Everybody Hates Marty
The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center by Martin Peretz. 336 pages, Wicked Son. 2023.
Look closely at any political project—an electoral campaign, an advocacy group, a small journal of ideas—and more often than not you’ll find that someone very rich is paying the bills. Such endeavors typically claim to represent a popular movement with organic, democratic roots, but whether or not that popular movement actually exists is less germane than whether an idiosyncratic benefactor is willing to cut a check. Left, right, and center all know this, but it’s impolite to talk about it; it’s one thing to take the money, another to admit that the donor is an essential player.
Marty Peretz is a money guy. Sure, he lectured at Harvard and blogged for The New Republic, but the main reason we know his name is how he spent his money—most visibly, bankrolling TNR for more than thirty years, during which the magazine’s Third Way liberalism and hawkish foreign policy became ascendant in the Democratic Party. There are lots of money guys out there, but most of them prefer not to be seen, heard, or read. Peretz is an exception, and now he has a memoir, The Controversialist, that brazenly insists on his own centrality to recent history.
Peretz has largely avoided the spotlight since 2010, when a group of students and affiliates of Harvard ambushed him on camera and confronted him with placards bearing incendiary racist quotes about Black Americans, Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims from his TNR blog. Despite pressure from activists and prominent journalists like the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, Harvard still accepted a $700,000 endowed fellowship in Peretz’s name. Two years later, Peretz (and by-then majority owners Michael Steinhardt and Roger Hertog) sold TNR to Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who just a few years after that sold it to current owner Win McCormack (whose son, Noah, is the publisher of The Baffler). Peretz meanwhile decamped to Tel Aviv for a while, and has since been treated as a pariah and a dinosaur in the progressive media circles where he once wielded significant power.
Peretz is now eighty-four. The Controversialist is his first, and presumably last, book. It’s published by Wicked Son, the Jewish imprint run by Adam Bellow (son of Saul, and author of In Praise of Nepotism), whose catalog also includes titles by Ruth Wisse, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Daniel Pipes, among other, well, controversialists. When The Baffler asked me to review Peretz’s book, I assumed they wanted a gleeful takedown and I agreed in that spirit. But while my opinion of Peretz and his tenure at TNR hasn’t particularly improved since completing the memoir, I have to admit he’s performed a service for history by putting his life down on paper—and I admitted as much to my friends as I texted them dozens of excerpts while I read. The Controversialist is much more than a tedious polemic against the woke left and its oppressive cancel culture (though at times that’s exactly what it is); read in another light, it’s an unusually candid tour through America’s most elite institutions from the post-World War II era to the present day.
Though he has some appalling blind spots, most egregiously his racist contempt for Palestinians, Peretz is a great storyteller who has observed seemingly everyone who mattered in American politics and letters up close, and he doesn’t hold back. He’s also more self-aware than I expected, though never quite self-aware enough to grasp why so many people hate him. What he’s written is both tragedy and farce—a firsthand account of the rise and fall of a cohort of Jewish radicals who stormed the liberal establishment, remade it in their image, did a huge amount of damage, and lived long enough to witness its undoing.
Martin Peretz was born in 1938 in the Bronx and grew up in a predominantly middle-class, Yiddish-speaking enclave on the Grand Concourse. Many of his friends and neighbors were on the left, though his father was a patriotic FDR Democrat and “the most zealous anti-Communist you could ever hope to meet”—a hard and angry man who Marty kept his distance from most of his life. Marty’s parents were immigrants from Poland, and his earliest memories were of them mourning dozens of their relatives as they were massacred by the Wehrmacht in real-time. One of his father’s cousins was the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, and at thirteen, Marty gave an address in Yiddish at the dedication of Peretz Square, the small public park on Houston Street opposite Katz’s Delicatessen. For the young Marty, pride in this diasporic literary heritage coexisted comfortably with an uncompromising Zionism. Proud, assertive Jewishness was and always would be the cornerstone of his identity; he chose to attend Brandeis over Princeton, immersing himself in a left-wing Jewish milieu at the end of the McCarthy era rather than deal with restricted Ivy League eating clubs. There, he studied under Herbert Marcuse and Max Lerner, who mentored him in theoretical Marxism and reverence for America as a distinct civilization, respectively.
