William Martin: What Liberals Believe

Martin, William. What Liberals Believe: Thousands of Quotes on Why America Needs to Be Rescued from Greedy Corporations, Homophobes, Racists, Imperialists, Xenophobes, and Religious Extremists (New York: Skyhorse, 2008)

William Martin has delivered a substantive successor to his breezy 2004 book The Best Liberal Quotes Ever (which I reviewed here ). Martin divides this large volume into nineteen sections--and myriad sub-sections--covering topics from "The Rights of Citizens in a Democracy" and "The Meaning of Patriotism" to "The Threat of Religious Extremism" and "The Right Wing in Its Own Words." In doing so, the quotes he has chosen touch on virtually every issue of contention in modern American life.

Martin's book is somewhat less of an accomplishment than its heft might indicate; he cites far too many secondary sources, does not provide URLs for web articles, and omits page numbers when he does cite books. His general over-reliance on magazines, newspapers, and websites has led to some regrettable omissions; for example, in none of his sections on the media does Martin quote Ben Bagdikian, despite Bagdikian's Media Monopoly being the classic source for information on media conglomeration. Martin's section on authoritarianism has no material from either the classic works on the subject (Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and Theodor Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality) or the modern studies by Bob Altemeyer. He relies on Rabbi Michael Lerner and Reverend Jim Wallis for liberal theology, who are two excellent choices, but neglects to quote Bishop John Shelby Spong's excellent work n debunking religious fundamentalism.

In addition, a number of articles are cited numerous times: Jane Smiley's "The Unteachable Ignorance of the Red States" is mentioned more than a few times, as is Paul Waldman's "It's the Conservatism, Stupid" and Alan Wolfe's "Why Conservatives Can't Govern." The book is correspondingly less broadly sourced than its page count might indicate.

He are some other problems with Martin's reference book, aside from the occasional typo (such as his references to linguist George Lakoff's book as Don't Think Like an Elephant rather than its actual title Don't Think of an Elephant):

* Ben Franklin's "essential liberty/temporary safety" quote (p. 29) is sourced by Martin to a speech to the PA Assembly. US has a page on the quote, but I found this page  to provide interesting insight into the difficulty in precisely documenting older source material.

* When Martin quotes Digby, (p. 349) he notes that her name is a "pseudonym for a blogger." Martin does not, however, make the same notation for Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) or George Orwell (Eric Blair). This strikes me as a slur on bloggers, perhaps an implication that we are not "real writers."

* On page 392, Martin reuses a de Toqueville quote from The Best Liberal Quotes Ever; I pointed out that quote's falsity in my review, but Martin is apparently not one of my readers.

* In the second and third quotes on p. 515, an article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. ("Crimes Against Nature" from Rolling Stone) is variously dated as "2004" and "December 11, 2003." Rolling Stone's website  gives the article's date as Nov 18, 2003 (12:00 AM).

* While liberals do have a few anti-porn activists (Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, et al.) among their ranks, the Left tends to be sex-positive compared to the Right. The section on "Pornography" (pp. 564-5) contains a few less-than-positive quotes, including this one:

"Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice." (p. 564, Robin Morgan, Going Too Far, 1977)

It's good, I guess, to show the intellectual diversity of the Left, but doing so comes at the expense of clarity. Freedom of expression is a core liberal value, and--at least to that extent--the anti-erotica crowd acts in an illiberal manner.

* Martin errs in the attribution of this quote:

"It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." (p. 618, Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Roscoe, 27 December 1820)

These words are actually from Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia" from 1781/2; the letter mentioned by Martin (available from the Library of Congress) actually contains this rather different sentiment:

"...we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

There are plenty of books on GOP gaffes, many of which I've read, so I was disappointed to find very little new in Martin's section on "The Right Wing in Its Own Words." However, the following words from Rush Limbaugh cried out loudly enough for rebuttal that they became my Quote of the Day:

"This guy has to be a liberal... He was turned into a liberal somewhere along the line. So it's a liberal that committed this act." (p. 634, Rush Limbaugh on the Virginia Tech mass-murderer Seung-Hui Cho, 19 April 2007)

As MediaMatters noted, Limbaugh continued: "I'm just pointing out a fact. I am making no extrapolation."

