Lately it appears that the New York Times Book Review is trading in stereotypes that support the basic ideological assumptions of American life. Or maybe, I’m just starting to notice it.
About two months ago, OpEdge analyzed a book review that used the not-really-a-super-genius biographical subject of the book under critique as proof that super geniuses are also madmen, a common stereotype that supports the ideological assumption that it’s bad to be smart and that smart people have social adjustment problems and are unhappier than the average person. The stereotype is false and the ideological assumption—big-banged into us constantly by mass media and entertainment—is not only also false, but serves as a false model for our youth.
The NYT Book Review is at it again this week, publishing a review of a new biography of Karl Marx in which the reviewer presents another false stereotype as gospel: that political radicals are dirty, flighty, loud-mouthed moochers.
Let’s allow the reviewer, Jonathan Freedland, an editorial page columnist for The Guardian of London, to hang himself with his own words:
"The Karl Marx depicted in Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing, meticulously researched biography will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics. Here is a man never more passionate than when attacking his own side, saddled with perennial money problems and still reliant on his parents for cash, constantly plotting new, world-changing ventures yet having trouble with both deadlines and personal hygiene, living in rooms that some might call bohemian, others plain ‘slummy’…”
The key words come at the beginning: The Karl Marx depicted…will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics. That sets the scene for Freedland’s description of the hippy of hippies who, worst of all, is living off his folks.
Of course, Freedland is right that most radical political groups have some loud ne’er-do-wells who could bathe more often. In fact, I’ve seen them at every political demonstration that I have ever attended. They have certainly been part of the Occupy protests.
But I’ve also seen smelly wide-eyed hippies at adult chess tournaments.
I’ve seen them at churches and synagogues.
I’ve seen them on every college campus I have ever visited. I used to see one or two slip out of the offices of the Young Republicans when I was in college.
I’ve seen them at public meetings, ball games and parades.
But these other places, institutions and organizations where humans of all sorts collect and interact don’t get tarred with the label of producing people who "are saddled with perennial money problems and still reliant on his parents for cash, constantly plotting new, world-changing ventures yet having trouble with both deadlines and personal hygiene…” (well maybe chess, an intellectual game to which weirdness is also unfairly attached.)
The most subtle aspect of Freedland’s cheap shot at the left is that the smelly hippy in question is Karl Marx. First of all, placing the stereotype in the context of discussing the life of the leading theoretician of communism limits the definition of “radical” to the left.
Freedland expresses a coy shock at learning that Marx fits what he calls a “recognizable pattern.” By applying the pattern narrowly to left-wing radicals, Freedland tries to make the left less palatable, just as all the images of intellectuals as socially inept make cracking a book and learning something less palatable.
Freedland wraps a neat bow on his ideological package by declaring additional shock at learning that Marx is not some revolutionary icon, but a “genuine human being,” to use his words. Yes, I’m confident that Marx is presented as more human than symbol in the book under review, Karl Marx, a Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber.
But in Freedland’s review, Marx comes off as an unsavory but buffoonish cartoon character.
Of course, that’s the image that the mass media wants us to have of the left.