Long live the New New Republic.
I remember where I was when I heard that Mike Schmidt was retiring from playing third base for the Phillies. I was in the bedroom of our Wheaton, Illinois high rise apartment. I still remember also where I was when Phil Hendrie announced he was leaving the airwaves (only to return and then leave for podcasting). I was battling a nasty cold that turned into walking pneumonia from the comfort of the Mayflower Park Hotel in downtown Seattle. More recently, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Rob da Bank was leaving BBC 1 to be an irregular stand-in at the BBC 6 Mix.
So when the New Republic blew up a month or so ago, I again experienced that feeling of being deprived of one of those aspects of personal identity that had marked (all about) me since I started graduate school in Baltimore thirty years ago (when Omar Little was crawling around in diapers). Several bloggers have commented on the events that led long-time editors and staff to abandon the Ship New Republic. Among those comments were several reflections about how important the magazine had been in forming an intellectual outlook.
I first caught wind of the change from Michael Sean Winters who may be excessively self-referential:
The New Republic is dead, or at least it is now brain dead. Yesterday, editor Frank Foer and literary editor Leon Wieseltier resigned as the changes undertaken by owner and Facebook zillionaire Chris Hughes became so oppressively obnoxious, Foer and Wieseltier could no longer stay. Even as I write those words this morning, it is difficult to believe. Needless to say, this is also personal for me. Frank is a friend and Leon is a very good friend.
My indebtedness to Leon is enormous. In 1993, he approached me about writing a book review for him. I did not hold an academic position: I was the manager of the café at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café. But, I had gotten to know Leon over the years, he liked the way my mind worked, and he asked me to review a biography of Jose Maria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. It was my first real foray into publishing. Leon was not an easy editor, which is one of the reasons he is a great editor. He re-worked my draft from top-to-bottom, demanded more analysis here, less verbosity there, and the end result, much improved from his editing, made it into his pages. It was, of course, a thrill to be published in the pages of the venerable TNR. Walter Lippmann had helped start TNR! All the great liberal icons of the twentieth century had been published in its pages. How many of the writers we all turn to – Chait, Hertzberg, Kinsley, Cohn, Berkowitz, Scheiber, Judis, Wolfe – had gotten their start at TNR or been introduced to a wider audience in its pages. But, the real thrill was not being associated with such luminaries. The real thrill was being published by Leon.
At National Review, Carl Eric Scott acknowledged his own intellectual debt to TNR:
A once-great institution, killed by a pair of lofo-pandering facebook-enriched millennial jerks. I here voice my gratitude to all of those who made the magazine central to my political education in the 1990s. I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for TNR.
I stopped my subscription sometime in 2008, and had stopped eagerly reading the magazine around 2005 or so. And not too long ago, when I had thought about re-subscribing, I found myself dissuaded by articles like the one that stooped to smearing Scott Walker as a racist on the basis of no evidence related to the man himself. But a couple weeks ago, when I saw the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue, well, I just had to pick it up. It is worth getting, incidentally—there’s some interesting stuff about the early Herbert Croly years, an undoubtedly softened account of the conflicts between owner Marty Peretz and the more-regular liberals at TNR during the 80s through early aughts, and in any case, the issue’s now worth owning simply as a memento of a lost age.
I agree about the feel of the magazine for the last five years or so, but the 100th anniversary issue was worth the wait (even though I suspected the issue would be too self-congratulatory; the piece by Hanna Rosin on Stephen Glass was riveting).
I would like to say that I’m shaken by the dramatic shake-up just announced at The New Republic, which sees Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier leaving the – well, I was going to say the magazine, but it isn’t a magazine anymore apparently, but rather a “digital media company,” whatever that is. TNR, after all, was the magazine that introduced me to public intellectual life. I read it in the school library in high school – no, actually, I devoured it. It was clever, but also serious – political, but also literary. And, in the 1980s and 1990s, it was hard to imagine a magazine having more influence on the shape of debate. The first iteration of my politics were substantially shaped by its sensibility.
For me TNR was liveliest when Andrew Sullivan was editor, but even running up to Andrew, the magazine was always provocative and sharp. If I am too snarky or sputten, I owe it in part to TNR where being argumentative was a virtue. Maybe Christians are not supposed to be that way. Of late, after bingeing on Portlandia, I wonder if certain sensibilities really are impossible for believers, say, coming up with a lesbian couple co-owning a feminist bookstore. If so, TNR transformed me in a less than sanctified way.
On the positive side, the so-called back of the book, the books and arts section was always worth reading in its entirety. Not only did the editor of that section, Leon Wieseltier, attract writers such as John Updike (to review painting exhibitions), or historians like Gordon Wood, or literary critics, James Wood and Louis Menand, but his coverage of the fine and popular arts and reviews of books was so well done that it made other magazines superfluous. One of the reasons I gave up on Books and Culture, for instance, was that in one year’s worth of TNR Wieseltier and company would cover twice (maybe three times) as much as Christianity Today’s venture into a publication dedicated to books.
I will continue with another year of TNR just to see what becomes of it. Chances are, though, that the glory days of TNR are behind not simply because of a change in editorial personnel but also because the entire landscape of magazine publishing has changed. In that regard, Noah Milman should have the last word:
Which brings me to the realm of culture, and the fabled back of the book. I should caveat right up front that TNR and Wieseltier did a wonderful job of covering a wide array of subjects, of finding talented young critics and promoting them, and engaging in intellectual debate across the landscape of culture and academia. But I still have two bones to pick with the encomia.
The first and easiest bone to pick is that there is a wild, robust and in many cases very high quality discussion going on right now across a multitude of outlets and covering any cultural topic you like. What is relatively absent in the internet era are two things: widely-recognized gate-keepers to curate that discussion, and any kind of revenue model to sustain it. These are not problems that Leon Wieseltier had any idea of how to solve. (Nor does anyone else – something Andrew Sullivan acknowledges in his own lament for passing of the “sugar daddies of yore.”)
I am very, very eager to find a solution to that particular problem. Here at TAC, I am a tireless advocate for more cultural coverage for its own sake. I produce a bunch of it myself on this blog, and some of it for the magazine. But I recognize that the prevailing structure of the internet makes it not only very difficult to justify from a revenue perspective, but very difficult to justify from a curatorial perspective – because it’s not clear that a magazine like TAC could achieve the status of a trusted curator of this kind of discourse even if it wanted to.
So, again, the nostalgia for Wieseltier’s back-of-the-book is, to some extent, a nostalgia for an information market structure that no longer exists rather than for something TNR was uniquely and selflessly committed to. Another way of putting this is: back when TNR was TNR, The New York Review of Books was still The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker was still The New Yorker.
We’re not in the hard-copy age any more, Toto.