention.

Next, the collection makes its biggest jump away from chronology so far, with G. Gordon Liddy in America from 1980.

Half a dozen years after Watergate ended with Richard Nixon’s resignation, and several years after Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy’s release from prison, Adler spends weeks following Liddy around as he makes book tour stops, is interviewed for TV, radio, and print, gives speeches to groups he has been invited to, interacts with ordinary people who recognize him in public, and spends time at home with his family. She chronicles it all here, in a piece that mostly returns to her earlier style of a high volume of insightful descriptive detail with minimal added commentary of her own.

The press, to her evident disapproval, almost never questions him about the substantively most important matters he was involved in, consistently choosing instead to focus on sensationalism. For example, they’re gung ho about pressing him again and again on his stated willingness to kill enemies of the Administration such as the writer Jack Anderson, and they want to know all about how he puts his hand in a flame to establish his toughness and such—and are quite unhappy when he refuses to demonstrate on cue for their cameras.

Liddy, by this time, is treated as falling clearly into the category of celebrity. It’s like it matters a lot less to the press why he is famous than that he is famous. What was important is that he’ll bring viewers/readers (or nowadays, “clicks”).

Liddy himself comes across decidedly mixed in the article, but probably more favorable overall than I would have anticipated. I know from recently having read John Dean’s The Nixon Defense that even those at the top in the Administration regarded Liddy as a lunatic, and that’s mostly the impression I’d gotten from whatever else I’d read of him over the years—a lunatic or an evil, violent right winger, or both.

I wouldn’t say that from reading this piece I now regard him as not being those things, only that he is perhaps not those things to as high a degree as I’d thought.

The various crazy or nasty things he said or did are still there, and still are important evidence that needs to be included when assessing him. But based on this account, there is more to him, not all bad.

In the time she spends trailing him, he is almost always rational, intelligent, and indeed fairly personable. His family couldn’t be more stereotypical white, middle class professional. His wife is a teacher who has spent most of her career teaching in inner city Washington, D.C., they have kids in college, and their interaction at home isn’t very far removed from the Cleavers of Leave it to Beaver.

In his own way, he’s a man of principle, as many of the people he encounters, including cab drivers and such “regular folks,” compliment him on, including some who add that they disagree with his politics or his Watergate actions. As Adler notes, contrary to the idea sometimes expressed that he’s somehow the quintessential Watergate figure, he actually stands out as different from virtually all of his fellow Watergate criminals in that, one, he made no effort to benefit financially from what he did (not at the time, that is; later he wrote a book about it, and you could argue he exploited his Watergate-based celebrityhood for money), and, two, he didn’t rat or threaten to rat to save his skin.

In some ways he comes across as playing a character, as kind of winking when he gives the press what it wants with some incendiary quote or whatever, adopting the role in public that will maintain his fame and keep the press invitations coming. But then you remember that he spent years in prison when self-interest would have dictated otherwise. So it’s not a put-on, at least not entirely. There’s some sincerity and, as I say principle, to him too.

But, yes, he’s also still a sick individual, so there’s that.

Let me mention another interesting tidbit from the article that caught my eye, part of Adler’s continuing exposure of what’s wrong with the press.

Liddy is the subject for a Playboy interview. The writer of course brings a tape recorder along. Liddy tapes the interview on his own tape recorder, so he’ll be able to prove if anything is changed.

Soon Liddy receives a copy of the draft article to review. He discovers that it bears little resemblance to the actual interview. There’s a little bit of some things he actually said and a little bit that’s a reasonable paraphrase of some things he actually said, but the rest is just plain wrong. Much of it seems to have been made up out of whole cloth. There is much that he never said and never would have said, worded in a way that is totally unlike how he speaks.

He checks his tape to make sure he’s not somehow misremembering, and it confirms that he is correct that the version of the interview the writer has given him is wildly inaccurate.

He responds to the writer to let him know that he has reviewed the article. He explains in detail everything that needs to be changed to make it accurate. The writer thanks him profusely and assures him the changes will be made (with no explanation of why it was so completely wrong to begin with).

Eventually the issue appears with the Liddy article. Zero of the changes have been made. It’s basically a complete work of fiction.

