From The Archive
George Scialabba
No. 27  March 2015

People Who Influence Influential People Are the Most Influential People in the World

  

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BOOK REVIEWED

Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics
and Culture in America
, edited by Franklin Foer,
Harper Perennial, $17.99

Twentieth-century liberalism has won.” So ran the first sentence of The New Republic’s eightieth-anniversary anthology back in 1994. Liberalism “inspired democratic revolutions from the Soviet Union to South Africa,” according to the anthology’s editor, Dorothy Wickenden, and finally “disabused this country of its prolonged infatuation with conservatism.” Occupying the White House were two men with “intellectual edge and moral intuition,” the magazine’s editors enthused, who offered “the best chance in a generation to bring reform and renewal to a country that desperately needs both.”

How accurate you think this judgment is depends on what you understand by that perennially disputed word, “liberalism.” Originally it meant the opposite of mercantilism, the close government regulation of commercial policy to benefit domestic merchants by means of tariffs and restrictions on the movement of capital and technology. Mercantilism, protectionism, and industrial policy all name various aspects of the impulse to limit competition from abroad. As Britain and the United States became the world’s leading economic powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively, each decided that other countries’ efforts to favor the home team were no longer cricket and that unregulated (i.e., “free”) competition—which, by the merest coincidence, they were most likely to win—was in everyone’s best interest. “Liberalism,” from the Latin word for “free,” is the name of this ideology. Even now, European political parties that call themselves “liberal” mean by it “pro-business.” The leading voice of nineteenth-century liberalism was The Economist, which famously argued that to provide famine aid to Ireland would be to interfere with the necessarily benign workings of the free market.

In English (as in Latin), “free” has more than one meaning. Besides “unconstrained,” it also means “generous,” as in “Give freely to those in need” or “Though a Nobel Prize winner, she’s pretty free with her time when students ask.” So in the United States, “liberal” also came to denote redistributive, welfare-state policies that aim to extend to the nonaffluent a modicum of economic security, equality of opportunity, and civil rights. This sense of “liberalism,” the bête noire of the right from Nixon to the Tea Party, might seem to have swept the terminological field, but now there is also “neoliberalism,” which, since the Clinton administration, has described the bipartisan consensus on free trade, privatization, financial deregulation, and all other dictates of the sovereign Market. No wonder books with titles like What Is Liberalism? appear regularly.

Whatever liberalism is, The New Republic is generally considered to be its American avatar.

Whatever liberalism is, The New Republic is generally considered to be its American avatar. The magazine was founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, a sometime architectural critic who had written a book five years earlier, The Promise of American Life, that greatly impressed a wealthy philanthropic couple. Croly’s book argued that Hamilton’s federalism had eclipsed Jefferson’s localism, and that America’s destiny was to be a national, indeed global, commercial power, with its activist executive branch coordinating policy with business, financial, and cultural elites. “The whole point,” Croly wrote to Willard Straight, the magazine’s first owner, “is that we are trying to impose views on blind or reluctant people.” This self-conscious elitism—the conviction that an inert, ignorant populace needs to be mobilized from above by executive power, public and private, which in turn requires the guidance of enlightened, responsible intellectuals—has remained at the core of the journal’s self-conception throughout its variegated history. Populism, class conflict, radical democracy, mass movements—all these were for outsiders. The New Republic, from the beginning, was for insiders.

Croly himself, though well off and well connected, was not exactly an insider, but his fellow TNR editor Walter Lippmann certainly was. Like generations of his successors at the magazine, Lippmann was a bright young Harvard graduate who quickly plugged himself into political Washington and literary New York. Soon he and Croly were dining regularly with President Wilson’s senior adviser, urging him to “let us know whether or not we are misinterpreting what the President is trying to do,” lest the magazine unintentionally “conflict with the purposes of the government.” Intelligence at the elbow of power—this has always been The New Republic’s ideal. Nowhere is this ideal more lovingly commemorated than in The New Republic’s latest anthology, Insurrections of the Mind, published last year to mark the magazine’s one-hundredth anniversary. Respectful Suggestions of the Mind would have been, on the whole, a more accurate title.

The “marriage of welfare statism and civil liberties,” Franklin Foer writes in his introduction to Insurrections, “is essentially the definition of American liberalism.” That marriage came under strain in the 1980s and ’90s, when the New Right’s largely bogus critique of big government conquered official Washington and the media. Faced with a choice of righteous irrelevance or glamorous relevance, The New Republic chose relevance. The editors supported cuts in taxes and social spending, criticized affirmative action, published a notorious cover article opposing Hillarycare, and hired a slew of conservative writers. Official Washington loved it; the Reagan White House even sent a courier over every week to pick up twenty copies. But though this rightward shift was opportunistic, it wasn’t unprincipled opportunism. Opportunism, after all, was the bedrock principle of The New Republic. Not the uncomplicated, self-serving kind, but the well-meaning, deluded kind that believes above all in maintaining credibility with the powerful, since how else can anything be accomplished except by whispering in their ear?

