The New Yorker Goes to War

The New Yorker Goes to War

In its first issue after the fall of the World Trade Center, The New Yorker published a handful of short reaction pieces by John Updike, Jonathan Franzen and others about the horror that


In its first issue after the fall of the World Trade Center, The New Yorker published a handful of short reaction pieces by John Updike, Jonathan Franzen and others about the horror that had just occurred in lower Manhattan. Only one really stood out, however: an angry and eloquent blast by Susan Sontag at “a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall” and robotic politicians who “apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush.” In the wake of the Twin Towers attack, Sontag wrote, Americans had much to ponder “about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense.” Yet rather than thinking, politicians and the press were engaging in “confidence-building and grief management.” Where Americans had once been contemptuous of Soviet yes-men, their own representatives were proving no less acquiescent in the crunch as the Bush Administration geared up for war. “The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days,” she declared, “seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.”

The essay, less than 500 words long, unleashed a torrent of right-wing abuse, most of it zeroing in on Sontag’s parenthetical point that, by themselves, courage and cowardice are morally neutral–their moral quality depends entirely on the ends they serve. Hence: “Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.” Andrew Sullivan called it “deranged” and Charles Krauthammer said Sontag was morally obtuse, while Rod Dreher, a columnist for the New York Post, expressed a desire “to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman’s apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters.”

“I didn’t agree at all with Susan Sontag’s now famous four paragraphs,” editor David Remnick subsequently confessed in an interview with a Japanese newspaper, and the magazine’s coverage showed it. Never again would The New Yorker publish anything as remotely outspoken about Bush’s War on Terrorism, by Sontag or by anyone else. While criticism of the White House did not exactly vanish, it unquestionably wound down, growing more tempered and balanced as the editors struggled to find something nice to say about Administration policies.

House liberal Hendrik Hertzberg continued to turn out editorials that were skeptical and irreverent (although, this being The New Yorker, never very angry). But he found himself regularly checked by Remnick, who weighed in at crucial moments with “Talk of the Town” comments that, after the usual hemming and hawing, inevitably concluded that the White House was on the right track after all. Rather than challenge the hawks, the magazine either confined itself to criticisms of the way the war was being conducted or, in a few instances, sought to one-up the boys on the Defense Policy Board by running terrorist scare stories more lurid than even they could dream up. In the end, the magazine wound up endorsing just the sort of war policies it had warned against back in September 2001. Rather than opposing robotic yes-man politics, it ended up practicing them.

The New Yorker has not been the only publication to fall into line behind the Bush Administration’s war drive, but for a number of reasons its performance seems especially disappointing. One reason has to do with the magazine’s track record. One doesn’t have to be a William Shawn devotee to agree that the magazine has published some astonishing journalism over the years–Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Jonathan Schell’s pieces on Vietnam and Pauline Kael’s wonderful demolition job on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to name just a few. During the Vietnam War, it was one of the few mainstream publications to try to unmask the sordid reality behind the brass’s regular 5 o’clock press briefings. And if it published too many long and hyperfactual stories in the 1980s about wheat or geology, at least it preferred being trivial and obscure to the glories of being a team player in Washington, which is a moral stance of a sort.

Though its style may have been genteel, The New Yorker succeeded in challenging middle-class sensibilities more often than any number of scruffier publications. Another reason to mourn the magazine’s lack of resistance is that it represents an opportunity lost. Just as the magazine helped middle-class opinion to coalesce against US intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East. Rather than unveil the reality behind a spurious War on Terrorism, though, The New Yorker helped obscure it by painting Bush’s crusade as a natural and inevitable response to the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack and, as a consequence, useless to oppose. Instead of encouraging opposition, it helped defuse it. From shocking the bourgeoisie, it has moved on to placating it at a time when it has rarely been more dangerous and bellicose.

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.

