Monday, September 13, 2010

Leon Wolf's review of Meghan McCain's book is way over the top (updated)

Meghan McCain

Let me begin by saying that I have not read Meghan McCain's Dirty Sexy Politics and I doubt that I ever will—not because I don't respect McCain: I simply don't have the time. But I am going to review Leon H. Wolf's scathing review of the book anyway. And by the time I am finished, I'm sure you'll agree that no one needs to read McCain's book to see Wolf's review as the sociopathic partisan hack job it is.

Wolf is a RedState blogger. That alone tells you what you need to know about his review. His complaints about the book are as follows:
  1. McCain violates what Wolf considers to be rules of proper grammar, punctuation, and word choice. 
  2. McCain devotes too much space on descriptions of clothing, hair, and makeup. 
  3. McCain's book includes factual inaccuracies. 
  4. McCain does not agree with the political opinions of Leon H. Wolf. 
Wolf's review is roughly 5,500 words long. Roughly 1,100 of those words, or one fifth of the review, are devoted to (1). What terrible crimes against the English language has Wolf decided to bore the reader with? Wolf takes issue with the following passages, among others.
Our room was crowded with our stuff – a total mess, totally trashed with blog equipment, photo stuff, cameras, and all our makeup, clothes, our huge suitcases. We were like animals, like bears who have to litter and mess up their cave to feel it is theirs.
This, combined with the fact that I’m a nonstop extrovert, a people person who loves mingling and gabbing and getting out in the world, a blog that chronicled my days on the campaign – and showed the silliness and madness, as well as the seriousness – seemed like a perfect idea.
These days, the name Ronald Reagan – as well as his legacy – has become oversaturated, just white noise.
It was going to be a tough race. Not much disagreement about that.
Some of these sentences show that McCain's book could have used more editing. (An incomplete sentence here and there is not a big deal, Leon.) But do they show that McCain has "horrible communication skills"? Or that the book is "impossible to read"? Or that it reads like "the first draft of an essay written for a high school English class"? Obviously, no. McCain writes better than many college students. (I know, believe me.)

Not only is Wolf's lecture regarding grammar way over the top, it's insincere. Where is the conservative grammar police when people like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin open their mouths? Their political leaders can massacre the language as much as they want; if you're someone like McCain and you don't share the political views of the Republican Party establishment, however, you'd better not allow even one superfluous comma to find its way into print, because Wolf isn't fucking around. "The entire book is riddled with inappropriate comma use," writes the professorial Wolf. Hey, Leon, did McCain reject your advances at some cocktail party or what? Have a drink and chill the fuck out!

Let's take a look at (2). Here's my question: what is wrong with including descriptions of clothing, hair, and makeup in a book? Even if the book is about politics, what is the problem, exactly? Let's find out from the grammarian himself:
Meghan’s primary goal in writing Dirty, Sexy Politics appears to have been to show off her encyclopedic knowledge of who was wearing what clothes on what occasion. From all appearances, it is physically impossible for Meghan McCain to describe a given scene or occurrence without describing in detail what everyone in the room was wearing (and how their hair was done), most especially including herself. . . .
When not describing the outfits, hairstyles, and makeup of people you don’t care about (most notably the author herself), Meghan’s narrative usually actually descends from the merely tedious to the shockingly banal. 
What's going on here? Well, there are huge numbers of people in these United States who do not find such details to be "shockingly banal." But there is one sad blogger, Leon H. Wolf, who hopes to contribute to the narrative that McCain is some blonde brainless bimbo who cares only about stereotypically female concerns. How do I know? Why else would Wolf write the following?
Or consider the following excerpt on her fondness for the state of New Hampshire, which she certainly composed on post-it notes while giggling madly with her BFFs as they called one another “naughty” about all the bon-bons and tequila. 
How convenient this narrative is to those who wish to discredit McCain and retain their stranglehold on Republican thought, or what little is left of it. It is not up to Wolf to decide what details may be included in a book about politics and what details must be left out. Perhaps you are not part of the book's intended audience, Leon. Had that ever occurred to you? Wolf's second criticism therefore reduces to the complaint that McCain is interested in things that do not interest Leon H. Wolf. How dare her!

