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.
On a Nation cruise, the maritime adventure I usually refer to as “Lefties at Sea,” I used to take it for granted that some of the guests were not completely comfortable with my presence as a panelist. Although I’ve been writing for The Nation since 1978—that’s when the then-editor became known as “the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky” for offering me a per-column fee of “something in the high two figures”—there has always been some feeling among longtime subscribers that I am not completely, well, on board. For years, after all, I answered questions about why I wrote for The Nation by saying, “It’s the closest magazine to my house.” In my column, I pointed out that The Nation is published only every other week during the summer months, even though the downtrodden are oppressed every day of the year. On a television talk-show once, I recalled an exchange I’d had with a newspaper reporter who, during the promotional tour for a collection of my Nation columns, asked me to describe the magazine.
“Pinko,” I said, after some reflection.
“Surely you have more to say about it than that,” the reporter countered.
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s a pinko magazine printed on very cheap paper—the sort of magazine where, if you Xerox one of your pieces, the Xerox is a lot better than the original.”
A week or so later, I got a ferocious letter from a Nation reader who had been outraged that I would say something on national television that gave comfort to the enemy. I wasn’t surprised. I’d always taken it for granted that one portion of the readership was troubled not only by my smart-aleck remarks, but also by the suspicion that I was the sort of person who had let the agony of the Scottsboro Boys fade from his memory. As a stand-in for those readers, I included a character in my column called Harold the Committed, who was always asking me whether I’d like to see the world as we know it destroyed in a nuclear holocaust (“No, not really, Harold”) or suggesting that one of my daughters go to the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade as “the dangers posed to our society by the military-industrial complex” (“Harold, I don’t think we have anybody at home who can sew that well”).
But the 400 people who actually went on the first Nation cruise—which was also the first cruise I attended as one of the panelists—did not appear to be angry with me at all, except for the woman who upbraided me over my failure to call on her when, as the moderator of a panel, I had asked for questions from the floor. “Why don’t you people ever call on anyone in the balcony?” she demanded, confronting me as I left the stage. “What is your bias against the balcony?” Ever since then, in the spirit of the political discussions common to Nation cruises, I’ve thought of the people she represented as the balconistas or “the balconite faction.”