Questions about a new book on the Right, and NPR’s misstep in reviewing it

Reader Cesar called my attention to an Internet fracas I’d missed. You can read a bit about it in the Wall Street Journal, though it’s behind a paywall unless you’re a subscriber. Judicious inquiry may allow you to find their piece.

The book at issue is a new one (published on June 13 of this year) and a finalist for a National Book Award: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean, a Professor of History at Duke University. The WSJ’s reporter, who didn’t read the book, gives what seems from other sources (including the Amazon summary) to be an accurate summary:

 The book, which your humble correspondent has not read, is an attack on Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, a pioneer in “public choice” theory, which holds that government officials act out of self-interest just like everyone else. Ms. MacLean’s, umm… contribution to the Buchanan story is her argument that the Nobelist was the author of a “diabolical” secret plan to subvert democracy and favor rich white people.

The book is more than about Buchanan; it apparently purports to show how his work laid the groundwork for a vast right-wing conspiracy—whose colluding perpetrators supposedly include the Koch brothers—that wants to take over American politics and economics. A piece in Vox, which is highly and unusually (for a left-leaning site) critical of MacLean’s left-wing book, gives a bit more summary:

That brings us to Nancy MacLean’s much publicized, heavily praised (in some quarters) recent book on public choice economics, Democracy in Chains, which focuses on the role of Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan. Public choice economics is an approach that asks how special interests can seek “rents,” or income unrelated to economic productivity, by getting self-interested bureaucrats and government agencies to regulate in their favor. It examines the impact of institutional rules on economic outcomes, usually from the standpoint of an assumption that market processes naturally align with the public interest but governmental processes do not.

MacLean’s book, published by Penguin Random House, has been hailed as a kind of skeleton key to the rightward political turn in American political economy by intellectuals including the journalist Jamelle Bouie, who says he came away from the book “completely shook”; the novelist Genevieve Valentine, who says on NPR.org that the book demonstrates a “clear and present danger” to US democracy; and writers at publications such as Slate and Jacobin.

The Vox piece, as I said, is surprisingly critical of MacLean’s book, and calls its piece “Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them.” The problem, as described by the WSJ, Vox, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, involves MacLean’s scholarship: exaggeration, lack of evidential support for her claims, unfounded conspiracy theorism, and even out-of-context and fabricated quotations.  Here’s one example of the criticism from the Chronicle:

Case in point: an essay by Russ Roberts, a libertarian economist affiliated with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who hosts a wide-ranging interview-based podcast, EconTalk. Roberts picked up Democracy in Chains after people suggested he have MacLean on the show. He was stunned by how she had twisted the words of a George Mason economist, Tyler Cowen, depicting him as a revolutionary bent on undermining democracy. MacLean quoted Cowen as writing that “the weakening of the checks and balances” in the American system “would increase the chance of a very good outcome.” But, as Roberts points out, Cowen’s full sentence had read as follows: “While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” Such misrepresentations, Roberts says, are “unfair and bordering on dishonest.”

Now MacLean has her defenders, too (see the Chronicle piece), and she’s also published in that venue an interview defense of her book, in which she claims that she was bullied by a right-wing mob (though criticism has also come from the left and center), and implies that the attacks were coordinated.

At any rate, I haven’t read her book and so can’t comment personally on the fracas. What I can comment on is National Public Radio’s (NPR’s) review of the book on its website. The review’s author, Genvieve Valentine, describes herself as a “novelist . . and comic book writer”; she apparently has no training or expertise in history or politics and her fiction appears to be mostly fantasy and science fiction.

That’s a strange choice to review a book on politics and economics, just as it was strange for several British venues to use people lacking expertise in evolutionary biology to review A. N. Wilson’s new book debunking both Darwin and his theory of evolution. It seems to me you have to have at least some expertise in the subject as a minimal qualification for being a reviewer.

In fact, Valentine’s lack of expertise is clear from her review: she merely regurgitates (and accepts) what’s in the book, and ends with this paragraph:

But it’s worth noting that the primary practice outlined in this book is the leveraging of money to protect money — and the counter-practice is the vocal and sustained will of the people. We are, Democracy in Chains is clear, at a precipice. At the moment, the first practice is winning. If you don’t like it, now’s the time to try the second. And if someone you know isn’t convinced, you have just the book to hand them.

