Monday, June 18, 2007

The TNR Problem

I'm a proud New Republic subscriber. But I think there is a lot to be said about this profile of TNR by Eric Alterman in the American Prospect. It focuses on Marty Peretz, who is, to be fair, a big problem for the magazine, even if he is out of step with most of the other writers on staff. The piece ends with a quote from a blog commenter: "Peretz is batshit crazy. TNR produces a lot of good stuff. Such are the ironies of life." Fair enough. The vast majority of TNR's output is both very good and very much in line with the prevailing liberal consensus. But there are some very notable exceptions, including much of what Peretz writes and a significant portion of their foreign policy analysis. The latter, however, seems (at least temporarily) suitably chastised by the utter failure of the Iraq War (much as I am). It remains unclear where they will go from there in the mid- to long-term. And as for Peretz--well, I think that TNR's long-term viability is dependent on getting him out of there entirely. His time has passed.

I first found the piece via LGM, and they have chosen to focus on this passage of Alterman's piece:
It is a sad but true fact of American political life that liberals rarely exercise so much influence as when they happen to be endorsing conservative causes, and this temptation has proven consistently irresistible to Peretz and his magazine. TNR under Peretz has been a vehicle that proved extremely helpful to Ronald Reagan's wars in Central America and George Bush's war in Iraq. It provided seminal service to Newt Gingrich's and William Kristol's efforts to kill the Clinton plan for universal health care and offered intellectual legitimacy to Charles Murray's efforts to portray black people as intellectually inferior to whites. As for liberal causes, however … well, not so much.

Is there something to this? Of course. Anytime a politician, intellectual, or institution steps outside its established narrative boundaries, it's going to receive far more attention than when it toes the line. Chuck Hagel's turn on the Iraq War will invariably garner far more media attention than all of his other mainline conservative positions (which is why he has a primary challenger). It's perhaps lamentable, but then, I don't see how to avoid it in TNR without draining the "electricity" of debates that Alterman admits flows through TNR at its best. Perhaps if the official editorial line was more unabashedly liberal, that could be the compromise we're looking for? In which case, the next few months or years could be crucial--if Franklin Foer, who himself is not detested on the left, can affect such a change, that might be able to revive TNR's liberal standing without sacrificing its unique position as an engagement ground for ideas, rather than a proving ground for ideological purity.

The other thing off this, of course, is that TNR can no longer be contrarian just for the sake of it. I don't think it is unreasonable to pressure liberals on how to incorporate moral and democratic values into their foreign policy (which isn't to say they should win that argument--here is an excellent post by Publius that provides a strong challenge to a "democracy promoting" foreign policy). But I don't think that providing space and cover to "The Bell Curve", or the notion that liberal critics of hawkish foreign policy are unserious kooks is in any way justified by being a magazine of ideas. Sometimes, its important to challenge prevailing liberal orthodoxy. However, there is a fine line between that, and throwing down gauntlets just to prove how "independent" you are. The latter needs to be reined in if the magazine is to be taken seriously.

But if Alterman provides a compelling critique of the sins of the magazine, he also highlights many of its virtues (not just its back page literary reviews, either). Alterman does us all a service when he notes that TNR, even at the moments when many thought the magazine was at its nadir, has continued to make an important and positive contribution to the American political discussion. Neither this, nor its legacy as a flagship publication in American progressive politics, should be forgotten in our haste to condemn it over a misguided foreign policy. I think that TNR has a valuable role to play in the evolving conversation of the 21st century left. It is beyond clear that they have some sins to work out. It is also beyond clear that they contribute a lot of positive work to the body of liberal journalism (how many "hail mary's" are equivalent to the good TNR did getting George Allen's racist past mainstream media attention--and with it, control of the Senate?). Any magazine which provides a consistent outlet for Jonathan Chait, Michelle Cottle, Ryan Lizza, and John Judis has a role to play in my liberal sphere.

Jonathan Stein--of the staunchly liberal Mother Jones, calls the piece a "hit job" (which I think is too harsh, and if Stein is stunned to be defending TNR, I'm shocked that I'm saying MoJo is being too easy on them), and says that--sins notwithstanding--its time to reincorporate TNR into the progressive liberal discussion. No free passes, but an opportunity to make amends. I concur, and I hope that TNR can continue to right its ship and be a force for a positive, progressive agenda in the coming years.


Anonymous said...

I've gotta agree with you on Stein. Basically, he agrees with everything in the article, and then claims he doesn't want to hear it.

But Marty isn't going anywhere until Marty decides he wants to go. And I feel fairly certain that was part of the terms in the Canwest deal.

Anonymous said...

I was a suscriber since 1990 and recently cancelled my subscription over exactly the reasons you gave in your piece. I couldn't bear to read the magazine anymore. I didn't know whether I was reading TNR or National review.

I hope the magazine gets back on track.

Ken Adler

Anonymous said...

as info, The Bell Curve piece was done when Andrew Sullivan was editor, and he was fired a long time ago, largely cause his politics were so different from Peretz's.

Sullivan is now all enthusiastic for total withdrawl from Iraq, and is attacking anyone who disagrees, BTW.

Marty Peretz has made TNR distinctive over the last few decades. If I wanted to read Harpers, or Atlantic Monthly, or TAP, or the Nation I would. But I don't.

Right now Peretz looks on the wrong side of history. As many of his adversaries did 17 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Ive read NR,and WS, and I cant imagine how someone could confuse TNR with either.

Anonymous said...

"It provided seminal service to Newt Gingrich's and William Kristol's efforts to kill the Clinton plan for universal health care "

They supported the Cooper plan, which would be better than what we have now.

Even Hillary admits her mistakes, and isnt blaming TNR.