Let's move on to (3). This is perhaps the only worthwhile criticism of the book. Wolf notes that McCain includes the following disclaimer in the first chapter:
I checked dates and facts, and corroborated my accounts with friends and family, but my stories are decidedly impressionistic rather than reportorial.
Wolf's response to this is to assume, without argument, that publishing impressionistic non-fiction is strictly forbidden. If we grant Wolf's plausible assumption, a lack of fact-checking is a problem. But one wonders why the tightly wound Wolf would be such a stickler for correct grammar but sloppy in his critique otherwise. Wolf writes:
In other cases, Meghan’s made up facts are demonstrably and embarrassingly false. For instance, in one place, Meghan claims to be proud of her father because he got almost 48 million votes. About 20 seconds on Google will tell you that John McCain got over 59 million votes. If I could do this while fact-checking Meghan McCain’s book, why couldn’t she do this while writing it?
Wolf, of course, fails to mention that McCain's assertion is actually true: John McCain could not have gotten 59 million votes without getting at least 48 million. I think it is fair to expect from Wolf the same rigor and precision that he expects from his political targets. Consider Wolf's uncharitable interpretation of McCain's assertion that "Reagan was 'elected by moderates and Democrats, not the Far Right/Religious Right.'" Wolf writes,
This sentence is correct if you replace the word "not" with the word "and"; as written, it is completely fictional and false. Only a narcissistic fool with no grasp of history or politics would suggest that the Republican party could win nationally (or in almost any state) if they jettisoned Christian conservatives from the coalition, or summarily ignored their concerns.
Wolf's uncharitable reading is made possible by a certain ambiguity in McCain's writing. Obviously, McCain is saying that Reagan needed the support of moderates and Democrats to get elected (which is true); Wolf interprets McCain as saying that Reagan did not have the support of the far right and the religious right. Wolf interprets McCain in the least charitable way, but fails to mention the lack of grammatical precision that made his uncharitable interpretation possible. And it's obvious why. Wolf read McCain's book with the preexisting notion that McCain is an idiot; he did not arrive at that notion as a result of reading that book.

And now (4). Wolf writes,
Meghan’s real talent, however, is not in manufacturing facts, but rather in manufacturing enemies. Sizeable portions of Dirty, Sexy Politics are dedicated to defeating a shadowy conspiracy of Republicans who are attempting to railroad her out of the party. 
Wolf is apparently unaware of the irony of saying this in a review in which he excoriates McCain for her political views. If he wants to know who these Republicans are, he need only look at himself. Here's another. And they are certainly not the only ones.

If you want an example of the sort of political view Wolf trashes McCain for having, here's one. According to Wolf, McCain writes:
I have to wonder, if [Reagan] and Goldwater were alive today and could see where their party has gone in the last decade, what they would think. Somehow the walls closed in. The conservative movement seems hell-bent on constricting our freedoms rather than expanding them. The base has moved to the Far Right and, sadly, it seems to be dying there.
Wolf then asks, "Who’s closed in the walls? What walls? What freedoms is the conservative movement hell-bent on constricting?" Who exactly is the "narcissistic fool with no grasp of history or politics," Leon? Republicans have been fighting to restrict individual rights for decades. I'll give you a few examples. Republicans have been fighting to deny homosexuals the right to marry. Republicans have also been trying to find a way to revoke the citizenship and therefore the legal rights of so-called anchor babies. They have fought to restrict a woman's right to an abortion and therefore individuals' right to privacy. Republicans (and too many Democrats) supported the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which effectively nullified much of the Bill of Rights.