After the problems with the book became clear, NPR had to defend its choice of a reviewer, something a site should never have to do if it’s chosen judiciously. They put an editor’s note on Valentine’s review, to wit:

Editor’s note, Aug. 28: NPR is aware that questions were raised about Nancy MacLean’s scholarship after the publication of Democracy in Chains. We’ve addressed the issue in an Ombudsman column, which you can find here.

But if you go to NPR’s Ombudsman column, what you find is a lame defense of using a fiction writer to review a book about history and economics. First they limn the questions:

As the controversy over the book blossomed, a handful of NPR readers wrote to object to NPR’s review. They raised three points: How could NPR praise a book whose scholarship had been so challenged? Why was the review assigned to a novelist, Genevieve Valentine, and not a historian? And why hasn’t NPR followed up with a news story on the controversy?

Now get a load of their defense (my emphasis) of using such a reviewer:

Michael Baddorf of Rochester, N.Y., wrote to my office: “Novelists are not good choices to review
 works of history, particularly works that make bold claims with
 controversial political implications.”

The books editors turn frequently to Valentine to review a wide range of books, many of them nonfiction. Ellen Silva, the supervising senior editor overseeing NPR’s books, arts and culture coverage, said the editors believe a novelist can bring insights into nonfiction books as well as fiction, and called Valentine “a valued critic at NPR books who is a master of the quick turnaround.”

Petra Mayer, an NPR books editor who helps coordinate and assign reviews, expanded on the insights a novelist can bring to a nonfiction review: “A novelist can tell you whether a book is well-written, well-structured, well-edited — are the characters compelling? Does it tell a coherent story? Does it move the reader? Those are all things that are just as applicable to nonfiction as fiction, and are all things it’s important for our readers to know about a book they may spend time or money on. Ultimately, her critical opinion was that she found the book convincing — and that’s what we want from a critic.”

That makes sense to me.

Excuse me, but that is, as they say in the argot, “pure bullshit.” You don’t review merely the structure or prose quality of a book like MacLean’s: the most important thing to consider is its content. That is one of the differences between fiction and nonfiction: the latter involves factual claims that must be weighted and investigated. And there Valentine failed miserably, since she knew nothing about the subject matter. That she found the book “convincing” was likely because her politics were of the Leftist brand, not because she judged the book historically and factually accurate.

I was appalled at that defense above. NPR goes on to exculpate itself by saying, well, it has used qualified reviewers for other books. But the issue is this book. But finally, the Ombudsman (it’s a woman), Elizabeth Jensen, makes a grudging admission:

Still, I think Baddorf has a point. As I said earlier, I do not have a philosophical problem with novelists reviewing history books. But given its provocative argument, this book in particular was almost certain to stimulate a good deal of civic debate. An expert in the topic probably would have been better situated to judge MacLean’s work.

So what made sense to Jensen doesn’t really.

As for NPR acknowledging the criticisms of MacLean’s book, here they waffle again. Here’s Jensen’s lame defense, which is basically that MacLean defended her own work!:

Assigning a different reviewer still might not have changed the situation NPR now finds itself in, however, since it has not acknowledged the questions raised in the weeks since the book was reviewed with praise. Michael Hartwell, of Leominster, Mass., argued NPR should cover the allegations being made about MacLean’s scholarship. I think he has a point, as well.

MacLean has strongly defended her work, on Facebook, and in an email interview with The Chronicle Review, a publication of the respected Chronicle of Higher Education. That publication also has a good piece about the controversy, which, it says, “has played out with unusual intensity.”

As MacLean says in the interview, “The modus operandi of today’s right wing goes well beyond normal book reviewing and customary academic debate.” Some of the nastier commentary about her book certainly falls into that category; that commentary is not necessarily NPR-newsworthy (although I’m sure it’s unpleasant for MacLean). But the debate over the scholarship is. NPR should consider assigning another piece delving into the criticisms, or, at least, append a note to the original review acknowledging the scholarship questions that were raised after the review appeared.

Silva told me the editors indeed plan to add an editor’s note to the piece.