Adler describes Liddy as looking dumbfounded and demoralized in response. Yes, he has the tape as proof that he was grossly misquoted if he wants to pursue anything against Playboy, but it’s as if he’s so stunned by the totality of the fraud that he can’t respond.

Regardless of if you have truth and proof on your side, a major media entity like that that gives itself permission to behave so amorally can be nearly impossible to beat. Going after it would be especially complicated for a sort-of celebrity or wannabe celebrity like Liddy who needs to maintain a certain positive relationship with the media to pursue his ends.

But Ohio. Well, I Guess That’s One State Where They Elect to Lock and Load: The National Guard from 1970 was written after the National Guard gunned down the kids at Kent State and is clearly informed by that and made topical by that, but that particular incident is only mentioned in passing. The article is a broad overview and history of the National Guard.

It’s not a topic I knew much of anything about before reading this article, and I have to say I found it quite eye-opening and a little alarming. I have no idea how true this would all still be—remember, this is a piece from 1970—but evidently at least back then, and pretty much throughout its history up until then, the National Guard was an unholy mess.

There were times, especially early in its history, when it was little more than a place for rich civilians to play like they were in the army. Even when the Guardsmen themselves were not all rich, they routinely functioned as a private army for the rich, breaking strikes and imposing “law and order” on whatever rabble happened to be getting a little too big for their britches.

It’s never been clear why the National Guard even exists. Its leaders have generally insisted that its primary function is as a reserve for the regular military. The problem with this is that the U.S. military already has reserves, so the National Guard has rarely been used in wartime as a military force because there’s no need for it. Not to mention the military’s own reserves are enormously better trained and more capable and have generally performed fine when called upon to participate in a war, whereas on the odd occasion the National Guard has been used in a war it has typically performed atrociously.

Even if in theory it’s not supposed to be, the National Guard’s main function has seemingly evolved into quelling domestic disturbances, such as the race riots and antiwar demonstrations of the ’60s. Unfortunately it is every bit as bad at that as at fighting wars.

I know a “Keystone Kops” reference is the most tired of clichés, but it fits perfectly here. These minimally trained pretend soldiers routinely panic and shoot each other or random unarmed civilians. A recurring problem that Adler describes is that when Guardsmen arrive in a troubled urban area at night they often shoot out the street lights (so the bad guys can’t see as well?), but other Guardsmen a block or whatever away misinterpret that as incoming sniper fire or whatever, and end up just shooting back wildly themselves, killing and wounding kids and old ladies in nearby tenement apartments and such.

The obvious question is why, if it’s so awful at its job (whatever its job even is) the National Guard hasn’t been abolished or drastically reformed. The answer is because it has one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

Next up is Letter from Biafra from 1969. Of all the various wars, genocides, atrocities, etc. of recent decades, for whatever reason I virtually never come across even a passing reference to the war in Biafra (if I had to guess, I’d assume fewer than 10% of Americans today are even slightly familiar with it), but really it was one of the most hellacious of all.

In the ’60s, a few years after Nigeria gained its independence, the people of one of the regions within it (remember, because of colonialism all these African countries were bizarre geographic hodgepodges of no rhyme or reason relative to whatever formal or informal borders had previously existed between tribes and such) sought to split off and form their own country, called Biafra. This precipitated a civil war, with Nigeria seeking to maintain control of the region. The number of deaths directly caused by the fighting, bad as it was, was dwarfed by the roughly two million people in Biafra who died when Nigeria blockaded the entire region and kept out all food and other essentials to starve the inhabitants into capitulating.

Evidently virtually no reporters reported from within Biafra itself, with Adler being one of the very few exceptions. She traveled extensively within the country, speaking with plenty of “regular” people in addition to the authorities.

Though she begins the piece with a discussion of how victims in politics always exist in some gray area where they are neither as angelic as it would be convenient for them to be nor guilty enough to justify blaming them for their plight, she ends up painting the Biafrans as the clear good guys in the struggle, maybe not perfect but 99% pure.

