Like Ron Radosh, an excellent blogger on the website pjmedia.com, I was saddened to learn about the recent sale of the almost century old political magazine, The New Republic, to a co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes. The new owner says that, with a new emphasis on digital platforms, he hopes that the magazine can be profitable. However, Hughes says that his investment was motivated by his interest in the “future of high-quality long-form journalism”. There is no reason to question Hughes’s sincerity. The New Republic continues as the gold standard for such journalism even in the face of declining reader demand for it. In addition to excellent political coverage, the magazine had a wonderful “Back of the Book” section, stewarded by its longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, which is known for its in-depth review of books and the arts. Indeed, many important books had their origins as New Republic articles. Yet, TNR is hardly the only remaining outlet for serious journalism. It still can be found on many websites, as well as other magazines of both the left and right — The Weekly Standard, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, National Review, or even Commentary.
Furthermore, Hughes may have motivations for buying The New Republic that he is unwilling to reveal publicly. Under its former editor-in-chief Martin Peretz TNR was a liberal magazine that was never reluctant, when its editors thought to be appropriate, to criticize individuals that the magazine would normally support. However, after leaving Facebook, Hughes ran a social network for presidential candidate Barack Obama’s supporters. Because of the new owner’s connection to the president Radosh predicted, “Just in time for the 2012 campaign, TNR will become the major cheerleader for Barack Obama, in what promises to be a close race against Mitt Romney, who will most likely be the Republican Party’s candidate.” That’s probably already the case. As the sale of the magazine was being announced, TNR is running a Symposium on what President Obama should do during his second term. Being so premature indicates the editors’ biases and their arrogance.
Looking beyond the election, Radosh writes,
“I am not optimistic about the fate of the new TNR. The last thing we need is a magazine slightly — very slightly — to the right of The Nation. Nor do we need another New Yorker in which Hendrik Hertzberg’s predictable left-liberal ideas dominate the political commentaries … and where its editor-in-chief David Remnick stands behind the likes of Seymour Hersh as a major investigative reporter, despite the devastating expose of him in the [March] Commentary by a former TNR editor, James Kirchick.”
TNR’s influence greatly exceeds its relatively small circulation of only around 50,000. Since its founding in 1914, some of the century’s most prominent writers, such as George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth and Walter Lippmann have been contributors.
At this point, the global implications of the ownership change are tied to Peretz’s future with The New Republic. So far, this has been left ambiguous. TNR has indicated that he will become a member of the magazine’s advisory board. It’s unclear whether he will retain his position as editor-in-chief emeritus or whether he will continue to blog for TNR’s website. We’ll learn much about what passes for liberalism today — and in particular about its attitude toward Israel and Jews — from the way that this all plays out.
People like Marty Peretz used to be known as Cold War liberals. They are hawkish on international affairs and liberal on domestic economic and social issues. They’re truly internationalist, anti-totalitarian, and, almost always, strong supporters of Israel.
There was a time — not all that long ago — when most Democrats were Cold War liberals. The Cold War liberal tradition can be traced backward from Peretz through Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy all the way to Harry Truman. Cold War liberalism’s slow death began with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. Since then, Democrats have defined by their hostility to the American political and economic systems as well as to the projection of American power abroad. Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide presidential victory over Barry Goldwater probably marks the highpoint of Cold War liberalism. Had the Democrats not subsequently moved sharply to the left they would have maintained the broad coalition that won the 1964 election and possibly dominating American politics for decades.
Early last year two separate in-depth profiles of Peretz appeared in the American press. Both portrayed a beleaguered and almost tragic Peretz. At his magazine, he was the object of widespread ridicule from staff members. A number of now prominent journalists, who got their first jobs from and who were mentored by Peretz, turned against him. He had relinquished his role as editor in chief, and his only remaining association with TNR was the blog that he wrote for its website. At Harvard, where he was completing a forty-year teaching career, students were demonstrating against them. Peretz could be found at the beginning of 2011 teaching English to high school students in Tel Aviv. It was as if he was in exile.
