Books & the Arts / October 2, 2023

The Liberal Heart

A magazine’s revolt against the new.

Liberties: A Magazine in Revolt Against the New

Tolerance, rigor, open-mindedness, and a willingness to countenance doubt and contradiction apparently are all values the magazine champions in theory but tends to ignore in practice.

David Klion

Illustration by Tim Robinson.

Leon Wieseltier has been burned by the tech world twice. In 2012, three decades into his tenure as The New Republic’s literary editor, Wieseltier was reportedly “giddy” after the century-old, perpetually unprofitable magazine was acquired by Chris Hughes, a 28-year-old cofounder of Facebook. Two years later, Hughes installed a Silicon Valley veteran who promised to “break stuff” as the magazine’s chief executive and then ousted TNR’s editor, Franklin Foer, prompting the abrupt resignation of most of the editorial staff, Wieseltier included. In 2015, Wieseltier got to work on a new venture, a quarterly magazine called Idea, to be financed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But in 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Wieseltier was accused of having sexually harassed female employees at The New Republic over the course of many years, and Powell Jobs quickly shut the project down. Idea, it turned out, would remain just an idea.

Both times, tech money had promised to fund Wieseltier’s editorial vision, and both times it had betrayed him—or at least that’s how he saw it. It’s no wonder, then, that three years ago, Wieseltier chose a more traditional route to make a comeback: He turned to his 91-year-old “synagogue pal” Alfred Moses, a retired white-shoe lawyer who once served as US ambassador to Romania, to finance yet another magazine. “One of the great things about this man is that he’s not from Silicon Valley,” Wieseltier said of Moses in a 2020 interview announcing the launch of Liberties, essentially the journal that Idea was supposed to be.

Everything about Liberties seems designed to thwart the Internet. The magazine has a bare-bones website; to read an issue of Liberties in its entirety, you have to purchase a $50 subscription or pay $18.95 for an individual issue. If you wanted to pull a quote out of context and dunk on it for social media’s amusement, you’d have to be unusually dedicated: Each quarterly print issue takes up the shelf space of a book, running 300 to 400 pages and featuring 15 to 20 writers, with individual articles sometimes hitting 10,000 words and taking a while to meander to their main subject. There are no illustrations or advertisements. Every cover is a different shade of monochrome. While the practitioners of most 21st-century political tendencies have embraced digital technology as necessary for reaching the widest possible audiences, Liberties is resolutely analog, a throwback to the previous century in both physical form and ideological content.

Since the magazine’s launch, Wieseltier has found plenty of famous friends willing to promote his return from exile. Aaron Sorkin, David Brooks, Bill Maher, Tina Brown, George Stephanopoulos, Mario Vargas Llosa, Christiane Amanpour, and the inimitable Tom Friedman (“It’s like a meteor of intelligent substance that landed on my desk”) have all blurbed Liberties. Maureen Dowd has hosted a conversation with the editors at the Washington mainstay Politics and Prose. These advocates aren’t exactly intellectual titans, but they do tell us something about the sort of affluent liberal reader that Liberties is likely aimed at. If the old TNR styled itself as the Beltway’s know-it-all journal of ideas and “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One,” then Liberties pitches itself more as a work of pre-digital samizdat to be passed around by an aging East Coast elite that regards its arguments as dangerous and risqué—even if, in reality, they are unlikely to provoke anyone born since the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

It used to be a lot more fun being Leon Wieseltier. Hired in 1982 by The New Republic’s then-owner, Martin Peretz, Wieseltier turned the magazine’s “back of the book” into one of the more exciting literary reviews in the English-speaking world. He also spent a lot of time cultivating a reputation as a witty, seductive raconteur and man-about-town in stodgy Washington. A memorable 1995 Vanity Fair profile captures Wieseltier at the peak of his decadence—flirting with Barbra Streisand, dating Twyla Tharp, selling review copies of books for cocaine money, supposedly working on a “physiological/historical/philosophical critique of sighing,” and taking Tipper Gore to a metal show at the 9:30 Club. He came in for his share of mockery—not only from those D.C. journalists who regarded him as a pretentious arriviste, but also from the high-minded intellectuals he modeled himself after and whom he often sought out as mentors. As Isaiah Berlin quipped, “He’s not a finisher.”