Wolf quotes McCain as saying the following:
Rather than the party of openness and individual freedom, it is now the party of limited message and less freedom. Along with an ideological narrowness, an important PR battle is being lost. Rather than leading us into the exhilarating fresh air of liberty, a chorus of voices on the radical right is taking us to a place of intolerance and anger. We hear them on the radio and TV. They love to spread fear because it keeps the money rolling in. You know who I’m talking about. The more afraid we are, the richer they get. . . .
Somehow, being a Republican isn’t a political decision anymore. It is a lifestyle choice. You have to look one way, think one way, and act one way. Wear the uniform! Embrace groupthink! And for goodness’ sake, no strangers allowed! 
Wolf feigns ignorance and asks, "Who the hell is saying these things, Meghan?" I'll name them for those of us who haven't been paying attention: Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, among others, have been spreading irrational fear of Muslims for political gain; the responsibility-free talkers and bloggers on the right and those in charge of the Republican Party have been insisting on absolute ideological purity and groupthink. Wolf's savage attack on McCain for expressing unorthodox Republican views is itself evidence of such groupthink and what has also been called epistemic closure. None of Wolf's readers will notice this, of course.

How savage can Wolf be? This is a sampling of what he says about McCain in his review:
It is impossible to read Dirty, Sexy Politics and come away with the impression that you have read anything other than the completely unedited ramblings of an idiot.  
It is important to know that I was repeatedly tempted just to put the book down, eat the relatively small price I paid to download it to my Kindle, and silently curse Hyperion for publishing this book. After all, they are the ones taking advantage of this particular idiot’s fifteen minutes of fame by exposing her idiocy for the entire world to see. 
[M]ost of Meghan’s flaws – such as her unbearable narcissism, delusions of persecution, anti-religious bigotry, and mendacity – couldn’t be chalked up to her manifestly below-average intelligence.  These are blameworthy traits born of a malfunctioning moral compass. 
I get the vague impression (through the haze of her horrible writing) that Meghan McCain would like for Dirty, Sexy Politics to be taken seriously as a political book. McCain approaches this serious topic as a person who has accomplished absolutely nothing of note in her life.  
The sad truth is that Meghan McCain is never going to write a book that imparts a basic level of understanding about any topic until she reaches a basic level of understanding about herself.
Even if we grant Wolf's criticisms of the book, i.e., (1) through (4) above, does McCain really deserve this kind of abuse?

If Wolf wished to leave us with the impression that he is an asshole, I believe that he succeeded.

Wolf reveals his real motivation for writing this sociopathic attack in the final sentence of the review:
If you simply must have large doses of poorly-written fictional tripe written by a narcissistic person who hates conservatives and everything they stand for, read Mike Lupica instead. At least he’s smart enough to know which side he’s on.
Such is McCain's punishment for standing up to the powers that be and forgetting her place.

The savagery of the attacks against her indicates the importance of what McCain is doing. McCain is in a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. If Republicans know what is good for them, they will hope that her side wins.

Update. (1) For a valuable critique of Wolf's review from the perspective of an editor, visit Rumproast. (2) Someone posted a link to this post in a comment on Wolf's hatchet job. Predictably, cravenly, someone at The New Ledger removed it this morning. (3) Captain Napalm (see comments) has prompted me to point out that a second comment on Wolf's review containing a link to this post has not been taken down. Yes, more than one attempt has been made to link to this post in comments on Wolf's review. Believe it or not.


  1. Bravo. Funny how angry the unvarnished truth makes some people.

  2. Your words obviously stung poor Leon. Not realising it had already been done, I just now posted a link to this review in his comments section and it was gone within two minutes.

    Well done!

  3. Ah, nevermind. The link is still there, so I don't get to feel oppressed after all.

  4. Thank you!

    Did you see CSBadeaux's adhominem?

    Φ takes issue with Wolf's review.
    But Φ is a C-list blogger who is desperate for hits.
    Therefore, we may disregard Φ's criticisms.

    I think he has a case of facial inarticulateness.

  5. This...has made my entire week. Bravo, bravo!! *claps* *bows* *blows kisses*

  6. What dishonest drivel.

    Wolf is "insincere" because he isn't ranting about Bush and Palin's grammar in a review of a book by McCain? He isn't mocking Obama for saying he visited 57 states either. One big reason would be that this is a review of McCain's book.

    "What is wrong with including descriptions of clothing, hair, and makeup in a book?" Nothing, of course. Criticizing descriptions was not the point of the section of the review you quoted, though. What was criticized was McCain droning on and on about clothing and hairstyles. She wrote a book ostensibly on politics so the intended audience would be those who want to read about politics.