She mentions that there are those—including some in the American press (on the rare occasions that they took any notice of the crisis) and some world leaders—who blame the Biafran leaders’ intransigence for the fact that a settlement was not negotiated long ago, but she doesn’t say what their evidence or arguments are, and certainly what she chooses to report doesn’t at all support such a position.

I suspect she’s mostly right about which side deserves support and sympathy, but I can’t say that with much confidence since you really do get just one side of the story in this article.

It’s an odd situation all around, with different parties not necessarily supporting the side you’d expect. Great Britain and the Soviets, for example, are on the same side (supporting the Nigerian government). I think some of the support for the Nigerian government is motivated by wanting to maintain the stability of the country’s oil supply (which, by the way, mostly comes from the Biafra part of Nigeria).

The British seem to have bought the Nigerians’ assurance that this was a minor internal matter and that with a modest amount of military support they could pacify things quickly and everything would return to normal. As the situation dragged on and got more and more horrific, the British were kind of sucked in, throwing good money after bad, always hoping that the promised end to the conflict was just one more shipment of weapons away.

American black radicals mostly do not support Biafra, though almost certainly they should. The conflict is in part a racial one, with lighter complexioned Muslim northern Nigerians calling the shots in the Nigerian government, and darker, more unambiguously black African Biafrans on the receiving end of the genocidal violence. But American black radicals have by now developed a tendency to associate themselves more with African Muslims than other Africans, so they tend to rationalize the Nigerian government’s actions.

All this is according to Adler’s article. Again, I don’t know if there is a good case to be made on the other side of any of these claims.

Of course it’s all horribly sad and distressing, all the more so since the Biafrans themselves—as Adler presents them—are so consistently reasonable, sometimes surprisingly cheerful folks, fighting only in self-defense.

Let’s also give a shout out to the Catholic and other religious-based charities that are by now about the only people left making the heroic effort to provide food and other assistance to the dying Biafrans—often at enormous personal risk (which is why they are about the only ones left) as the rest of the world either supports Nigeria’s genocidal terror or ignores the situation. There is a great deal to criticize about religion, and all told I’m convinced it has brought more total evil than total good into the world, but I’ve also long maintained that it can at times motivate people to do very, very good, very, very difficult things. Rotten human traits tend to be far more prevalent amongst religious believers than in the general population, but I’d say there are certain positive traits such as compassion, altruism, putting principle before self-interest, etc. that are also at least somewhat more prevalent amongst religious believers.

A Year in the Dark: Introduction from 1969 is the introduction to another earlier collection, this time of Adler’s articles written as the New York Times movie critic for a little over a year in 1968 and 1969. There then follow multiple essays from that book, though not including any actual reviews but instead some of her occasional non-review movie-related pieces.

On Violence—a very short piece—argues that the more graphic violence there is in a movie, the more the movie functions as a glorification of violence, regardless of the intent. So an anti-war movie that tries to convince the audience how awful war is by showing the ugliness/scariness/immorality of its violence is doomed to fail. Negative demonstrations of that kind don’t work in movies.

It’s an interesting claim, but I don’t know how true it is. Perhaps there would be some way to test it—though probably quite vague and imperfect—but here it’s just offered as armchair psychology, as something that intuitively seems to Adler like it might well be true. As such I wouldn’t say it carries much weight.

Next up are three pieces Adler wrote based on a visit to Cuba—titled collectively Three Cuban Cultural Reports with Films Somewhere in Them—about the state of Cuban cinema under Castro.

Adler notes that movies are taken very seriously in Cuba, much more so than, say, television, in part because so many people, especially in rural areas, don’t even own a television. Yet there is somewhat less censorship of movies than other kinds of art or media.

There are a few interesting points made as Adler interviews various contemporary Cuban filmmakers and such, but it feels like kind of a letdown after topics like Biafra. Not that it isn’t important stuff, but it’s hard to react very deeply to it after the intensity of Adler’s death-defying visit to Biafra after it had been almost completely cut off from the world, to report on the enormity of the human rights crisis that was occurring there.

House Critic, the final piece from A Year in the Dark, is Adler’s controversial takedown of Pauline Kael, the longtime New Yorker film critic.

