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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.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Joan Didion (4 books reviewed)
Joan Didion Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Joan Didion
    -VIDEO: IN DEPTH: Joan Didion: Books, Quotes, Essays, The Year of Magical Thinking, The White Album (C-SPAN Book TV, Jul 14, 2018)
    -PODCAST: Lili Anolik on the Complicated Relationship Between Eve Babitz and Joan Didion: In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl (Otherppl with Brad Listi. March 16, 2022)
    -ESSAY: The Insidious Ethic of Conscience (Joan Didion, Autumn 1965, American Scholar)
-OBIT: Joan Didion, ‘New Journalist’ Who Explored Culture and Chaos, Dies at 87 (William Grimes, 12/23/21, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, who chronicled American decadence and hypocrisy, dies at 87 (Washington Post, Dec. 23rd, 2021)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, famed American essayist and novelist, has died (Mirna Alsharif, 12/23/21, CNN)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion has died at 87 (Emily Temple, December 23, 2021, LitHub)
    -OBIT: Writer Joan Didion, whose 'electric anxiety' inspired a generation, has died at 87 (SUSAN STAMBERG, 12/23/21, NPR)
    -OBIT: US author Joan Didion dead at 87: New York Times (AFP, December 23, 2021)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion’s Specific Vision: In the face of the failure of narrative to make sense of life, she found meaning in the particular. (Emma Cline, December 23, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion got inside all of us: She was a woman to whom words mattered, whether writing about the Sixties gone wrong or California identity (Francesca Peacock, December 23, 2021, The Spectator)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, peerless prose stylist, dies at 87 (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 12/23/2021)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering Joan Didion’s reserved, masterful style: The power of Didion’s prose lay in what she didn’t say. (Constance Grady, Dec 23, 2021, Vox)
    -OBIT:Joan Didion, masterful novelist, memoirist and social critic, dies at 87 (Elaine Woo, 12/23/21, Los Angeles Times)
-OBIT: Joan Didion Has Died at 87 (ALESSANDRA CODINHA, December 23, 2021, Vogue)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, R.I.P. (NIC ROWAN, December 23, 2021, National Review)
    -TRIBUTE: Didion’s Prophetic Eye on America (Michinko Kakutani, Dec. 24, 2021, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion Chronicled American Disorder With Her Own Unmistakable Style: The generation-defining essayist and novelist was preoccupied with mythos — and gifted at fashioning her own. (Parul Sehgal, 12/23/21, The New York Times)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, American journalist and author, dies at age 87 (Sian Cain and Edward Helmore, 12/23/21, The guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: What Joan Didion Saw: Her writing and thinking captured momentous change in American life—and in her own. (Nathan Heller, December 23, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion, One of the Greatest American Writers of All Time, Has Passed Away: Didion's journalism, essays, novels and cultural criticism are peerless in their chilly disassembling of all mistruths (Helen Holmes, 12/23/21, NY Observer)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, Voice of a Generation and Beyond, Dies at 87 of Parkinson’s Disease (ALEX LAUER, 12/23/21, inside Hook)
    -TRIBUTE: When Joan Didion Was a Hollywood Schlockmonger: Didion’s dark estimation of the American public’s taste in movies was more damning of our culture and politics than anything she ever wrote elsewhere. (NOREEN MALONE, DEC 23, 2021, Slate)
    -TRIBUTE: The Death of Joan Didion (John Griswold, DECEMBER 26, 2021, Common Reader)
    -TRIBUTE: Right At the Beginning: Joan Didion’s obituarists largely ignore her early journalism for National Review under the stewardship of Frank Meyer. (Daniel J. Flynn, December 28, 2021, City Journal)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion Cast Off the Fictions of American Politics: Few writers examined their own assumptions and misapprehensions as intelligently as Didion. (Jacob Bacharach/December 27, 2021, New Republic)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion’s Hidden Goal—and Mine: I’ve taught her work for more than 25 years. It had a secret, one that’s more than a guide to me and my students (DALE MAHARIDGE, DEC 24, 2021, Slate)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion and the Voice of America (Hilton Als, Dec. 29th, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion and Eve Babitz Saw Two Essential Sides of California: Babitz was Los Angeles’s defiant booster, while Didion gave fodder to naysayers’ suspicion—but the two late writers’ bodies of work beg to be taken in tandem (Alison Herman Dec 30, 2021, The Ringer)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion’s Hard Way: The legacy of a genuine American figure (JOSEPH BOTTUM, January 6, 2022, National Review)
