I, for one, welcome the Gawkerization of The New Republic. At least that most noxious of American credentialing rituals—supporting punishing policies abroad and at home to show you are a serious person—might finally be extirpated from American letters. It isn’t just that writers at The New Republic were the best practitioners of the form; the magazine itself was the credentialing agency. Young writers would go in with a healthy skepticism toward the state and corporate power and come out “serious” people, ready to write for other serious men.
Seth Ackerman, a historian and an editor at Jacobin, tells this story:
When I did the Harper’s internship in 1998, the previous occupant of my intern desk was Ryan Lizza, so it was Ryan who trained me and I got to know him a little. By that point I think he had worked for an environmental news agency, and I recall that he liked Noam Chomsky, and I vaguely remember us rapping about left-wing politics. He had applied to be a reporter-researcher at TNR and it was while he was training me that he got the news he’d been accepted. That was in January. Flash forward to the Harper’s Christmas party that December. It’s the eve of Operation Desert Fox (one of Clinton’s many bombing campaigns in Iraq), and Ryan is standing around the party going off about how if Clinton doesn’t go in with ground troops it’ll be Munich 1938 all over again, and the appeasement has to stop, and Kofi Annan is Neville Chamberlain etc. etc. I remember Roger Hodge [an editor of Harpers at the time] and just looked at each other in amazement and Roger says to me: “What the fuck happened to him?” I said, “The New Republic happened to him.”
Operation Desert Fox was the “wag-the-dog” missile launch Clinton executed just before the House was to debate and vote on impeachment. If only Lizza had applied for a position at Spy (Gawker wasn’t yet founded), he might have been making snarky comments about blue dresses at that cocktail party rather than trying to sound like Winston Churchill.
Lamentations for TNR have poured in through the Internet and Twitter, mourning the fact that the magazine’s new Facebook owner has named a former editor of Gawker to take over, which, in turned, prompted the exodus of its editors and many of its contributing writers. “The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow,” writes a group of former editors and contributors.
Others, though, tell a different story. Max Fischer, who worked at TNR, takes many of the outraged to task for remaining silent in the face of the unremitting racism (against African-Americans, Arabs and Latinos) of magazine’s former owner, Marty Peretz. Freddie DeBoer reminds us of its racist 1996 cover of its issue on welfare reform. If you look at that image, DeBoer writes, “you’ll see genuine human cruelty—ignorant, proud, racist, grubby, petty cruelty.” The New Republic, DeBoer says, launched a “sustained, willful, deliberate assassination of compassion as a political virtue.” Corey Robin points out that the magazine has long been dead. It hasn’t had a “real project” since at least the 1980s when it took the lead in an anti–New Left realignment of liberal politics, embracing Reagan’s remilitarization and remarketization of society.
One of those who will miss the magazine is Rutgers historian David Greenberg, a contributing writer who resigned in protest. At Slate, Greenberg repeats what nearly all other mourners have said in recent days. He appreciated the magazine’s “contrarianism;” he “found its pages more stimulating than those of rival publications, which tended to toe what was already being called the ‘politically correct’ line.” Its “breed of journalism honored the journalistic imperative to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Who, after all, was more comfortable than one’s own loyal readers?” (Gee, I don’t know? Maybe the .01 oligarchy that runs the county? But perhaps those are one’s loyal readers, or owners).
This is complete nonsense. Greenberg doesn’t name any other magazines, but I’m assuming he means The Nation. In the raw-and-cooked world of US culture and politics, The Nation remains to The New Republic what Alex Cockburn was to Paul Berman, what Henry Wallace was to Harry Truman. But in the real world, where evidence matters, The Nation could be quite “contrarian”—if contrarian means running articles that a leftist might object to. Over the years, The Nation has, for example, published essays on Venezuela, Latin America, and elsewhere that I really really didn’t like. It even, after 9/11, ran articles supporting war in Afghanistan. And The Nation endorsed Andrew Cuomo!
What Greenberg means when he identifies The New Republic as a counter to “knee-jerk” liberalism isn’t the reality of the positions that actually gets published. He offers very little in the way of a specific positive agenda of this contrarian liberalism, just what it is defined against. Rather, then, it is something even more intangible than ideas; it is a sensibility—the capital of respectability one accrues by putting down Chomsky and picking up The New Republic. Think of Ryan Lizza’s post-Harper’s ascent. The Nation, for all the diversity of opinion it publishes, doesn’t participate in that credentialing game. Richard Falk might have supported the Afghanistan War (briefly) in its pages, but he never turned that support into a club to attack others, the way TNR contributor Michael Walzer did after 9/11, charging the skeptical left with “indecency” (though Walzer’s most famous essay along those lines appeared in the pages of Dissent, not TNR).
The evolution of The New Republic’s treatment of Noam Chomsky is a good marker of the devolution of its decency that DeBoer describes. In 1979, with the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia and Laos still fresh in minds, Paul Berman wrote a respectful, engaged review of a book-length interview with Chomsky. Berman only offered the gentlest criticism, noting that his “radicalism has the effect of pushing his objections to various aspects of American policy into a condemnation of American policy as a whole, and of extending that condemnation all the way into a criticism of the bases of liberal thought.” Rather, Berman tried to conscript Chomsky’s quirky anarchism into his anticommunism, swiping at the “several battalions of the radical left prefer waving Chomsky as a banner to reading him.” But by 1982, two years into the Reagan restoration, TNR was giving Chomsky’s books to the neoconservative Walter Laqueur to review (whose snark with just a little tweaking and a lot of political reeducation would fit right in at Gawker). He accused Chomsky of having the ethics of a teenager and of being stuck in 1947. (If only! Think of all those people that would be alive in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Iraq if it were still 1947.)
