Moderating at the Texas Book Festival by Daniel Oppenheimer

The past four years, more or less, I’ve had the opportunity to moderate panels in the CSPAN2/Book TV tent at the Texas Book Festival. The nice thing about this, aside from just the fun of moderating, is that I get to be on TV.

This year I moderated a panel with Tom LoBianco, author of a new biography of Mike Pence, and Anne Nelson, author of a new book on the Council for National Policy, a shadowy group of hard right funders and ideologues dedicated to turning the US into a lovely melange of plutocracy and theocracy. It was cool (the panel, not the shadowy network).

Self Portrait in Black and White | Sontag by Daniel Oppenheimer

Over at Tablet Magazine I review Thomas Chatterton Williams’s new book, Self Portrait in Black and White. It’s a lovely book, and one of the rare works, I think, that slices the cake of race in a fresh way. I write.

Losing My Cool was a provocative book, much blunter about the toxicity of certain aspects of contemporary young black masculinity than one typically gets from young black writers, but it left in place the conventional premise that being a proud, self-identified black person was the obvious goal for someone like Williams. Self-Portrait rejects the premise. It argues, in a way that could be banal but in fact is fascinating, that the whole project of defining people as black and white (and brown and red and yellow) is bankrupt, and that the extraordinary work that black people have done digging themselves out from under the mountain of slavery, segregation, and discrimination has opened up a small but slowly widening escape route to other kinds of existences. And they should take it.

Over at Kirkus Reviews I interview Benjamin Moser, the author of a new biography of Susan Sontag. I liked that book a lot too, and enjoyed talking to Moser. I particularly enjoyed this story, which is basically every nonfiction writer’s fantasy.

On February 25, 2012, Benjamin Moser got an email with the subject heading: REALLY BIG QUESTION. He opened it, and it was indeed a really big question. Susan Sontag’s son, along with her agent and publisher, wanted to know if Moser was interested in writing the authorized biography of the legendary intellectual, who died of leukemia in 2004.

Chuckles Krauthammer and Susie Linfield by Daniel Oppenheimer

Back in January I reviewed a posthumous collection from the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.

I find Krauthammer frustrating, a smart man and expert craftsman who lacked the intellectual grit to push at, or through, his own defenses and premises. He was forgiving of the flaws of ideological allies but too often dismissive of the intellects and motives of the people with whom he disagreed. He was a close and thoughtful reader within a narrow field but indifferent to the point of ignorance when it came to many of the major intellectual figures and movements of the modern era. He practiced as a psychiatrist for seven years before becoming a full-time writer, but he wasn’t interested in the nuances of human psychology. He was a facile writer of sentences, an excellent summarizer of ideas and a master architect of the op-ed, which is a notoriously difficult form.

But he was a complacent thinker. Krauthammer stopped at the point when things threatened to become too complex or messy. Even his contempt for Donald Trump, which he was admirably willing to bear with him into the lion’s den (i.e. Fox News), ran up against hard limits. Trump, for Krauthammer, wasn’t symptomatic of deeper flaws in our country or the conservative movement. He was an aberration.

For Kirkus Reviews I interviewed NYU prof Susie Linfield about her new book, Into The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. It’s a much better book than the Krauthammer. Someone should excerpt, in particular, her pages on Noam Chomsky’s delusions about Israel and Palestine. It’s fascinating. I write:

If there’s a villain in the book, it is Noam Chomsky. Linfield gives Chomsky his due; in the early years of his writing on the conflict, she writes, he wasprescient in many ways. After about 1980, however, she sees him descending into a flight of wishful thinking from which he has yet to emerge. The forensic analysis that Linfield conducts of this descent is devastating. 

Review: Wesley Yang's The Souls of Yellow Folk by Daniel Oppenheimer

I review Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk for Quillette. An excerpt:

Collectively, the essays paint a fascinating and disturbing picture of pre-dystopian anomie and dissolution. The lonely and angry and oversensitive young men who will, by 2035 or so, have coalesced into roving tribes of bandits and revolutionaries, are—at the moment—only coalescing and pillaging online. They’re self-identifying and tribalizing as masters of seduction rather than masters of destruction. They’re killing themselves, not others, or killing as loners rather than as bands of brownshirts.

Untitled Book on Dave Hickey by Daniel Oppenheimer

In October of this year (2018), I signed a contract with The University of Texas Press to write a short book on the writer and critic Dave Hickey.


I’m a huge admirer of Hickey, and although he has gotten a fair amount of attention, at least within certain circles, there’s still work to do on him. Thus the book. The plan is to release it in 2020.

