The question came to mind as I was dipping in and out of Oliver Stone's miasmic 700-plus-page tome. I'll never read the whole thing, and not because it's a left-wing screed full of slimy distortions about the evils of the United States (though that doesn't help). It's that it's boring.
Mr. Stone and co-author Peter Kuznick call their book "The Untold History of the United States," except, again, it isn't. This story has been told countless times before. As the Daily Beast's Michael Moynihan notes in a devastating review, Messrs. Stone and Kuznick offer no new research, and much of the old research they rely on has been rendered moot by more recent discoveries since the Berlin Wall came down.
Still, what vexes me about the book isn't really the substance. What bothers me is the manufactured rebelliousness, the kitschy nostalgic play-acting of the thing. The 66-year old Mr. Stone can be an original filmmaker, but he is a stale old Red when it comes to politics.
In a sense, that fine. We're all entitled to our opinions, even to commit them to paper in book form. But spare me the radical pose. Among the hilarious blurbs is this encomium from the octogenarian radical Daniel Ellsberg. "Howard [Zinn] would have loved this 'people's history' of the American Empire. It's compulsive reading: brilliant, a masterpiece!"
Mr. Ellsberg is right about one thing: The late Howard Zinn, a wildly left-wing historian, probably would have loved it -- in no small part because he wrote so much of it already in his decades-old and endlessly recycled "A People's History of the United States."
Mr. Zinn's work, along with Noam Chomsky's, Michael Moore's and, now, Mr. Stone's, is seen as boldly transgressive and subversive. Intellectually, there's some truth to that, of course. If you're dedicated to subverting the free enterprise system and traditional patriotism, then you're a subversive.
I guess what bothers me is the whole pretense that these people are bravely speaking truth to power in some way. Mr. Zinn has been on college syllabi for decades. Mr. Moore wins Academy Awards and is treated like royalty by the Democratic Party (he sat in Jimmy Carter's suite at the 2004 Democratic Convention). Mr. Chomsky has been a fixture on the campus paid-lecture circuit since before I was born.
According to investigative reporter Peter Schweizer, Mr. Chomsky, the avowed hater of capitalism, set up a special trust to hide his millions in personal wealth from the taxman. This from the guy who inveighs against a tax code full of "complicated devices for ensuring that the poor -- like 80 percent of the population -- pay off the rich."
Mr. Stone, a notorious booster of Cuban socialism, owns numerous properties around the world. During an interview at his Santa Barbara, Calif., Spanish colonial villa, when Architectural Digest asked about the contradiction between his anti-capitalist schtick and his lifestyle, he replied that he wouldn't fall for the guilt trip. "That's a Western Christian trip."
The bowel-stewing hypocrisy notwithstanding, what's amazing is how the same dreck is recycled as new, fresh and courageous. Charles Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution" will be 100 years old next year. Its attack on the founders as greedy white men was wrong then, but at least it was relatively original. Today, college kids regurgitate the same nonsense -- and professors applaud their rebelliousness. Except what or whom are they rebelling against? Not the faculty or the administration.
Hackneyed left-wingery is not only treated with respect on campuses (though most mainstream academics aren't as left-wing as Messrs. Zinn or Stone), it is repackaged daily by Hollywood and celebrated by the mainstream media.
The self-styled rebels of Occupy Wall Street received overwhelmingly positive coverage in the mainstream media in no small part because the liberal press thinks authentic political expression for young people must be left-wing. The regurgitation of hackneyed '60s slogans pleasing to the ears of aging, nostalgia-besotted baby boomers elicits squeals of delight. Meanwhile, tea party protests were greeted as dangerous, odd and deserving of hostile journalistic scrutiny.
And yet the kitsch of leftism still works its magic. In huge numbers, young people think they're rebelling when all they're doing is playing their assigned part and lending energy and, often, votes to a stale, regimented form of statist liberalism that often disappoints and never satisfies.
I don't expect young people to become conservatives, though if you want to see true rebels on campus, seek out the pro-life Christians. But is libertarianism really too much to ask? Championing economic liberty will tick off your professors, and you can still be a libertine on weekends. And if you get rich, you won't be a hypocrite for defending your villa.
Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book "The Tyranny of Clichés." You can write to him by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.