It's an absolute law of nature that no looming social, political, environmental or technological topic can be expected to capture the attention of the mainstream media without a news hook. It takes an explosion on an oil rig, for instance, for any journalist to take notice of the dysfunctional world of the Minerals Management Service and the drilling business it claims to regulate. But choose almost any issue—domestic violence, steroids in sports, lousy levee construction, whatever—and the same dynamic applies.
Precrisis, however, the people who try to bring such things to our attention are usually considered cranks. The smart ones retain a sense of ironic detachment from their obsessions and turn their crankiness into endearments (see under "Hertzberg, Hendrik and Proportional Representation"). This is rare, however. More common is Walter Berglund in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, an overpopulation crank who drives himself and everyone around him nuts... right as he may be.
For roughly thirty years, I've been a crank on the issue of Marty Peretz. It began when I first picked up a copy of The New Republic in my college library expecting to find a cerebral liberal guide to American politics and discovered a nasty neoconservative one instead. In those days—the early 1980s—Peretz inaugurated the magazine's now thirty-year tradition of employing some of America's most talented liberal writers to provide a patina of legitimacy to the aggressive wars and constitutional subversion undertaken by the likes of Ronald Reagan and, later, George W. Bush. The famous phrase "Even the liberal New Republic..." perfectly illustrates the phenomenon whereby the magazine sought to marginalize liberal arguments in the face of the "tough-minded" TNR hawks. A second, related theme of Peretz's period of ownership has been the vicious smearing of anyone who criticizes any action undertaken by Israel for any reason. Frank Mankiewicz's famous witticism that TNR became "a Jewish Commentary" proved just as painful as it was funny.
Revealed over time in the form of an unedited blog, Peretz's obsession with Israel's critics morphed into purposeful hatemongering à la Beck and Limbaugh. It's aimed primarily at Arabs and Muslims, though to be fair, he is not so enamored of blacks or Hispanics, either. That this venom was published by a magazine understood to represent liberalism in general, and American Jewish liberalism in particular, is what turned me into a crank on the question, since these happen to be my passions as well. I did not appreciate the implication that my values were somehow represented by his racist hatred. I'm hardly alone in this. As the young crank Matt Yglesias noted, he too has been bothered for years "that a well-respected DC publication that employs a number of skilled journalists has a bigot at the top of its masthead." But he's found that "pointing this out has done far more to prompt journalists to get annoyed at me than to get annoyed at Peretz or his employees. Basically it's considered rude to draw attention to the guy."
Well, the Marty Peretz crisis is finally upon us. The confluence of events responsible involves the fiftieth anniversary of Harvard's social studies program—where Peretz has long been an instructor—and the launch of an undergraduate research fund named in his honor. (The university already enjoys having Ruth Wisse as the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature.) Just before he was to speak at the honorary luncheon, however, Peretz mused on his blog that "frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims," who, he averred, were "[un]worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment." That's when all hell broke loose.
Peretz issued a partial apology, but as with Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond regarding blacks, the problem is not a single statement; it's a lifetime of them. (Head on over to peretzdossier.blogspot.com if you doubt this.) To pick just one golden oldie at random, in 2006 Peretz insisted that "Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) 'atrocities,'" adding, "We have higher standards of civilization than they do."
What suddenly made his recent remarks into a story was the way they fit into a narrative of increasing intolerance (along with the threat of violence) against Muslims in the wake of the Park51 controversy. We had Newt Gingrich complaining of the imminent imposition of Sharia law in the United States, Pastor Jones in Florida threatening to burn Korans and the editor in chief of America's flagship liberal publication suggesting that Muslims have their First Amendment rights withdrawn. (Trends in the US media inevitably come in threes.) So when Nicholas Kristof quoted Peretz in his New York Times column, the poison Peretz had been spewing regularly for decades suddenly became news. Petitions and open letters of complaint flowed in from students, faculty and alumni, asking how Harvard could appear to honor such unmistakable bigotry. (No one, by the way, could point to any scholarship Peretz has produced, as none exists.) So now Harvard had a problem: how to pocket $650,000 raised for student research without implicating itself in the undeniable ugliness of Peretz's campaign of hatred and malice against Muslims.
At this writing, Harvard's plan is to—surprise, surprise—take the cash but drop Peretz from the list of luncheon speakers.* Here, Harvard's conundrum is similar to one faced by many of the fine writers and editors who have passed through TNR over the years. As long as nobody mentioned Peretz's habitual hysteria, no one needed to face up to the complex moral calculus in working for, and publishing in, a magazine that offered a daily dose of legitimacy to such views. As a Peretz crank, I must admit that this is one "crisis" I welcome. But I also wonder: how many liberals will join The Atlantic's James Fallows in announcing, loudly and clearly, of Marty Peretz: "He does not speak for us."
*After this article went to press, it appears that Harvard invited Peretz to make remarks at the social studies event on Saturday, even after removing him from the official list of speakers.