The ostensible reason for Peretz’s ostracism was a thoughtless article that he wrote during the Ground Zero Mosque controversy in which he asserted that Muslims were not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. His immediate, and I think obviously sincere, apology didn’t prevent him from being widely accused of anti-Muslim bigotry. Still, Peretz would probably have become a lightening rod among his old left-wing columns even if he had not made his comments during the mosque contrversy. Both of the profiles of Peretz in the press were unflattering. The author of one of them wrote, “Peretz seemed each year to grow more ancient, more fixed on his core loyalties: Israel against the Arabs; the United States against Communism; his friends against the world.”
Indeed, the friend who introduced me to TNR in the late 1970’s told me that it was the only remaining magazine of news and opinion in the United States that was pro-Israel. That was not far from the truth. By then, the most of the mainstream press had already turned against Israel. The temper of those times was a Newsweek cover from September 1981, which placed a picture of Prime Minister Menachem Begin placed at a center of a Magen David constructed out of rifles. The headline read “Roadblock to Peace?” Peretz’s New Republic was already one of the media outlets for writers that had sympathy for Israel. Even the New York Times story that announced the sale declared that, under Peretz’s stewardship, TNR had “passionately supported Israel”.
Admittedly, Peretz has always been a polemicist. But Paul Berman is not. Berman writes about the 1960’s radicals, and what many of them have done after that turbulent decade. His work is particularly authentic because he writes an insider. Although he participated in many protests those radicals he has never been reluctant to criticize his old left-wing political comrades. Most of his books were, in their first incarnation, long articles in TNR. Berman, unlike so many left-wing intellectuals, has maintained a strong connection both to Israel and to the Jewish people. Much of his latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals published about two years, blasts Western left-wing writers for embracing the Swiss born Muslim cleric Tariq Ramadan as a true Islamic liberal democrat — in spite of his implicit support of the Muslim Brotherhood; hatred of Jews; and, opposition to Israel’s existence. (Surprisingly, this was also true of the Jewish press.) To a large extent the press ignored Berman’s important book. With the exception of The New York Times, the book was reviewed only in literary and political journals with a limited readership, and for the most part the reviews were hostile. Just a few weeks after the book appeared, an obviously exasperated Berman wrote in an Wall Street Journal op-ed,
“In our present age of the Zipped Lip, you are supposed to avoid making the following observations about the history and the doctrines of the Islamist movement:
You are not supposed to observe that Islamism is a modern, instead of an ancient political tendency, which arose in fraternal harmony with the fascists in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
You are not supposed to point out that Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present-day Islamists, notably in regard to the demonic nature of Jewish conspiracies and the virtue of genocide.”
And you are not supposed to mention that, by inducing a variety of journalists and intellectuals to maintain a discreet and respective silence on these awkward matters, the Islamist preachers have succeeded on imposing on the rest of us their own categories of analysis.”
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Peretz has posted anything on his TNR blog since the sale of the magazine was announced. However, if Peretz’s voice has been completely silenced at TNR, Israel has completely lost one of the few remaining spots in the mainstream media where it could be treated sympathetically. I’m not expecting Wieseltier to pick up his mantle. As I wrote on Frumforum.com a couple of years ago, although he’s still regarded as a Jewish intellectual and he speaks regularly in Jewish settings, he has made a number of incendiary statements which, in my mind, border on hateful Israel bashing. In any case, Wieseltier still is willing to criticize the Obama Administration and the left in matters not related to Israel. This makes one wonder if in the long run there’s even room for Wieseltier at the new TNR.
Here’s the critical question for the magazine under its new ownership. When somebody like Paul Berman writes an article that challenges the left’s conventional wisdom on Israel, Jews, or anything else for that matter, will the new TNR publish it? Frankly, I’m not optimistic. I fear that under Hughes, The New Republic will become just another publication with a “zipped lip”.