Here’s a few paragraphs from my proposal, to give you a sense of it:


Twenty-one years ago, Art Issues Press released Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. At the time Hickey, a former editor of Art in America, was well known in the art world but almost entirely unknown outside it. An earlier book of criticism, The Invisible Dragon, had been a cult hit, and over the decades he’d run with a lot of genuinely famous people—Waylon, Andy, Keith, Dennis—but he wasn’t famous himself. There was no reason to believe that this second small book of criticism would change anything about that. In the two decades since, thanks in large part to Air Guitar, he’s won the MacArthur “Genius” Prize, been feted from New York to Vegas to LA, and amassed the kind of passionate adoration, and fierce hatred, that no critic has seen since Susan Sontag dropped Against Interpretation. Both The Invisible Dragon and Air Guitar give off such a charismatic charge that they're still, all these years and printings later, pressed from hand to hand as though the giver is passing along some kind of secret lore. He’s been painted and sung about. He’s written songs, curated shows, and owned art galleries. He’s done most of the drugs that were around in the 20th century. And he’s influenced generations of artists, art critics, musicians, and writers. He’s as loved and loathed by the hipsters at N+1 and The Baffler as he is by the tenured faculty at the Art Institute and the senior editors at Artforum.

At the heart of the Hickey legend are, really, two Hickeys. One is the writer. This Hickey is capable of extraordinary subtlety and vulnerability. He has been a champion of gays, women and other underdogs in the art world, and a dedicated enemy of the “Aryan muscleboys” who would keep them down and out. He masterfully applies haute French theory to the grittiest realms of pop culture, illuminating high and low in the process. He writes catalog essays that pass the most severe academic muster, and personal essays that are among the most beautiful things that have been written, period, in the last few decades. Hickey the writer has exerted a seminal influence not just on art writing but on American art itself, academic aesthetic philosophy, and the general practice of nonfiction writing in America.

Then there’s the other Dave Hickey. The persona. This Hickey can be a crusty, wrinkled old white asshole who likes to say obnoxious things just to get a rise out of those who are easily provoked. The persona has cost him jobs and fellowships, needlessly alienated young artists and writers who might otherwise find his work liberating, and blinded him to currents and relationships in the art world that he himself might find liberating.

It’s both Hickeys that have built, in concert and tension, the legend. In the long run it is the writing that should remain, with the persona informing but never obscuring our understanding and appreciation of the writing.

This book will be the first substantive effort to take on Hickey the writer and thinker. It will explore--stylishly, intellectually, and essayistically--who he is, what he has been saying, what's special about how he's saying what he's saying, and why the world would be better off if more people read and understood his work.

Cop-Watching in Austin by Daniel Oppenheimer

Another long-simmering piece of mine, about Austin cop-watcher Antonio Buehler, went live last week with Guernica, a magazine co-founded by Joel Whitney, a Columbia MFA classmate of mine. An excerpt:

Modern cop-watching is, as the [Black] Panthers were, a movement of the marginalized—the poor, the traumatized, the underemployed, the previously incarcerated, and the ranks of assorted others who don’t give a fuck. This is in part because the marginalized are far more likely to have had traumatic encounters with the police, which is one of the primary catalysts for engaging in cop-watching. It’s also because the marginalized often have less to lose, in the conventional sense, from being arrested, having their mug shots become public record, and spending days or weeks in jail and court. Stalking the police—filming them, provoking them, challenging them not to mistreat others, daring them to arrest you—endangers full-time jobs. It’s often very late-night work, which can disrupt family and professional life. It can threaten one’s social status, if there is status to be threatened. It’s also just emotionally grueling work, in which periods of intense confrontation alternate with much longer periods of boring nothingness.

White Folks by Daniel Oppenheimer

I had a long journey with this piece, which began as a talk I gave at the Clinton School in Little Rock, but it's finally out and I'm really happy with it. It's a review of White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America, which is a really fantastic, and utterly obscure, book by education professor Timothy Lensmire. An excerpt from my review:

Perhaps the most dramatic example of internal conflict shows up in the tug of war Frank describes between his professional persona at the high school, and the role he plays when he’s with his buddies at their weekly poker games. In these “high” and “low” spaces, as Lensmire describes them, Frank encounters radically different incentive structures, and he reacts accordingly. At work Frank feels as though he has to carefully measure every word he says, on racially sensitive topics, for fear that if he says the wrong thing his co-workers, all of whom are white, may tag him as a racist. At the poker games, it’s the opposite. Racist talk is rewarded, and social opprobrium awaits the person who preaches caution. “Maybe I’m not a racist,” he tells Lensmire, “but in that subculture, I’ll go way out on a limb and say some pretty horrible things because I’m being rewarded by other people that are functioning in a subculture mentality.”

One result of this split, for Frank, is his sense that there is nowhere he can talk about race in ambivalent and inevitably clumsy ways. There’s no “middle place,” so to speak, where he can talk through his jumbled thoughts and impulses in order perhaps to arrive, over time, at a more integrated and coherent perspective. In the high spaces, the danger is that he’ll say the wrong thing and be shamed. In the low spaces, the danger is that he’ll shame his friends, if he dissents from their racism. In either case there’s anxiety, confusion, and a fear of shame and rejection.


