A decade ago, in his stem-winder of a book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork coined the term “radical individualism,” which he defined as “a refusal to admit limits to the gratifications of the self.” Bork was referring mostly to the pursuit of pleasure as reflected in the sex- and violence-saturated world of popular entertainment, but the implications of radical individualism go further than that. They imply an opposition to “society’s traditional hierarchies or lines of authority.”
The term came back to me while observing the behavior of Joel Stein and James Frey. Last week Stein wrote a now-notorious column for the Los Angeles Times declaring that he did not support the American troops in Iraq, because he disagreed with the war. His column was filled with mocking, snide dismissals of what the military do, as well as admissions of his own insulation from such realities, being a man of privileged background. It’s a column that has rightly aroused condemnation (including from The American Spectator’s Ben Stein).
Frey is the now-notorious author of the book that took Oprah’s Book Club by storm, the bestseller and not-quite memoir A Million Little Pieces, about his drug addiction and time in rehab. As most everyone now knows, Frey has admitted to distorting or fabricating significant aspects of his memoir — like saying he spent 87 days in jail when he only spent a few hours, and changing the facts surrounding a suicide. Oprah’s sanctimonious grilling of Frey last week, however self-serving on her part, was justified.
While Stein has provoked outrage with his candor, and Frey with his lies, both men seem to share a conviction that the individual makes his own morality, and is the ultimate judge of right and wrong. Their divergent methods notwithstanding, they believe that final authority rests with them, whether the matter in question is factual accuracy or civic duty.
First-time novels are a hard sell, and first-time novels about drug addiction written in the tired style of manufactured wildness patented by the Beats and the New Journalism are an even harder sell. So Frey, who wanted to be a novelist, sold his bombastic book as a memoir. But he was still determined to tell his story however he pleased, regardless of his obligations as a nonfiction writer. Frey’s own truth was what mattered, not the truth of what actually happened, which is a memoir’s proper terrain. Initially, Oprah backed him up when she called in to the Larry King program in early January; it was the “underlying message” that counted, she said, echoing the author, who talked of his book’s “essential truth.”
When the controversy showed no sign of ebbing, Oprah changed course, inviting Frey back on her program for a televised execution and sputtering to him, “I thought this book was your truth….” She seems not to understand that the book still is his truth, for what that’s worth, which is not much. It’s just not the objective truth.
Subjective truth was far preferable for a radical individualist like Frey, who after all sought to become “the greatest literary writer of his generation.” Great men questing after great things cannot be shackled with the chains of bourgeois restraints like honesty. They make their own rules.
So does Joel Stein. He shares a similar allegiance to privatized truth and morality: this is what informs his stance on the troops in Iraq. If Stein doesn’t like a particular operation that the troops are engaged in, then he feels he is not obliged to support their endeavors, even though he is an American citizen whose life as a flaccid cynic is made possible by those same troops. No obligations have a greater claim on him than the weight of his own opinions. This was best revealed in his interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, who took him apart more brutally than Oprah did Frey, and without the self-importance.
Incidentally, in his previous column, Stein defended James Frey’s approach to memoir-writing, noting approvingly Oprah’s defense of the book to Larry King (the column ran before she had changed her mind). To make sure we understand the subjective nature of all of this, and showing that his Stanford education didn’t go to waste, Stein cites the postmodernist teaching that a book “isn’t a mode of communication. It’s a work that exists in and of itself, apart from the author’s intent, even apart from the author’s identity…”
One way to test that premise would be for James Frey and Joel Stein to disappear.
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