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As he climbed the social rungs of D.C., Wieseltier became interested in politics as much as book reviews. He embraced a politics of humanitarian interventionism and befriended Samantha Power, who was writing dispatches from the Balkan Wars for The New Republic. (He even gave an epic toast at her 2008 wedding to fellow TNR contributor Cass Sunstein.) Like his rough French counterpart and frequent contributor Bernard-Henri Lévy, he styled himself in these years as the moral conscience of the world, a stalwart defender of the Rights of Man, and a man of great historical importance himself. Most dramatically, in 2014, he traveled to Kyiv to lend his support to the Maidan protesters (or, perhaps, to borrow their valor for himself). His celebrity status and his politics only bolstered his stature with Peretz and within the magazine. While editors in chief came and went—from 1996 to 1999, TNR cycled through Andrew Sullivan, Michael Kelly, Charles Lane, and Peter Beinart—Wieseltier was an institution and was seemingly untouchable. He even got to appear on an episode of The Sopranos.

But the conditions that had favored Wieseltier’s rise turned out to be far fickler than he had ever imagined. The Iraq War, which he’d initially championed, proved to be a fiasco. The New Republic’s finances became even more tenuous, and Peretz and the circle of investors who then owned the magazine were forced to sell. Meanwhile, a younger generation of left-leaning intellectuals had coalesced around a set of new or revived little magazines—Jacobin, Dissent, The New Inquiry, n+1, The Baffler—that forthrightly rejected The New Republic’s brand of hawkish liberalism and embraced a new socialist politics. And then #MeToo came—and for Wieseltier, too. Although Idea never came to fruition, it was not as if there were many people who would miss it. The literary and political landscape seemed to have moved past Wieseltier and everything he stood for.

Liberties is thus a conscious throwback to an earlier age when Wieseltier was a mover and a shaker, someone who played a central role in shaping the elite liberal consensus. The magazine’s contributors reflect this nostalgia and broadly fall into four camps. First, there are the staples of Wieseltier-era back-of-the-book TNR: Cass Sunstein, David Greenberg, William Deresiewicz, Martha Nussbaum, Mark Lilla, and so on, who serve as a sort of liberal old guard in the magazine. Then there are the centrists, anti-woke pundits, and neocons who have made names for themselves at other outlets: Eli Lake, James Kirchick, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Agnes Callard. Next comes probably the largest grouping: academics at name-brand universities who aren’t always name brands themselves. And finally there are the contributors who are dead: Wieseltier’s friends Isaiah Berlin, Leonard Cohen, and Fouad Ajami may have all expired before Liberties was born, but their bylines nonetheless grace its pages.

Liberties is edited entirely by the 71-year-old Wieseltier and the 27-year-old managing editor, Celeste Marcus. Despite the generational gulf between them, the two have a fair bit in common. Both received Orthodox Jewish educations in East Coast cities (he in Brooklyn, she in Philadelphia). Both escaped soon after from these religious bubbles (Wieseltier: “My faith was not sufficiently strong to withstand my desire to taste wine, eat food, and kiss women”; Marcus: “As I came increasingly to love it, I nonetheless realized that there was something essential about me that would always be at odds with the texture of that place”). Both attended Ivy League colleges in their respective hometowns (Columbia ’74; Penn ’19). Both found high-profile mentors (Lionel Trilling for him, Wieseltier for her) and both rapidly made their way into the world of magazines at publications based in Washington rather than the more crowded and competitive New York. Both profess a reverence for the Western canon and the traditional fine arts (Marcus is also an accomplished painter), and both vocally despise the platform formerly and properly known as Twitter—a platform that Wieseltier has never joined, and where he could never wield the same clout he did on the elite media party circuit. “It is a medium of communication in which nothing intellectually or linguistically substantial can be accomplished,” Wieseltier wrote about Twitter in 2014. “It can be really detrimental for a writer, and really easy for them, to decide that they will advance more professionally not by writing essays or books but by living on social media,” Marcus said on a panel last year.

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Their shared disdain for the Internet, and for the wider culture and politics that it has given birth to, is evident throughout Liberties. In the first issue, Mark Lilla bemoans the tyranny of a “virtual, and global, panopticon” in which “the scanning of other people’s souls has never seemed easier.” In the second issue, published in the early months of the pandemic, Marcus warns that online education can never substitute for in-person learning. Later issues feature Bernard-Henri Lévy angsting over what the Internet has done to the physical experience of reading and Justin E.H. Smith critiquing “the model of reality in which gamified structures have jumped across the screen, from Pac-Man to Twitter or whatever it is you were playing, and now shape everything we do, from dating to car-sharing to working in an Amazon warehouse.” Technophobia is explicit in the text and implicit in the format of Liberties; the medium and the message are perfectly aligned.

