again with the New Republic?

In the wake of the recent upheaval at The New Republic, some mourned the loss of the magazine. (Technically, the publication continues just fine, even though the vast majority of writers and editors who made that magazine what it was are now gone. Management has had to cancel the next issue, however. It is slated to return to publication, on its new ten-times-a-year schedule, in February.) Jonathan Chait published a "eulogy," David Greenberg articulated "what we lost" and, on the right, R.R. Reno suggested that Leon Wieseltier's ouster signified a decline in the intellectual seriousness of American liberalism. (My own reaction, decidedly elegiac, is on this blog here.)

Others, however, voiced markedly different reactions. Most of these took issue with the magazine's hawkish, pro-Israel foreign policy as well as its approaches to race and gender. (The New Republic's racial politics have indeed been troubling, particularly during the nineties. In 1994, it published excerpts from Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve, which argued for a biological basis in intelligence that makes some races smarter than others. Soon thereafter reporter Ruth Shalit wrote a piece about the Washington Post arguing that it lowered standards in hiring for African-Americans and, in its coverage, went easier on black politicians. Much of Shalit's work, including significant parts of the Post piece, was later found to be innacurate and/or plagiarized. Later, in supporting the Clinton welfare reform bill, The New Republic published this cover in August of 1996.) Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted that "some of us colored folk will always remember @tnr with mixed feelings" because "when you run cover stories questioning the intelligence of 40 million people...some among them tend to remember." Claire Potter called the magazine a "sausage fest," asserting that it was so inattentive to "feminist, queer and critical race studies" that she had paid no attention to it and wouldn't miss it. Corey Robin argued that the magazine "has had no real project" for years and that there was no reason to mourn it. (He offered a similar point in the comments section of a post on the Society for U.S. Intellectual History blog. I responded with an absurdly lengthy response that I actually think is worth reading. It is here.)

I only started reading the magazine maybe ten years ago, though during that period I subscribed and read every issue. In that time, I did not agree with everything that was published there, and I learned that the magazine's perspective was consistent enough on some issues that I disagreed with it in a fairly systematic way. The magazine's fixation on Israel always struck me as somewhat unhealthy, and about two years ago I finally threw in the towel and stopped reading Wieseltier's column entirely. My impression of the magazine's recent past, then, would be that I think it would be fair to say that it has underemphasized, though not ignored, the identity politics that are (and must be) an essential component of the intellectual and political construction of modern liberalism. But I have not seen--in the more recent period--the kind of racial and gender hostility that many of these critics allege.

What I did see was a lot of thoughtful writing and a willingness to take the project of American liberalism seriously. Too often today, self-styled radicals dismiss liberalism entirely (while, I suspect, still voting Democratic in most cases) without offering much in its place, while more mainstream journalists get so concerned with palace intrigue and horse races that political commitments and intellectual rigor often fall by the wayside. Liberalism today is deeply flawed: bereft of ideas, unsure in its strategies and lacking the courage of its convictions. But it is still important and necessary, and I certainly think the New Republic made it better rather than worse.

I agree, in short, with Nathan Pippenger, who put it this way in his piece on Democracy's website:

But I'm deeply, deeply worried for American liberalism. Make no mistake: This is a cultural, intellectual, and political disaster for the American left. The New Republic wasn't perfect, but it was an institution, and institutions can't simply be rebuilt or replaced. There is nothing else in American letters quite like it, and I don't know if it will ever recover from what has happened this week.

[Update: A day or two after I posted this, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a really thoughtful piece at the Atlantic, explaining more fully the limitations of the New Republic. Though I do mourn these coming changes to the magazine, I understand more fully now why he does not. And it helped me see how I personally have not been paying enough attention to race and diversity issues in choosing what I read and acknowledging who is writing it. Honesty, I'm not 100% sure what to do about that as a reader, but I suppose that's at least a good place to start.]


life imitates art