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Insurrections of the Bland

By (November 1, 2015) No Comment

The New Republic: Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in Americainsurrectionsofthemind
Edited by Franklin Foer
Harper Perennial, 2014

My sister in-law is always scolding me for not maintaining an Amazon.com wish list. In the absence of such a thing, she has no idea what to get me for Christmas. Last year I finally succumbed, and put a single item on it: the hardcover edition of Franklin Foer’s anthology The New Republic: Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture. In the way that some people were red-diaper babies, I was a kind of New Republic baby. My dad took out a subscription when he was in college and he never let it lapse; I can remember there being old issues of the magazine lying around my parents’ house for as long I have been aware of the concept of “old issues of a magazine lying around the house.” This is because The New Republic (hereafter TNR) has so long embodied the kind of American liberalism that defines my parents (born, raised and educated on the East Coast, resident in the purple state of Colorado since the 1970s): forward-looking, socially progressive in a live-and-let-live kind of way, mildly communitarian in a “the-welfare-state-is-a pretty-good-idea” kind of way, sceptical of overt hawkishness but not pacifist, literary, and utterly disdainful of the US Republican party. Since I left their home my own politics, along with my own nationality, have drifted quite a ways from this. Shortly after I took out Canadian citizenship my sister joked that I was both the most conservative family member by far and also, by far, the furthest on the left. Is this some weird Canadian thing? she asked.

And yet, in my study there is a stash of old issues of TNR that I’ve saved, a stash that goes back to 1991, containing stuff that I do go back to again and again. This includes, but is by no means limited to: Camille Paglia on Lady Di (3 August 1992), Stanley Kauffmann on the lameness of Unforgiven (12 October 1992), Richard Taruskin on how John Cage is a classicist in avant gardist clothing (15 March 1993), Alexander Star on Philip K. Dick (6 December 1993), John B. Judis and Michael Lind’s “For a New Nationalism” (27 March 1995), Richard Wolin on Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger (9 October 1995), Naomi Wolf on the morality of abortion (16 October 1995), the special issue on “Zionism at 100” (8 and 15 October 1997), Lee Siegel on Queer Theory (9 November 1998), Kauffmann on the melancholy coming of an all-digital cinema (6 September 1999), Amartya Sen on the concept of identity and the need to move beyond it (18 December 2000), Sen again on identity (27 February 2006), the reprint of a 1958 letter by Isaiah Berlin advising David Ben-Gurion that the matter of mixed marriages could only be resolved by the Knesset and without interference from the Diaspora (1-15 January 2007), Paul Berman’s massive and super-paranoid takedown of Tariq Ramadan (4 June 2007; he spun it off into a 2011 book called The Flight of the Intellectuals), a special issue on Britain (12 July 2012), a graphic-novel-style illustrated report on drug addiction from Tbilisi (13 May 2013), and Michael Eric Dyson’s massive and super-petty takedown of Cornel West (February 2015).

TNR100As you can see, my hoarding of the magazine slacks off dramatically starting in the late 00s. Part of this is because it became considerably harder to find in my adopted home of Canada (ironic, since for a spell it was partially owned by the media conglomerate CanWest), and for some reason I never wanted to subscribe (nobody really wants to become their parents, right?). Those aren’t the only reasons, though.

Not a single one of these pieces that I’ve just rattled off is included in Franklin Foer’s TNR anthology Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America. No problem there. The cardinal sin of this kind of reviewing is saying something like “aw, man, you shoulda included my favourites! Your inherently subjective synthesis of 100 years of a quasi-weekly magazine’s output doesn’t match mine at all!” So let’s move beyond the vive-la-différence-style throat clearing and try to figure out what exactly drives Foer’s editorial vision for the book and for the magazine overall, what very depressing story that might tell about the contemporary version of American liberalism, and how that story was made even more depressing by the now-legendary fate of Foer himself.

