FOR a few days now, I’ve been discussing the ideology of one of the nation’s most storied magazines, with friends on both left and right; for many, it’s best known as a policy journal. But the reason I am most saddened by the destruction of a great publication by a Silicon Valley coup has nothing to to with politics, no matter how valuable TNR was to American liberalism (a tradition I value greatly.) I’m angry because of Malcolm Cowley (pictured) — the elegant literary critic/ memoirist who is one of many great figures from the magazine’s cultural side, and has served as an inspiration to me as a writer from college to the present.
The survival of an informed, fair, artfully written discourse outside the academy is vastly important to me, perhaps rivaled only by a serious and healthy environment for the arts and letters. Both are in short supply these days, despite the explosion of blogs, sites, and everything else. While every issue of TNR may not have reached the heights established by the author of Exile’s Return, that great book that chronicled the Lost Generation writers, it was often one of the most vital voices in the larger conversation. Like Cowley (who J. Edgar Hoover tried to get fired), I am to the left of the magazine that once helped torpedo national healthcare, for instance. But this is less crucial to me. (A friend has suggested that TNR was in some ways “two magazines.”) There is plenty of political opinion available, on all sides of the spectrum, online.
Anyone who cares about culture and discourse should lament the implosion of this magazine by new owners who crow about “disruption” and “branding” — incisive Jonathan Chait piece here — regardless of their politics. “Conservatives need a liberal magazine that’s unpredictable enough to make them want to read it,” historian and former TNR editor David Greenberg wrote. “Liberals and leftists need a magazine that will prod them to question their beliefs, and revise or strengthen them. All of us need robust intellectual debate of a high caliber that treats politics and ideas with the seriousness that they deserve.”
So while I do regret that one of the key journals of the center-left has been radically redrawn — and that it will now publish less often — I find myself mostly agreeing with a commentator in some ways very different from me, the Catholic conservative Ross Douthat. He writes in the New York Times:
The New Republic as-it-was, the magazine I and others grew up reading, was emphatically not just a “policy magazine.” It was, instead, a publication that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art.
It wasn’t just a liberal magazine, in other words; it was a liberal-arts magazine, which unlike many of today’s online ventures never left its readers with the delusion that literary style or intellectual ambition were of secondary importance, or that today’s fashions represented permanent truths.
Unlike our era’s ascendant data journalism, it also never implied that technocracy was somehow a self-sustaining proposition, or that a utilitarianism of policy inputs and social outcomes suffices to understand every area of life.
The recent 100th anniversary issue reminded us how much tension had often existed between respective owners and the editors; Ric Hertzberg’s essay made this especially clear. But this nonsense with the new ownership is something different.
Some talk about the magazine declining lately, but I found a lot of memorable writing there, including Jed Perl’s art criticism and William Deresiewicz’s controversial and widely read “Excellent Sheep” essay about the narrowness of Ivy League education.
TNR’s new CEO, Guy Vidra, replicated all the right Silicon Valley buzzword when he talked about wanting to “break shit.” Well, he certainly has. He and the new owner wanted a “vertically integrated tech company,” and what they’ve got now is a smoking ruin.