Unfortunately I’m not in a good position to judge the critique, because I’m not sufficiently familiar with Kael’s work. I know the name quite well certainly, am aware that she is probably as powerful as any recent movie critic (or I suppose any movie critic ever), and have the impression that she is very highly regarded by most people who are knowledgeable about films and film criticism. But while I’ve read a piece by her here and there, I have never been a regular reader of hers and have not read enough by her over the years, or read what I have read closely enough, to have much of a sense of her strengths and weaknesses.

But Adler savages her, calling a recently released anthology of her reviews “worthless.” (Presumably she means that literally rather than as hyperbole, since one of her criticisms of Kael is her tendency toward hyperbole.)

She doesn’t like Kael’s prose style, her bullying efforts to act like she’s speaking for some consensus of all right-thinking folks when she expresses an opinion, her tendency to make vague statements that superficially seem like they might well be insightful or at least bold but in fact don’t have any discernible meaning, her love of movie violence, her constant use of sexual allusion, metaphor, and wordplay as if it’s somehow funny or admirably frank and taboo-busting when in fact it’s just creepy, her cheap shot insults, her refusal to apologize for or even acknowledge her not infrequent factual errors, and on and on.

The Justices and the Journalists is Adler’s review of The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong from 1979. The Brethren is an insider account of the Supreme Court, kind of the judicial branch version of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men.

She doesn’t like it, to put it mildly. For one thing, it contains too many errors of facts and law. For another, it relies excessively on unnamed sources. (Adler’s position, and I largely agree, is that keeping a source anonymous should be a last resort sort of thing when there is no other way to get the story, and even then only if there would be some serious risk of harm to the source or others if his or her identity were revealed—not the kind of standard operating procedure it is for Woodward and his style of journalist.) For another, it too confidently attributes emotions and thoughts and such to people based on at best indirect evidence of modest quality.

But there’s also the problem, in her view, that in spite of the fact that the authors hype how “secret” the court is and thus what an exposé this book is, what matters about courts—the decisions and the alleged justifications of the decisions—are fully public. If you want to criticize what they do, you have every opportunity to criticize it on the merits, since they are right there in front of you and the world.

Beyond that you’re just engaging in ad hominem, unless your investigative journalism turns up proof of actual criminal conduct or corruption, which The Brethren doesn’t. Instead it focuses on gossipy stuff about who liked whom, and who said what disparaging thing about whom behind his back, etc.

I see where she’s coming from, and I’m at least partly convinced, but then again I think there is some value—beyond the titillation of idle gossip—in knowing more about the very human, fallible process by which Supreme Court decisions are made. Unfortunately, for the reasons she brings up, The Brethren is of dubious reliability, but in principle I’d like to know such things as how the justices are influenced in coming to their decisions, including by each other, and how justified or unjustified that influence is.

The Extreme Nominee from 1987 is Adler’s take on the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination. She regards him, with good reason, as alarmingly extremist.

She also thinks it’s a misuse of language to call him a “conservative,” since his judicial philosophy does not value preserving tradition and precedent and such, but calls for radical departures from established norms.

Of course it all depends what you mean by “conservative.” I’m inclined to look at the people who self-identify as conservative and who are most often referred to as conservative by others, and to infer the meaning of the term by seeing what those folks tend to have in common. Based on that, I would say that at least as the term is currently used and has been used in my lifetime, a “conservative” is someone who prioritizes the interests of those who already have the most money and power. So if you look at any significant public policy struggle where one or another type of underdog is trying to better their lot in a way that will or might disadvantage those who currently are on top, the “conservative” side will pretty much always be the side opposing the underdog (though ironically, and infuriatingly, it has become rhetorically routine for conservatives to claim underdog status when they seek to defend and expand privilege).

In that sense, Bork is a quintessential conservative.

Canaries in the Mineshaft: Introduction from 2001 is yet another introductory essay to a previous Adler collection of writings.

This is quite an interesting critique, and lamentation, of the state of modern journalism. It’s a long piece, and a damning one. I’ll mention just a few of the many worthwhile points Adler makes.

She opens by reviewing how blatantly the government lied to the press, and thereby to the people, about the first Iraq War, and how even as that became clearer and clearer in retrospect the press virtually never explored that, neither to accept responsibility for their own failings that allowed them to be so exploited as messengers of deceit nor to condemn the government for its lies. It pretty much just brushed it all under the rug.

