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.