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My Time Under the Scalpel

Book Critic Censored by San Diego Newspaper

by THOMAS LARSON

Buy a newspaper and censor its content. This seems to be the policy of San Diego developer and multimillionaire Doug Manchester, who last November purchased the city’s largest newspaper and rechristened it, the UT-San Diego. His editor, Jeff Light has been cutting contributor’s voices left and right.Last Christmas, Manchester, a Catholic, published a front-page greeting, citing Jesus Christ as humankind’s biggest influence. When online readers reacted, many by discussing problems with Catholicism, Light didn’t like what he read, so he closed and erased the comments.In March, Light censored a week’s worth of Doonesbury’s cartoon strip, lampooning a Texas law that forces women to have ultrasounds prior to an abortion.

Now I’ve had my own run-in with the Light/Manchester scalpel, a tad more surgically complicated but with the same end—censored.

Earlier this year, UT book editor Lisa Sullivan assigned me to review Capitalist at Large: Reflections of an International Entrepreneur by James Jameson, an autobiography published by the small libertarian Cobden Press, of Apple Valley, California.

For twenty years, I reviewed books for Arthur Salm, the paper’s former book critic, from 1988 – 2005. His policy was to never assign reviews of self-published local authors or small local presses: these weren’t books vetted by good publishing houses. I took this also to mean that if a San Diego author mentioned owners or employees of the newspaper in his or her book, this would be a conflict of interest for the paper.

When I glanced at Jameson’s index, I was surprised to find the name of Doug Manchester mentioned four times. References to him are all glowing.

I emailed Ms. Sullivan, asking why she had chosen this book and me to review. I noted that Salm forbade such self-published local books. She replied, “There’s kind of a long story behind this actually. It wasn’t exactly my choice. I thought it was published by a very small  Libertarian publishing house, but I’m not sure if he [Jameson] owns it.”

Why me? I asked. Because I live in San Diego and am an expert on memoir and autobiography.

I read the book and worked hard on the review. I found Jameson’s autobiography to be poorly conceived and unengaging, too often a list of his triumphs as an international entrepreneur. It is almost entirely self-congratulatory and unreflective, despite the subtitle. It lacks any sense of other people as influences or friends. It is more like an advertisement for libertarian theology than an honest examination of a self, an examination readers expect from memoir, whether focused on the whole life or a portion.

So, in my evaluation, I described the book’s focus—I did cite one or two things I thought worked well and why I wanted to see the author do more of that—and why I judged it a failure. I believe I wrote a good review of a bad book. (Judge for yourself. The piece follows below.)

Soon, Ms. Sullivan called to say that editor Light wouldn’t publish my review because of their “policy,” one Ms. Sullivan said she didn’t know until now they had. “When it’s a local author and the review is negative, we don’t publish it.” Ms. Sullivan said she was sorry. She said it about five times. I realize she is not to blame, and it’s a pity she’s been ensnared. She seems to be stuck between management and writer. (At least she called and didn’t just dash off an email.)

OK, my review is “negative”—a bad book deserves such a notice. But the idea that a local paper should not offend a “local author” is ludicrous. The U-T publishes positive and negative reviews of locals all the time—especially by freelancers who review the symphony, the theater, local bands, and books. Arts coverage at every publication offers critical commentary; it’s one of the main reasons to buy a local paper.

What’s more the U-T editorial board evaluates the city council, the mayor, county supervisors, not to mention the police department, the school board, the port authority, on and on. The paper often critiques such officeholders and agencies and publishes “negative reviews” of what it sees as bad policies.

I objected to Ms. Sullivan that my work was being censored. I said that it wasn’t my “negativity” in the review at issue but the fact, I believe, that I was unflattering to a friend of the owner. She had no comment.

Was my review so truthful or so hurtful that this local author needs to be protected from it? Why? What’s more, must the editor protect his boss from such a “negative” notice about a friend? Was my review even read by Manchester? And most crucial what has happened to the autonomy of an editorial department that is supposed to be free from coercion, actual or feared?