Well, the “editor’s note” was given above. Here it is again:

Editor’s note, Aug. 28: NPR is aware that questions were raised about Nancy MacLean’s scholarship after the publication of Democracy in Chains. We’ve addressed the issue in an Ombudsman column, which you can find here.

Nothing has appeared thatanother piece “delves into the criticisms.”

That lame editor’s note acknowledges no specific questions about MacLean’s scholarship, much less addressing or rebutting them. And I guess this is all we’re going to see from NPR.

One would think that an objective, publicly funded site like NPR that isn’t supposed to take political sides would allow someone to write a column addressing and criticizing MacLean’s contentions. That doesn’t seem to be happening, and so NPR has failed once again. But we all know that NPR is Leftist in general. That’s one reason I listen to it, but it this case its politics has eclipsed its objectivity.

34 Comments

  1. BJ
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    So, MacLean’s central idea is basically that a group of economists laid out a framework for a secret right-wing conspiracy to subvert democracy…by making the methods for effectuating said conspiracy widely available to intellectuals of all stripes and the public at large. Brilliant! I can’t believe somebody managed to discover this nefarious plan.

    As for NPR’s “review”: the ombudsman admit’s that the ultimate question of the review is whether or not the author found the book “convincing,” and she did. That is, apparently, the central question for NPR when it comes to whether or not a book about history, economics, and the supposed existence of a right-wing conspiracy, all of which is based on exaggerations, fabrications, and conjecture. I wonder, would an NPR reviewer find such a book convincing, despite all the issues with the book’s sources and the weakness of its very foundations, if it was a book about a supposed left-wing conspiracy? I imagine if the book’s thesis was reversed in that manner, NPR would find the question of whether the book had a factual basis to be the more important question. I also imagine that it would be reporting on the various criticisms and lies in the book.

    I also like the accusation that criticism of the book is another right-wing conspiracy, just to put one last cherry on top.

    • Craw
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Only conspirators deny conspiracy.

  2. alexandra Moffat
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I recently wrote NPR to object to an on air interview with someone from the Heritage Inst with NOBODY there to rebut. Soft questions from interviewer and no discussion. Heritage is notorious for right wing beliefs, opinions so to omit anybody with the ability to question, disagree was, well, deplorable. The program ended abruptly , leaving Heritage words supreme. It was about budget, financial stuff. Krugman would have been a good choice!

    • BJ
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think every interview with someone from one political side requires someone from the other side there to rebut them. Does every interview with a Congressperson require the presence of a Congressperson from the other side of the aisle to give rebuttals?

      The person is simply being interviewed about their own opinions on things. The difference in this instance is that the reviewer is not an interviewer. An interviewer’s role is merely to get the interviewee to answer questions, and if the interview’s purpose is to get the person’s opinions on issues, that’s what the questions will do (unless it’s an investigative interview). The role of a person reviewing a book that’s about a real-world subject is, at least in part, to inform readers if the entire foundation of the book might be based on fabricated quotes, exaggeration, and prevarications. At the very least, the reviewer should be informing readers if there is wide-ranging criticism regarding the book’s truth claims. Part of the reviewer’s role is supposed to be the person that rebuts falsities.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Sub

    In other conspiracy news, JFK by Oliver Stone.

    • Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      That could get interesting with the remaining assassination files to be released this week.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I must have read the piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I don’t see how anyone can deny that, as people, government employees are subject to the pressures of self-interest. After all, why else would there be corruption? As to the question of NPR’s choice of reviewers, perhaps that was an ironic comment on the factual basis for the book? No? I don’t think so either. Perhaps some self-interest at NPR? Or maybe just laziness. In any case having a reviewer of a non-fiction work with no specialized knowledge in the subject matter is just dumb.

  5. Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the editor herself is not qualified enough to pick reviewers. Just check her back ground.

    http://www.npr.org/people/2100882/petra-mayer

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      What a joke Petra Mayer is. No wonder she’d assign the review to someone like Valentine, rather than someone who could write a thoughtful,knowledgeable review.

      From the link you provided — worthy of quoting from: “Petra Mayer is an editor (and the resident nerd) at NPR Books, focusing on genre fiction. She brings to the job passion, speed-reading skills, and a truly impressive collection of Doctor Who doodads. You can also hear her on the air, and on the occasional episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour…Mayer originally came to NPR as an engineering assistant in 1994, while still attending Amherst College. After three years spending summers honing her soldering skills in the maintenance shop, she made the jump to Boston’s WBUR as a newswriter in 1997…She still knows how to solder.” Methinks she should get her soldering groove back on.

