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A wild ride on the left


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000

The Nation is a national treasure. Since its foundation in 1865, the year America's most devastating war finally dragged itself to an exhausted end, the magazine has told uncomfortable truths the rest of the country's press do their damnedest to ignore. It has afflicted the comfortable, comforted the afflicted and attacked enough sacred cows to hold a community barbecue. Small, poor, progressive and aggressively non-glossy, The Nation's mission is, as Gore Vidal says, "the enlightenment of a citizenry usually most comfortable when lolling in absolute darkness."

So for those who missed enlightenment the first time around, The Nation has kicked off its own publishing imprint with a collection of rabble-rousing essays from the magazine. The Best of The Nation, edited by Victor Navasky and Katrina Vanden Heuvel (publisher and editor respectively) is like a cocktail party thrown by the Merry Pranksters of the intellectual left. Together in one volume you get playwright Arthur Miller, novelist E.L. Doctorow, columnist Molly Ivins, historian Eric Hobsbawm, feminist Susan Faludi, former Angry Young Man Christopher Hitchens, legal scholar Patricia Williams, poet Allen Ginsberg and enfant terrible Michael Moore. The cream of the punditry is also here, holding forth on subjects such as capital punishment, Big Tobacco and one of the burning questions of American journalism: Does Maureen Dowd actually have opinions? Readers -- even habitual Nation readers -- may find themselves alternately shouting "Right on!" and hurling the book across the room in a rage, but there's not a weak-kneed, flabby-gutted, muddle-headed piece in the collection.

Conservatives claim liberals aren't funny, but that's an outrageous slander (and besides, when was the last time anyone laughed with the Heritage Foundation?). Screenwriter Douglas McGrath's "Prez v. Uptight Re: Boldness Gap" is a hilarious mini-epic written entirely in the strangled syntax of George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st president of the United States and sworn enemy of the English language:

"During a meeting with Atwa re: next week's election, took extensive notes, but afterward I saw they were all doodles: "Vision thing . . . Bold gets old . . . Old Boldie . . . old bald Boldie . . . ' Went outside to throw horseshoes but was so distracted he threw one through the window and hit Q.

"Q., who thinks everything is a loyalty test, said, "Good shot, sir!' "

And then there's Molly Ivins, from whose word processor brilliant one-liners drop like ripe peaches from a tree. In her "Notes from Another Country," she reports on the 1992 Republican Convention, deadpanning "Many people did not care for Pat Buchanan's speech; it probably sounded better in the original German."

Of course, The Best of The Nation is not all fun and games: the ravages of global capitalism, the rightward march of the United States and the rise of violence and hatred around the world are dealt with by a number of contributors. British journalist John Pilger takes us inside the under-reported war in East Timor, showing how the West has turned a collective blind eye to the terror and slaughter the Indonesian government has been visiting on this forcibly annexed colony for more than 20 years. Marc Cooper, who worked as President Salvador Allende's translator, takes us inside contemporary Chile, a nation still struggling with the murderous and corrupt legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. And on the domestic front, there are essays from historian Eric Foner on how opponents of affirmative action miss the simple point that white males have been privileged in American society for 300 years, and documentary-maker William Greider on the waste of potential that was Bill Clinton's "lost presidency."

One of the most provocative pieces takes pot-shots at The Nation's own brand of Ivy-educated, middle-class liberalism: Michael Moore's "Is the Left Nuts? (Or Is It Me?)" passionately deconstructs how American progressives ignore working people in their philosophical arguments over Cuba, the spotted owl, Afrocentrism and feminism. Moore, best known for his film Roger and Me and his confrontational interviews with gay-bashing clergy, plant-closing captains of industry and admirers of Linda Tripp, attacks America's left for ignoring the real issues that marginalize and disempower citizens: " "The people' are already way ahead of the Left. After years of being downsized, right-sized, re-engineered and forced to work longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits, they already know from their personal experience that our economic system is unfair, unjust, and undemocratic."

Moore is justly critical of The Nation's brand of high-falutin' progressivism. But it's hard to find fault with this collection. It's a shame that it covers only one decade of the magazine's long and distinguished history, but maybe there will be others; voices from earlier in the 20th century, maybe even from the 19th century, too, would be wonderful to hear. Still, this is a hefty (and lefty) volume, a repository of clear writing and acid opinions, a wild ride of an omnibus, packed to bursting with luminous writing from one of the great forces for intelligent democracy left in America.

The best of The Nation

Selections from the Independent Magazine of Politics and Culture

Edited by Victor Navasky, Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Gore Vidal

Thunder's Mouth Press, $18.95

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