On September 6, I opened up my e-mail and found the following:
Dear Robert Farley, I hope this email finds you well.
I am organizing a few discussions on Party of Defeat.
The book has been praised by seventeen members of Congress & Senate.
Have you read the book yet? I would like to send you a free copy and also offer you $1000 to write a critique of it for us, as we are welcoming a different perspective and debate/dialogue on this issue.
My first thought was “Have I read the book yet? Heh.” My second thought was “$1000. That sure could buy a lot of whiskey sours.” My third thought was “200. It could buy 200 whiskey sours, if I go to the right places. Maybe with a few Manhattans sprinkled in for variety.” My fourth thought was “Hey, it could even pay for whiskey sours that I’ve already bought, and that are still hanging around on my credit card balance.” It’s fair to say, then, that I found the offer appealing from the get go.
I immediately IMed Matt Duss, who told me that the offer had been floating around the DC blogging/journalism community for a while. Duss (and others) had given thought to taking the deal, but then decided that engaging with Horowitz would grant him too much legitimacy. This, I thought, was true enough; it was the reason that Horowitz was willing to pay an outrageous sum for lefties to review his book. He was trying to buy legitimacy. The point was to create the illusion that there was something in Party of Defeat that was worth engaging with, and consequently that David Horowitz was a man of ideas, rather than a thug and second rate polemicist. As such, engagement with the work as meaningful scholarship could be fundamentally dishonest, in that it accorded the book a level of respect greater than the typical bar bathroom scrawl.
Then again, I have debts no honest man can pay. There was a certain comfort in the recognition that Horowitz’ effort was transparent; taking the money to review the book was, in itself, subversive of the notion that Horowitz was a serious thinker. Of course, I would accept money to review a book that I had an interest in reading, but I would never read Horowitz were it not for the money. Indeed, had I initially been received the $500 offer that Frontpage is now making, I probably would have said “Thanks, but no thanks.” After all, such an offer would only have netted me 100 whiskey sours, which is hardly worth the effort.
However, there was another issue; Horowitz and his people are thugs. Although my interactions with the contact from FrontPage have been polite, friendly, and completely above board, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that President Lee Todd would be getting a letter at some point about my ideological unsuitability to work at the University of Kentucky. While I’m pretty low on the food chain, Horowitz (not to mention his fans) is pretty unpredictable, and while I didn’t think that he could do any real harm, I didn’t need the threat hanging over me. I discussed it with the Bossman, which reassured me somewhat, and I eventually managed to convince myself that I just wasn’t important enough for Horowitz to bother with.
After a few days (I do have other responsibilities) I sent my correspondent at Frontpage an e-mail asking a few questions about process, editing, payment, and so forth. He assured me that the review would be edited only for spelling and minor grammar errors, and that payment would be issued after the review and a response by Horowitz were published by FrontPage. A reply to the response would be appreciated, but not required. I would have preferred a guaranteed kill fee for the review, but the response was reassuring enough to convince me to go forward. I asked for the book, and received my copy several days later.
And so on a Monday evening I set out for the Mellow Mushroom with Party of Defeat and a yellow notepad. I ordered a pitcher of beer and a pepperoni, pineapple, and jalapeno pizza, and settled in, expected to read roughly a third of the book. And then, about halfway down the first page, I noticed a serious problem with my plan. The. Book. Is. Unimaginably. Terrible. You may think you can guess how bad it is, but you can’t. It’s Benji Saves the Universe Terrible. It’s notes on each of the first seventy pages terrible. It’s spitting up your valuable, valuable beer terrible. There’s just nothing there. It can’t be engaged with, any more than the homeless dude with the tinfoil hat can. It’s a disaster, and I just couldn’t understand how I could possibly come up with a thousand words that could conceivably be termed “engagement”, and still have any pretence to intellectual honesty.
As I so often do, I sought solace in alcohol. I gave some thought to bagging the project, because I didn’t think that the $1000 was worth having to do a genuinely dishonest appraisal. Then again, I’d spent some time and intellectual energy; I also really wanted the thousand dollars. Finally, I latched onto the idea of treating the book as if it were a work of historical fiction, or perhaps even the novelization of some crazy right wing movie. I came up with the following (reconstructed from barely legible scrawls on yellow legal pad):
Horowitz and Johnson have produced what could be a killer script for a political/sci-fi thriller. However, there are some issues that need to be worked out. First, the “liberals” need to have some kind of scientific/supernatural power of persuasion. No one is going to believe that a tiny, unpopular minority could seize control of the United States unless they have some nifty superpowers.
As it stands, the script is entirely devoid of sex. This just isn’t going to fly. As far as I can tell, we have four female characters; Nancy Pelosi, Cindy Sheehan, Valerie Plame, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. At least one of these characters needs to have an affair with some other character; maybe Kirkpatrick and the Shah of Iran? Plame and John Kerry? Even if we’re aiming for a PG rating, we still need some steam.
We also have to start thinking about casting. Is Tim Robbins as George McGovern asking too much? Vinnie Chase is looking for work; maybe we could put him in the role of some young war protester who eventually devours the brain of a soldier? Even better, we could have Johnny Drama as the soldier; nice little in-joke. We might also try to land Alec Baldwin for the Al Gore role; if we can get Angelina for Valerie Plame, we could try to link them together.
It went on like that. After sobering up, it occurred to me that Frontpage would, likely as not, simply reject a submission along these lines. I could complain, but wouldn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on; they were requesting a serious engagement with the book in what amounted to good faith. I’d get a good story, but not much else. So I began to think anew about how I could engage with the work. A couple days after starting the book, I talked a bit with Michael Berube about his interactions with Horowitz. I was reassured that FrontPage would play square, and that I should try to find a way to write a straight response.
After finishing the book and giving it some thought, I realized that what Horowitz was pushing amounted to a conspiracy theory. I could respond to it accordingly, with a variety of the typical tactics that one uses to respond to such claims, including a focus on mechanism, transparency, and so forth. Discussion with a couple of other correspondents convinced me that I needed to say something about Horowitz’ narrow interpretation of democracy, which gave me the opportunity to bring up my one area of mild agreement with the book, which involved the useless “war of choice, war of necessity” distinction. Finally, I decided simply to not engage at all with Horowitz’ use of evidence; factual claims in the book were designed for “truthiness” rather than for truth, and trying to start an argument about Plame or McGovern or Reagan or whatever else wouldn’t be productive. I’d highlight a few howlers, and move on. I finished up the review (about 1600 words, which was more than I’d expected), sent it along to my editors (Duss, Erik Loomis, and the wife), then sent it to FrontPage. They accepted, sent me Horowitz’ response in less than a day (I still haven’t read the whole thing), and asked me if I wanted to reply. I tactfully declined; spending time replying would cut into my profit margin. I’d like to think that I produced an honest engagement with the book, while making clear that I didn’t take it seriously as a work of scholarship.
I expected, when I began, that the effort would take about ten hours; five for reading the book, two for research, two for writing, and one for general nuisance. It ended up taking about seven (3 reading, 3 writing, one nuisance) which comes to an hourly rate of $142.86, which isn’t half bad. When I got the check, I sent $100 to Barack Obama, $50 each to Bruce Lunsford, Victoria Wulsin (running to unseat “Mean” Jean Schmidt), and Joyce Merritt (running for District Judge in Fayette County), and spent $200 on a fantastic steak dinner with the wife. The rest goes to pay for the ghosts of whiskey sours.