A magazine like The New Yorker, of course, is a diverse and sprawling thing. It speaks with many voices, not all of whom completely agree. If Remnick leans to the right, Hertzberg still leans to the left, leaving it to the reader to triangulate between the two. Reporters like Jane Mayer and Jon Lee Anderson, for their part, have raised uncomfortable questions about the War on Terrorism. Still, an overall conservative turn has been apparent from nearly the moment the Twin Towers collapsed.

In its initial post-9/11 issue, for instance, the same one in which Sontag’s mini-blast appeared, Hertzberg noted in “The Talk of the Town” that the Bush Administration was describing the assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon “with growing ferocity…as acts of war.” Instead of jumping on board, Hertzberg was duly cautious in his response: “Unless a foreign government turns out to have directed the operation (or, at least, to have known and approved its scope in detail and in advance), that is a category mistake.” Pace Bush, harboring a terrorist did not make one as guilty as a terrorist; rather, you had to know what he was up to and be a party to his plans to be placed on the same moral footing.

Sobriety like that was a rare commodity in those superheated days. But then, sensing perhaps that too much sobriety might be a dangerous thing, Remnick enlisted Hertzberg a week later in co-writing an editorial stating that war was justified after all. “The trope of war has been omnipresent since the day of the attack,” the two men wrote, and “President Bush did not, and could not, retreat from it.” Still, “even as the President spoke of war his remarks reflected an awareness of the snares that word carries. Justice, more than war, was the speech’s theme.” This was the September 20, 2001, televised address in which Bush told the world, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Instead of targeting terrorists, he was now targeting those who failed to show sufficient alacrity for the new American jihad. Yet somehow Remnick and Hertzberg persuaded themselves that the President’s remarks “went some distance in reassuring those who feared that his response to this crisis would be a primitive spasm of vengeful violence.” Once The New Yorker convinced itself that Bush was well intentioned even if his performance was sometimes maladroit, it became one more courtier straining to get the king’s ear.

A month later, the magazine published an investigative report by Seymour Hersh blaming a Pentagon culture of “political correctness” for the failure to assassinate Mullah Muhammad Omar. According to Hersh, military personnel could have taken the Taliban leader out with a Hellfire missile strike once a Predator drone got him in its sights. But they were blocked by overscrupulous higher-ups who “want you to kill the guy, but not the guy next to him,” as one of his sources in the military put it. It was a form of legal squeamishness, apparently, that the Pentagon would soon overcome. Two months later Hersh explored the growing neocon push for an invasion of Iraq. But rather than ask why the United States was targeting Saddam despite a lack of evidence tying him to 9/11, Hersh confined himself to the purely practical question of whether the hawks could pull it off. “The issue is not how nice it would be to get rid of Saddam,” he quoted one former Defense Department official as saying. “The problem is feasibility.” If the United States could do it, in other words, it should.

To be fair, Hersh’s reporting has grown more critical of late. The New Yorker‘s overwhelmingly antiwar readership no doubt cheered when his March 17 report about superhawk Richard Perle’s business dealings with Saudi-born arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi led to Perle’s resignation as chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Ripping into the work of special Pentagon intelligence analysts assigned to find proof of Saddam’s ties to Al Qaeda and the arsenal of forbidden weapons he had supposedly assembled, Hersh quoted an angry ex-CIA official as saying, “They were so crazed and so far out and difficult to reason with–to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if on a mission from God.” This was strong stuff. But in discussing how they may have allowed themselves to be duped by their own propaganda, Hersh couldn’t bring himself to mention the likelier possibility–that “intelligence” like this is a smokescreen and that, from the analysts on up, the Bush Administration has simply lied. The New Yorker may criticize aspects of the War on Terrorism, but to suggest that Bush’s jihad is fraudulent remains beyond the pale.

Indeed, the closest the magazine came to such heresy was in an October 2002 article by Nicholas Lemann. As the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America and, more recently, The Big Test, a study of standardized exams, Lemann has done some important work in the past. But as The New Yorker‘s Washington correspondent, he seems to have reinvented himself as the sort of star-struck journalist who daydreams about fly-fishing with Dick Cheney and gushes over Condoleezza Rice: “To spend time with Rice is to see right away how she has such an effect on people. ‘Condi is just an A-plus-plus-plus presence,’ one former Administration official who knows her says. ‘She’s the most gifted speaker and conveyer of solid thoughts, in articulate form, of anybody I’ve ever met.'”