I allude to the much-publicised meltdown of the magazine during the last weeks of 2014. Foer was editor of TNR between 2006 and 2010, a post he returned to in 2012, the year that the magazine was bought by Facebook tycoon (and former Mark Zuckerberg roommate) Chris Hughes. Hughes wanted to make changes in the magazine, to make it more accessible and 21st century. Foer liked his new owner just fine at first, but once Hughes hired Guy Vidra, formerly of Yahoo, as the “Chief Executive,” things went sour. At the beginning of December, less than two weeks after the launch party for the book I am reviewing here, Foer either resigned or was pushed out, depending on who’s telling the story. Loads of TNR staffers and editors left with him, including the magazine’s long-time literary editor Leon Wieseltier. The analysis that was offered by those staffers and editors sometimes sounded like a veritable Ballad of the New Republic:

Now gather round children wherever you be
I tell you you will not believe what you see:
Computer tycoons are a’stormin’ the walls
Our beloved institutions dumped over the falls.

Well-informed punditry soon will be gone
Replaced by the clickbait of Facebook’s dark spawn.
True liberals shall soon be a’pushed to the sides
Our well-crafted prose all a’drowned in the tides

Of simplistic crummy and scurrilous pieces
Not even as good as Walter Lippmann’s feces:
I tell you I sing this for the good of the future
And not for my own reputation to suture.

thenewrepublicAs you may by now have guessed, I am sceptical of both sides of this basically ridiculous media-elite melodrama, and I’ve been surprised at how annoying I find the displaced TNR partisans. The 18 January 2015 issue of the New York Times Book Review was a veritable TNR-in-exile issue, with former literary editor Leon Wieseltier contributing a cover essay called “Among the Displaced” and Foer himself reviewing an essay collection of former TNR contributor Irving Howe. Foer’s review was quite sharp, pointing out that “unlike the other distinguished graduates of Partisan Review Howe never surrendered the banner of socialism,” and talking a lot about his “role as a conservator of Yiddish culture” too. Wieseltier’s piece was comically pompous and self-justifying, portraying his own troubles with Silicon Valley as literally the most important thing in the world, or at least in the country: “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life.” I basically agree, and I am generally inclined towards the most sneering contempt for anything that smacks of the smug, impossibly vapid perspectives of “liberal” Silicon Valley jillionaires. But if the alternative is a liberally-inflected elite media (like the New York Times) that allows its most prominent members to take to their pages to give out about getting squeezed from their jobs at other liberally-inflected elite media outlets, I’d like to go ahead and suggest that American liberalism and its institutions are fully and utterly doomed.

I really do want to root for the old New Republic here, but as with the New York Times Book Review’s “TNR-in-exile” issue, as I read Foer’s Insurrections of the Mind I just could not ignore the self-parodying pomposity of the magazine’s acolytes. Foer’s introduction to the anthology, for instance, essentially claims that his predecessors invented not only American liberalism, but liberalism itself. Writing of the magazine’s founders, he says that “The doctrine they created one hundred years ago, of course, goes by a now very familiar name: liberalism.” On the next page, he writes that

This volume hopefully stands as a refutation of liberalism’s critics. It shows generation after generation of idealists battling their own disappointments and cynicism, not under the banner of a foreign ideology but in the name of the national interest. As much as any of its ideological competitors, modern liberalism was an American invention, and its history is a great American story.

TNRPopeHopeNopeAs a work of the self-aggrandizement that is typical of anniversary introductions, I suppose this is drearily unsurprising stuff. But the level of solipsism here, the sheer swagger of the self-righteous determination to ignore all that is not you and your own — that rises to Pulitzer Prize levels. Foer tries to square this a bit towards the end of his introduction, where he mentions how “Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson and the rest of the classical liberals, after all, hated the all-powerful state and made it their mission to curb it; they celebrated the market and trumpeted the virtues of self interest. That American progressives chose to call themselves liberals seems a twisted and confusing misappropriation.” A liberal that wants to curb the state; very classical, very 18th century, man. It’s all different now, mind you. Now modern liberalism is basically progressive, right? Of course that is not right at all, and William Saletan’s terrific piece on the American liberals who love Pope Francis (published in the 10 September 2015 issue of Slate) is right-on there. He writes that

These liberals misunderstand the pope, because they don’t understand a tension in their own thinking. Politically, Francis isn’t liberal. He’s progressive. We use these terms interchangeably, but they’re different. Liberalism is fundamentally about doubt: You have your view, I have mine, and we agree to disagree. Progressivism is about confidence: Your view is wrong, mine is right, and I’m going to change the world accordingly.