By the early 1960s, Peretz made his peace with the Ivy League, founding a popular seminar in social studies at Harvard and becoming a familiar face around Cambridge. His improbable marriage to Anne Labouisse—heiress to the WASP half of the Singer sewing fortune, and rebellious daughter of a diplomat who worked on the Palestinian refugee crisis at the United Nations—gave him access to considerable wealth, and the couple became power players in the emerging New Left, bankrolling everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. (“fascinating to watch, the first political leader I knew who had to work to keep many different political groups from fighting each other”) to Gene McCarthy (“His was my kind of leftism, if it even was leftism: ensuring freedom with an eye to the darkness of human nature”). In 1974, Peretz bought TNR for $380,000 (around $2.4 million today) with the aspiration to “poke the polite rationalist establishment in the eye, argue for the old Left belief in political action to better society, champion the humanist concern with the health of the culture, contest policies from first principles, and argue for why Zionism mattered.” He promptly fired most of the staff, and over the ensuing years built a new one of mainly Harvard-educated Jewish men you’ve probably heard of—Leon Wieseltier, Charles Krauthammer, Hendrik Hertzberg, Michael Kinsley—as well as the occasional non-Jewish Harvard man (Andrew Sullivan) or non-Harvard Jewish man (Jonathan Chait).
Under Peretz, TNR eventually became known as “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One,” a reference to its popularity among the many like-minded wonks serving in the Clinton Administration, including several who had either worked for TNR or taken Peretz’s seminar. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was an inescapable part of the Washington discourse, known for tweaking its left-leaning readership with right-leaning arguments and for helping to craft the Third Way liberalism that came to dominate Democratic politics. For a certain kind of media junkie, its provocations and controversies have become the stuff of legend: endorsing the Reagan administration’s support of the Nicaraguan Contras; torpedoing Hillary Clinton’s attempt to reform the U.S. health care system; publishing an excerpt from The Bell Curve, Charles Murray’s paean to race science; and of course, Stephen Glass’s sordid fabulism scandal, which included totally made-up stories about Black crime in Washington, D.C.
By the turn of the millennium, Peretz was at the peak of his influence—as a former academic mentor, close friend, and financial backer of Al Gore, he plausibly believed he might end up working in the White House. But the stolen 2000 election denied him that opportunity, and after the 9/11 attacks, TNR cast its lot with the George W. Bush-aligned neoconservatives. “I had always been a little repulsed by them,” Peretz admits, perhaps surprisingly, “not just by their emphasis on social control and on American power for power’s sake and on their rigidity that made most of their positions hostage to the needs of their movement, but by the fact that they were actually tribal: they passed their politics and their roles in public life on to their children, Norman [Podhoretz] to John, Irving [Kristol] to Bill.” It’s an astute observation, but none of that deterred Peretz from aligning with the neocons on the crucial foreign policy debates of the early 2000s. The results were disastrous, above all for Iraq, but also for the cohesiveness of the liberal establishment Peretz had spent his career breaking into and then reshaping in his own pugnacious image.
After Iraq, everything started to go wrong for Peretz, for TNR, and for the America both had championed. Now, twenty years after the invasion, Peretz finds himself surveying the wreckage: the political system polarized between a Trumpist GOP and a “woke” and stridently professional class Democratic Party (the latter reflected in present-day TNR); American power and prestige challenged abroad and at home; Israel increasingly an embarrassment to progressives; and Peretz himself persona non grata in Cambridge and divorced from Anne, whose family fortune made everything possible. “It’s a sodden coda,” Peretz writes in his forward, “one I don’t quite grasp, or believe.” He spends the next three hundred pages attempting to grasp it, and if he’s not fully successful, he at least offers the reader the opportunity to draw their own conclusions.
The Controversialist invites comparison with Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir, Making It, which tells the story of how, by dint of his own brilliance, Podhoretz rose from the slums of outer Brooklyn to become an inner-circle New York intellectual on the Upper West Side and the editor in chief of Commentary. In it, a thirty-five-year-old Podhoretz airs that whole scene’s dirty laundry, exposes its pretensions, and celebrates his own social climbing without apology. The scene hated the book and hated him for writing it, and his resulting bitterness presaged his turn to the right.