She again addresses the issue of anonymous sources. She notes that the justification for protecting the anonymity of sources—when it can be justified at all—is that it allows the relatively powerless (the whistleblower types who would potentially lose their job, be at risk of being killed, etc. if they openly told what they knew) to share information they otherwise wouldn’t dare reveal, but that it’s now used most often by the powerful when they deem that leaking something secretly would best further their interests. Prosecutors, the FBI, high government officials, etc. strategically leak things anonymously, and the press dutifully cooperates in their doing so. All of which she finds appalling.

It has become increasingly difficult, she claims, to find truly objective (her preferred term is “uninflected”), fact-based reporting anymore. It’s all subtle commentary or advocacy. Part of the problem, she thinks, is the rise of celebrity journalism. It used to be that hard news rarely came with a byline; now it almost always does. So reporters strive to make their voice stand out, to be perceived as individuals, not as anonymous representatives of the institution they are reporting for.

Much of the piece is an extended critique of the New York Times, an examination of how badly it has deteriorated. She also tears into Bob Woodward pretty good, since he epitomizes so much of what she despises about modern journalism.

She contends, for one thing, that he just flat out lies a fair amount. She doesn’t believe his claim to have snuck into the hospital room of William Casey to obtain a famous quote from him about Iran-Contra (the security was too tight, and Casey would have been physically incapable of speaking by then anyway), and she thinks that Deep Throat was a composite of multiple sources (insofar as he wasn’t made up entirely) and that all the cloak-and-dagger stuff about how Woodward and Deep Throat would signal each other with flower pots and meet in the middle of the night in parking garages and such was fiction.

In Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal from 1976, Adler speculates on why Nixon really allowed himself to be pressured to resign, since she’s convinced that the various crimes and scandals and such that were exposed under the umbrella term “Watergate” would have been insufficient.

Even though I’ve read a fair amount about Watergate and I’m sure I have more knowledge of it than the average layman, I really don’t know it inside and out the way I feel I would have to in order to evaluate this essay. So I neither found it convincing nor easily dismissible. I suppose if you put a gun to my head I’d lean toward disbelief, as it all comes across as just a little too conspiracy theoryish.

What she comes up with overlaps to an extent with Robert Parry’s thesis about Watergate in the recent America’s Stolen Narrative. He claimed the reason Nixon wanted surveillance and such of his political opponents is that he felt vulnerable on the matter of his having secretly conspired with the South Vietnamese to make sure the Vietnam War news on the eve of the 1968 presidential election would be poor enough to hurt the incumbent Democratic party, and he wanted to know who knew what about that that they might be able to use against him.

Adler believes that Nixon not only conspired with the South Vietnamese for political gain like that, but that there’s a very good chance he was basically bribed to do so, for example extending the war unnecessarily in 1972 when he was going to slaughter McGovern regardless, so that the corrupt South Vietnamese leaders could line their pockets awhile longer, and kick back some of those ill-gotten gains to Nixon himself.

Decoding the Starr Report from 1999 is Adler’s take on the report by independent counselor Ken Starr on the Monica Lewinsky affair and other matters that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Of course I was aware of this stuff, but it’s not something I followed in great detail at the time, so much of this piece was new to me.

Adler is scathing in her discussion of Starr and his conservative cronies. She makes a convincing case that they deserve all the abuse she heaps on them if not more.

It isn’t that they operated in certain gray areas, but that they blatantly lied, violated the law, violated oaths they had taken, violated their professional code of ethics, and even violated the Constitution.

The whole thing was a fishing expedition. Despite using unethical and illegal methods, they were unable to come up with any impeachable offense in the areas they were initially supposed to be investigating—the suicide of Vince Foster and the Whitewater real estate investments—so they kept expanding their inquiry hoping to eventually come up with something else.

The something else they arrived at was the President’s affair with Lewinsky. Neither this, nor for that matter lying about it, is an impeachable offense either, but the goal was to cause so much embarrassment and scandal as to cripple the President politically, induce him to resign, or indeed to get him (improperly) impeached.