***

Capitalist at Large: Reflections of an International Entrepreneur
James D. Jameson with Christina Murray

A review by Thomas Larson

The successful American businessman manages companies, creates jobs, pushes innovation—and, so says one former CEO, “likes being able to fire people.” Many toil long hours, oversee quality products. Some garner a fair wage; some are absurdly overpaid. A few regard themselves as scouts in the Army of Capitalism, sinking cash and securing debt, usually their own, in emerging world markets. One such high-flying, hands-on investor is James Jameson.

Libertarians will thrill to this autobiography. His audience are those who treasure risk, love horse-trading with smarmy politicians and mafia bosses, and devour industries in outposts where lax regulation rules. Part cheerleader, part salesman, Jameson regularly rings our ears with the commandment: “Capitalism was a system that empowered entrepreneurs, and it was their individual initiative that truly made economies grow.”

Jameson believes he’s been called to find “the formula for a great and successful life.” The journey begins with his boyish enthusiasm for free marketeering: “Visions of heartbreaking oppression and hoped-for freedom marched through my dreams.” Once he grows up, he’ll liberate “the oppressed and godless communists.” Of course, he means, monetarily. With Vietnam, which draft-age Jameson supports, he uses a high lottery number to, like Dick Cheney, field “other priorities.”

Such as a degree from Stanford, after which he launches his business flotilla abroad. First, in Indonesia where, after a $25,000 investment, he “pull[s] out close to $250,000.” Then in Japan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, later Vietnam, China, and Pakistan, he keeps hunting good buys. In the Imperial Valley, he gambles on soil-detoxification technology, though to succeed he has to bust a nascent labor union. Post-strike, he celebrates by purchasing a painting of “two saluki dogs” “taking down a gazelle while their Arab masters” approach on horseback. He’s the gazelle, he says, a victim of thuggish Teamsters who almost ruined him.

One chapter is given to a stint in Washington as an assistant secretary of commerce for trade development. In boardrooms, he rails against “every company” who hustles government for a handout. He saves taxpayers several million, gets flummoxed by cronyism, and exits quickly, remarking: “My Rolodex, though not my wallet, was richer for my time there.”

In the 1980s, Jameson spins that Rolodex to gain access to the Wild East—Russia and Poland—where he grabs a stake in previously government-owned entities like book publishing. In 2000 he and a delegation visit Fidel Castro, scouting privatized opportunities he believes are due once Cuban socialism expires. Unexpectedly, Jameson tables that message long enough so we hear El Jefe, the man, “lonely for new, fresh conversation,” come alive. It is one of the few moments another point of view is sufficiently aired in the book.

But such a moment vanishes, and its absence typifies the author’s ultra-selective tack. The self-made Jameson is myopically uninterested in the ethics of foreign trade. Nowhere does he ask, Who should regulate international business? The WTO? Why? On whose behalf? Who decrees that Jameson and friends get carte blanche to resources, markets, and the three billion laborers in the world who live on $2.50 a day?

What’s more, the book’s lapses are embarrassing. Though he briefly lionizes his Dad, there’s virtually nothing about wife, children, or friends. Except for liking Castro, he reveals few intimacies, embraces none of workers’ concerns, and, despite the subtitle, attempts no reflection. The book uses scant narrative technique: it’s a resume, 95% exposition. A litany of I did this, I did that. His “spiritual” time-outs are laughable: one week a year he sits in a Swiss abbey in silence, finds solace around altruistic monks, and sneaks into town for hot chocolate.

I wished just once Jameson would acknowledge that while free trade may ignite a country’s productivity, it has widened the divide between rich and poor. Constantly lauding capitalism for harnessing “private self-interest to build the economic pie for everyone,” he ducks stating, for example, that the top 20 percent owns 80 percent of the world’s assets while the bottom 20 percent own 1 percent—and this gap has doubled between 1960 and 2000, effectively Jameson’s tenure.

It’s in the nature of memoir writing that our unguarded selves bubble up whether or not we want them to. When Jameson dramatically declares that there are things “more important than accumulating riches,” one of which is “service to God,” and when he offers no evidence of such service to back up the assertion, I don’t buy it. On the contrary. His autobiography proves that the consequence of cultivating conceit and avarice all of one’s days is to have lived a barely examined life.

Thomas Larson—critic, memoirist, and journalist—is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and teaches in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at Ashland University.