Not every country’s liberals are confused in the same way. Indeed, American liberalism, as anyone who knows anything about politics anywhere else at all is aware, bears almost no resemblance to liberalism as it is widely understood. The more US-wannabeish supporters of the UK’s Liberal Democratic party found that out the hard way, as so many of them were shocked, shocked that their party would enter into coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. Sure, the British Tories favor, um, the liberalisation of international trade regulations, and Cameron, like right-of-centre politicians everywhere, is enamoured of a neoliberal approach to economic development. Ah, pish posh, mate! I wear sandals and shop at farmer’s markets and read Alain de Botton and feel faintly guilty about those poor saps who live on the housing estate up the road; that makes me a liberal, just like my chums in New York!

I hasten to point out that this is just not the deal with Liberalism, not in the UK and basically not anywhere but the United States. The Liberal Party of Australia? Centre-right. Switzerland’s Liberal Party? Centre-right. Partito Liberale Italiano? Centre-right. The grouping of liberal parties in the EU parliament? A roll-call of centre-right parties, from Ireland (Fianna Fáil) all the way over to Latvia (Latvian Way). Say the word “neoliberal” to a Latin American and you will hear her describe the concept in ways that sound like it was invented by a Republican think-tank, which, basically, it was (Heritage Foundation, I’m looking at you!).

TNRSpringSummersThis is all to say: even if we ignore the self-serving quality of Foer’s sureness that it was his TNR forefathers who basically invented American liberalism, the idea that “modern liberalism was an American invention” is ridiculous. American liberalism was an American invention; by and large, modern liberalism looks nothing like it, despite the breezily unselfconscious ability of American elites to conflate “modern” with “American.” There are very good reasons for the exceptional quality of American liberalism. What American conservatives are conserving is, in essence, the legacy of a revolution against centralised authority, the desire to replace a highly integrated constitutional monarchy with a super-loose federation of free and independent states. In a country with such a heritage it’s thus completely logical for the word “liberal” to come to mean someone who defends the public’s right to be free from the consequences of living among the ungovernable (and is thus defined by something like Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “positive freedom,” or the freedom to do things, as opposed to “negative freedom,” or the freedom from things), whereas “conservative” comes to mean the desire to retain the ethos of a lawless, frontier society. The American understanding of “liberal” is quite coherent, no doubt, but it is just as culturally specific. One of the things that embarrass me most about my fellow Americans, especially those in the higher rungs of the media, is the totality of their unawareness that anything they do might be culturally specific, that anything done in a specifically American way is not simply the way things are done in the modern world.

Embarrassment of a different kind ran through this TNR meltdown, and it’s an embarrassment that helps explain why I haven’t saved that many copies from the 21st century, problems of magazine distribution aside. Foer’s introduction is a narrative of the magazine’s evolution, detailing former editors and owners. It’s not comprehensive, but one name seems deliberately downplayed: Martin Peretz. That is a ridiculous tactic, because Peretz is far from a minor figure in the magazine’s history: if for no other reason, this is because he owned it from 1974 until 2007, and then again (as part of a consortium) from 2009-2012, for five different decades of ownership in total. When Peretz first bought TNR from Gilbert Harrison, he instituted something of a long, slow purge, one that included firing Harrison as editor and installing himself as “Editor in Chief and Chairman.” Over the course of several years he replaced the staff almost exclusively with what many critics have seen as versions of himself: young, Harvard-educated white males. The magazine shortly became well-known for its vociferous support of Israel, which had long been a Peretz passion.

At first he hired editors on the centre and centre-left (Michael Kinsley and Hendrik Hertzberg, respectively), but his most epoch-making hire turned out to be Andrew Sullivan, who became editor in 1991. Politically speaking Sullivan is a strange beast; born and raised in England but educated at Harvard, he’s a self-described “radical Tory” who is also gay, Catholic, and, since 1993, HIV positive. You’d basically identify him as a centre-right character, but that’s not always quite accurate. Really he is part of the tradition of British liberalism, the political approach whose last but still powerful bastion is The Economist, where we find the following: advocacy of a moderately hawkish foreign policy; endorsements of both David Cameron and Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton; a cover story announcing its editorial position as an early supporter of gay marriage (“Let Them Wed” was emblazoned above the image of a wedding cake with two grooms on 6 January 1996); and most of all, a single-minded and strenuous defense of unfettered global capitalism in all its forms. For The Economist, as for Sullivan, and as for most non-American liberals (including no small part of the UK’s Liberal Democratic Party), that is all completely consistent with their 1843 editorial mission to “take part in ‘a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.’” That’s printed at the left side of every Economist’s table of contents, and I can’t think of a more pithy summary of international liberalism’s historical sense of self.

