Idiocy Watch: The New Republic

Idiocy Watch: The New Republic

The New Republic strains credibility with its 'Idiocy Watch'—it might want to keep itself in its sights.


The New Republic's advertising copy promises "vital intelligence in the war against terrorism." Inside the magazine, its editors publish an "Idiocy Watch" devoted to allegedly dumb things that have been said and written about same. I fear someone has been mixing up the two.

TNR's editors have not merely been spectacularly wrong about the war but frequently nonsensical. In the magazine's November 19 editorial, for instance, it complained that we were losing the war because, like President Clinton, who had "stupidly" "ruled out the use of ground forces" in Kosovo, George Bush was now sending "the same lulling message: the United States will not put large numbers of troops on the ground." Oddly, the very same editorial noted that ethnic cleansing in Kosovo ended only when "Slobodan Milosevic was confronted with the threat of an imminent deployment of American ground forces." Since Clinton had supposedly ruled that out, one can only imagine who it was that threatened their "imminent deployment." President Gore?

In that same remarkable editorial, the editors grumbled that US military efforts had "gotten us exactly nowhere." The clear result: "The Taliban will rule Afghanistan through the winter, thereby handing the United States a humiliating and gratuitous defeat."

Note that these examples of TNR's deeply misguided defeatism come only from those articles written under the magazine's editorial voice. When editor Peter Beinart wrote a TRB column intending to smear The Nation as "anti-American," he deployed as evidence a single article written by someone whose name appears nowhere on the masthead and who enjoys no institutional affiliation with the magazine. (This was not only sleazy, it was also quite lazy, as some genuine Nation writers would have provided pretty inviting targets if Beinart had bothered.) As any editor knows, a vibrant political magazine must publish articles with which its editors do not necessarily agree. During TNR's most recent golden age–under Michael Kinsley and Hendrik Hertzberg–opinion was so diverse, its advertising campaigns embraced "schizophrenia" as a virtue.

While TNR's editors may have destroyed their credibility as critics of the war, the damage to the public discourse the magazine has wrought does not end there. Over the years, it has helped launch the careers of a bevy of hawkish writers who have carried the talent for malevolent invective with them like a communicable disease. (Involuntary) ex-editors Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly are doing their best to revive the tactics of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn during this war by whipping up hysteria about "Fifth Columns," in Sullivan's words, and those who are, as Kelly put it, "objectively pro-terrorist" when characterizing those deemed to lack sufficient enthusiasm for the current war effort. Ex-senior editor Jacob Heilbrunn also sounded very much like the armchair warriors in his former office. Writing in the Los Angeles Times on November 4, Heilbrunn prematurely credited the Taliban with victory. "His administration has bungled the challenge," he complained. "The war effort is in deep trouble. The United States is not headed into a quagmire; it's already in one. The U.S. is not losing the first round against the Taliban; it has already lost it." This analysis echoed that of former TNR senior editor Charles Krauthammer, who complained on October 30: "The war is not going well. The Taliban have not yielded ground. Not a single important Taliban leader has been killed or captured or has defected." In virtually every one of these cases, the pundits' prescription was the same: Bring in the ground troops and expand the fighting or risk humiliation and defeat.

Perhaps most egregious has been the magazine's vendetta against Secretary of State Colin Powell. When Powell spoke of the need to find a solution so the Israelis and Palestinians could live in peace, the magazine's editors treated the former general as if he were an underprepared affirmative-action student in a cutthroat Harvard seminar. TNR found "the banality of Colin Powell's address on American foreign policy" to be "breathtaking." As if that weren't churlish enough, the same magazine that provided a cheerleading section for that highly naturalistic and deeply inspirational orator, Al Gore, had the temerity to complain of Powell's allegedly "irksome manner of the motivational speaker for whom every trivial remark is more proof of his mettle." TNR went so far as to accuse Powell of providing "a kind of bizarre ratification of Osama bin Laden's view of the problem." Why? "There is bin Laden attempting to persuade the Muslim world that what he wants is justice for the Palestinians, and here is Powell attempting to persuade the Muslim world that what he wants is justice for the Palestinians." Yes, you read that right. Even to appear to care about "justice for the Palestinians" is to give aid and comfort to the terrorist bin Laden. It used to be possible to parody TNR, in the phrase Calvin Trillin borrowed from Frank Mankiewicz, as a "Jewish Commentary." But the editors are now occupying so much territory inside the land of self-parody, they might as well build settlements.

While the magazine is home to a number of talented and eloquent liberal writers on many domestic, legal and economic issues, and still boasts some of the finest literary criticism to be found anywhere–along with Elizabeth Rubin's fine coverage on the ground in Afghanistan–TNR's post-Kinsley/Hertzberg decline continues apace. No wonder owner Martin Peretz was eager to unload controlling interest in the magazine to investors Michael Steinhardt and Roger Hertog. The latter is also a major funder of the right-wing Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. A Washington Post writer who has apparently been either asleep or on Mars in recent decades wondered why a conservative would wish to place his millions at the service of this alleged "liberal bastion." Duh. A better question is how Peretz managed to pull it off. Politics aside, it can't be much fun to shell out millions advertising your "intelligence" and attacking others' "idiocy" only to discover that the entire time, you've been looking in the mirror.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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