What Am(mmmeeeEEEE) I Missing?

A few more observations about religious journalism after the news that Books & Culture is ending its run next month. A couple of evangelical academics have taken this news about the way that I felt when I heard that Chris Hughes had bought the New Republic and its editorial staff resigned.

According to Alan Jacobs:

For twenty-one years, Books and Culture has been one of the most consistently interesting magazines in the English-speaking world. I have often been surprised at the number and range of people who agree with me about that. Alex Star, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine and now an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, once told me that he read every issue in full. Cullen Murphy, former editor of the Atlantic, told me that John Wilson is the best editor in the business.

Chris Gehrz seconds Jacobs:

… in any event, it’s certainly a good moment to celebrate what John Wilson has been able to accomplish over twenty years of editing B&C — and how much I appreciate that he has gone out of his way to encourage young authors and scholars. Thanks, John, and all those who have made Books & Culture possible these last twenty-one years.

Both authors mention personal ties to John Wilson and my own relations to the magazine no doubt inform my reaction to the news which is a measure of sadness, especially for people who are losing the jobs. But I can’t say I’ll miss B&C because I haven’t subscribed to it for years.

One reason was precisely those young writers that Gehrz believes John Wilson cultivated. For me that was a fault of John Wilson’s powers as gate keeper for what could have been the jewel in intellectual evangelicalism’s crown. If you want to point to the rich treasures of the evangelical mind, why not turn to its intellectual statesmen and make your publication evangelicalism’s go to place for your movement’s most insightful writers? But evangelicalism suffers from an implicit egalitarianism that elevates the ideas and opinions of the novice and untested to the same worth as the tried and true.

This was exactly what Leon Wieseltier refused to do with the New Republic. In the “back of the book” he turned to some of the academy’s best minds (including Mark Noll) and gave them lots of room to explore a range of ideas that — sorry — B&C never approximated.

Maybe it is apples and oranges, but I doubt Jean Bethke Elshtain could have evaluated Hillary Clinton for John Wilson the way she did for Wieseltier:

I am no a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshhold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it anyway? Here Clinton makes one of the more lamentable moves in her book. She is dead-on about the importance of being attuned to the needs of infants, feeding them, cuddling them, holding them, but in a discussion of the fact that there is not “substitute for regular, undivided attention from parents” we learn that the “biggest difference” that emerged from a study she cites and endorses, was “in the sheer amount of talking that occurred” in various households. It is no surprise that Clinton favors the chattering classes, but she proceeds to malign poor and working-class parents because they interact less with their children….

Like Clinton, I recoil when I hear a parent shout at a child. I, too, cringe when a parent is curt, abrupt and dismissive. But I recognize that this is not the same thing as neglect, not the same thing as abuse. Perhaps, as the late Christopher Lasch insisted, the working-class or lower-middle-class style aims to instill in children a tough, early recognition that life is not a bowl of cherries, not a world in which everyone is telling you how great you are; that their lives will be carried out in a world in which they tasks they are suited for, the jobs they do, the lives they live, and even the way they talk (or do not talk) will be scrutinized and found wanting by their “betters.” I know that Clinton would argue, in response, that she means no invidious comparison. But the comparison is there and it is invidious. According to her book, the higher the income and education, the better the parenting, all other things being equal….Don’t get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn’t have to…[suffer]. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything and tell people struggling against enormous odds that they are doing a crummy job. Sometimes Clinton understands this, sometimes she doesn’t.

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The New Republic Is Dead. . .

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).

Noah Millman (who is almost always on a roll) chimed in:

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.