Thursday, August 7, 2014

Good news everyone! Perlstein's at his tipping point

I've been following the release of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, the third book in historian Rick Perlstein's four-book history of the modern conservative movement. (I was working my way through the first two some four years ago.)

Perhaps because the right-wing smear-merchants have honed their skill set since 2010, or perhaps because they could look the other way when the truth about Goldwater and Nixon got laid out in almost quotidian detail but they're not going to sit idly by and watch anyone reduce Saint Ronnie to human scale again, the rightwing defenders of the faith are after Perlstein with everything they've got, at a level of acrimony that the first two books never excited.

It's reminiscent of the toxic gifts of Karl Rove when he was at his peak, because they're attacking Perlstein from the side of his greatest strength: They're questioning the fundamentals of his scholarship by accusing him, wildly improbably, of plagiarism. (A handy guideline established during the Clinton era: If Republicans accuse their enemies of doing something, it's a safe bet they've already been doing it themselves. We continue.)

The claim is preposterous. But then so was the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004, and look how well that succeeded. Still, for a variety of reasons – The attackers' claims are more specific and more easily refuted with the documentation at hand? This sort of organized smear-campaign just looks and sounds (and smells) too familiar even to most of the mainstream media who will greatly the commercial and critical fate of The Invisible Bridge? – the attempts to drag the book and its author down are getting a fair amount of play, but they're not being taken very seriously, despite the aid and comfort lent by a disgraceful on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand review from The New York Times (you can easily find the link yourself).

Readers can disagree in good faith about the wisdom and utility of removing citations from the physical book itself and putting them online (Me? I'm evidently in the minority: I don't want to have to read it with my wifi tablet at my elbow, but I will.), but one thing is clear: The source notes are there, online, searchable, and click-throughable. Hence Perlstein, who seems to have been caught by surprise by this hatchet job (again, thanks so much, NYTimes.) can avail himself of the classic defense in such a case: The truth. (Plus the fundamentals of copyright law.)

You can read Slate's David Weigel's account of the general story here and the exchange of hostile and threatening letters (from Perlstein's chief attacker, currently Ann Coulter's publicist) and bemused but firm replies (from Perlstein's attornies) here.

I just want to point out one bit of data and note a historical parallel.

First, the conservative attackers can whine all they want, but Mammon is going to smile on Perlstein.

Second, there is some precedent, going back to 2003, for the situation Perlstein finds himself in, and it invites optimism:
Al Franken got the glad tidings while vacationing in Italy. He had fallen asleep reading "The Tipping Point" and mulling marketing ideas for his forthcoming "Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," when a friend staying in the villa walked into his bedroom and woke him up. "Al!" he said. "You're being sued by Fox!" After a second-and-a-half of considering this, Franken responded: "Good!" Then he fell back asleep.

If Fox's intention was to break a large, undercooked ostrich egg on its corporate face while pouring streams of golden ducats into Franken's pockets, it carried out its plan to perfection. As everyone who pays attention to such matters knows by now, a judge laughed its copyright-infringement lawsuit (Fox claimed it trademarked the phrase "fair and balanced") out of court -- even adding insult to injury by warning the right-wing media behemoth that its ownership of the phrase it claimed to have spent $61 million developing was extremely dubious. And sales of Franken's book soared sky-high on the publicity, hitting #1 on Amazon's list Thursday.
Here's wishing Rick Perlstein a good night's sleep.

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