Protest and Survive
On February 1, 2003, just weeks before the invasion of Iraq, I opened my New York Times to an article by Todd Purdum of the Washington bureau titled "The Brains Behind Bush's War Policy." From the Times's Washington bureau I expect the scuttlebutt, the inside word from the denizens of the war party. But what Purdum gives us is less inside dope from the inner circle of hawks than outside analysis from The National Interest, The Weekly Standard, from various (neocon) journals of opinion. He reports their common theme (in articles starting in 1997): "Saddam must go." And the essence of all their arguments in favor of war with Iraq? That the doctrine of containment no longer applies in a post-Soviet, post-cold war world. (Containment, of course, was first set forth as policy in another journal of opinion, Foreign Affairs, which published George Kennan's history-making essay "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," under the pseudonym "X," in July 1947.)
So take it from me (or better yet, take it from the Times), the journal of critical opinion is here to stay.
Fifteen years after we came in for our share (more than our share) of contumely for inviting retrograde and/or politically incompatible journals of opinion to our conference at the University of California at Los Angeles, I asked National Review editor Rich Lowry to lecture at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (see how ecumenical, fair and balanced I can be?). But he outfoxed me. Instead of spewing right-wing propaganda, he talked about what our two magazines had in common. He said that like The Nation, National Review exists to make a point, not a profit; and that opinion journals are at their best when they are fighting for ideas that are out of favor, like the idea that the case for keeping drugs illegal is intellectually bankrupt, an idea on which both magazines concur. (Although I'm glad The Nation has given space to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's contention that decriminalization will amount to suicide for the boyz 'n the hood.) When and if the retrograde drug laws are changed, I guess it's true that it will be at least partly because these journals have been chipping away at them all these years.
Christopher Hitchens once traced what he called "a thin reddish thread" connecting J.B. Priestley's article on the nuclear threat to E.P. Thompson's history-making Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. I don't know whether Thompson would have agreed with Hitch on the role of Priestley's article. I do know that as the British social historian and leader of the European nuclear disarmament movement saw it, by the early 1980s America and Europe appeared to have drifted beyond the range of communication, and the drift seemed to be endangering both continents.
The Nation invited him to send his warning to his American friends--and devoted an entire issue to his message: "We must protest if we are to survive. Protest is the only realistic form of civil defense." This slogan of the British antinuclear movement may have sounded idealistic at the time, but Thompson's confidence that rhetoric could be turned into action proved prophetic. A decade before the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the self-transformation of its satellite East European regimes, he wrote that even though only courageous dissidents will, in the first place, be able to take an open part, protesting "will provide those conditions of relaxation of tension which will weaken the rationale and legitimacy of repressive state measures, and will allow the pressures for democracy and détente to assert themselves in more active and open ways."
I cite these prescient sentiments not just because I agreed with them, and not just because I believe them to be as compelling an explanation for the meltdown of the USSR as the claim that the arms race bankrupted it (although I do), but because "protest and survive" is more than a stratagem. It is a philosophy, and as such describes more than the British antinuclear movement. Indeed, it is as fair an account as we have of the animating force behind the journal of dissent itself. When Thompson wrote about generating an alternative logic, an opposition that must, at every level of society, win the support of multitudes and bring its influence to bear on the rulers of the world, his argument exemplified the case for a truly independent journalism.
Now consider the injunction of The Nation's first editor, E.L. Godkin, not to be the organ of any party, movement or sect. A magazine like The Nation can inspire, it can mobilize, it can organize, but in the end it is not a movement, since it is also the job of our journal to deal with--not omit or ignore--inconvenient facts; to persuade, in philosopher Jürgen Habermas's phrase, through the power of the better argument. There is a time to protest and a time to consider, to analyze. To me, this double life, this mixed mandate, the William Lloyd Garrison-E.P. Thompson tradition of protest and the E.L. Godkin-Jürgen Habermas tradition of intellectual debate are not either-or. It is the job of the journal of opinion--postmodernism to the contrary notwithstanding--to tell the truth, and when there is no truth to tell, tell that, too. At least in the case of The Nation, although it doesn't always seem that way, the two traditions keep company.