Faced with a choice of righteous irrelevance or glamorous relevance, The New Republic chose relevance.

Not all the results were entirely bad: Mickey Kaus’s “civic liberalism,” for one, was an earnest if problematic effort to craft a humane alternative to the welfare state, and TNR was an early and consistent supporter of gay marriage. But mostly the magazine spent these two decades distancing itself from grassroots liberalism, following Clinton, Gore, Schumer, and other centrist Democrats in embracing the business-friendly neoliberalism of the Democratic Leadership Council and supporting such ultimately disastrous initiatives as NAFTA, financial deregulation, and welfare reform, which helped kill the New Deal. Al Gore’s candidacy was the magazine’s last gasp. Since 2000, New Republic writers have seemed demoralized, rousing themselves only for occasional spiteful attacks on the left (Nader, Occupy, Snowden), for fervent warnings about the dangers of Islamic radicalism, and for frequent admonitions to presidents to use American military power wherever possible.

Foer’s definition of American liberalism is incomplete: the “marriage” he describes has actually been a love triangle. From the outset, American liberalism’s preference for government activism at home has been matched by its internationalism; it has advocated for a unilateral, interventionist foreign policy. Here is where liberalism—and TNR—have gone most egregiously and damagingly wrong. “Liberalism cherishes skepticism more than any [other] ideology,” Foer writes in Insurrections, with a touch of self-congratulation—and self-deception. On the contrary, it is The New Republic’s credulousness, its uncritical acceptance of the premises of official policy, that is most apparent whenever the use of force is in question.

The magazine supported America’s entry into World War I, accepting Wilson’s argument that only American participation could give us the moral authority to ensure a fair and democratic peace settlement. The actual peace settlement was nothing of the sort, and The New Republic, having trusted Wilson’s assurances, looked foolish. TNR enthusiastically endorsed the Truman doctrine, blamed the Soviet Union for the ensuing Cold War, and ignored inciting actions on the part of the United States, including its insistence on rearming Germany, maintaining nuclear superiority, and keeping leftists, even democratic ones, out of power everywhere in the postwar world. The Indochina war was a “colossal blunder,” which should lead us, the editors admonished, to reflect on “the contrast between our idealism and our crimes.” That it was blundering “idealism” rather than a strategy of global economic integration requiring the suppression of independent nationalism that led to America’s intervention in Vietnam and dozens of other places in the twentieth century has always been an article of faith.

That faith was on display when, endorsing the Reagan administration’s Central America policy in 1986, the magazine pleaded that “it is . . . certain that our aims are different than they were sixty, even twenty, years ago,” argued that the United States’ only aim was to “aid in the restoration of democracy,” and asked tough-mindedly whether “anyone believes the Sandinistas will ever peacefully transfer power by election.” (For the record, the Sandinistas did, four years later.) Twenty years later, this same “fighting faith”—the title of a 2004 manifesto by editor Peter Beinart included in Insurrections—caused TNR to welcome the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The war against Islamic totalitarianism is, like the former war on Communism, “the defining moral challenge of our time,” Beinart wrote, the “arena in which [liberal] values find their deepest expression.” Those who urged skepticism in response to government claims or who proposed abiding by international law were “softs.”

Credulousness toward another favored state—Israel—has led The New Republic to support still other futile and bloody military interventions. The magazine has continually harangued its anxiously pro-Israel readership about the existential dangers the plucky little nuclear-armed, American-backed regional superpower faces from the revanchism and irredentism of the prostrate Palestinians; implied that Palestinian rather than Israeli intransigence is primarily responsible for the failure of peace negotiations; and scolded the left for maliciously exaggerating Israel’s faults and indulging Palestinian terrorism. But although thousands of Palestinian noncombatants have been killed by Israeli forces in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank—at least an order of magnitude more than Israeli civilian victims of Palestinian violence—no one at The New Republic has entertained, even to reject, the idea that these old-fashioned war crimes and law-enforcement excesses also deserve to be called “terrorism.” Notwithstanding Israel’s frequent assurances that it was eager to trade land for peace, by now it is clear that no Israeli government, Labor or Likud, has been willing since 1967 to halt the gradual annexation of the West Bank and its resources. But occasional meekly expressed misgivings from the magazine’s doves—Irving Howe, Michael Walzer, Leon Wieseltier—have always been drowned out by an unceasing barrage of pro-Israel apologetics from Martin Peretz, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Oren, and The New Republic’s other resident hasbarists.

