A few months ago in the pages of the Washington Post, Michael Kinsley wrote a piece about the dominance of conservative authors on best-seller lists. He rejected all the usual excuses that liberals give for the success of conservatives in the marketplace—that liberals read more broadly and don’t care about “tawdry best-sellers,” that conservative networks and foundations are somehow causing books by Bill O’Reilly and Bernard Goldberg to become best-sellers, that conservative books are more about personalities than ideas. Kinsley comes to the conclusion, albeit tongue in cheek, that conservatives have become the tweedy, pipe-smoking thinkers that liberals once were and that liberals “have more important things to do than read books.” In short, he says, there has been a role reversal.
Kinsley is onto something, but it goes much deeper than he thinks. Liberals are now exactly what the conservatives of old were once accused of: intellectually bankrupt, prone to abstraction, and eager to censor ideas that they don’t agree with.
Still, Kinsley makes it seem as if conservatives have had an easy time of it in the marketplace, with multimillion-dollar foundations and TV networks supporting them. He forgets that liberal foundations outnumber their conservative counterparts ten to one and that conservatives really only find a voice on one network (Fox, and only after they were shut out by the big three for decades).
Kinsley also doesn’t address the bald censorship of conservative books in the elite media and in bookstores. This was never more evident than earlier this year when Spence Publishing, a conservative outfit in Dallas (full disclosure: they published a book of mine), made public some e-mails it had gotten from bookstores around the country. The e-mails were chilling in their totalitarian impulse: One told Spence to “stop sending your brochures” because “we don’t sell fascist books.” These are not books read and tossed in disgust. These are books being banned.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m a free-market capitalist. If a bookstore doesn’t want to stock a certain title, bully for them. It’s the sanctimony of these “free-speech crusaders” that’s so galling.
Of course, this is the kind of censorship that’s de rigueur in the media and publishing politburos of America. As a result, both speech and large portions of our history are either forgotten or whitewashed.
Try this thought experiment: Imagine that a New York publisher is approached about reprinting the work of a forgotten black journalist. The journalist, who died in 1977, was once one of the most prominent writers and thinkers in the country. He wrote several books—fiction as well as countless essays and columns. Known as “the black H.L. Mencken,” this man was at the vortex of black history for his entire life, from his service in the segregated Army of World War I through the Harlem Renaissance, which he witnessed firsthand, as well as the civil rights movement and the tumult of the 1960s.
According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, he was “one of the first black journalists to gain national prominence in the 20th century.” “Because of [his] unique position in the black press, the strength of his satirical style, and the diversity of his subject matter,” the Dictionary says, “numerous newspapers and magazines sought his work until the late 1960s.”
In our era, when publishers are anxious to put out books on black history—indeed, when “African-American Studies” and “African-American Literature” command separate sections at Borders—you’d think a volume of works by the writer described above would be a sure thing.
But there’s a problem: George S. Schuyler was America’s first black conservative.
This may seem to have nothing to do with Kinsley’s essay, but in reality, it strikes to the heart of it. It’s hard not to think that Schuyler (pronounced “Skyler”) has been forgotten as the result of a deliberate neglect. For example, last year, Random House republished Black No More, a satirical novel by Schuyler about what would happen if blacks could change their skin color at will. But why did Modern Library reprint this novella and not the much more substantial, interesting, and historically relevant Black and Conservative? Further, when the Modern Library in 1999 compiled essays, poetry, and fiction from the three great black journals of the early century—The Messenger, The Crisis, and Opportunity—why was Schuyler’s only contribution a piece he wrote when he was still a socialist in 1923?
I’ve since asked several publishers about releasing Black and Conservative. The few that responded traded in the kind of PC-speak that the Left has made famous. One told me bluntly, it’s a “mixed market” project.
This heavy-handed weaselese is what has destroyed the Left. In his brilliant essay on George Orwell, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth,” the critic Lionel Trilling described the great writer as a “truth teller”—a virtue that cost him friends among the Left, which preferred the lies and abstract evasions of communism. For many on the Left, it’s easy to be for peace and brotherhood and rights and diversity so long as one doesn’t dismantle P.C. pieties. Conservative books address problems on the ground—and with an honesty and freedom Kinsley’s “liberals” won’t allow.
Now if we can only get them into bookstores.