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The New Yorker Goes to War | The Nation

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The New Yorker Goes to War

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The article certainly generated "buzz," as Tina Brown might have put it. Never mind that, as Jason Burke pointed out in the London Observer, the search for a link between Al Qaeda and small but militant groups like Ansar al-Islam was likely to come up dry, since Islamic fundamentalism is a diverse, spontaneous and decentralized movement in which Al Qaeda is "nothing more than primus inter pares." The Bush Administration needed a link in order to keep its theory of a unified terrorist conspiracy going, and The New Yorker was happy to provide it.

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Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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In another article, Goldberg offered little more than the word of various unnamed South American "experts," "investigators" and "intelligence sources" for his claim that Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda have established a fundraising network among Lebanese traders dealing in black-market CDs and pharmaceuticals along the Paraguayan-Brazilian border. The piece provided important ammunition not only for those wishing to promote the idea of a centralized, global conspiracy but also for those neocons pushing for an extension of hostilities to Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's prime backers.

Finally, in early February, just as preparations for an Iraq invasion were entering their last stages and popular opposition was mounting worldwide, The New Yorker ran yet another Goldberg report on the alleged Baghdad/Al Qaeda connection, this time one that dispensed with unidentified sources and instead relied solely on the word of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith and the ubiquitous James Woolsey. Goldberg dutifully jotted down all that they told him about the ties between Saddam and bin Laden, which, needless to say, were unmistakably close. Woolsey, for one, declared that, as Goldberg put it, "it is now illogical to doubt the notion that Saddam collaborates with Islamist terrorism." The reason: "Islamist terrorists" had been spotted taking instructions in airline hijacking at an Iraqi training camp known as Salman Pak. In fact, as Hersh revealed in The New Yorker in May, Salman Pak was being used to train counterterrorists to fight radical fundamentalists.

Goldberg's piece appeared a week after Remnick argued in "The Talk of the Town" that while there was "no indisputable evidence of [an Iraqi] connection with the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington" and no "irrefutable evidence" concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, such things didn't matter. War was still justified. Since "it is not...difficult to hide centrifuges or gallons of anthrax in a country that is larger than Germany," the mere possibility that Saddam had WMDs squirreled away was all that was needed to launch an invasion. "History will not easily excuse us," Remnick wrote, "if...we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them." Since Rumsfeld, Feith et al. had assured us that this is what Saddam intended to do, that was all we needed to know. The rest was superfluous. And if US troops now tramping through the rubble of Iraq have yet to turn up a single vial of anthrax or canister of poison gas, that is superfluous as well. Iraqi WMDs are yesterday's news. What concerns us today are the chemical weapons that the Bush Administration tells us are stashed away in Baathist Syria. The Administration says they exist, so they must be there...somewhere.

Should we care that "the voice of this magazine has been quite clearly aggressive in its support of the war," as Remnick told a Scottish newspaper last September? The answer, obviously, is yes. The New Yorker may be just one example of a magazine that has lost its bearings, but, given its journalistic track record, its massive circulation (nearly a million) and the remarkable hold it still has on a major chunk of the reading public, it's an unusually important one. Where once it used its institutional heft to help broaden American politics, now it is helping to narrow them. When The New Yorker runs a clever and amusing profile of a colorful character like the Slovenian social theorist Slavoj Zizek, as it recently did, the main purpose is to give an appearance of openness while assuring readers that such radical critics remain safely marginalized. Meanwhile, it seems highly unlikely that the magazine would publish articles by the likes of Hannah Arendt or Pauline Kael, hard-hitting intellectual warriors whose goal was to challenge conventional wisdom head-on. People like that couldn't have cared less about respectability. The idea that we should put aside all doubts and take people like Rumsfeld or Woolsey at their word would have left them incredulous.

But, then, irreverence, independence, intellectual daring--such things have been suspended for the foreseeable future. We must swallow our skepticism and fall into line. Criticism must be constructive, which is to say it must not call into question the premises of the War on Terrorism, or the good intentions of those conducting it. One is reminded of the old Dwight Macdonald line about The New Yorker existing to make us "laugh and lie down," except for two things. Rather than passivity and enervation, the goal now is loyalty and mobilization. And as for making us laugh--well, maybe it's the sour mood we find ourselves in nowadays, but The New Yorker no longer seems quite as funny.

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