Politics & Policy

Michiko & Me

Setting the record straight.

When I asked a friend if he thought anyone would actually believe the outrageous misrepresentation of my views presented by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani in a recent article, he said, Yes, unfortunately, liberals are that far gone. The October 23 article–titled “To Stars, Writing Books Looks Like Child’s Play”–was about various famous people who have recently written children’s books. Among the authors Kakutani discussed was Lynne Cheney, author of A Is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women and America: A Patriotic Primer. Mrs. Cheney had had the audacity to feature the name of Alice Walker and a drawing of Toni Morrison in A Is for Abigail, an illustrated compendium of notable American women.

According to Kakutani, Mrs. Cheney had apparently forfeited any right ever to mention these writers in any context whatsoever because she had opposed multiculturalism in the past and because as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities she had nominated me to the Endowment’s advisory council in 1991. And I, according to Kakutani, had “written that awarding prestigious prizes to black writers like Ms. Morrison and Ms. Walker sacrificed ‘the demands of excellence to the democratic dictatorship of mediocrity.’”

Of course, I did not write that, and it is difficult to believe that Kakutani, who is not stupid, not especially politically correct, and not a bad book reviewer, could imagine that I or anyone could have. What I said in the article that spurred the Left to oppose my nomination to the advisory council was that awarding prizes on the basis of race sacrifices excellence to a form of literary affirmative action. This was exemplified, as I pointed out, by the awarding of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize to Toni Morrison two months after an open letter from 48 leading black writers protested that she had never won the National Book Award or the Pulitzer.

Second, the phrase “democratic dictatorship of mediocrity” is not mine, although Kakutani makes it appear so. It belongs to the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, spoken by the protagonist of his novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), in a speech condemning what we in the United States call affirmative action. “Do you not form tribal pressure groups to secure lower admission requirements instead of striving to equal or excel any student from anywhere?” the character thunders at his audience of college students. “Yes, you prefer academic tariff walls behind which you can potter around in mediocrity. And you are asking me to agree to hand over my life to a democratic dictatorship of mediocrity? No way!” I cited this episode in the same article because it seemed so quintessentially appropriate, and I thought of Achebe as a kindred spirit in his refusal of the new tyranny of political correctness, with which I was soon to become more familiar.

I wrote a stringent letter to the Times protesting the smear and making many of the points above, but they decided not to print it. Instead, they printed a correction over a week later, on October 31:

A Critic’s Notebook article on Oct. 23 about celebrities who have written children’s books, including Lynne Cheney, referred incorrectly to an article by Carol Iannone, whom Ms. Cheney nominated in 1991 to an advisory council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ms. Iannone criticized the use of race and gender as factors in the awarding of literary prizes; she did not write that awarding prestigious prizes to black writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker sacrificed “the demands of excellence to the democratic dictatorship of mediocrity.” And the phrase “democratic dictatorship of mediocrity” should have carried single quotation marks; it was a quotation from a character in a novel by Chinua Achebe.

Though technically complete in acknowledging the specific errors of the original piece, the correction scarcely compensated for the infuriatingly simple-minded way in which I was misrepresented–namely, the bland insinuation that because I oppose race-based awards to black authors, I oppose any recognition of black authors altogether, a ridiculous caricature that would make all cultural conservatives racists by definition.

Furthermore, was the misrepresentation really an “error” after all, or is it what liberals have come to believe? That is, if you are against affirmative action you are against minorities tout court–you think they should not be seen or heard in public, not be given any recognition, not be mentioned in any books, and certainly not be given any prizes.

Kakutani indicates as much when she makes the same kind of point about Mrs. Cheney that she made about me. “Although Ms. Cheney has often denounced multiculturalism and political correctness,” our critic writes, “her children’s books . . . are illustrated with pictures of people of many different colors.” Since she spoke out against multiculturalism and political correctness, Mrs. Cheney must therefore never ever refer to minorities in any approving way whatsoever, even when writing books for children highlighting notable Americans of all backgrounds and accomplishments. She must feature only white people in her pages.

Anyone who takes a look at Mrs. Cheney’s children’s books–crowded with a pleasant jumble of delightful illustrations (by Robin Preiss Glasser) and studded with simple, lively, and bracingly instructive text about our history–will realize at once that Kakutani had to have a bee in her bonnet, a chip on her shoulder, her nose out of joint, or all three (which must be pretty uncomfortable) to go into a huff about the author’s rights to minority representation.

At bottom, one suspects Kakutani of liberal condescension, the view that no recognition whatsoever could possibly come to black people except by way of ideological multiculturalism. She thus exhibits the usual sparkling lack of confidence liberals have in minorities to achieve on their own without white largesse extorted through the intimidation of political correctness and race-baiting. Such is the “equality” guaranteed by the liberal regime.

Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.


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