By 2001, TNR was trolling for the Pentagon, its editors telling Chomsky to “peddle his by now banal theories of American malfeasance” in Kandahar. But, they said, he better hurry before US troops get there. Booyah.
In his Slate essay, David Greenberg writes that he never agreed with all of the magazine’s positions,” including “its support of the Nicaraguan contras.” This is like saying you believe in the Virgin Mary but not the Immaculate Conception. Reagan’s Nicaragua war was the centerpiece of his broader restoration of the “muscular” internationalism that The New Republic has consistently championed, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.
I went back and took a look at TNR’s Central American coverage in the 1980s. It was even more rancid than I remembered. Already by 1981, its editors were putting El Salvador’s “authoritarians of the right and the left” on equal footing. “Both sides,” ran an editorial, contain factions that “thrive on violence.” A UN Truth Commission later found that one of those sides—the one Washington supported—was responsible for at least 85 percent of the nearly 80,000 murders. The other side—the left, which TNR held equally to blame—was accountable for 5 percent.
It’s coverage of Nicaragua was even more atrocious, since it endorsed Reagan’s effort to revolutionize international diplomacy by legitimizing the politics of regime change. “Why not overthrow the Sandinistas?” Charles Krauthammer asked in 1983. (TNR’s influence was felt beyond its readers, as many of these sorts of editorials were reprinted elsewhere).
After Vietnam, the Pentagon in the 1980s took steps in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras to cultivate the loyalties of reporters, granting privileged access to a selected few. Once you have that access, you think twice about writing anything that would jeopardize access. This was the beginning of a process that would lead to the policy in Iraq of embedding journalists. It could also create a bonding experience in which privilege was transformed into sympathy for the institution granting the access. Fred Barnes, in a story the TNR would publish under the title, “Contra for a Day,” donned olive greens and traipsed around the Honduran jungle. The story’s dateline mysteriously read: “On the Nicaraguan Border.” “Exactly how I got there,” Barnes wrote, “I can’t say. I’m sworn to secrecy.” The pretentious essay is pure kitsch. But it did its work: establishing the Contras as an organic, committed and viable rebel force fighting not to restore Somoza but for democracy. Barnes did sound one critical note: the “coffee wasn’t hot enough” and he had to sleep on a “plywood slab.”
When Iran/Contra broke, the scandal was win-win for the neoliberals at The New Republic. They tut-tutted about procedural violations committed by the neoconservatives, while reaffirming the righteousness of the intent of the policy, to bring a robust democracy to Nicaragua’s downtrodden. Then, years later, they could brush the whole matter under the rug. The New Republic published one of the most vicious essays on Gary Webb’s 1996 Dark Alliance series. Charles Lane baited Maxine Waters, who was then demanding an official investigation. He also vastly exaggerated the claims Webb was making, and then criticized those exaggerations. Lane concluded that the story couldn’t be true because “the agency would have decided to carry out its genocidal plan by means of a substance that wreaked so much havoc among whites, too.”
After a night spent poking around the on-line archives of The New Republic, which throws up one essay after another like Lane’s, I’m ready to give the new Gawkerfied New Republic a chance. I’m finally going to subscribe.
UPDATE—Tuesday, Dec. 9, 11:00 am: I realize, based on a few comments on social media, that I didn’t make clear why I welcome the gawkerization of TNR: it’s not to wish destruction visited on the magazine; it’s not even because a gawkerfied TNR would neutralize its function of allowing writers who support illiberal policies to go on considering themselves liberals. Rather, it’s because Gawker snark is the most effective dispeller of the pretentious high-mindedness that militarism sucks up like oxygen and dispels like carbon dioxide. I realize there are problems with Gawker – I really don’t pay that close attention to the site, but there often seems to be a fairly coherent social critique lurking not too far behind its irreverence. Again, I don’t know the backstory, where that critique or instinct comes from. But its skewering of Jon Lee Anderson over his Venezuela coverage is, in its way, more effective than any forensic rebuttal. As is its roast of David Brooks on inequality. The site can actually say something matter-of-fact about Chomsky that comes close to reflecting reality. I’m sure there is a critique of Gawker I would agree with. But the site's general position on race, inequality, repression, and white supremacy would measurably improve TNR – just take a look at this cover or remember its plumping for the Contras (who, I forgot to mention in the original post, murdered tens of thousands of Nicaraguans) or the Bell Curve (which took place under Andrew Sullivan’s editorship). And if you think that stuff is of the past, consider TNR’s Jonathan Chait’s ongoing debate with Ta-Nehisi Coates over the “cultural of poverty” thesis. As Coates tweeted: “When you run cover stories questioning the intelligence of 40 million people, because of their skin color, some among them tend to remember.” Speaking of which, here’s Gawker’s “Readers Guide to Andrew Sullivan’s Defense of Race Science.”