Podhoretz and Peretz have a lot in common. They were born eight years apart in outer-borough neighborhoods, both to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents from Poland; both broke into the intellectual elite and attended the same parties, both came to run small but influential magazines, both became leading foreign policy hawks, and both developed reputations for speaking their minds and for burning bridges with their peers. So it makes sense that they would both write juicy memoirs about their respective journeys; where the memoirs differ is the stage of life when they were written. Making It was a premature memoir by a hungry young man, published on the eve of great political upheaval, with a lot of book-worthy developments (and additional, less-discussed memoirs) yet ahead. The Controversialist, by contrast, is a memoir written at the end of a life—and an era. In recounting his earlier victories, Peretz is fully conscious that his story ends badly.
So what exactly happened? There’s a high-minded answer, which Peretz attempts to put forward throughout The Controversialist, and a more tragicomic one, which he unintentionally reveals. The high-minded answer is that Peretz’s cohort, upwardly mobile professionals though they were, were also rooted in a specific cultural context, with tribal loyalties they retained even as they broke into the previously WASP-dominated elite institutions; by contrast, members of today’s liberal professional class tend to be wholesale products of those same institutions, which in some way limits their worldview. “The America we came up in was one of neighborhoods and ethnicities and creeds and unions; the America we helped grow, the one we have now, is one of PhDs and interstate systems and investment portfolios,” he writes, with evident disappointment.
This analysis is reiterated over and over; here, for instance, is how Peretz introduces Peter Beinart, whom he appointed as editor of TNR in 1999 and later fell out with over Israel:
In a sense, he was perfect, maybe even too perfect: on some inarticulable level, it felt too setup. Remember, I hadn’t come from Cambridge. And neither had Rick, Mike Kinsley, or Leon. We were all smart people, but we didn’t come perfectly minted. Peter, on the other hand, never had to break in. He’d come from the new American postwar institutional elite, and that was his definition of the world. All the rest of us had had different environments to draw from.
Putting aside whether this is really fair to Beinart, it’s also how Peretz writes about Ben Rhodes (“no historical memory and a lot of certainty”), other Obama administration staffers and media mouthpieces (“well-educated, privileged people who’d come up in institutions like the one in which I’d taught”), and Chris Hughes and Mark Zuckerberg (“an odd group, these kids who captured the internet: they didn’t come from very specific traditions or histories”). It’s closely related to how he writes about figures closer to his age who he sees as ashamed of their Jewish backgrounds, including John Kerry (“He seemed to me to be so fake, so full of himself, always puffing himself up. I hated his attitude toward his Jewish roots, always for me a test”), Madeleine Albright (“I didn’t think it was a scandal to be discovered as a Jew. But I guess Madeleine did because [her roommate] called to ask me not to write about it”), and George Soros (“The uncomfortable fact, the difficulty for Soros, is that to the extent Jews identify with Jewishness, most are identifying in some way with a particular culture, which comes from a particular tribe”).
Peretz, in short, has a master theory for our dark times: Trump’s lowest-common-denominator white nationalism is a response to the universalist pretensions of the professionalized-from-birth liberal elites who succeeded Peretz and his friends in the Democratic Party and at TNR. It’s certainly questionable whether Peretz, whose father was the owner of a pocketbook factory and a landlord with multiple buildings in Washington Heights, really had such a steep climb into the postwar professional class—but even so, it’s a provocative argument.
On the other hand, it could just be that Peretz has fallen out of favor because he’s an asshole. As he freely admits, he should never have started his blog, The Spine, which resisted edits and routinely embarrassed the hardworking staff at TNR with its casual bigotry. “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” he wrote in his most infamous post, adding, “So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” He also shouldn’t have squandered as much money as he did on his Harvard acquaintance Jim Cramer’s failed financial news site, thestreet.com. He could have picked fewer petty fights with influential people (okay, who among us); there’s a great scene where Norman Mailer punches him in the stomach on the streets of Provincetown, and another where Hillary Clinton snubs him at an event after the failure of her health care reform efforts and then proceeds to disinvite him from a series of state dinners.