    "Wolf's response to this is to assume, without argument, that publishing impressionistic non-fiction is strictly forbidden." What he actually says is that "[he] would have been satisfied with even one simple “According to The New York Times…” Or something." Reading into what is written what you desire the author to have said so that you can feel good about yourself is not the sign of an intellectually honest person.

    "[...]McCain's assertion is actually true: John McCain could not have gotten 59 million votes without getting at least 48 million." I have to question your literacy at this point. She wrote that he got almost 48 million votes. What this sentence means is that her father got fewer than 48 million votes. This is false. Ignorance of the meaning of a sentence does not make it mean something other than what it plainly said.

    My favorite bit, though, is at the very end: "Predictably, cravenly, someone at The New Ledger removed it this morning." This is not true, of course. But something being a falsehood does not prevent you from uttering it nor, when its falsehood is pointed out to you, do you retract and apologize for your lies.

    Sociopathic, indeed.

  7. Captain Napalm, thank you for taking the time to read my post and commenting.

    With all due respect, I think you're being a bit obtuse in your comments, though I seriously doubt that you are an obtuse person. I am afraid that if I explain to you why I say this, I might simply repeat what I said in my post. So I would begin by asking you to read it again, more carefully this time.

    Regarding my first objection, I am accusing conservative bloggers of hypocrisy. They attack what they perceive to be sloppy use of the language when a political opponent is using it, but their political allies, e.g., Bush and Palin, get a pass. That shows that the attack is motivated not only by concerns about grammar but also by politics.

    In your third paragraph, you complain about the amount of space devoted to hair, clothing, and makeup in McCain's book. What is wrong with this? Sure, the book is ostensibly about politics. How much talk about hair, clothing, and makeup is permissible? Where do you draw the line? And even if McCain crossed the line established by His Highness Wolf, is the abuse he heaps on her really deserved? What did she do to piss him off so much?

    Regarding your fourth paragraph, it is abundantly clear that Wolf objects to what McCain calls her impressionistic approach to the subject matter. But Wolf does not give us a good reason to think that McCain's approach is out of bounds; he simply goes on to point out what she got wrong. (Actually, he accuses her of making up whatever facts she needed, which is almost certainly false.) You might not have noticed that I agreed with Wolf that this is a legitimate complaint, but again, I don't think that McCain deserves the abuse Wolf heaped on her for this.

    And I think you just missed my point in your fifth paragraph. Wolf appears to demand that the writing of others be virtually grammatically flawless. And yet, rather than tell us that certain passages in the book are open to interpretation, he adopts the interpretation that serves his own purposes as if those passages are grammatically sound. This is a subtle point, but that doesn't make it any less true. In addition, before you question another person's literacy, you might confirm that you yourself are fully literate. Anyone who gets 59 million votes gets almost 48 million votes. If I give you two apples, I have given you one apple twice. Strictly speaking, McCain's statement is true. According to Wolf, McCain wrote that her father "got almost 48 million votes." You interpreted this to mean that McCain "did not get more than 48 million votes." Those two assertions are not synonymous, and yet Wolf pretends that they are. If other writers have to be so precise, why does Wolf get a pass here?

    Regarding your final paragraph, someone did link to my post in a comment, which was taken down. Some time later, a link to my post appeared in another comment, and that comment has not been taken down. You assume that a link to my post appeared in only one comment on Wolf's review. But your assumption is false. It must have seemed obviously true to you, though, since I am completely evil, right?

    Thank you again for your comment.

  8. Lesli, thank you. I appreciate it.

  9. I wrote out a decently long reply, but it is telling me that it won't accept more than 4096 characters. I can e-mail it to you, if you wish. I don't care if it is in your comment section or not, so there's no need to do anything special to fit it here. If you're not interested, then that's okay too.

  10. Captain, I am interested, but I prefer not to disclose my e-mail address since I have to blog anonymously. If you don't mind, you could break your comment into sections and post each individually. I myself have had to do that before. I will respond as quickly as I can. Thank you.

  11. So, I guess the Captain just wanted my e-mail address.

    He's not getting it.

    Why are so many conservatives terrified of having a meaningful conversation?


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