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Salvador ()


    ...'anti-communism' was seen, correctly, as the bait the United States would always take.
        -Joan Didion, Salvador

For the ironist, there can be no worse fate than to be proven wrong by events.  For irony depends for its effect on the universal acknowledgment that the thing stated is manifestly false.  How inconvenient then to find out it's actually true.  This is yet another reason why irony is fundamentally a weapon of conservatism.

A conservative can simply send up the news trends and fads as they come along (spiritualism, evolution, communism, psychiatry, the New Deal, Wicca, Feng Shui, etc.), assured that just a couple of years down the line, even their current adherents will realize how inane these beliefs were.  But pity the poor Leftist who when he turns his hand to satire, must try to make the accumulated wisdom of several millennia of Western culture seem foolish.  Little wonder then that authors like Evelyn Waugh have worn so well, that the belittling of bourgeois values by an author like Sinclair Lewis seems so profoundly misguided today, and that authors like Philip Roth have turned their sights away from middle class conventions and towards targets like political correctness, having lived long enough to see all their earlier countercultural works rendered obsolete.  It's a simple enough lesson; if you want your work to have lasting value, you should probably parody the newest idea, not the oldest.

Joan Didion built her career and her reputation on a series of brilliant essays and decent novels which laid bare the arid pretensions of the pop ethos of the 60s and 70s, particularly the virulent California strain.  Her two volumes of collected essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album, are as good as the best cultural criticism of Tom Wolfe.  Though she probably would not have called herself a conservative, she did contribute to National Review, and it would be hard to read her journalism as anything other than a conservative critique of the declining moral situation in America.  But with Salvador she pretty seriously lost her way.

The book combines a series of essays she wrote for that most reliably doctrinaire of journals, The New York Review of Books (which even today is probably rooting for a comeback by the Sandanistas), after a two week visit to El Salvador in 1982.  It's surprisingly hard to recall now, but Central America was the final proving ground for American anti-communism.  Nicaragua and Grenada had gone communist on Jimmy Carter's watch, and several other nations' right wing governments teetered on the edge, most noticeably El Salvador's.  When Ronald Reagan came to office promising to reverse this losing trend in the Cold War and to start rolling back the tide of communism, El Salvador became an unlikely focus of U. S. policy.

In many ways, Central America, with its unsavory but anti-communist regimes, was the ideal laboratory in which to try out Jeanne Kirkpatrick's thesis that we should stand by our allies when they confronted Marxist revolutionary movements, because an authoritarian right wing regime would eventually evolve into something approaching a democracy, while a totalitarian communist government would only yield to force of arms.  As Kirkpatrick herself wrote, this meant accepting methods and practices of friendly governments which we would normally find abhorrent.  And, predictably, the American Left tried to use the deficiencies of these friendly governments in order to stop the administration from aiding them.  This battle over anti-communism eventually culminated in the completely anti-Constitutional Bolland Amendment and the Iran-Contra scheme to get around it.

Joan Didion does her usual superior job of evoking atmosphere, the sense of dread that accompanied El Salvador's violent campaign against its Marxist guerillas.  It seems like every time she rounds a corner there's another dead body lying there.  It sounds like a horrible place, and the government of Roberto D'Aubuisson must certainly have been brutal, even senselessly brutal, and murderous.  In the best of all possible worlds, America would never associate itself with such regimes.  Instead, we would only support liberal democratic governments and would hold even their feet to the fire, to insure that not a single human right was violated.  But that was essentially the Carter approach--acquiescing in or even fostering the overthrow of friendly governments if they were insufficiently democratic--and it was a disaster.  In country after country (Nicaragua, Iran, etc.), the mildly repressive were replaced by the totally oppressive, and they became active enemies of the U. S. to boot.

There remained only three alternatives : (1) we could, as many on the Left did, have simply embraced groups like the Sandanistas and the Marxist "reforms" they brought to their countries; (2) we could have returned to the natural American posture of isolationism, leaving the rest of the world to fend for itself; or (3) we could, and in fact did, try a new way, supporting friendly authoritarian governments where they still were in power and aiding right-wing guerilla groups in countries where the communists had taken over (Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua).  This third option required us to accept levels of repression and outright murder which would normally have been intolerable.  However, in the context of a global Cold War, there was little or no difference between this moral compromise and that which was made during WWII, when FDR and Churchill embraced Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Just as in WWII, this marriage of convenience helped bring the Cold War to a rapid and successful conclusion.  But there was one huge difference in how the postwar scenarios played out, a difference which proves Kirkpatrick's point.  Where the Soviet simply replaced the Nazis as a hegemonic power in eastern Europe after WWII, and became our enemies for forty years, in the aftermath of the Cold War our unsavory allies rapidly evolved into relatively democratic and capitalist friends.  Just last month (April 2001), President Bush convened a meeting of all the nations in the western Hemisphere (with the notable exception of Cuba) at which it was agreed that they would all work towards creating a hemispheric free trade zone.  Such are the fruits of a realistic foreign policy.