Adler compares it to J. Edgar Hoover having secretly taped Martin Luther King having extramarital sex and then leaking the tapes to various officials, members of the press, and King himself to destroy King’s reputation and ideally provoke him into committing suicide.

The most chilling part of the article is the description—from the transcripts in the Starr Report—of the abusive interrogation of Lewinsky herself. Everybody even remotely connected to this travesty should have been disbarred, if not sent to prison. Among the many egregious and even unconstitutional things they did was that when she unambiguously stated she refused to talk to them further without her attorney being present, they continued interrogating her (or really berating, threatening, deceiving, and intimidating her, as there was little in the way of actual questioning) and prevented her from contacting her attorney.

A Court of No Appeal from 2001 recounts the controversy over Adler’s book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker. Mostly it concerns a single sentence in the book (wherein Adler states that she turned down an opportunity to review the autobiography of Judge John Sirica—of Watergate fame—whom she identifies as corrupt rather than the hero he is almost unanimously made out to be, and as someone who was close to the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy and had ties to organized crime) to which the New York Times took great offense.

The Times proceeded to publish ten separate articles bashing Adler and the book, many focused on that single sentence. This stimulated a mob attack by the press on Adler as everyone from Bob Woodward to The Capital Gang expressed just how appalled they were by Adler’s unconscionable libeling of such a great man.

Remind me never to cross Renata Adler, by the way. She devastates her opponents. In this case she takes the Times apart piece by piece, citing all its people’s lies and unprofessional behavior. She then lays out more than enough facts—mostly from Sirica’s autobiography itself—to justify the sentence that caused all the ruckus.

Irreparable Harm from 2001 is about the Supreme Court decision that gave George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore. Adler disagrees with the decision, to put it mildly: “No matter where you look at [the decision], you find something specious, mischaracterized, incoherent, internally inconsistent, false.”

Among the many problems with the decision, the worst and most far-reaching one, she says, is the way the Supreme Court greatly overstepped its authority and damaged the balance of power among the three branches of government.

The Supreme Court absolutely shouldn’t have taken the case, she says. In doing so, it violated clear procedural rules of how a disputed election like that is to be settled, or at least who gets to decide how it is to be settled. It’s a matter that is up to the state, and if the state cannot decide—e.g., if two sets of electors are chosen by different entities within the state claiming authority—then the ambiguity is to be resolved by Congress.

That the Court—or at least the five-member conservative majority—issued an intellectually dishonest opinion is bad; that it took the case and issued any opinion is worse.

She says a lot more about what was wrong about the decision; this is a good piece to read to refresh one’s memory as to some of the most egregious aspects of this low point in American history.

An interesting curiosity in this article is that she somehow finds an instance where the execrable Justice Antonin Scalia was right about something. He was the lone dissenter in a case from 1988—Morrison v. Olson—that upheld the independent counsel law, a decision she contends was both wrongfully decided and the first link in the potentially Constitutionally catastrophic chain that led to Bush v. Gore. She quotes at length, approvingly, from his dissent.

Her objection to the independent counsel law is that it basically gives a court-appointed entity authority over the Executive branch, which, again, upsets the balance of powers.

The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing from 2003, the final selection in After the Tall Timber, is another piece in which Adler laments the decline of the New York Times.

One of its biggest sins, in her eyes, is its unwillingness to admit error. Its Corrections column is a joke, focusing on misspellings and such and never acknowledging the paper’s many substantive errors—e.g., its reporting of the Wen Ho Lee case, when it acted as an agent of the prosecutors hounding an apparently innocent man. Indeed the column’s not issuing legitimate corrections is worse and more misleading than if it didn’t exist at all in that it implies there is nothing in need of correction beyond the trivialities on which it focuses.

On the rare occasions the Times has no choice but to acknowledge error in some form—e.g., the Jayson Blair case where one of its reporters made up or plagiarized much of his reporting—it spends about 99% of its time patting itself on the back for all that it did right and vowing that it will not allow its superb writers and editors to be smeared through guilt by association due to the wrongdoing of one person.

I’m glad to have explored Adler. She can be vicious, but mostly in a good cause with the evidence and arguments on her side.


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