On Passover, Jews are commanded to diminish our joy in celebrating the end of slavery by pouring out a drop of wine for each of the Ten Plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. For those of us who live by our pens, the death of any magazine is sad news, and for a magazine with The New Republic’s history and claims to intellectual seriousness, even more so.
But having dipped my finger over the difficulties currently besetting TNR, perhaps I can explain why I don’t share the general dismay—and why I think the whole argument, to borrow Leon Wieseltier’s phrase, suffers from “an excessively heroic conception” of what TNR has ever amounted to.
At its birth in 1914, The New Republic, as an organ of Theodore Roosevelt’s late-blooming Progressivism, easily situated itself to the left of The Nation—at the time, a somewhat comatose pendant to the New York Evening Post. However, the outbreak of war in Europe soon saw TNR rushing toward the vital center, with editors Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann and Walter Weyl badgering President Wilson into the fight. These efforts led their colleague Randolph Bourne to coin the phrase “war intellectuals”—the ancestors, if you will, of TNR’s proud band of laptop bombardiers rationalizing the road to Baghdad (but not—at least not yet—Damascus). One more piece of ancient history: in January 1918, just before he took control of The Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard published the text of the secret treaties by which America’s new allies proposed to carve up the globe. Weyl wanted TNR to publish them too, but Lippmann and Croly refused, and when Weyl wrote an editorial in protest, they vetoed that as well.
During the 1920s and ’30s, the two magazines were, at least superficially, ideological twins (but only if, like those sitting shiva for TNR, you think racism is a side issue. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic, “the Bell Curve episode is remarkable for how well it fits with the rest of TNR’s history”). Both opposed the Treaty of Versailles, and both showed sympathy for cultural innovation in the United States and political experiment in the Soviet Union. The front of The Nation might arguably be described as more starry-eyed about communism, but since TNR’s book pages were edited by Malcolm Cowley, an enthusiastic fellow traveler, while ours were directed by Margaret Marshall, a staunch anti-Stalinist, the “useful idiot” score probably works out to a draw. As for the 1940s, I’ve always found it odd how TNR partisans are quick to accuse The Nation (inaccurately, I might add) of being chronically soft on Stalin while neglecting to mention that TNR’s owner and editor at the time, Michael Straight, was an actual Soviet agent!
The point isn’t to dredge up the past, but to draw attention to the way that, from the very beginning, The New Republic saw itself as, and traded on being, in proximity to power. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being well informed or influential. But from Lippmann’s back-channel ghosting of Wilson’s speeches to Betsy McCaughey’s distortions on Clinton-era healthcare reform to Morton Kondracke’s fulminations on Jesse Jackson, TNR has consistently shown an eagerness to suck up to power, usually in the guise of tough-minded realism.
My own beef with TNR can best be summed up by the phrase “an intellectual pastorate for oppression.” That was how a young Martin Peretz—in making it clear to the readers of Dissent in 1964 that I.F. Stone was completely kosher—described what I.F. Stone’s Weekly was not. In recent days I have tried, and failed, to find a better way to describe what The New Republic became—almost from the moment Peretz bought it. While all these young, white, mostly Jewish men (and a handful of women) were sitting at his feet, launching their careers, Peretz wielded his magazine like a club against anyone who spoke out too vigorously on behalf of blacks (though if, like Ruth Shalit, you took aim at affirmative action, you were given plenty of running room), Hispanics or even the casualties of capitalism.
All of which pales next to the way TNR functioned as a brutal, corrupt cop on the Middle East beat, where even the magazine’s most “distinguished” contributors were expected to politely ignore the foul anti-Arab bigotry that Peretz regularly paraded in his own columns. For Palestinians especially, and for all those who care about the justice of their cause, The New Republic has long been a pastorate for oppression.
It’s much more pleasant, of course, to rhapsodize about the saintly Wieseltier. A balanced accounting of Peretz’s long-serving lieutenant would be interesting. I found comfort, and considerable wisdom, reading his Kaddish after the death of my own father. But surely any reckoning would also have to include Wieseltier’s vicious attacks on his (and my) former teacher, Edward Said, and his thuggish response when Tony Judt dared to question the party line on Israel-Palestine. After Judt was prevented from speaking at the Polish Consulate in New York in 2006, Wieseltier wrote that the “significant point” was that silencing Judt saved the audience from “a conspiracy theory about the pernicious role of the Jews in the world.” Judt, a former contributing editor to TNR, had been removed from the masthead three years previously after writing a piece in The New York Review of Books proposing that Israel become “a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs” instead of an ethnic garrison state. Nobody resigned in protest.
So pardon me if my eyes remain dry, my mirrors uncovered. After Peretz bought TNR, he fired editor Gilbert Harrison—and Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow and Doris Grumbach were soon gone as well. Even so, the magazine survived. Of course, I hope TNR continues—and yes, I’d feel at least as bad if National Review (the magazine that gave the world John Leonard and Garry Wills) folded. Still, it’s hard to see TNR’s recent troubles as anything more than boys (mostly) playing with capitalism—and getting burned. Who knows, maybe Chris Hughes is smart enough to turn things around. For the sake of the culture, I hope so—but there’s no point pretending there isn’t plenty of room for improvement.
As to whether there’s room in New York for one left/liberal/progressive weekly (online and on paper), and one “vertically integrated digital media company”—watch this space. New Republic–ans, welcome to the neighborhood! And as we say in New York: watch your back.