For Russians, the Moscow International Book Fair is an important event. It is the one time the ordinary Soviet citizen can get his hands on Western books. The lines are long and the place is packed. Soviet citizens come from far and wait for hours on line just to see and feel Western books that most of them cannot even read and that none is allowed to take home. (Guards at the exits make sure of that.)
When they come this year in search of America, they are in for a surprise. The Association of American Publishers, which puts on the most important American exhibit, has just put together its book list. It is hard to know what the average Muscovite will think of it, but for an American it is a document for our time. The list, the work of a committee chaired by Kurt Vonnegut, contains 313 books. Chairman Vonnegut is convinced, or so he writes in the introduction to the catalogue, that "in a modest way" it reflects "how Americans see themselves in the 1980s."
So consider for a start the list's treatment of what has undoubtedly been the major issue of the 1980s, the most exhaustively debated, politically charged and internationally significant: nuclear weapons. The Muscovite with an interest in the subject and in how Americans see it will find three books. These are "The Fate of the Earth" by Jonathan Schell; "The Fallacy of Star Wars" by the Union of Concerned Scientists; and, for Moscow's tots, "The Butter Battle Book" by Dr. Seuss.
Fine books, all of them, but singly and together they have the balance of an Albanian election. The Schell book argues that deterrence, the foundation of American nuclear strategy, is a dangerous fraud. The UCS argues that strategic defense, Reagan's idea for a new American nuclear strategy, is a dangerous fraud. And Dr. Seuss argues -- well, the kindly doctor does not argue at all. He tells of the vicious arms race between the Yooks and the Zooks, indistinguishable peoples except for the fact that one butters its bread butter side up and the other butter side down. In other words, the Cold War (believed by some to be about constitutionalism and democracy, not etiquette) is a dangerous fraud. Deterrence, strategic defense and the cold war. That about covers the bases.
What's wrong with this nuclear collection is not just the obvious bias. Nor that it is anti-American. (Of the three, only the Seuss book qualifies.) What is wrong is that it is supremely self-indulgent. This is vacation reading for the Martha's Vineyard set, a bone-up for the right parties on the summer cocktail circuit. The committee has a context problem. On Nantucket you can go to the local library for the other side of the argument. But not in Moscow. And the last thing a Pravda reader needs is another attack on American nuclear policy. Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle.
The nuclear selection gives you the drift. To be sure, most of the 313 books are given over to politically innocuous stuff such as baseball, cooking and art. But when it comes to politics, you don't need a weatherman to give you wind direction. Henry Kissinger, (savaged) by Seymour Hersh. (No Kissinger memoirs.) Lyndon Johnson, (savaged) by Robert Caro. American foreign policy, (savaged) by Jonathan Kwitny. And books by Gloria Steinem, Studs Terkel and the brilliant socialist Michael Harrington. Nothing wrong with these. But where is the balance? Where is Irving Kristol or Michael Novak or Thomas Sowell or Robert Nisbet?
This list purports to be a representation of American life in the '80s -- years marked, above all, by the rise of American conservatism -- and there is not a single book by a leading neoconservative. Reaganism may be a bad dream for Vonnegut & Co. But however deplorable, it happens to be the dominant American dream of the '80s. A touch of, say, George Gilder or Richard John Neuhaus might have been as intellectually helpful to Muscovites as it is ideologically incovenient to the Vonnegut committee.
When the National Endowment for Democracy contributed $50,000 to setting up this exhibit, it stipulated that the exhibit "demonstrate the diversity of American society and the strengths of its democratic institutions." No doubt the committee thinks it has done just that. How better to represent democracy than by displaying the American spirit of criticism?
But that idea is too clever by half. Democracy means dissent, yes. And dissent should be represented. But democracy means something else as well: popular government, in this world an even rarer political commodity. (Of the two, you find only dissent in the Soviet Union, for example.) One hardly represents American democracy by refusing to give fair representation to the political direction that the American people have freely chosen for themselves -- twice -- in the 1980s.
The Vonnegut list tells us less about the political diversity of America than about the arrogant insularity of the literary left. What are Muscovites to make of it? At considerable effort and perhaps some risk, they will have come to the Book Fair to find an American island in the Soviet sea in which they live. How are they to know they have washed up at an Easthampton book party ?