Magazine article The Spectator

From the CIA to the PC

Magazine article The Spectator

From the CIA to the PC

Article excerpt

ONLY IN America could the butchering of a black celebrity's ex-wife cause a book editor to rethink the standards of his craft. In a land obsessed with race and racial politics, it is not at all surprising that the interminable sideshow known as the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which has just entered its second phase in civil court, has even affected the editing and publishing of books in America.

I learned about this little-known effect of the `trial of the century' from James Schlesinger, former CIA director and US Secretary of Defense -- economist, lawyer and Harvard University overseer who writes and edits as well, and who commands attention because of the governmental posts he has held. I had called Mr Schlesinger to discuss the latest book in his care, a new edition of the 1902 bestseller Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, by the Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer. Lorimer's forgotten screed on bourgeois morality (by a `Lord Chesterfield of the sticks', as one critic put it) was an international sensation in its day, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in America, England and Germany. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it was the most read American book since Uncle Tom's Cabin.

But what is most striking about this new edition published by Regnery (for decades the pre-eminent conservative publisher in America) is not what it reprints but what it leaves out. Scores of references and sentences have either been elided or rewritten by Mr Schlesinger, and no indication is given - no footnotes, no endnotes, no explanation anywhere - as to what exactly has been spiked, bowdlerised or rephrased. All the reader is told, in a brief `prefatory note' (which many readers never read), is that the editor has 'eliminated a few references, such as to songs or individuals of the era, that would now be obscure at best', `substituted a few words for others that are now archaic' and `altered phraseology that might be offensive to modern taste'.

Now, before explaining what Mr Schlesinger considers to be beyond the pale, it should be conceded that editing with an eye to the politically fashionable is certainly not uncommon today. In fact, the American publishing scene is teeming with literary prudes and guardians of correct opinion who edit with the zest of an old Soviet revisionist. Their objective is simple: to produce new and improved, kinder and gentler redactions of our literary classics - the Bible included. For example there are now three versions of Little Women in American bookstores -- Louisa May Alcott's original novel, Robin Swicord's 'feminisation' of the novel for the screenplay Little Women, and the novelisation of Swicord's novelisation of the novel by the children's writer Laurie Lawlor. So absurd is the situation that an American teacher who assigns a book report engages in a gamble.

Another example is the international bestseller The Book of Virtues by William Bennett, the former US education secretary described as the 'C.S. Lewis of our day' by a 'conservative' American journalist. Included in the volume is an excerpt from George Washington's `Farewell Address', arguably one of the most influential expositions in American history. But according to Mr Bennett and his ghostwriter, John Cribb, the virtue of this address lies not in its warnings about the dangers of foreign entanglements, as historians have thought for 200 years, but rather in its few cursory statements in support of religious faith; it is not a sober analysis of diplomacy by a seasoned statesman but an inspirational tract by an 18thcentury Billy Graham.

In fact, Mr Bennett has eliminated the most famous part of the address. At the very point Washington begins to warn about `the insidious wiles of foreign influence' and `the need to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world' - which are the last things that internationalists like Mr Bennett want the helots worrying about - the excerpt abruptly ends. …

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