And then there’s the matter of his marriage to Anne, which formally ended in 2009; in 2011, the New York Times reported that Anne cited “infidelities and explosive temper.” Peretz acknowledges vague “troubles” but also a harshness that developed in him as his clout declined and old friends passed away. “The coordinates of the world I’d lived in my whole life were starting to wink out, fade away,” he writes. “Now, as the room to act in public life got narrower, as the disappointments and frustrations mounted, my defenses shifted into place, and they started to interfere with my marriage and my professional life.”
This is all very human, as is the warmth with which he writes about his and Anne’s relationship over many decades, and of their shared love for their accomplished children Jesse (filmmaker, punk rocker) and Evgenia (journalist, screenwriter). But there’s an element of Peretz’s humanity that he’s not quite comfortable sharing candidly.
It’s long been an open secret in media circles that Peretz is gay, but The Controversialist represents his first public acknowledgment of this fact. He identifies as “gay” throughout the book, from his early adolescence on, and makes periodic reference to the swirl of rumors. He describes, for instance, his slight anxiety about hiring the openly gay Andrew Sullivan to edit TNR in 1991; Sullivan, though a staunch conservative on many issues, had already written a landmark piece advocating gay marriage in the magazine:
It was not like I didn’t know there were plenty of people in Washington who didn’t like me and who might use the opportunity to hurt me by referencing my own private life. Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz’s wife, couldn’t stand our stance on gay marriage and hinted in one of her pieces in Commentary that I was gay. . . . The Podhoretzes were, in their mind, fighting for civilization even as in practice they were arguing for a very narrow definition of it. Their insinuations worried me a little, until Anne pointed out that none of Commentary’s readers would understand a veiled homosexual reference anyway.
Peretz is justly proud to have been on the right side of the gay marriage issue earlier than most, and it’s not my place to question why a man of his generation would wait until age eighty-four to fully come out of the closet—though, I suspect, his near-total lack of influence at this point might explain why. But in a memoir that’s otherwise so forthcoming and blunt, there’s a curious blind spot around his sexuality and how it really shaped his life. Peretz writes about early sexual attractions to men and early sexual experiences with women, and he writes a lot about his marriage, but the relationships he’s had with men both during his marriage and since the divorce are invisible. It’s never made clear how early Anne understood his sexual orientation, how she felt about it, and what role that played in their very public marriage, which of course was the material basis of Peretz’s influence. Peretz is entitled to keep all that private, and no doubt some of his paramours would prefer he did, but its absence is a glaring weakness in a memoir that has so much to say about other aspects of his identity, and the identities of everyone notable he’s ever met.
The least interesting parts of The Controversialist are the most objectively important parts. To the extent it can claim responsibility for the outcomes it championed, Peretz’s TNR has a dismal legacy: there’s the Iraq War, the Contras, the ironclad pro-Israel consensus in Washington, our shoddy health care system, and the callousness of welfare reform (meanwhile, in the unambiguously positive column, gay marriage is legal in every state, though Sullivan himself has devolved into a bitter reactionary and a champion of the anti-trans backlash). With the exception of Iraq, which he regrets and attempts to take accountability for, Peretz stands behind basically all of this, and what he has to say about it is generally banal. The likely reader knows how they feel about these issues already, and how Peretz and TNR felt when that mattered. How each of these policies turned out is a matter for historians and policymakers, and Peretz has never been either. He’s been a political activist, distinguished from other political activists above all by the vast sums of cash and social capital he managed to accrue.
Likewise, Peretz’s takes on recent political and media developments are wholly unsurprising: he dislikes both Trump and the Squad; can’t stand Ibram X. Kendi; thinks it was unfair for Wieseltier to be subjected to #MeToo and for James Bennet to be fired from the Times; and recommends reading Wieseltier’s Liberties as well as the increasingly right-wing Tablet, Jamie Kirchick, Bari Weiss, Bret Stephens, and John McWhorter. But what Peretz thinks about any of the above is mercifully irrelevant now, whereas what he thinks about his own decades-long march through America’s elite institutions—and of the kinds of people he encountered along the way—has a lot to teach us about the incestuous networks, petty rivalries, and hubristic assumptions that brought us to this moment. It may not be precisely what he intends to teach.