The specter of #MeToo, which is ultimately why Liberties exists, comes up less often and less explicitly, but there are subtle hints. A particularly awkward example is David Thomson’s essay mourning the decline of kissing, which includes the lines “Real kisses depend on risk” and “Censorship and denunciation are Santa Ana winds on the embers of desire.” In an essay that closes out Liberties’ first issue, Wieseltier obliquely refers to his own brush with cancellation, writing: “Our epistemological jurisdiction stops at the encounter with another person. She is another epistemological kingdom, not more perfect but certainly different, with something important to add, and a perceptual contribution to make. I may like to think I am what I present myself to be, but I am also what she sees me to be, because she sees me as I cannot, or will not, see myself.” The passage is a simultaneously long-winded and noncommittal way to address the allegations that Wieseltier kissed at least two junior employees against their will, made passes at untold others, shared inappropriate sexual anecdotes in the office, and in general fostered a demeaning work environment for women at the then overwhelmingly male TNR.

Though Wieseltier likes to present himself as a blunt and uncompromising writer who does not mince words, when it comes to the subject of his own behavior, he tends to retreat into philosophical clichés and opaque turns of phrase. “The enlightenment that one acquires from the judgments of others,” he writes, “is owed only to their accuracy”—but he doesn’t say which allegations against him were inaccurate. “The ineradicability of ambiguity from human relations,” he tells us, “the ignorance of ourselves that accompanies our ignorance of others, the whole fallible heap, creates an urgent need for tolerance and, more strenuously, for forgiveness”—even if we are not entirely clear what Wieseltier is asking forgiveness for. (For her part, Marcus claims that she independently investigated Wieseltier’s conduct and determined that he “just hadn’t been the person that they described him to be…. If I hadn’t been able to do that, I wouldn’t have taken this job.”)

Yet while Wieseltier asks for tolerance and forgiveness, he remains as intolerant and unforgiving as ever toward his enemies. A striking example is how he has written about his former TNR colleague Peter Beinart, who in recent years has become openly critical of liberal Zionism and has endorsed (in Jewish Currents, where—full disclosure—Beinart and I have worked together) the ideal of a single binational state.

Wieseltier disagrees and remains wedded to the two-state solution, but considering what Beinart wrote in the wake of Wieseltier’s reckoning in 2017—“Men ran [TNR], and Leon’s behavior helped keep it that way”—one gets the sense that when Wieseltier writes that Beinart “flatters himself about his moral fineness,” he isn’t referring only to Beinart’s writings on Israel and Palestine. Mocking Beinart for his “timely journey leftwards”—as though it’s a particularly convenient time to be on the left—Wieseltier goes on to deride Beinart’s “strange habit of ornamenting the expression of his views with assurances about his religious observance.” It can’t be that Beinart may have reassessed his politics or arrived at his current position from a sincere Jewish ethical framework; instead, we are told, he is “just shul-washing.” “If his thinking seems so fresh,” Wieseltier sniffs, “it is because his knowledge is so recent.”

The ad hominem attack is impressive in its pettiness, but even more so when considered against the high standards for argumentation that Wieseltier claims to have set for Liberties. Unlike the unwashed radicals on social media, Wieseltier grandly proclaims that his magazine will be dedicated to “the rehabilitation of liberalism” as a sensibility as well as a political program. “When Henry James wrote about ‘the liberal heart,’” Wieseltier tells us, “he meant a large heart, a generous heart, a receptive heart, an expansive heart, an unconforming heart, a heart animated by a wide variety of human expressions.” Tolerance, rigor, open-mindedness, and a willingness to countenance doubt and contradiction apparently are all values Wieseltier champions in theory but often ignores in practice.