Actually, Rush, your comment was pure extrapolation...and pure BS. If, as you claim, Cho was a liberal, your stereotypes would have made him a tree-hugging vegetarian pacifist who opposed capital punishment and the easy availability of firearms outside of "a well-regulated militia." You're such a tool that you actually made more sense when you were all hopped up on hillbilly heroin.

Despite its flaws, Martin's collection is still an indispensable collection of liberal quotes. A book covering the same territory from a more scholarly and analytical viewpoint could be even more useful, so I hope this book is successful enough to warrant a sequel.


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I’m optimistic that our nation is already beginning to dig itself out of the hole, a process that is accelerating. For my attempt to rectify this review’s harshness, please see the addendum here.

I just Googled "What Liberals Believe" and "William Martin" and found this site. I recently got this book as a gift and am delighted with it. I've double checked several of the citations and have found them to be right on the money. So, I'm inclined to agree with Tricia on the unfairness of this book review. It is hyper-critical, and, frankly, administers the kind of treatment I would expect from a right-wing blog.

I think the cognitive dissident is being honest about how liberals tend to eat their young and how they are oddly adverse to showing encouragement and solidarity. This tendency is strong on the Left and I don't see it as a badge of honor or as some great sign of intellectual integrity. Liberals bashing liberals is a strategic error guaranteed to keep liberals marginalized. It's one of the reasons why liberalism may never dig itself out of the big hole it currently occupies in American discourse.

Cognitive dissident says that he found numerous quotes from Martin's book that he liked. I would like it if he shared a few of them.

Thank you for your input; I had been unable to decide whether or not to post the email I received from Mr Martin, and your comment helped me make up my mind. Here is his email, which I received earlier this week:

Dear CD,

I'm writing to praise your excellent review of my book. I am impressed by the rigor of your analysis and more than a little embarrassed by some of the mistakes you found. I want to know that I intended no disrespect toward bloggers. My handling of pseudonyms was sloppy, not an intended insult.

If I do another of these quote books again -- maybe in 2012 - how would you feel about taking a look at it, this time before publication?

All the best,

Bill Martin

Here is my response:

Thank you for your kind words about my review; in retrospect, I was actually a little concerned that my criticisms sounded too harsh. As a writer, I can appreciate the enormous effort that obviously went into "What Liberals Believe" and I anticipate its frequent use as a resource for my own writing.

I noticed that the web address is still available, and wondered if you have any plans to utilize the Internet. A website might be both a great marketing tool for this book and a place to talk to your readers while gathering material for a sequel.

Thank you for the offer to review your next manuscript. I would be glad to do so should the opportunity arise.

IMO, it is in the nature of liberalism to occasionally be more harshly critical of friends than foes, whereas blind and uncritical acceptance is more commonly associated with conservatism (e.g., the final twenty-something percent of Bushevik dead-enders who still believe that he’s doing a good job).

Did I cross the line into being hyper-critical in this review? Apparently so; in reviewing the pages of my notes from Martin’s book, I cut out many of my favorite quotes (which were numerous) in the quest for brevity.

I will try to avoid making that mistake again.

I have the book “What Liberals Believe” and absolutely love it. It has thousands of well documented quotes that inspire me and cover the entire landscape of contemporary liberal thought and opinion.

This book review is terribly negative. There are thousands of wonderful quotes in “What Liberals Believe”, but not one is mentioned here in a positive way. I suspect that the review, like the blog itself, is really intended a narcissistic tribute to the reviewer. We are intended, I suppose, to be impressed by his erudition. But not me. I’ve read this book cover-to-cover and see the reviewer not in his pose as an intrepid scholar, but as passive aggressive nit-picker. With liberal friends like the cognitive dissident, who needs enemies? A little bit of balance here would gave gone a long way.

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