Protest and Survive

Protest and Survive

Thoughts on the critical role of the journal of dissent in America.


On February 1, 2003, just weeks before the invasion of Iraq, I opened my New York Times to an article by Todd Purdum of the Washington bureau titled “The Brains Behind Bush’s War Policy.” From the Times‘s Washington bureau I expect the scuttlebutt, the inside word from the denizens of the war party. But what Purdum gives us is less inside dope from the inner circle of hawks than outside analysis from The National Interest, The Weekly Standard, from various (neocon) journals of opinion. He reports their common theme (in articles starting in 1997): “Saddam must go.” And the essence of all their arguments in favor of war with Iraq? That the doctrine of containment no longer applies in a post-Soviet, post-cold war world. (Containment, of course, was first set forth as policy in another journal of opinion, Foreign Affairs, which published George Kennan’s history-making essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” under the pseudonym “X,” in July 1947.)

So take it from me (or better yet, take it from the Times), the journal of critical opinion is here to stay.

Fifteen years after we came in for our share (more than our share) of contumely for inviting retrograde and/or politically incompatible journals of opinion to our conference at the University of California at Los Angeles, I asked National Review editor Rich Lowry to lecture at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (see how ecumenical, fair and balanced I can be?). But he outfoxed me. Instead of spewing right-wing propaganda, he talked about what our two magazines had in common. He said that like The Nation, National Review exists to make a point, not a profit; and that opinion journals are at their best when they are fighting for ideas that are out of favor, like the idea that the case for keeping drugs illegal is intellectually bankrupt, an idea on which both magazines concur. (Although I’m glad The Nation has given space to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s contention that decriminalization will amount to suicide for the boyz ‘n the hood.) When and if the retrograde drug laws are changed, I guess it’s true that it will be at least partly because these journals have been chipping away at them all these years.

Christopher Hitchens once traced what he called “a thin reddish thread” connecting J.B. Priestley’s article on the nuclear threat to E.P. Thompson’s history-making Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. I don’t know whether Thompson would have agreed with Hitch on the role of Priestley’s article. I do know that as the British social historian and leader of the European nuclear disarmament movement saw it, by the early 1980s America and Europe appeared to have drifted beyond the range of communication, and the drift seemed to be endangering both continents.

The Nation invited him to send his warning to his American friends–and devoted an entire issue to his message: “We must protest if we are to survive. Protest is the only realistic form of civil defense.” This slogan of the British antinuclear movement may have sounded idealistic at the time, but Thompson’s confidence that rhetoric could be turned into action proved prophetic. A decade before the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the self-transformation of its satellite East European regimes, he wrote that even though only courageous dissidents will, in the first place, be able to take an open part, protesting “will provide those conditions of relaxation of tension which will weaken the rationale and legitimacy of repressive state measures, and will allow the pressures for democracy and détente to assert themselves in more active and open ways.”

I cite these prescient sentiments not just because I agreed with them, and not just because I believe them to be as compelling an explanation for the meltdown of the USSR as the claim that the arms race bankrupted it (although I do), but because “protest and survive” is more than a stratagem. It is a philosophy, and as such describes more than the British antinuclear movement. Indeed, it is as fair an account as we have of the animating force behind the journal of dissent itself. When Thompson wrote about generating an alternative logic, an opposition that must, at every level of society, win the support of multitudes and bring its influence to bear on the rulers of the world, his argument exemplified the case for a truly independent journalism.

Now consider the injunction of The Nation‘s first editor, E.L. Godkin, not to be the organ of any party, movement or sect. A magazine like The Nation can inspire, it can mobilize, it can organize, but in the end it is not a movement, since it is also the job of our journal to deal with–not omit or ignore–inconvenient facts; to persuade, in philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s phrase, through the power of the better argument. There is a time to protest and a time to consider, to analyze. To me, this double life, this mixed mandate, the William Lloyd Garrison-E.P. Thompson tradition of protest and the E.L. Godkin-Jürgen Habermas tradition of intellectual debate are not either-or. It is the job of the journal of opinion–postmodernism to the contrary notwithstanding–to tell the truth, and when there is no truth to tell, tell that, too. At least in the case of The Nation, although it doesn’t always seem that way, the two traditions keep company.

I suspect that The Nation has survived all these years partly because it serves no party, movement or sect but also because of its independence, financial as well as political. I believe there is another reason why The Nation survives as America’s oldest weekly in a business sector where survival may be the ultimate test of success. And it has to do partly with the raison d’être of all journals of opinion, and partly with The Nation‘s values and ideals.

Protest against injustice, protest against the despoliation of the world’s resources, protest against the arbitrary exercise of power, protest against prejudice and discrimination, protest on behalf of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, protest on behalf of those who don’t read us are only one part of The Nation‘s mission, but a critical part.

At first I thought it was an anomaly when Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation agreed to fund The Weekly Standard. Because by definition a journal of opinion, if it is to be politically and culturally free, must also be financially independent. The conventional wisdom tells us that in the world of mass magazines, so-called stand-alones are a thing of the past. Not so in the world of opinion journals, where stand-aloneness seems to be something of a necessary condition.

