March 1, 1995        

Back in 1984, a few intellectuals had a lively little argument about whether, if Orwell were still alive, he would be a socialist or a neoconservative. In the same spirit, I’ve sometimes wondered whether Orwell (or, say, John Stuart Mill-- fill in your own political hero) would write nowadays for the Nation or the New Republic.

Every once in a while The New York Times runs an article about the feud between the two. The article usually mentions circulation figures, which for both magazines hover around 100,000. I always wonder about the overlap. I assume the majority of Nation readers are Old Leftists, old New Leftists, and new leftists, and that most New Republic readers are moderate Republicans to liberal Democrats. Surely thousands of people read, or at least subscribe to, both; but hardly anyone I know seems to. It’s either “I can’t take the Nation seriously anymore,” or “The New Republic has really become vile.” Nobody’s yet said what I always expecting to hear: “They both drive me crazy, but I need them both.”

The Nation’s stock in trade is indignation: at bureaucratic bullying, regulatory laxness, structural inequality racial or sexual disadvantage, corporate mischief. Abuses are exposed, exploitation denounced, and attention frequently drawn to the existence of a ruling class. The Cold War (then), the New World Order (now), and American foreign policy (then and now) come in for implacable suspicion. Radical democracy, popular empowerment, and fundamental institutional change are the goals, though usually invoked only in moments of special rhetorical intensity.

The New Republic is deliberately, almost defiantly, non-radical. Policy and personality rather than critique, chastisement rather than condemnation, mockery rather than angry sarcasm, are its specialties. Representative institutions are defended against direct democracy; and the good intentions, the essential decency, of American foreign policy and policymakers are assumed. Racial and sexual discrimination are deplored as irrational, illiberal, and inefficient: as un-American rather than “as American as apple pie.”

The foregoing is, of course, a pretty bland characterization of some pretty bitter differences. To the New Republic the Nation’s indignation is routine, its ideological animus immature, its talk of “radical democracy” vague sentimentality, its anti—interventionism no more than reflexive, adolescent anti-Americanism. To the Nation, TNR’s comfortable centrism, its occasional left-baiting, its implicit (and often enough explicit) affirmation of the adequacy of capitalism and indirect, representative democracy, and its sometimes critical, often enthusiastic support for American foreign policy are intellectually shallow and morally corrupt, a political trahison des clercs. And all this pales next to the enmity generated by Middle Eastern politics. If epithets could kill, Alexander Cockburn and Martin Peretz, Noam Chomsky and Leon Wieseltier, Edward Said and Michael Waizer, Christopher Hitchens and Charles Krauthammer, would have long since dispatched one another to a better, or anyway better-mannered, world.

There’s plenty to dislike all round, and each side, it seems to me, has the other’s number. The New Republic’s tough-mindedness can be insufferable when it takes the form of, say, Charles Krauthammer jeering at international law and the United Nations or of stern editorials on Bosnia or international terrorism that far outnumber editorial condemnations of American-assisted or —tolerated slaughter in Guatemala, Indonesia, or elsewhere in the (former) “Free World.” The Nation’s tender conscience can be tiresome, for example when the magazine painstakingly avoids straightforward criticism of guilty victims, like Tawana Brawley or the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The New Republic does, true, avoid routine, predictable, merely pious indignation. But what if national politics largely consists of routine and predictable outrages? Didn’t TNR feel, at least sometimes, that the damage wrought on the economy, polity, and environment during the Reagan-Bush years merited not equable disapproval but spluttering fury? The Nation on the other hand, is right to feel the special claims of historic victims, to recognize the respects in which blacks, women, homosexuals, Palestinians, and native Americans are not merely interest groups. But underdogs need the best possible leaders; and even more important, a magazine’s intellectual hygiene requires straight talk about demagoguery and delusion among its political allies. So why wasn’t the Nation even harder on Jesse Jackson or Yasir Arafat or the Sandinistas than the New Republic?

Both journals, then, have the defects of their virtues, or vice versa. The Nation really cares but is often dull and sometimes pulls punches. The New Republic is rarely dull and rarely (except, or so everyone believes, about Israel) pulls punches, but doesn’t seem to take the really considerable amount of misery in the United States and the Third World quite so seriously as it should. It’s something, of course, to have any virtues, and such are the limits of human nature that we all need to specialize in one or at most a very few. But is there, I wonder, a more than quantitative difficulty in exercising both these particular virtues at the same time?

Perhaps it is obvious enough to others, but it is something of a mystery to me that the poise required to be simultaneously earnest and clever, tough-minded and tender-hearted, should be so rare. I know that the unity and depth of a personality, whether individual or institutional, depend on radical limitiation. Every perspective leaves something out. But the Nation and the New Republic leave too much out-- more than they need to. One result is smug New Republic readers and enrage Nation readers, who might conceivably have gained a certain amount of morale from each other’s existence outside the conservative mainstream, but as things stand are more likely to despise each other. Another result is confused, ambivalent readers like me, who are left to try to piece together for ourselves a stance that combines wit and heart, a position (in my case) on the left that is nevertheless not vulnerable to the New Republic’s harsh and telling mockery.

It is probably a futile and perhaps also a misguided hope, this aspiration to wholeness. It may even be rooted in an unhealthy fear of conflict, a desire to avoid making enemies. When in the late 1930s the editors of a reconstituted Partisan Review announced their intention to eschew sectarianism, Trotsky rebuked them: such an approach was “incapable of hurting anyone, but likewise incapable of giving anybody a thing.” Everyone who is intellectually and morally serious, he admonished, who has “something to say,” makes enemies: “they have friends, they have enemies, they fight, and exactly through this they demonstrate their right to exist.”

That may be true. Martin Peretz and Alexander Cockburn would probably agree. But I find Mill’s view, though almost comically less rousing, more congenial:

"It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been induced to take seriously the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct."