This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
August 3, 1985
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Delirious New York
Review of Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe, and In Search of New York: A Special Issue of Dissent, edited by Jim Sleeper.
Excerpted from the November 28, 1987 Issue
We live in this imaginary city, a novel that needs a rewrite, where the only politicians not in jail probably ought to be, except for Ruth Messinger, and all of them are Democrats; where the unions don’t care, and the schools don’t work, and the cops deal drugs, and the Mayor has his own foreign policy, and I can’t leave home without stepping over the body of a runaway or a derelict. We didn’t elect Felix Rohatyn to anything, but the Municipal Assistance Corporation is more important than the City Council. Nor did we vote for Steinbrenner, Trump or the rest of the bullies and crybabies who bray on our battlements and wave the bloody pennants of their imperial omophagous selves; and because none of these heroes ever takes the subway, there’s no one to shoot them. Maybe we need Jeremiah more than we need Tom Wolfe or a bunch of disappointed intellectuals.
But Wolfe and Dissent have written their New York City novels anyway. Wolfe, the parajournalist, looks pretty much the same as always, still grinning at us out of the nimbus of his double-breasted signature white suit, a vanilla-colored Mau Mau. Dissent, on the other hand, has had a format face-lift and for the first time in thirty-three years you can read the socialist quarterly without an O.E.D. magnifying glass. In both their novels, the underclass is the stuff of dreams, the return of the repressed, a history-making black magic. They disagree, of course, on whether this is a good thing. Listen to Wolfe: “You don’t think the future knows how to cross a bridge…. Do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World?”
Dissent wants this very same Third World—2.5 million “newcomers” since 1965—to be an energizing principle. In diversity we’ve always found our jumping beans. From the abrasions of culture on culture, we rub up a public philosophy and a civic space. Surely these new immigrants, this ethnic muscle, will rescue us from a mood grown “sullen, as if in contempt of earlier feelings and visions” and “a peculiar kind of social nastiness” (Irving Howe); a “trained incapacity to see the city as a human environment, or as anything more than a machine for generating money” (Marshall Berman); “a way of life that is not much better than jungle warfare” (Ada Louise Huxtable); and “a world devised in its entirety by Dostoevski’s Smerdyakov” (Paula Fox).
It’s odd that Wolfe is so much better than Dissent on the details of class animus. Whereas Dissent can barely bring itself to mention the cops, Wolfe goes underground into the criminal justice system, where the hatred is naked. If Dissent is too polite these days to call anybody an out-and-out racist, Wolfe has been to some fancy dinner parties and taken notes, and bites the hand that scratches his ears. It’s equally odd that Ed Koch, who certainly deserves it, is all over the pages of Dissent, while Wolfe entirely ignores him. A New York novel without Koch is like a court without a Sun King.
But there are many oddities. Neither New York novel has much of anything to say about drugs or organized crime. Both mention Alexander Cockburn.
John Leonard (1939–2008) began his career at National Review before spending many years as a critic and Book Review editor at The New York Times. He began writing for The Nation in 1979, and he and his wife, Sue, served as The Nation’s literary editors from 1995 to 1998. “When I start to read John Leonard,” Nation contributor Kurt Vonnegut said, “it is as though I, while simply looking for the men’s room, blundered into a lecture by the smartest man who ever lived.”
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For Jesse Jackson and His Campaign
Editorial (Andrew Kopkind)
Excerpted from the April 16, 1988 Issue
Jesse Jackson is a serious candidate for the presidency. He was always serious; it was just the press, the political scientists and the other politicians who belittled his campaign, trivialized his efforts and disdained his prospects. Despite the contempt and condescension of the media—or perhaps because of it—Jackson went to the most remote and isolated grass roots in the American social landscape to find the strength for a campaign that has already begun to transform politics. For five years his distance from the funders, the managers, the mediators and the consultants who manipulate the Democratic Party and legitimize its candidates has allowed Jackson to do unimaginable things and say unspeakable words—about race, about class, about equality and, indeed, about democracy. To an extent that may be unique in presidential elections in this century, he derives his power from the people. The enormous energy that his campaign releases has created a new populist moment, overtaking the languid hours and dull days of conventional politics and imagining possibilities for substantial change beyond the usual incremental transactions of the two-party system. It offers hope against cynicism, power against prejudice and solidarity against division. It is the specific antithesis to Reaganism and reaction, which, with the shameful acquiescence of the Democratic center, have held America in their thrall for most of this decade and which must now be defeated. For that reason, The Nation is endorsing Jesse Jackson for the Democratic nomination for President.