missionrelaunchedOnce Sullivan came in, though, many TNRers saw him as the final betrayal of the magazine’s long-time position. Eric Alterman, an occasional TNR contributor, wrote in a 2007 article in The American Prospect that “Ideologically Sullivan tossed aside what remained of the magazine’s commitment to liberalism — its domestic policy.” That article, though, was titled “My Marty Peretz Problem — And Ours.” Alterman was speaking for the legions of writers for whom Peretz and his sometimes-deranged and occasionally-racist support of Israel (he famously wrote that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims”) was painfully embarrassing. Ta-Neshi Coates, in a December 2014 piece for The Atlantic’s website about TNR’s racism, wrote that Peretz’s tendency to stay away from the office “allowed TNR’s saner staff to regard him as the crazy uncle who says racist shit at Thanksgiving. But Peretz was not a crazy uncle — he was the wealthy benefactor of an influential magazine that published ideas that damaged black people.”

Like all good family drama, this sensitivity about Peretz and all he hath wrought, this wish that it would all just go away, is the one thing that unifies factions who don’t otherwise get along. When TNR was re-launched in February 2015, its cover story was by Jeet Heer, and titled “The New Republic’s Legacy on Race: A Historical Reflection,” and covered some of the same territory as Coates’ piece. Nearly half of it was about Peretz. “One could argue that between the late ’30s and the mid-’70s, The New Republic was one of the best magazines outside the black press in its coverage of the rise of the civil rights movement,” Heer wrote. Then crazy Uncle Marty came along. At least Heer, who is clearly the most interesting voice at the new TNR, can deals with the guy’s legacy in detail, unlike Franklin Foer, who can just barely bring himself to discuss him. One thing Foer shares with Heer and the rest of the new regime at TNR, though, is a desire to move beyond the legacy of the Zionist to end all Zionists.

whitewashThis is the thing about Peretz, though: he made the magazine interesting in a way that it really is not anymore. By “interesting” I suppose I mostly mean “unpredictable.” Crazy Uncle Marty, you never knew who he was going to publish next. Foer’s introduction to Insurrections of the Mind claims that the magazine’s approach to liberalism

is cosmopolitan and freethinking, willing to engage ideas that it might not share. (This magazine has a tradition of filling the masthead with socialists, communist sympathizers, English Tories, and neoconservatives.) Our doctrine proudly considers itself an antidoctrine. That is, American liberalism flaunts its pragmatism.

If you ask me, what he’s really describing is Martin Peretz’s TNR, which was indeed a mishmash of political perspectives. I don’t remember any communist sympathisers, but everyone else on that list is easily accounted for; given enough time to dig around I bet we find a commie or two anyway. And that kind of kooky and sometimes cringe-inspiring diversity, while definitely an “antidoctrine,” is the very opposite of pragmatic. That was not a descriptor that would ever be used in the same sentence with TNR in those days. It was a shambling beast, slouching from one weird fight to another: a new American nationalism! The glories of Theodore Herzl! The moral price of being passionately pro-choice! The greatness of Philip K. Dick! A Nobel-Prize winning economist’s sense of the phenomenological inadequacy of identity! I totally disagreed with about 2/3 of what they published, and let me tell you, I loved it. The magazine felt wild and respectable at the same time, shaggy and rigorous in equal measure. One thing was for sure: pragmatism was clearly at the bottom of the list of priorities.

