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!