I recently had several blog posts on the Ch*nese Virus published as an article in The Unz Review. That raised some eyebrows among my progressive friends, and even some less-progressive ones. So here is a note explaining my affection for the Review.
Some people find The Unz Review objectionable and others find it simply lacking in quality. I am a regular reader and admire not only its aspirations, which cohere into a basic idea, but also the multiple nature of what it “is” in practice. Let’s consider what the multiple meanings of the word “is” is, in the context of the larger idea that animates the effort.
The big idea: we need alternative viewpoints. I heartily agree since my skepticism of the mainstream press, which was mild Bernie Goldberg-style around the turn of the century, has curdled into contempt and incredulity. The mainstream press is corrupt and non-credible, and so we have a correspondingly higher need than ever for alternative viewpoints.
But does Unz provide this in useful fashion? Well, what does Wikipedia say? In its pseudo-objective way, Wikipedia refers to The Unz Review as “a website that promotes anti-semitism, Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories, and white supremacist material.”
Ouch. Strong words. Verdict?
In the parlance of Snopes:
“Mostly”, because there is some truth to the Wikipedia charges.
Not that Wikipedia is a fair arbiter of these things. Perhaps this marks me as an Unzist conspiracy thinker but the facts suggest that Wikipedia is not the encyclopedia-for-all-by-all that was the original
version vision. It is a pretty secret place, with important material managed closely by a small number and with message manipulation a pretty easy thing. And is there any reason to doubt that the value of a people’s encyclopedia, ubiquitous and universally available, was not spotted long ago, perhaps as long ago as its founding?
But I digress, sort of.
So as to the “mostly false”, here’s one true thing. The Review does publish a good deal of writing on “conspiracy theories”, and some of that qualifies as “promotion”–i.e, it is not objective analysis but takes a point of view. My snide comments about on how Wikipedia may be
a closeted intelligence operation an unreliable narrator might suggest that some conspiracy-inflected thinking these days is probably a good thing.
In that regard, Unz does a good job on, say, Wikipedia. Still, I don’t agree with some of the conspiracy stuff at Unz.
Take Paul Craig Roberts. He’s a guy with serious career cred. According to Wikipedia(!) :
He was the United States Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under President Ronald Reagan and – after leaving government – held the William E. Simon chair in economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies for ten years and served on several corporate boards. A former associate editor at The Wall Street Journal, his articles have also appeared in The New York Times and Harper’s, and he is the author of more than a dozen books and a number of peer-reviewed papers.
Roberts can persuade on certain issues, especially ones related to his expertise. But he has an Alex Jones-like certainty that mass killings like the Newtown school shooting are staged events, something that would require massive on-the-ground deployment and management of “crisis actors”, manipulation of medical records, connivance of police and hospital employees, corruption of both reporters and the news establishments they work for, and so forth.
Show hard evidence and let’s talk. But where is the real evidence? Would it be that hard, really, to find?
My response to apparent flights of fancy like Roberts’s is pretty straightforward: put on your shoes, the ones with real shoe leather, and spend a week or two in central Connecticut. Surely the intelligence agencies have not commandeered the entire region, replacing the good housewives of Newtown and environs with CIA Stepford clones, every PTO meeting, every book club a fabrication.
Surely a little shoe leather expended at coffee shops and hospitals would result in some interesting leads, or even reveal an odd reluctance to speak, were the charges to have any truth to them. Even if the new versions of Woodward and Bernstein are Stepford hacks, and even if the old ones had their own quiet ties in secret places to nudge the Watergate story forward, there is something to be said for the old version of Woodstein, at least as lionized on screen. Get out of the office and ask questions!
Let it not be said Fenster does not practice what he preaches on this subject. When the media were running with a story about a “masturbation booth” in Manhattan, Fenster put on his leather shoes and, unlike the supposed news sites who ran with the story, went out to investigate. The story was bogus, though even after “exposing” it right here on Uncouth Reflections, the tall tale continued to appear here and there.
So Roberts ought to do some actual reporting before he makes such serious allegations. Still, his charges did not undermine the Republic–that job is being done effectively by others, as Roberts can point out effectively when his tinfoil hat is off. So while I tend not to read Roberts at Unz it does not bother me in the least that he is there.
Another partial truth relative to Wikipedia’s allegations: the Holocaust. The Review has run articles on Holocaust denial, some sympathetic to the notion. But “sympathetic” can mean many things. The Holocaust has become an untouchable subject. All of the facts about it and all of the approved context around it are deemed to be true, and inside some kind of sacred circle.