For all the talk about an unconforming and receptive heart, the politics of Liberties are actually quite predictable and only rarely deviate from the liberal mainstream. The economy per se does not often come up, but when it does we have Nicholas Lemann calling for essentially Bidenomics: a kinder, gentler capitalism than Larry Summers might prefer. Aside from James Wolcott gloating over the failure of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign, Liberties mostly ignores the resurgence of a socialist left and the revival of labor activism. At a moment when liberalism has itself borrowed some of the left’s ideas and energy to advance a forward-looking agenda, Liberties wistfully looks backward.

The nostalgia of the magazine’s liberalism really comes through when Liberties engages with the culture wars. Here, Wieseltier and Marcus are determined to hold the line against the woke vulgarians of the left without succumbing to the overt bigotry and philistinism of the right. Seemingly every issue has at least one tedious jeremiad against wokeness. I kept jotting down pithy (and admittedly a bit ungenerous) one-sentence summaries: “David Greenberg is very upset that places keep getting renamed by woke activists”; “Sally Satel thinks critical race theory is corrupting public health”; “Jonathan Zimmerman has written the one billionth article on how the woke left is stifling free speech on campus, dressed up as a history of the decline of the teaching profession.” (One piece in this genre did manage to contain elements of surprise: Mary Gaitskill’s account of teaching an undergrad writing course that seems like it could become a polemic against safe spaces but ends up somewhere much more ambivalent, driven by a genuine empathy for the traumas of her students.)

To be fair, much of the time Liberties tries to resist the discourse altogether and instead directs its energy toward defending the Western canon by publishing a lot of articles about it. Contemporary popular culture and the latest Internet controversies come up infrequently, but if you’re looking to go deep on Mahler, Nabokov, Locke, Gibbon, or Thucydides, Liberties has you covered. No one has reviewed Tár in its pages, but it’s easy to imagine Lydia Tár subscribing—or even contributing.

The journal does engage with some pressing issues of the day. It takes well-merited shots at certain leading voices on the contemporary intellectual right, including Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, Bari Weiss, and Liel Liebovitz. And compared with the more demagogic anti-woke venues that have proliferated in recent years—Quillette, Unherd, Compact, The Free Press, or any number of lucrative Substacks—Liberties isn’t creepily obsessed with the supposed threat of trans-affirming medical care. In fact, the one article on the topic, by Laura Kipnis, skewers J.K. Rowling and encourages a live-and-let-live approach to gender expression.

On abortion, however, Liberties is almost comically out of step. In early 2021, the conservative Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith contributed a credulous analysis of the history of the Federalist Society that concludes with: “The likely course on Roe is a narrowing of the abortion right but not an elimination of it.” Less than two years later, after the Federalist Society–endorsed Supreme Court majority effectively eliminated abortion in half the country, Liberties published another Harvard Law professor—this time Wieseltier’s old friend Cass Sunstein—insisting to readers that “it is important to say that among law professors who are interested in originalism, we can find humility or uncertainty,” before acknowledging that “as it is being practiced by real judges, originalism is consistently producing conclusions that delight the political right.” (You don’t say.)

In the same issue, Wieseltier makes a strange foray into natalism, fretting that “the outraged response to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has contributed to a certain progressive disenchantment with pregnancy” and calling out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two millennial women writers, Jia Tolentino and Amanda Hess (the latter described, outrageously, by Wieseltier as a New York Times “gender commissar”), for expressing that disenchantment. In a passage that would not be out of place on a men’s rights forum, Wieseltier tells readers:

The fact that I cannot speak about the birth process from the inside does not disqualify me from speaking about it altogether. (Women have hardly been inhibited by their personal unfamiliarity with the subjectivity of manhood from telling men how to live; women’s knowingness about men is one of the salient themes of our culture.)

When it comes to foreign policy, 
Liberties feels even more behind the times: Here, the magazine’s thirst to reclaim a fighting liberalism is hard to contain. In the first issue, readers are gifted with a bellicose call to arms by the neoconservative journalist Eli Lake, who argues that the “triumph of the open society…requires historical action, a rejection of narcissistic passivity, in an enduring struggle.” In the second issue, Edward Luttwak beats the drum for a new cold war with China. In the third, Wieseltier acknowledges getting the Iraq War wrong, while defending the worldview that led him to do so. “I certainly did not come away from the partial debacle in Iraq with the conviction that the United States was henceforth disqualified from international interventions,” he writes, before arguing that the Obama administration’s passivity regarding Syria was worse. A later issue includes an article defending the Bush administration’s intentions in Iraq, and another features neocon éminence grise Robert Kagan challenging Stephen Wertheim’s critique of post–World War II American interventionism.