On this occasion, however, Lemann allowed a bit of irony to peek out from behind that deadpan prose. In the year since the assault on the World Trade Center, he noted, Bush had won the foreign policy battle merely by getting everyone to parrot the words “War on Terror.” “The phrase,” he wrote, “meets the basic test of Presidential rhetoric: it has entered the language so fully, and framed the way people think about how the United States is reacting to the September 11th attacks so completely, that the idea that declaring and waging war on terror was not the sole, inevitable, logical consequence of the attacks just isn’t in circulation.”

Quite right. But Lemann might have added that not only were contrary ideas not in circulation among the policy elite in Washington, they were not in circulation among the editorial elite in Times Square, where Remnick & Co. had also allowed the White House to set the terms of the debate. Despite occasional reservations about the White House’s saber-rattling, The New Yorker remained a prisoner of the emerging Bush doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.

The growing number of articles that the magazine has run since 9/11 on the subject of terrorism and the Middle East have been equally skewed. Whenever The New Yorker uses the word “terror” or one of its cognates, for instance, it is almost always in an Arab or Muslim context. While a Nexis search turns up numerous references in the magazine to Palestinian, Egyptian and Pakistani terrorism since the Twin Towers attack, it turns up no references to US or Israeli terrorism or, for that matter, to terrorism on the part of Christians or Jews. A Nexis search over the same period reveals that the word “fundamentalism” appears almost always in an Islamic context as well. In this modern update of Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” religious fanatics are mostly Muslim, occasionally Christian, but–despite all those Uzi-toting settlers–never, ever Jewish.

Examples of such one-sidedness range from the subtle to the egregious–and, as is often the case, it is the former that are most interesting. In an article last September about Gershom Scholem, the famous scholar of Jewish mysticism, the novelist Cynthia Ozick concluded with an impassioned peroration on the subject of Scholem’s twin religious and political obsessions: “In Kabbalistic symbolism, with its tragic intuition that the world is broken, that all things are not in their proper places, that God, too, is in exile, Scholem saw both a confirmation of the long travail of Jewish dispersion and its consolation: the hope of redemption. In short, he saw Zionism.” Many of us have gotten so used to nationalist rhetoric of this sort that we no longer notice. But can anyone imagine The New Yorker celebrating Islam in such a fashion and winding up with an equally passionate embrace of Arab nationalism?

Two months after the September 11 attacks, The New Yorker published Bernard Lewis’s 9,000-word essay, “The Revolt of Islam,” which, while certainly timely, was replete with reckless generalizations about a “Muslim world” and “Muslim peoples” turning their backs on modernity. Lewis’s description of Islamic fundamentalism as essentially an internal Muslim development was seriously misleading. As Eqbal Ahmad and Richard Barnet argued in The New Yorker–the old New Yorker–back in 1988, the United States did as much to fuel Wahhabist militancy as the Saudis themselves, by funding a fundamentalist mujahedeen army to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Rather than solely Muslim in origin, the dramatic spread of Wahhabism since the 1970s is an ideological byproduct of a US-Saudi alliance based equally on anti-Communism and oil. By focusing narrowly on Islam’s rejection of modernity, moreover, Lewis implied that the Judeo-Christian West’s relationship to modernity is healthy and normal. One would never suspect that the President of the United States is a born-again Christian who believes that “on the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the earth”; that the House majority leader (Tom DeLay) believes that “only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation”; or that the Attorney General (John Ashcroft) is such an extreme fundamentalist that he had himself biblically anointed before being sworn in as governor of Missouri. While Lewis would like us to believe that the fundamentalist rejection of modernity is the Islamic world’s problem and not ours, in fact it is both.