I see the need for the sacred but have often observed that what you make sacred you seal off, thus permitting, or indeed encouraging, rot. Ventilation is (almost) always important. Criticism is, as the word suggests, critical.
While some “denialists” dispute the fact of the murder of Jews others would like to examine the number, or consider the murder in the context of other systematic murders of non-Jews, or review now-forgotten and possibly unfairly discredited historical writings to provide new context. These efforts are IMHO all-too-often dismissed as anti-semitism.
Most of the Holocaust revisionism pieces at the Review are written by the (Jewish) Ron Unz himself. He doesn’t come at the subject as a “white” debunker with an axe to grind or to wield, but for the most part does what he does generally: analyze available material, including historical material that has been shunted aside, to take a fresh look while being open to alternative explanations.
I don’t find his Holocaust revisionism especially persuasive (though on other matters, like college admissions, his approach yields stellar results). But I don’t see challenges to any official narrative in this day and age as a threat to the Republic, and Unz is less a promoter than a close reader and questioner.
The rest of the Wikipedia charges don’t withstand scrutiny and suggest some bad faith. The “white supremacist” lingo is lazily trotted out. That’s crap. The hardest pieces in that vein that appear on Unz might be deemed arguments in favor of the legitimacy of white identity as a fair counterpart to the identity politics so rapturously embraced by other groups. But these are not common. For his part, the too-often reviled and very-often secretly read Steve Sailer–whose exemplary work brought me to Unz in the first place–considers himself a “citizenist” and has little use for white identity issues, except as objects of analysis for his fertile mind.
For the record, I made an attempt at making distinctions along the bell curve of toxic ideas–both sides of it– here. Distinctions are important.
As for the “promotion of anti-semitism”–show me the record, please. Wikipedia adds some footnotes where this charge appears, as though to buttress the claim. But these lead only to mainstream criticisms of Unz. Now, there is plenty of material at the Review that is critical of Israel and of Jewish influence. Whether these things qualify as “anti-semitism” depends, as with the matter of the word “racism”, on one’s definition of the term.
While I recognize the definition of these terms are elastic and that under the broader definitions favored by the mainstream media they may indeed apply to all manner of phenomena. But I myself would not use the term “anti-semitic” to describe material in Unz critical of Israel or Jewish influence, whether the articles persuade or not.
Moreover, at the between-the-lines level of rhetoric, the Wikipedia entry suggests quite clearly that the Review is far right verging on Nazi. Yet the Review carries a very heavy dose of what can be called Alternative Left articles too–some of which are no surprise critical of Israel.
I hesitate to use the word “alternative” here because the left-tilting articles on Unz are, to my mind, the true left, the left before it was corrupted by a “progressivism” built on identity politics, with such identity politics in turn a tool by which the moneyed interests running the Democrat party shield themselves from criticism, and maintain the false image that they are the legitimate heirs to left principles. They are not.
The left-leaning articles in the Review carry on venerable left traditions: skepticism of the military-industrial complex, distrust of intelligence agencies and concern for average Americans. The right-leaning articles and the left-leaning article in the Review do not often agree in the particulars. But 1) they agree a lot more often than one might think, and 2) even when they do not agree they share common concerns–a shared interest in the issues that are most important.
It’s not always the answer that is most important; it’s what you talk about, and how you talk about it when you do.
It is in this sense that The Unz Review is, IMHO, just the coffee-house we need right now. Yes there are cranks here and there, full-time or part-time. But the benefits of opening the Overton Window way outweigh the risks.
Sure, one cannot have a fully open Overton Window all the time–“fighting words”, fire in a crowded theater, etc. But there is a time and place for opening the window more and a time and a place to shut it to keep out drafts that may contain viruses that we, or some of us, would find harmful. Despite our current viral obsessions, it is my strong belief that as regards ideas (as opposed to cooties) our official media system is far too-buttoned up and controlled.
One of Unz’s singular contributions is as a chronicler in a series of articles of what he calls “American Pravda”. You should read ’em all, even though most are wordier than, well, this post. I guarantee they are more valuable.
It seems undeniable to me that the mainstream press presents a severely truncated, indeed intentionally truncated, approved version of the world. That may be the result of a vast conspiracy or it may be more how things happen among like-minded people of a neoliberal persuasion–which is to say, most of our elites. Either way it is constricting, and alternative views will inevitably struggle to get out. That process will be messy but it is necessary.
If and when we get to a point where the new breezes coming through the Overton Window carry dangerous idea viruses then let us consider shutting it a bit, with a preference to shutting it using suasion rather than methods that bruise and batter the Constitution.
But that is not the world we live in now. Right now we need alternative voices.