Which brings us back to Ms Didion, who ends her reports from El Salvador with the words : "...and
the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had 'turned the corner' in its campaign for political stability in Central America."  Though obviously intended at the time to be arch and ironic, we see now that they contained more truth than she realized.   It is entirely understandable that after forty years of continuous war, folks grew tired of the fight.  That is why it was so important that Ronald Reagan determined to win the Cold War, rather than let it keep dragging on.  The problem in not that folks like Ms Didion wanted out, it is that they despaired of anti-communism emerging victorious.  For liberty always wins in the end; the forces of oppression, however powerful they may seem at a given instant, are always perched on a rotten foundation and always overextend themselves.  That even so perceptive a critic as Joan Didion thought the Cold War had become unwinnable, that she thought anti-communism was mere bait being used to ensnare us, suggests just how visionary was Ronald Reagan in forecasting imminent victory.  Where Ms Didion's ironic pieces on the social fads and decay of the 1960s and 70s are as pertinent today as the day they were written, this book is no more than a curious reminder of a dark time in America when the intellectuals had, almost uniformly, quit on us, when, as Yeats had predicted, the best lacked all conviction.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

Joan Didion (4 books reviewed)
Essays
Joan Didion Links:

    -ESSAY: Everywoman.com (Joan Didion, 2000-02-21, The New Yorker)


    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Thomas Mallon, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -VIDEO : In Depth: Joan Didion (Book TV, C-SPAN, May 7, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion: God's Country (Nov 2, 2000 , NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : Nov 4, 1999 Joan Didion: 'The Day Was Hot and Still...' (NY Review of Books)
               Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris
    -REVIEW : Jun 24, 1999 Joan Didion: Uncovered Washington (NY Review of Books)
               Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story by Michael Isikoff
               Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American
               Politics by Ralph Reed
               Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American
               Decline by Robert H. Bork
    -REVIEW : Oct 22, 1998 Joan Didion: Clinton Agonistes (NY Review of Books)
               Referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title
               28, United States Code, §595(c) Submitted by the Office of the
               Independent Counsel
    -REVIEW : Apr 23, 1998 Joan Didion: Varieties of Madness  (NY Review of Books)
               The Unabomber Manifesto "FC."
               A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
               Drawing Life by David Gelernter
    -REVIEW : Dec 18, 1997 Joan Didion: The Lion King  (NY Review of Books)
               Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary
               Leader by Dinesh D'Souza
    -REVIEW : of THE GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN GARDENS Proud Owners, Private Estates, 1890-1940. By Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : from Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -ESSAY : On Going Home from  Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Why I Write (The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976)
    -EXCERPT : "The Women's Movement" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Joan Didion's "Marrying Absurd"
    -EXCERPT : From "The White Album" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from The White Album Chapter IV Soujourns
    -INTERVIEW : Joan Didion (dave eggers, Salon, 10/96)
    -INTERVIEW : Joan Didion. (Interview, Mark Marvel, Sept, 1996)
    -PROFILE : Didion writes off Washington's reality (Tara McKelvey, 11/01/2001 , USA TODAY
    -ARCHIVES : "didion" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "joan didion" (Find Articles)
    -Joan Didion (1934- ) (American Literature on the Web)
    -Joan Didion (Selves in the Valley)
    -Joan Didion,  SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM
    -PROFILE : DIDION & DUNNE: THE REWARDS OF A LITERARY MARRIAGE (Leslie Garis, NY Times Sunday Magazine)
    -PROFILE : JOAN DIDION  (Sandra Braman)
    -PROFILE : Didion as Diva (Bill Hayes, Salon)
    -ESSAY : JOAN DIDION: ONLY DISCONNECT  (October, 1979, From Off Center: Essays by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison (1980))
    -ESSAY : Slouching Towards Bethlehem:  A Brief Structural Analysis (Allan T. Grohe, Jr.)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion and Twentieth-Century Acts of Interpretation (George P. Landow, The Core)
    -ESSAY :  Joan Didion and "Company": A Response to John Whalen-Bridge (GORDON O. TAYLOR, Connotations 6.2 (1996-97)
    -ESSAY : Slouching Towards Postmodern: Joan Didion and the Crisis of Narrative (Jay Porter, A Senior Essay in the English Major, Yale College, 1995)
    -ESSAY : The Hollywood Novel: Gender and Lacanian Tragedy in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (Chip Rhodes, Style)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR. By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR By Joan Didion (Warren Hoge, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : "On Morality" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (j turner)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (1996)(MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Michael Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Oct 31, 1996 Elizabeth Hardwick: In the Wasteland (NY Review of Books)
               The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Dwight Garner, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Kate Tuttle, Boston Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Tai Moses, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Donna Seaman, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Anna Shapiro, Book Report)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry By Joan Didion (1992)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry by Joan Didion (Hendrik Hertzberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami by Joan Didion (1987)(James Chace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy by Joan Didion (1984)(Mary McCarthy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Essays of Joan Didion. (Christopher Caldwell, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of POLITICAL FICTIONS By Joan Didion (Richard S. Dunham, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of Political Fictions by Joan Didion (Joe Klein, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Political Fictions (Susan Faludi, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Political Fictions (Amy Schroeder, New City Chicago)