Reviews in Washington Monthly and The New Republic + bonus conversation with my brother by Daniel Oppenheimer

I recently reviewed Mark Lilla's new book, The Once and Future Liberal, for Washington Monthly. An excerpt: 

As with so much else in The Once and Future Liberal, which is an infuriatingly self-defeating book, Lilla has a good point that is betrayed by its articulation, and is therefore unlikely to be heard or engaged by precisely those who most need to hear it. Who, after all, needs to be persuaded to think, speak, and act differently if the liberal zeitgeist is truly to shift? Who is it that creates and shifts new zeitgeists on the left? Activists, students, teachers, artists, intellectuals, visionaries. Yet the book, depending on the page and chapter, is too abstract for activists, too crusty for students and artists and visionaries, too intellectual for teachers, and too reductionist in its history and theory for intellectuals.

Really engaging any of those audiences, for an old liberal intellectual like Lilla, was going to be hard under the best of circumstances. It would have required that he be as strict with himself, in practicing empathy toward the left, as he wants the left to be in practicing empathy toward the center and right. The Once and Future Liberal doesn’t bear evidence of such an ethic. It seems written too much in haste, and with too much unprocessed emotion. It is too angry at times, too visibly calculating in its empathy at others.

More recently, I reviewed a new biography of Max Eastman for The New Republic (my debut in that august magazine). I write:

Sex, love, romance, and jealousy are not intrinsically uninteresting material. Great novels are made of such stuff. But Eastman’s love life, after a while, wasn’t interesting. It was repetitive and hollow. He liked seducing women. He enjoyed sex. He was good at it. Every so often, until the end, he would fall desperately in love with some fresh-faced younger woman. He would write lyrical letters to her and sometimes even mediocre poems, but he wouldn’t leave Eliena (or later, Yvette) for her. 

When he was young these affairs could be sexy and glamorous. As he aged, they came to seem sad and compulsive. “My love, I would give my soul to lie in your arms tonight,” he wrote to the 24-year-old Florence Deshon in 1917, when he was 34. Twelve years later, at the age of 46, he was making a version of the same speech to the 17-year-old painter Ione Robinson, a protégé of his second wife. A decade later, now 56, he wrote to the 18-year old Creigh Collins: “I want to sit all day in the big arm chair with your head warm between my knees, and poetry, poetry floating around me on your young voice as though thrushes carried its meaning to my ear.” A year later he impregnated his secretary, the 25-year-old Florence Norton. When she asked for his help in getting an abortion, “Max provided a doctor’s address but otherwise became ‘hysterical’ and essentially abandoned her.” While she was getting a “painful, nauseating abortion,” Eastman was at his house in Croton-on-Hudson, safely back in the orbit of his wife.  

My brother Mark and I recently co-authored a dialogue/review about Jeremy Dauber's new book Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. An excerpt:

We can’t answer, then, the question we really want to answer, which is whether Jews have always been funny, and if so, why? But I wonder if we can say something slightly different, less about humor and comedy per se than about the roles that Jews have played, at various times and places, within gentile cultures. And I’m going to refer, as you may have guessed I would sooner or later, to Leslie Fiedler’s great essay, “Master of Dreams: The Jew in the Gentile World.”

The argument is too complex to detail too fully here, but the important point is that Jews in the diaspora, for Fiedler, have compulsively, mostly unconsciously dedicated themselves to understanding their complex Jewish identities in exile, and also their relationship to the lands to which they’ve been exiled, in which they are minorities, often despised and oppressed minorities. The dialectic that results, between the Jewish alien and the culture that sees his as alien, ends up producing not just profound insight into the Jewish soul but into the depths of the alien culture as well. As Fiedler writes, “the Jewish Dreamer in Exile, thinking only of making his own dreams come true, ends by deciphering the alien dreams of that world as well.”

Ooh. Shiny. by Daniel Oppenheimer

This month's Washington Monthly features a review, by me, of Pankaj Mishra's Age of Anger: A History of the Present. This is my favorite part of it, I think:


You may not have seen the commercials for the new Google phone, the Pixel, but even if you haven’t seen them, you’ve seen them. Lots of silver and white and bright colors. Beautiful people of every age, race, and ethnicity in soft, brilliantly dyed natural fibers, to a soundtrack of power pop. A gleaming, seductive vision of a frictionless world in which vibrant landscapes morph into one another, people are running through many-colored effusions of Holi powder, and #technology is the handmaiden of connection and fulfillment. The Pixel ads could be ads for Lexus, Bose, Hulu, or any of the twelve other smartphones that do exactly the same things the Pixel does.

The commercials make me uneasy, as these sorts of ads almost always do—as, in fact, they’re designed to do. They are distillations, in the form of thirty- or sixty-second desire bombs, of the fantasy that with the right stuff we can all have material security, creative fulfillment, control over our destinies, a tribe of cool friends, and a sense of belonging and place in the world.

Mishra is general is a lovely and brilliant writer. The book didn't quite hold together, unfortunately. 

Huge in Denmark by Daniel Oppenheimer

In Exit Right onderzoekt Daniel Oppenheimer de trek van links naar rechts van enkele vooraanstaande Amerikaanse denkers. In Nederland maakten de PVV’er Martin Bosma en de ex-communist Meindert Fennema een soortgelijke ontwikkeling door.

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