      • BJ
        Posted October 23, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        “She brings to the job passion, speed-reading skills, and a truly impressive collection of Doctor Who doodads.”

        So, her three qualifications are things literally anybody can do. Speed-reading can be learned easily by most people with an average IQ, while passion and a collection of Dr. Who figurines is…um…seemingly irrelevant. Unless I have really failed to grasp what an editor does.

        • Craw
          Posted October 23, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          “Unless I have really failed to grasp what an editor does.”

          Really is unnecessary there. Do not start sentences with “So”. “Seemingly” is implicit so can be deleted. “Literally anyone” is untrue; rephrase this.

  6. Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I, too, am disappointed in a number of NPR’s recent behaviors. I have begun the book but am only part way through it, so I have no opinion as yet, but a key point in these discussions should be that McLean uncovered a huge trove of Buchanan’s notes that were not included in the transfer of his later papers to a university. She does have access to things he felt comfortable putting to paper and she does quote from them. Since these things can be corroborated I assume these are somewhat correct.

    And as far as the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” sign me up. The funding of the conservative think tanks, the Powell Memorandum (that Ronald Reagan handed to every member of his cabinet (Hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.), the Koch brothers political action network(s) do not exist in a vacuum as their funding sources have tied them together. I do not buy that there is a single leader to all of these efforts but I do buy that there has been coordination of the efforts.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      But isn’t that just politics? There is no less coordination (or attempt at coordination) on the left side of the spectrum.

      • BJ
        Posted October 23, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Right? Literally all of the things mentioned have analogs on the left.

  7. Craw
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I have read a lot of articles on this book. It seems very truth-challenged.

    Here’s just one place to start, for those who are interested. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/07/20/nancy-maclean-responds-to-her-critics/?utm_term=.097acc7008c2

    Of course NPR’s behavior here is indefensible.

  8. rickflick
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I suspect NPR advocates cultural relativism(based in postmodernism). Thus, reviewing a book on politics can take many forms. All are equally valid perspectives. A novelist, an economist, or even a butcher, baker or candlestick maker, would have done equally well. Truth is in the eye of the beholder. And, you have to admit, novels and books on politics do have in common that they are both long strings of words and some punctuation!.

    • Michiel
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      In other words: do not assume a book’s genre!

  9. Historian
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    The comments of any person opining on the substance of this book, particularly as to the credibility of its thesis, should be ignored without a second thought unless that person has read the book or at least a number of extensive reviews from various sources. A Google search quickly brings up both positive and negative reviews and not just those with an axe to grind.

    A book like this is bound to be controversial. Critics of the thesis will jump on factual errors to discredit it. However, a few factual errors (regrettable as they may be) does not necessarily accomplish this. The book must be evaluated as a whole. Partisans will cherry pick from the book quotes that support their viewpoint. Confirmation bias will likely come into play. The possible biases of the reviewer need to be considered when determining if the review, as opposed to the book itself, has merit.

    All this means is that if a person wants to conclude whether or not the thesis of this book sheds new light on a controversial topic (as opposed to concentrating on a few factual errors), a lot of work will be required. Most people will not bother.

    In the case of the NPR review, it should be dismissed as unworthy of consideration. The topic of the book does in fact require some expertise or knowledge in history. NPR has shown contempt of the historical profession since it seems to believe that anybody can review a book of history. Would it assign Ms. Valentine to review a controversial book on evolution?

    • Jacob
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      The criticism is however, that in order to make her thesis, MacLean made things up, misquoted people, or left out important context (such as second halves of sentences, as the Cowen example above).

      The critique people are making are not cherry picking isolated factual errors. The critique is that these factual errors are what she bases her thesis on. Farrell and Teles do a good job explaining that in their Vox piece: https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/the-big-idea/2017/7/14/15967788/democracy-shackles-james-buchanan-intellectual-history-maclean

      • Historian
        Posted October 23, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        I am not condemning or defending the book since I have not read it and am only just now becoming acquainted with the controversy. I am saying simply that for a reader to reach a determination as to the merits of a contentious books such as this, subject to the partisan biases of reviewers, will require a lot of work on the reader’s part. If MacLean has willfully distorted evidence to support a thesis, then I say shame on her. At this point, I am not ready to make that conclusion, but will not shy away from stating it if I ultimately reach it.