CENTRAL AMERICA :
    -OBIT : Edward Boland dies, longtime congressman (Mark Feeney, Boston Globe, 11/5/2001)
    -REVIEW : of The Real Contra War by Timothy C. Brown (Stephen Schwartz, weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Gary Webb's Dark Alliance: The Cia, The Contras, and The Crack Cocaine Explosion (Paul Rosenberg, Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette)
    -ESSAY : Where's the Left in Nicaragua and El Salvador : Fifteen years after the victory of the Nicaraguan Revolution, the left is in trouble at the ballot box in Nicaragua and El Salvador. (Jack Spence, Summer 1994, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY EXCERPT : Inside the Slaughter : El Salvador's victims, El Salvador's butchers ( Adam Hochschild, June 1983, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY : Anatomy of a Story: Crack, the Contras, and the CIA The Storm over "Dark Alliance" (Peter Kornbluh, Columbia Journalism Review)

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY : BOOK NOTES : A Talked-About Dedication (Esther Fein, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : WRITING FOR THE MOVIES IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS (Diane Johnson, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Caliparanoia dreamin' : The Golden State's helter-skelter soul has long been the fertile crescent of fear, but we're moving on now -- to something worse. (Anthony York, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Monster: Living Off the Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne (Donna Seaman, Hungry Mind)

Comments:

"This third option required us to accept levels of repression and outright murder which would normally have been intolerable. However, in the context of a global Cold War, there was little or no difference between this moral compromise and that which was made during WWII, when FDR and Churchill embraced Stalin and the Soviet Union."

Firstly, accept is not synonymous with conduct or contribute, and that is an eggregious presupposition, one that demands explication if one purports to make claims to nobility through . Secondly, the real threat of an advancing force of Nazi aggression is not commensurate with a possible or probable or even actual 'leftist' government structure in Central America.

By the end of El Salvador's civil war in 1992 the number of civilian deaths totalled 75,000, with over a quarter of the population internally displaced or in other countries as refugees. The total figure for US military aid is $6 billion, the total number of US military casualties 9.

While heralding a superpower's victory over a developing nation in the midst of an internal revolution, we can only justify or laud our mightiness, never in good faith our rightness. Our bold intervention did prevent a 'leftist' government, but it achieved this end through contributing to tens of thousands of civilian casualties, and a current standard of living that finds 52% of its population living in extreme poverty in the second poorest country in Central America (poorest being Nicauragua, but that's another story).

- Matthew Durno

- Sep-01-2004, 17:31

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Allright dude I was reading your review ,(if thats what you call it)on Joan Didion's Salvador and I dont think that was much of a review but a long complicated essay of you basically trying to convince yourself that the contents of the book were nothing but a "Dark time in America" yet you see it couldnt have been in America because the people from El Salvador were the ones that were being killed. I understand you defending your country because if not the website banner would not contain you siting in front of a tree and a large American flag but you would be in front of a whole forest cooking pupusas in nothing but torn pants and brown skin. I see why you love this country so much, Im lucky I was born here too but for once try to take a trip to El Salvador and see for yourself.

-

- Feb-07-2004, 16:48

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