The Jackson campaign is not a single shot at higher office by an already elevated politician. Rather, it is a continuing, expanding, open-ended project to organize a movement for the political empowerment of all those who participate. In the beginning, Jackson identified his basic constituency as the most “dispossessed and disaffected” Americans of all, the blacks of the rural South and the Northern ghettos, people who seemed permanently disenfranchised from citizenship and thus denied entrance into the system of rewards and privileges that is every citizen’s right. In a real sense, the campaign became a new civil rights movement with an added dimension of economic justice deriving in spirit from the last campaigns of Martin Luther King Jr. with the black working poor.
As the Rainbow Coalition reaches beyond its primary constituency to include an array of new ones, the values espoused are incorporated into the growing movement. When unionists, feminists, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, students, civil libertarians and community activists join or endorse the Rainbow campaign, they contribute their ideals and their energies while they share the coalition’s strength. The results are startling. Farmers from Iowa campaign in black Chicago, white ethnic hard-hats and young gays and lesbians work together in northern Wisconsin, genteel peace activists and black hip-hoppers leaflet in the projects of Hartford. The culture of American politics is being radically reformed.
We believe the importance of a black candidacy for President and a progressive movement for change in America overshadows any deficiencies in Jackson’s résumé and the faults in his campaign. Racism may be as American as cherry pie, but it is a poisonous portion that fouls every dream and deforms every vision. For The Nation, the Jackson campaign now embodies what we believe is necessary and just for America, and we are proud to stand with it.
Andrew Kopkind (1935–1994) joined The Nation in 1982 as associate editor and later as film critic. His collected essays, The Thirty Years’ Wars: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist, were published in 1995.
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May 21, 1988
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May 22, 1989
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April 16, 1990
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December 28, 1992
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Excerpted from the July 4, 1994 Issue
As revolutions go, the street fighting that took place around Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village on the night of June 27, 1969, lacked the splendor of the Bastille or the sweep of the Finland Station. State power did not crumble, great leaders did not appear, no clear objective was advanced. A bunch of drag queens and their friends pulled from the Stonewall bar in a police raid refused to go docilely into the paddy wagons and all hell broke loose along Christopher Street and in adjoining parks and alleys. Fighting between the queers and the cops resumed the next night, but that was the extent of the violence. And yet the Stonewall Riot must count as a transformative moment of liberation, not only for homosexuals, who were the street fighters, but for the entire sexual culture, which broke out of confinement that night as surely as gay people emerged from the closet.
Although Stonewall came at the end of a decade of convulsive change, and was informed by the struggles of black Americans, women, radical students and insurgent movements throughout the Third World, it was in many ways the purest cultural revolution of all, and the precursor of the postmodern politics of identity that proliferated in the decades to follow. Lesbians and gays are today’s children of Stonewall, but many more are stepchildren or close cousins. That night a quarter of a century ago now belongs to everyone.
Lenin said somewhere that “revolutions are festivals of the oppressed,” and although Stonewall wasn’t remotely Leninist, it was certainly festive and it definitely was a low-down crowd that poured out of that bar. The prominence of drag queens in the vanguard of the insurgency always made theoretical sense: As one of the most marginal, disdained and isolated sectors of the homosexual world (it could not yet be called a “gay community”), the drags had the least to lose from acting out, or acting up—and perhaps the most to gain. Stonewall is often described as a narrowly constructed, exclusively gay male “happening” (in the 1960s sense), but lots of lines were crossed.
Somewhere in the existential depths of that brawl of screaming transvestites were all the freedom rides, the antiwar marches, the sit-ins, the smoke-ins, the be-ins, the consciousness-raising, the bra-burning, the levitation of the Pentagon, the endless meetings and broken hearts. Not only that, but the years of gay men and lesbians locking themselves inside windowless, unnamed bars; writing dangerous, anonymous novels and articles; lying about their identity to their families, their bosses, the military; suffering silently when they were found out; hiding and seeking and winking at each other, or drinking and dying by themselves. And sometimes, not often, braving it out and surviving. It’s astonishing to think that on one early summer’s night in New York that world ended, and a new one began.
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July 4, 1994
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Review of The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein
Adolph Reed Jr..
Excerpted from the November 28, 1994 Issue
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Excerpted from the May 29, 1995 Issue
Brilliant timing. While the rest of the bomb-spooked bureaucrats in Washington try to convince a restless and unhappy public that they shouldn’t be objects of contempt, the Federal Communications Commission comes out with a ruling—against the N.A.A.C.P. and in favor of journalism’s foremost bully-boy, Rupert Murdoch—that shows just how easy it is for folks with big-big money to break the law and get away with it.