There are lengthy defenses of democracy and human rights in Russia, Belarus, Xinjiang, and Myanmar—all worthy of defending—but the human rights abuses committed by the United States or its allies are rarely mentioned, and any introspection about the failures of the War on Terror is hard to come by. “There is no more damning evidence that the readiness for struggle is waning in America than our stupid retreat from Afghanistan,” Wieseltier writes. “Twenty years is not even close to forever.” His reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is positively tumescent: He casts it as a vindication of his entire worldview and a humiliation for his enemies on both the left and right. “Oh, for a little American hubris” is an actual stand-alone paragraph.

Among the more predictable essays, there are some standouts that demonstrate the value of long-form critical writing not pegged to any news cycle. I especially enjoyed Benjamin Moser’s “Against Translation”—a provocative title given that Moser is known for his English translations of Clarice Lispector. Taking as his starting point a description of a particular deceased person’s home library, full of books no one reads anymore, Moser argues that the version of English the whole world is learning as a second language is a homogenizing force not only in non-anglophone cultures but in anglophone cultures as well—that native anglophone readers are at risk of losing our own sense of rootedness, cultural specificity, and the ability to read with any depth. Likewise, Becca Rothfeld’s “Sanctimony Literature” is a sharp critique of the over-politicization of contemporary literature (Ben Lerner, Sally Rooney, “Cat Person”), which in her view errs “not because it ventures into moral territory, but because it displays no genuine curiosity about what it really means to be good.” Rothfeld may find the present cultural moment wanting, but she’s paying attention to it and offering close readings of it, which is more than one can say of some of her fellow contributors. A certain degree of nostalgic reverence for the past is defensible, but far too much of what is found in Liberties seems like it’s hiding from the present out of the fear that it might not have much to say about it.

In the first issue of Liberties, Wieseltier writes that “we are betting on what used to be called the common reader, who would rather reflect than belong and asks of our intellectual life more than a choice between orthodoxies. We are not persuaded that it is a losing bet.” While the magazine has its share of orthodoxies, it is fair to say that three years later, Liberties is still reliably delivering reflective and intellectually serious long-form prose—a more successful record than Twitter, or most of the venture-capital-backed, digital-first publications that thrived at the height of the social media boom, can claim over the same period. Whether the common reader has any interest is a separate question.

After reading the first 11 issues of Liberties more or less cover to cover—something I would be shocked if anyone other than Wieseltier or Marcus has ever done—I’ll confess that part of me is rooting for their venture to succeed. They’re right about one thing: The Internet has become a deeply dispiriting place, and there is something romantic about committing so unapologetically to sprawling print essays when most of the media’s trend lines are pointing to viral video clips, “smart brevity,” and AI-generated disinfo. One may agree or disagree with any given article in Liberties (and there is a lot to disagree with); one may approve or disapprove of Wieseltier (and there is a lot to disapprove of)—but at least he and Marcus are publishing actual writing.

At the same time, there are plenty of other small and medium-size magazines doing the same thing: Dissent, n+1, The Baffler, Lux, Jewish Currents, The Drift, The Point, The New York Review of Books, the magazine you are currently reading—the list goes on. Each is producing serious works of social and literary criticism, as is the current version of TNR, whose very existence Wieseltier refuses to acknowledge, referring instead to “The New Republic, of blessed memory.” They may all have their own orthodoxies and their own bêtes noires, but they are also not afraid to speak directly to our times. Social media has empowered plenty of hacks and conspiracists and bullies, but it has also brought together vibrant networks of left-leaning thinkers around intellectual projects at least as ambitious as Wieseltier’s, and in many cases more successful.

The most consequential intellectual magazines have always been about not just ideas but how they are manifested in their particular time. They and their writers try to understand the world around them; they try to argue with it; they try to remake it. This was true of the magazines Wieseltier claims to have been inspired by; it was true of the old TNR; and it remains true of many publications today. Perhaps it will be true of Liberties as well, but getting there will require its editors and writers to engage with their peers in the online spaces they’ve stubbornly avoided. Even the rehabilitation of yesterday’s liberalism is unlikely to be achieved without that.

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David Klion

David Klion is a Brooklyn-based writer for various publications. He is working on a book about the legacy of neoconservatism.

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