It’s not simply that Peretz is absent by name; there are almost no pieces here that you could consider “Peretzian,” that is to say, pieces that bear the mark of his approach. Foer concludes his introduction by writing that “I intentionally excluded some of our more disgraceful contributions to American life. (Apologies, Henry Wallace, Betsy McCaughey, and Stephen Glass).” Anybody want to guess who owned the magazine when two of those three names were publishing there? The tale of Stephen Glass is well-known by now; between 1995 and 1998 he published a series of fabricated or partially-fabricated articles, going to insane lengths to make them seem legitimately reported. One of those articles was published in 1996 called “Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work,” and it basically argued that African-Americans were too lazy to take jobs as cabbies, as opposed to more hard-working immigrants. That was grimly consistent with the arguments of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein book The Bell Curve, whose patently racist arguments about Black people and IQ had been given a pre-publication launch by TNR in 1994. Betsy McCaughey wrote a piece about the Clinton health plan that was both credited for derailing it and later condemned as factually inaccurate. And indeed, none if this stuff is in Insurrections of the Mind, which is fair enough. What we have from this period instead is a series of mostly bland, isn’t-American-liberalism-fabulously-interesting kinds of essays, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Liberal’s Dilemma” or Michael Kinsley’s “Liberals and Deficits.”

thebellcurveHendrik Hertzberg’s “The Child Monarch” is a case-study in the editorial problems of the book’s take on this period. Although this is ostensibly a review of a Reagan biography (in the manner that this piece is ostensibly a review of Insurrections of the Mind), it is in fact a very readable takedown of The Gipper and of Gipperism generally, and thus lots of fun. Hertzberg asks at one point “If he was dumb, superstitious, childish, inattentive, passive, narcissistic, and oblivious, how come he won the Cold War? Good question. The answer, in two words, is Mikhail Gorbachev.” Foer’s introduction, though, explains that all this was in opposition to TNR’s actual editorial stance of the day: “During the eighties, the magazine had thrown itself behind the Reagan Doctrine, supporting aid for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and more generally endorsing the administration’s aggressive foreign policy.” Foer explains in a parenthetical aside that

(It was a curiosity of the magazine’s structure that the editor wasn’t fully responsible for The New Republic’s editorial position; that was ultimately decided by the owner and editor-in-chief, Marty Peretz). This review of Reagan’s biography may not have been intended as payback, but it had a kind of bile, not to mention wit and anger.

I don’t know about having bile, wit, or anger, but the way that Insurrections of the Mind is put together definitely comes across as payback for the Peretz years. I’m sure it was satisfying, in a family loyalty kind of way, to show that batty, overbearing relation that he hadn’t triumphed after all, ownership of five decades be damned.

That kind of tribal loyalty, though, comes at the expense of a sense of what the magazine was really like in those years. A reprint of Sullivan’s “Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” is the closest we get to a sense of the weirdly unpredictable politics of the magazine from the 1970s to the top of the 10s, an unpredictability that ultimately has little to do with Stephen Glass.

TNRChrisHughesReally I stopped hoarding the magazine because it stopped being weirdly unpredictable, even though, I suppose as a sign of my dad’s influence, I would still regularly check to see what was in it, if only on the webpage. As the 21st century dragged on Peretz lost centrality, in the magazine as in American political argument. He lives part-time in Israel now, and whenever I see him in the media I cannot help but think of Hyman Roth, who, in Godfather II, gets turned away from Israel, and at Idlewild airport says to a reporter several times that “I am a retired investor, living on a pension, and I wished to live there as a Jew in the twilight of my life.” Then he gets whacked by the minions of Michael Corleone, the son who became far more pragmatic and thus far more American than his old-world communitarian father, and thereby lost his soul.

I should abandon this analogy before it comes across as me thinking that Hughes and his followers are homicidal or gangsterish or whatever. I don’t think that, and I’m sure that Hughes is a super-sweet guy who wants only the best for his editorial team, which I’m sure is now a model of diversity in terms of race, gender, educational background, work experience, regional identity, etc. Judging from the first year of its publication as a monthly, the new TNR is certainly, like Foer’s TNR, predictably, blandly liberal in the officially-approved American manner, with occasional forays into something faintly conservative. It is now, in essence, a mirror version of The Atlantic, and it would be pretty hard to convince me that this really what the American political landscape really needs now.

Jerry White is Canada Research Chair in European Studies at Dalhousie University and the co-editor of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies.