Friday, November 7, 2008

A Belated Thought On Studs Terkel

Howard Zinn rightly — and gently — skewers New York Times conservative cultural critic Edward Rothstein for his 'appraisal' of Studs Terkel.

Rothstein wrote, ". . . [I]f you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end. It often seems easy to guess whom Mr. Terkel liked. . . ."

Wow. It's really pretty easy to tell whom The World's Greatest Newspaper likes and dislikes. The Times routinely offers ill-considered and typically not-very-subtle attacks on the people it doesn't like: Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Jimmy Carter come to mind. There are many others. The "Paper of Record" does exactly what it claims Terkel did, but with none of the honesty.

Below is the text of my letter attempting to add to Howard Zinn's response to Rothstein:
Howard Zinn is too kind in his assessment of Edward Rothstein's "appraisal" of Studs Terkel. Rothstein's thinly-veiled hatchet job joins a series of cruel treatments of late progressives. The two that come to mind immediately are literary theorist and Palestinian advocate Edward Said and political philosopher John Rawls. Later Times treatments of both (by considerably better informed and more thoughtful writers) made up somewhat for what initially bordered on cruelty.

Rothstein betrays not just a lack of understanding of Terkel's work but a willful misrepresentation entirely in keeping with The New York Times's treatment of progressives and their causes. The victim need not be dead or even particularly progressive, witness the Times repeated treatment of President Jimmy Carter when he dared to criticize Israel.

Rothstein's take is no surprise coming as it does from a product of the University of Chicago's famously absolutist and conservative "Committee on Social Thought" (probably better called the "Committee on Right Thinking").

That the Times determines to treat progressives or the left so is clear from the glowing treatment of 'moderates' or 'conservatives'. Recall that George Plimpton died at almost the same time as Said. But Plimpton received the white glove treatment.

Rothstein closes his essay with an underhanded, snide attack: "Mr. Terkel presented himself as an avuncular angel with close contact with the salt of the earth, a populist with a humane vision of the world. There are times such gifts are evident, but there are also times when such dreamers should make us wary."

I cannot imagine when a humane vision of the world should make us wary. And in this time and after this election, another dreamer comes to mind. Count me with Studs Terkel, with Martin Luther King, Jr. Count me with the dreamers.

1 comment:

Andrew Patner said...

Both the November 1st New York Times obituary of Studs Terkel, by William Grimes, another University of Chicago Ph.D. (comparative literature), and the review by Dan Barry, a Times columnist, of Studs's last book, Touch and Go, in the Times Book Review of December 9th last year were excellent and nothing at all like Rothstein's malicious nonsense.