Why has the magazine’s vaunted liberal “intelligence” lined up so often in support of brute force? Part of the answer has been supplied by Christopher Hitchens, who knew what to think of contrarianism before he succumbed to it:

In the charmed circle of neoliberal and neoconservative journalism, “unpredictability” is the special emblem and certificate of self-congratulation. To be able to bray that “as a liberal, I say bomb the shit out of them” is to have achieved that eye-catching, versatile marketability that is so beloved of editors and talk-show hosts.

But the serious intellectuals who founded The New Republic were no less eager to rationalize state violence than their lightweight present-day successors, and with similar motives. In a masterly essay on “The New Republic and the War” (i.e., World War I), Christopher Lasch retraced the tortuous arguments by which Lippmann, Dewey, and the rest of the original cohort convinced themselves to follow Wilson to war, and concluded:

Logic may have dictated non-intervention, but something deeper than logic dictated war. The thirst for action, the craving for involvement, the longing to commit themselves to the onward march of events—these things dictated war. The realists feared isolation not only for America but for themselves. Accordingly, they went to war and invented the reasons for it afterward.

Skepticism? Not when the war drums are beating.

(A minor continuity: the old New Republic and the new were about equally ungracious to those who got it right, from forcing Randolph Bourne off the magazine in 1917 because he opposed intervention to setting up an “Idiocy Watch” in 2004 to ridicule those who doubted the wisdom of invading Iraq.)

What The New Republic’s long history teaches above all is that power goes its own way. Those who control investment and employment, opinion-formation and electoral finance, are the ones who set the state’s priorities and constrain its initiatives. These leaders don’t care about good new ideas; they have their own ideas. Intellectuals can help those in power to market their strategies, or to refine them. But they can’t change them. “You’ve convinced me,” FDR is said to have told a group of left-leaning visitors. “Now go out and force me.” But that—mobilizing popular pressure to counterbalance the power of business—is just what The New Republic has never shown any interest in doing. At its most daring, the magazine has fancied itself speaking truth to power, and sometimes it has. But the real responsibility of intellectuals is to speak truth, patiently and perseveringly, to the powerless. Of this, The New Republic has never had a clue.

Like liberalism itself, TNR had already surrendered to technocratic managerialism long before Chris Hughes came along in 2012.

The cover or masthead of The New Republic has, for most of its life, sported the subtitle “A Journal of Politics and the Arts.” If it had been only a journal of politics, there would be very little reason to regret its recent frontal lobotomy at the hands of its new owner. Like liberalism itself, the magazine had already definitively surrendered to technocratic managerialism long before Chris Hughes and company came along in 2012. But there was always the back of the book. The New Republic has been lucky in its literary editors: Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Doris Grumbach, Jack Beatty, and, yes, Leon Wieseltier. Peretz and Wieseltier each spent around three decades at the magazine, and each launched more than a few young writers. While Peretz’s recruits are a mixed legacy, Wieseltier’s—James Wood, Sven Birkerts, Ann Hulbert, Ruth Franklin, Jed Perl, William Deresiewicz, Adam Kirsch, and, when compos mentis, Lee Siegel—are a gift to criticism. So were Wieseltier’s own all too infrequent reviews. (His all too frequent “Washington Diarist” entries, on the other hand, were a calamity. Rarely has so much verbal ingenuity been expended to so little point, except perhaps in fulfillment of some imagined moral obligation to sound intelligent. And the diary entries bear a heavy responsibility for the plague of pseudo-clever putdowns that eventually infested the magazine.)

The richness of the magazine’s arts coverage was bound to be underrepresented in any anthology, but even so, there is far too little of it in Insurrections of the Mind. There are a few distinguished pieces of criticism, above all W. H. Auden’s “Freud” and Irving Howe’s “The Value of the Canon.” But not nearly enough. Even Wieseltier’s finest essay, “Matthew Arnold and the Cold War,” is left out. If Wieseltier were to employ his forced retirement in compiling a selection of TNR’s best criticism, it would be a real service to the culture, and keep him out of political mischief besides.

The last item in Insurrections is a short afterword by Chris Hughes, the Facebook billionaire who rode to the magazine’s rescue three years ago and who in December oversaw TNR’s transition to a “vertically integrated digital media company.” Apart from a passing phrase or two promising “adaptation”—a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand—it is largely boilerplate, offering no hint of the digital media clusterfuck waiting just around the corner. Mostly, it makes the right noises, genuflecting toward “quality writing” and “putting politics, culture, and ideas side by side and on an equal plane.” Hughes even gets what’s wrong about the magazine right, albeit inadvertently: the mission, he writes, “is to offer deep, thought-provoking analysis that encourages critical dialogue between influential people in our country and world.” Too true. The magazine’s editors have always behaved as if “influential people” were not the problem but the solution. But of course, anyone who understood that would have come to bury The New Republic, not to save it.

George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of For the Republic and What Are Intellectuals Good For?

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