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Public Nuisances

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Followers of this column have noticed that something is amiss. They have looked to it every week for months with increased frustration. Many have gone back to the March, April, May and June issues of The American Spectator and pored over every page, but all was for naught. They have not been able to find a trace of the J. Gordon Coogler Award for the Worst Book of the Year, and they know that there were many promising candidates in 2010 for this hallowed recognition. The New York Review of Books was full of them. Ever since the J. Gordon Coogler Award Committee began sponsoring the award back in 1975, it almost seems that the Review has been serving as a referral service to assist our learned judges in their laborious work. Though this was by indirection; the Review's editors exalt those books they find admirable and even heroic, and the Coogler Committee has its short list of trash.

Well, dear readers, you were right in your premonitions that something had gone wrong. Here is the problem. In February 1980, we awarded the Worst Book of the Year Award to the British writer William Shawcross for his "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia." The late and gifted Peter Rodman reviewed the book in The American Spectator and took issue with its narrative and methodology. For instance, the maps were off, according to his calculations; and yes, The New York Review of Books had done cartwheels over "Sideshow." We had our worst book of the year. Our problem arose because over the years, Shawcross has become increasingly sound, an admirer of George W. Bush (though with qualifications), a friend of America, a proponent of America's special relationship with the U.K. and even a defender of Israel. Some members of the Coogler board began to suspect that we should strip Shawcross of his 1980 award, cruel as that might sound.

Actually, even when we gave him the award, he did not act like the ordinary knavish liberal. We sent him Rodman's review, and he responded to it, politely but for the most part negatively; and Rodman answered, not so politely, but intelligently. The exchange took place in our July 1981 issue. But that was not all. Shawcross published the whole exchange in the paperback edition of his book. He relished the debate! He encouraged his readers to witness the exchange. I should have known then that this fellow Shawcross was not your normal, run-of-the-mill intellectual antagonist. He believed, even in the 1980s, in the give-and-take of ideas. It is very rare. Most intellectuals run and hide.


Moreover, he has not flinched from standing up for those who defend Western values. On Israel, he recently wrote the country "is an imperfect society (like any other), but it has extraordinary social, scientific and scholastic achievements. Despite living under endless threats, it is far closer to the liberal ideal of a free society than any other in the Middle East. But it gets scant credit." In his book on the Iraq War, "Allies: The U.S., Britain, Europe, and the War in Iraq," he concluded: "Hatred of America is a powerful and a very destructive force in the world today. Some of that hatred is caused by America's mistakes, though that is not true of the rage of Islamic nihilists, a minority that nothing can assuage. I believe the bottom line is this: For all its faults, American commitment and American sacrifice are essential to the world. As in the twentieth century, so in the twenty-first, only America has both the power and the optimism to defend the international community against what really are forces of darkness."

Thus speaks Shawcross today, and he has uttered such good sense for years across a whole range of vital issues. Not only that but also he writes commendable prose. What am I to do? Members of the Coogler Committee want their handsome award back. Let bygones be bygones. I am off to London and shall very gingerly bring the matter up with Shawcross. "Where is your award, and may I have it back?" I shall say. Probably, he has it in an honored spot in his London home, perhaps on a mantel, possibly on display with other literary and humanitarian awards that he has won along the way. I shall offer him a replacement. How about a portrait of President Barack Obama coming down from the heavens with copies of Shawcross' later books in his hands? Mr. Shawcross, all things are negotiable. We just want our award back. The year 2011 is the year the J. Gordon Coogler Award Committee flip-flopped.


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