        • BJ
          Posted October 23, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          None of us in this world make all of our decisions based on perfect information; in fact, there are very few instances in which we have the time to find a significant amount of information to make a decision. Usually, the best of us rely on experts from both sides, reading from multiple sources and then forming conclusions. When it comes to truth claims from non-fiction works, we don’t need to read every single book to come to a decision on the facts contained therein. The claims of such books are based on facts, and if we can discover that many of the facts don’t stand up to scrutiny, it is fair to dismiss the thesis.

          Just as I and many others rely on people like Jerry and Richard Dawkins to inform us of the truths about biology, evolution, etc., without reading all the sources they’ve used or getting a degree in the relevant sciences (or reading every book by creationists supposedly rebutting the science), we often rely on experts to help inform our decisions in other areas. This is less about having to read the book than having to decide whether claims and facts presented by it are truthful, and it’s fair to rely on others’ work to do that — so long as one uses multiple sources from across the political spectrum.

          I haven’t yet made my own judgment, but I know which way I’m leaning. So far, the positive reviews I’ve read don’t talk about the facts of the book, while the negative reviews have pointed out multiple issues and outright underhanded manipulation by the author of facts and quotes. When I see someone engage in tactics like purposely trimming quotes so they seem to suggest something they did not, it makes me very wary of the author’s intent and truthfulness.

  10. Bill Shipley
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    There is a more unglamorous explanation. It is very difficult to obtain good book reviews for non-fiction works. You must convince someone to read an entire book (that they might not even like) and then write a clear and informed review. The people best equiped to do this are experts in the field who are already very busy. This means that you might have to pay them well in order to take on the work. An easy shortcut for editors is to find someone who will do this cheap – even free. Such a person is likely to be either relatively incompetent or else ideologically motivated… or both.

  11. Craw
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    One pertinent fact: Buchanan advocated 100% inheritance taxes.

  12. Curtis
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Let’s be honest, NPR did not intentionally choose to have an incompetent person review the book. They just did not care. Someone heard about a book that sounded interesting (i.e. progressive) and they decided that their pet, progressive reviewer would do the review. There was no thought about competence.

    The ombudsman response was an attempt to have it both ways. “We did nothing wrong. We care about journalistic integrity so we should choose some with knowledge of the subject. Mayer writes words, therefore she can review any book because they have words in them.”

    • Craw
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      “In the future we will hire typesetters.”

  13. Jay Baldwin
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I’ve followed this story pretty closely. I’ve been kicking around the idea of using excerpts of her book in undergraduate research courses as examples of what not to do. In a number of instances, she selectively quotes others that when read in their full context meant the exact opposite of what she argued it meant (the Tyler Cowen quotation is just one of many). Democracy in Chains, as far as I can tell, is an exercise in confirmation bias.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    E.J. Dionne wrote a similar (if less conspiracy-laden) book on this subject last year, How the Right Went Wrong. Gary Wills used his review of Dionne’s book as a launch pad for a discussion of the same topic in The New York Review of Books here.

    • Craw
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      There’s much wrong with the Right. One needn’t make stuff up to show this.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 23, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Oh, I agree. I haven’t read it, so can’t say if that’s the case with MacLean’s book (though it sure sounds like it is).

        I think Garry Wills (to whose article I cited above) is one of the best analysts on this subject, given that he started out as an acolyte of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s at National Review (and continues to identify as a conservative) although he’s moved quite a bit to the left as a result of having covered the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements.

  15. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I think there’s a Dunning-Kruger tendency on the part of those who can write competently to think they can evaluate any piece of writing (save perhaps that which is chockablock with technical jargon), despite a dearth of expertise in the underlying topic.

  16. Ken Pidcock
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I strongly recommend reading the book. I’m not a reactive leftist, and I found it well-researched and documented. I took the Vox review to be an example of Very Serious People objecting to disruption of the economic consensus.


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