But then I thought, Well, in the UK the Spectator, currently owned by the London Telegraph‘s communications conglomerate, has survived a series of megacorporate owners. And though like the Standard, only more so, it often values style over substance and is too quirky to be circumscribed by a party line, it is nevertheless an opinion journal of the right. These magazines are in the position of defending the powers that be, and so conglomerate ownership, which is anathema to the left, may be organically appropriate to their mission as magazines dedicated to free-market capitalism.

Either way, as The American Prospect‘s Bob Kuttner has observed, one fundamental difference between left and right is that “the right is always floating downstream relative to economic power. And the left is always heading upstream. That helps explain why the right is always so well-funded. Because it is validating the world view of people who have a ton of money.”

Nevertheless, I guess I still subscribe to the idea that those of us in the opinion industry have a stake in protecting one another’s space. And if you’re not already, you should become a subscriber, too.

We are told that because the new media quicken the news cycle–that the twenty-four-hour news cycle is now a twenty-four-minute one–the weekly will soon be, if it is not already, outmoded if not outmodemed. To the contrary, what the speeded-up new media mean is that the news is too often replaced by un-fact-checked hyperbole; and thoughtful debate, argument and opinion by shouting matches.

What effect will the new communications technologies have on current cultural formats, artifacts and institutions? Talkies put silent movies out of business. But the paperback extended the audience for the hardcover novel, and neither television nor videotapes put talkies out of business. Will the advent of journals like Slate and Salon and the arrival of bloggers–not to mention the availability of online versions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of print opinion pieces in electronic form–negate the need for the classic, stapled journal of opinion?

I don’t think so. But then I’m told by my mostly younger colleagues that I don’t get it. I don’t. It seems to me that despite the benefits, low costs, speed and interactivity of the blogosphere, the depositing of prose in an electronic database cannot compete with the canonization conferred by those old-fashioned print journals, at least not in contemporary cultural terms. That an essay has survived the vetting process of a board of editors on whose political/cultural judgment the reader has come to rely (though not necessarily to concur in) tells the reader not only how to read a particular piece but that it may be worth the effort. Moreover, one’s reading of, say, an Arthur Danto essay in The Nation on the end of beauty may be influenced by its being sandwiched between Gore Vidal’s requiem for an empire and Katha Pollitt on “Are Women Morally Superior?” (I forget where Katha came out, but of course that is not the point. The unhurried superior quality of her prose, her argument, her moral sensibility is the point. And the rhythm of magazine reading and mulling is the point.) Over the long haul, these magazines provide their own narratives, a long-running moral/political/cultural paradigm complete with its own heroes and villains. Which is not to say there is not room for an electronic republic of letters to supplement its print predecessor.

Perhaps I am a victim of my own mail (not the hate mail, of which I receive more than my share but the other kind). Only today I found this message on my voice mail from a woman who identified herself as a 68-year-old widow: “I need to ask a favor of you. I’m stuck in Abbeville, Louisiana, and I want to move, but I want to move somewhere where I can see a Democrat before I die. It occurs to me that you might be able to rummage up a place where people are actually subscribers to The Nation, where I would have somebody to talk to. I don’t want their names or anything. I just want a town where there are a few kindred souls.” And she added: “If you could call around noon I’d be grateful, I’m about to cut the grass.” I have always believed that if Gallup or Roper or the latest public-opinion surveyor asked a representative sample of our readers, “Who are you?” any number of them might answer (never mind their vocation and religion, marital status, gender and/or sexual orientation), “I am a Nation subscriber.” Just the other weekend in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, the featured wedding described how one Nina Rowe, the bride, met her groom-to-be. She found him on an Internet dating service under his handle, “nationreader.” The readers of journals of opinion constitute nongeographical communities, whose self-identification and links with people they have never met are no less real for that. They are indeed kindred souls. Maybe it’s no accident that the social anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who invented and elaborated the idea of the imaginary community, has a brother, Perry Anderson, who edits a journal of opinion, New Left Review.

Although last year The Nation took in more money than it spent, we’re still subsidized by anonymous well-wishers, and what with rising postal rates, rising paper costs, rising healthcare premiums and our inimitable capacity to offend our most generous donors, next year we will undoubtedly be back in the red. More important, short-run profit can contribute to survival, but it is no measure of mission. Every publisher of The Nation, and I am no exception, has understood that it is a public trust.

So I end where I began. You need to run one of these magazines like a business or else you will be out of business. But if a business is all you are, you will be out of business, too. As The Texas Observer‘s founding editor, Ronnie Dugger, wrote in Volume I, Number 1 back in 1952: “We have to survive as a business before we can survive as a morality; but we would rather perish as a business than survive as an immorality.” The tension between market and mission is unresolved, although the choice is clear. When in 2002 anonymous Disney executives were talking about shutting down ABC’s Nightline because it had “lost its relevance,” a part of me thought that if relevance is measured by the bottom line, they are right. I was glad to be in the un-mass media.

How conveniently they forget.

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