    -TRIBUTE: In memoriam: Joan Didion, 1934–2021 (Library of America, 1/06/22)
    -TRIBUTE: What I Learned From Living With Joan Didion: Cory Leadbeater on His Life-Changing Friendship With a Literary Icon (Cory Leadbeater, June 12, 2024, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The Essential Joan Didion: Her distinctive prose and sharp eye were tuned to an outsider’s frequency, telling us about ourselves in essays that are almost reflexively skeptical. Here’s where to start. (Alissa Wilkinson, April 26, 2024, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Joan Didion vs. the Political Insiders (Evelyn McDonnell The New Republic October 5, 2023)
    -ESSAY: California State of Mind: Searching for Didion and Babitz in Literary Los Angeles: Marianne Eloise on Two of Her Favorite Writers—Who Could Not Be More Different (Marianne Eloise, 7/05/22, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The joylessness of Joan Didion: Joan Didion took herself extremely seriously (Taki, March 24, 2022, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: Didion in El Salvador (Charlotte Allen, 11 Feb 2022, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: Joan Didion and the Magic of Grief: She went from cool customer to recorder of her own bereavement (Sandra M. Gilbert | January 3, 2022, American Scholar)
    -ESSAY: The Cult of Saint Joan (NY Times, 1/31/22)
-GUIDE: A Guide to Joan Didion’s Books: Ms. Didion was a prolific writer of stylish essays, novels, screenplays and memoirs. Here is an overview of some of her works, as reviewed in The Times. (New York Times, 12/23/21)
    -ARCHIVES: Joan Didion: The National Review Years (National Review, December 23, 2021)
    -ARCHIVES: Joan Didion (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: Joan Didion in The New Yorker: The singular writer, who has died at eighty-seven, started contributing to the magazine after famously leaving its namesake city. (Erin Overbey, December 23, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: (Joan Didion, 2000-02-21, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Why I Write: Excerpted from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Joan Didion)
    -INTERVIEW: 'My Wine Bills Have Gone Down.' How Joan Didion Is Weathering the Pandemic (LUCY FELDMAN, JANUARY 22, 2021, TIME)
    -INTERVIEW: Joan Didion, The Art of Fiction No. 71: Interviewed by Linda KuehlISSUE 74, FALL-WINTER 1978, Paris Review)
-DISCUSSION: Obama: In the Irony-Free Zone (Darryl Pinckney and Joan Didion, December 18, 2008, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Letter from ‘Manhattan’ (Joan Didion, August 16, 1979, NY Review of books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Gentleman in Battle a review of Men at War by Evelyn Waugh (Joan Didion, March 27, 1962, National Review)
-INTERVIEW: Joan Didion: Staking Out California (Michiko Kakutani, June 10, 1979, NY Times)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEWS: Joan Didion: The NPR interviews (NPR, December 23, 2021)
    -ESSAY: California cool and Magical Thinking: Joan Didion at 86: Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing (Alex Clark, 8 Feb 2021, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion : She’s been canonized for impeccable style, but Didion’s real insights were about what holds society together, or tears it apart. (Nathan Heller, January 25, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: California Dreaming With Joan Didion : Trapped in my apartment I pulled Joan’s books off the shelf. I wanted to learn again from her meticulous observation of detail, character and setting, and her great sense of irony. (Christopher Dickey, Apr. 19, 2020 , Daily Beast)
    -ESSAY: What Keeps Us Coming Back to Joan Didion (LAURA MILLER, DEC 23, 2021, Slate)
    -PROFILE: The Zen of Joan Didion (DAVID SWICK, DECEMBER 23, 2021, Lion's Roar)
-ARCHIVES: Joan Didion (Lit Hub)
    -REVIEW: of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Dan Wakefield, NY Times)
    -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)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Sarah Moroz, Dailty Beast)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Peter Tonguette, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (leo Robson, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Charles Arrowsmith, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Sarah Ditum, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: A Joan Didion Retrospective (Barnes & Noble Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Uptown Local by Cory Leadbeater (Claire Dederer, The Guardian)

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)
    -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)

    -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)

    -ESSAY : BOOK NOTES : A Talked-About Dedication (Esther Fein, 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)