Lit Sightings in Political Op-Eds

Occasionally there will be an outbreak of literature sightings amongst political pundits, with columnists and bloggers using novels and occasionally poetry to understand the events of the day. I reported on one such New York Times outbreak a couple of years ago (go here).  There’s been another outbreak of literature sightings in the last couple of weeks.

It started with the Washington Post’s George Will commenting on the nasty Republican primary race between the rightwing David Dewhurst and the extreme rightwing Ted Cruz, won by Crz. (It’s a comment on the nature of the times when the “moderate” in the race (Dewhurst) is calling for for juvenile murderers to be executed.)

The conservative Will, who likes both candidates, finds a great passage in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux to explain the special antagonism that can occur between people with similar views:

The men are so near to each other in all their convictions and theories of life that nothing is left to them but personal competition for the doing of the thing that is to be done. It is the same in religion. The apostle of Christianity and the infidel can meet without a chance of a quarrel; but it is never safe to bring together two men who differ about a saint or a surplice.

Maurine Dowd of The New York Times regularly uses literature to take down anyone who irritates her. Not long ago I posted on how she accused Obama of Hemingwayesque grandiosity. This past week, following Mitt Romney’s problematic European visit, she drew on Ambrose Bierce to compare the Republican nominee to Oscar Wilde:

Mitt’s foray showed some new colors, as he intended, but they were not flattering ones. We now know how little he knows about the world, how really slow on his feet he is, what meager social and political agility he has.

Wherever he went, whatever situation he was in, he remained frozen in himself. It was reminiscent of the stinging review of an Oscar Wilde lecture by Ambrose Bierce, who wrote that Wilde was a “gawky gowk” who “wanders about posing as a statue of himself.”

Robert Shrum of The Daily Beast also had things to say about Romney’s trip and invoked Shakespeare’s Richard II (or maybe the actual Richard):

Romney was programmed to be gaffe-free as he made a political pilgrimage to the Holy Land in search of the holy grail of Jewish votes back home. The programming was almost successful– and it was certainly a direct result of his previous stop on a not-so-grand journey. In Israel, Mitt was supposed to act like a mutt brought to heel after he earned the worst welcome in London since King Richard II was deposed following an ill-timed and inconclusive invasion of Ireland.

In the same article Shrum refers as well to The Ugly American, the 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer:

He has traveled overseas and played the part of The Ugly American. In the novel of that title, the real ugly American was a hero, an unhandsome engineer who actually bothered to understand the Asian nation he was trying to help as it faced a Communist insurgency. But the phrase has come to stand for something else described in the novel—a typology of arrogance and obliviousness that fits Mitt the malaprop: he’s a tightly wound, but conspicuously out-of-touch—a caricature of those Americans the book describes who “go to a foreign country…[and] are loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive; or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.” 

And then there is the novel that has been having an outsized influence on American politics for the past couple of years: Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, whose libertarian budget proposals have twice passed the House and have been adopted by Romney, may have stopped speaking quite so openly in praise of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead once people started pointing out her hostility to Christianity. (I’ve previously blogged on Ryan and his love for the novel here.) But in a video clip that blogger Digby provides for us, the Congressman is clearly drawing on Rand in his distinction between “the makers” (by which he means his party) and “the takers” (by which he means the Democrats). To accompany the video, Digby quotes Fountainhead protagonist Howard Roark’s defense of selfishness:

The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality — the man who lives to serve others — is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit. The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man, and he degrades the conception of love. But that is the essence of altruism.

The GOP has been using a Randian perspective to go after Obama, emphasizing his “You didn’t build that” quote (although it has had to wrench the words out of context to do so). In this vision, Obama stands in for the moochers who are using the power of the government to take away from good enterprising Americans.

For the Democrats, of course, the Republicans are hypocrites who are taking without acknowledging it (whether through corporate tax breaks, society’s entitlement programs, or a society we’ve built together) and are whining so that they can take even more.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, a moderate Republican trying to split the difference, says that it’s all right to be Randian when one is young but that one should acknowledge that one gets help from others when one is older:

In your 20s, for example, you should regard yourself as an Ayn Randian Superman who is the architect of the wonder that is you. This is the last time in your life that you will find yourself truly fascinating, so you might as well take advantage of it. You should imagine that you have the power to totally transform yourself, to go from the pathetic characters on Girls to the awesome and confident persona of someone like Jay-Z…

Great companies, charities and nations were built by groups of individuals who each vastly overestimated their own autonomy. As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.

I don’t know what percentage of executives must operate with a Randian psychology. My son Darien, who runs a small marketing company in Manhattan, is an enthusiastic Obama supporter who freely gives credit to others, even though he has a drive that has dazzled me since he was three.

My main objection to the Republicans using the Rand narrative, however, is that I don’t see it as a substitute for policy. For me, the real question is whether the Romney/Ryan plan or the Obama plan has the better chance of revitalizing the middle class and reducing unemployment. I’m dubious that George W. Bush, the Sequel–which is to say fewer regulations and more tax breaks for the wealthy–is going to do it.

This entry was posted in Bierce (Ambrose), Burdick (Eugene), Lederer (William), Rand (Ayn), Shakespeare (William), Trollope (Anthony) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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