The F.C.C. should have stripped billionaire Murdoch of his Fox TV stations. Actually, in its ruling of May 4, the commission acknowledged that he is an outlaw in the industry and, in a bit of bureaucratic bluster, gave Murdoch forty-five days to convince the commission that it shouldn’t punish him. Don’t be fooled by that. They’ll do nothing to him. And the upshot of the F.C.C.’s action will ultimately be the approval of his plan to turn Fox into what will become the right wing’s principal voice in this country.
Rupert Murdoch has built a global newspaper/TV empire by peddling sleaze and piffle; because those commodities have such an appeal to the world’s boobocracy, the empire grows apace—most recently through a linkup with telecommunications giant MCI. Many in the media industry despise him. The Wall Street Journal, with typical understatement, once wrote that among British and U.S. liberal journalists “he has inspired a hatred and scorn that have seldom been equaled in the history of press ownership.” On the other hand, many politicians and bureaucrats seem to like him very much. This is doubtless because he does nice things for them. But just how far does his generosity go? Surely he doesn’t stoop to outright bribery. Perish the thought!
Nevertheless, it wasn’t surprising that when Murdoch’s organization was caught trying to slip Newt Gingrich $4.5 million for what would be two ghostwritten books, and given the fact that Gingrich is not exactly known as a best-selling author (his last book netted him $15,000), there were some who just automatically interpreted that as a kind of bribe.
It was a rather natural conclusion to come to, considering that Murdoch had pulled the book contract ploy before in ways that cynics might interpret crudely. Margaret Thatcher got more than $5 million from Murdoch’s publishing house, HarperCollins, for her memoirs when she stepped down as Britain’s Prime Minister, and many felt this was not so much a recognition of her literary skills as it was a payoff—a delayed bribe, you might say—for virtually handing over Great Britain to feed Murdoch’s bottomless ambitions. Five million bucks was dirt cheap.
Murdoch and his family own 46 percent of News Corporation, the Australian company that pays for all his dirty work. It’s a gusher, bringing in more than $8 billion in operating revenues a year. So why wouldn’t it be wise to spend a few million bucks to buy the necessary politicians and bureaucrats to protect the empire’s U.S. realm?
Robert Sherrill (1924–2014) served for years as The Nation’s White House correspondent despite being barred from its premises for getting in one too many fistfights. “I didn’t want to be in the White House,” he later recalled. “I had been in Washington long enough to realize that was the last place to waste your time sitting around.”
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To Newt on Art
Excerpted from the July 31, 1995 Issue
Dear Mr. Gingrich:
I write to correct an impression which you seem to have concerning my having created a literary career with no help from government. In 1938, when I graduated from the University of Michigan, I managed to get into the W.P.A. Writers Project—$22.77 a week—for six months until the Project was shut down. The government’s help was brief but crucial. The country then was in crisis, as you know, and the support of the arts by government was a vital gesture of mutuality between the American people and the artists, and helped sustain a faith in one another and the country’s future.
You are aware, I’m sure, that we spend far less on the support of our fine arts than almost every other advanced country. To you this indeed may be a valid expression of the American way, an emphatic reliance on the self rather than others. But as a historian you must recall that over the millennia the nature and function of the arts have been regarded as decisively different from other human enterprises.
Some thirty or so years ago, I spoke at Brandeis College in support of some kind of subsidy for theater in the belief that sooner or later the bottom-line attitude would serve us badly. A man rose in the audience: “I manufacture shoes; if the public won’t buy enough of them, why shouldn’t I demand government support?” Hard to answer that one. I could only think to ask him a question in reply: “Can you name me one classical Greek shoemaker?”
That sounds like an elitist answer, admittedly, but a work of art does outlast the best-made pair of shoes, probably because it reflects the soul and spirit of a people rather than only its body.
We believe most in the reality of what is marketable; this is the hallmark of commercial society, and we glory in it. But there is often more enduring value in what is not marketable, or not immediately so. The real question, it seems to me, is whether the American artist is to be alienated from his government or encouraged by it to express the nature and genius of his people. The National Endowment, compared to similar efforts in other countries, is minuscule in scope; but the spirit behind it must not be extinguished. I hope in the end you will agree.
The playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005) first wrote for The Nation in 1954, with a satirical “modest proposal” that all citizens, when they turn 18, be forced to prove their patriotism. Many decades later, he wrote extensive accounts of visits to Nelson Mandela, in 1991, and Fidel Castro, in 2004.