As crude and reductive as this was, however, it was sophisticated stuff compared with the dispatches of staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who more than any other writer embodies the magazine’s rightward drift vis-à-vis the Middle East. In early 2000, staff writer Mary Anne Weaver had argued that the idea of Osama bin Laden as an all-powerful Svengali in charge of a global array of terrorist organizations was overblown–a judgment that still holds up despite the astonishing feat that he and his minions were able to pull off in September 2001. But, post-9/11, tempered arguments such as these would no longer do. Hence, the terrorism beat was handed over to Goldberg, who, although born in America, had served in the Israeli army during the first intifada and had gone on to write for The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. With a seemingly unlimited travel budget, Goldberg set about unearthing terrorist conspiracies from South America to northern Iraq.

At its best, Goldberg’s journalism (which, remarkably, recently earned him a National Magazine Award) is only slightly more blinkered than the magazine as a whole. In “A Letter From Cairo,” which followed the assault on the World Trade Center by just three weeks, he described a growing epidemic of anti-Semitism among Egyptians outraged by America’s blanket support for Israel. The report was not inaccurate, as far as it went. But with 32 percent of Americans believing that Arabs living in the United States should be placed under special surveillance, according to one post-9/11 poll, Goldberg might have noted that bigotry is hardly limited to one side. While it is certainly distressing that many Egyptians believe that Israel’s security service, the Mossad, was somehow at the bottom of the Twin Towers attack, as Goldberg also reported, it is no less disturbing that, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, a majority of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was responsible, a fact The New Yorker has scarcely acknowledged.

But if Goldberg’s articles are blinkered at best, at worst they are–to put this as politely as possible–examples of irresponsible fearmongering whose principal effect has been to fuel the White House war drive. Last spring Goldberg published a massive article about the Kurds of northern Iraq. Its description of the 1988 poison-gas attack on the city of Halabja was vivid and frightening, but it was only one item in a farrago of charges aimed at America’s latest villain du jour. While all eyes in the West have been on the 5,000 deaths in Halabja, Goldberg argued that Saddam had gassed “perhaps” 200 villages, with up to 400,000 people poisoned in all. In the course of some 16,000 words, he went on to accuse Saddam of supplying Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons, of controlling the tiny fundamentalist group Ansar al-Islam, of attempting to build nuclear arms and of plotting to unleash bio, chemical and nuclear WMDs on other countries.

Indeed, Goldberg suggested that Saddam was responsible for everything in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq from an epidemic of birth defects to an increase in the population of poisonous snakes. The number of villages that he said had been attacked with poison gas was more than triple the figure that a comprehensive study by Human Rights Watch had come up with several years earlier, yet the evidence Goldberg offered to back up his account was remarkably thin: eyewitness accounts more than a dozen years after the fact; the “expert” testimony of a lone English geneticist so alarmist that she carries bleach and an oversized plastic bag whenever she visits a shopping mall, to protect against chemical attack; plus various alarmist comments, cited without qualification, by pro-Administration hawks like Ahmad Chalabi, Kanan Makiya and James Woolsey. Goldberg’s chief source for the supposed three-way mutual-aid pact between Baghdad and Al Qaeda was a 29-year-old accused drug runner languishing in a Kurdish prison, whose captors released him from his cell just long enough for him to fill Goldberg’s ear with the latest scoop on the Iraqi leader’s nefarious activities.

It was the sort of “reporting” that only hawks could love–and they did. At a news conference a few days later, Bush told reporters: “Evidently, there’s a new article in the New York magazine or New Yorker magazine–some East Coast magazine–and it details about his barbaric behavior toward his own people. And not only did he do it to his own people, he did it to people in his neighborhood. And this is a man who refuses to allow us to determine whether or not he still has weapons of mass destruction, which leads me to believe he does.” Dick Cheney added shortly on Meet the Press, “It’s a devastating article…. It demonstrates conclusively what a lot of us have said: that this is a man who is a great danger to that region of the world–especially if he’s able to acquire nuclear weapons.”

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.

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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