How Peretz Undermined Liberalism

Well, it's finally over. Martin Peretz, who, according to David Horowitz's Frontpage webzine, "has been a pillar of responsible liberalism since buying The New Republic magazine in 1974," has finally been shown the door. He did not go quietly. You can find his parting remarks here and also here and here. Peretz left TNR as he inhabited it: in a splendid (and splenetic) fit of pique, pessimism, and personality-driven politics.

No one who knew Peretz or his magazine will doubt that it was full of sound and fury. But what did it signify? It's no easy task to sum up 37 years of anything, much less the tenure of a magazine editor who prided himself on being described as "schizophrenic." For some, the fact that right-wing zealots like Horowitz, his Sancho Panza, Ronald Radosh, and National Review's Jonah Goldberg were the only people willing to come to Peretz's defense as he was pilloried as a racist crank tells you all you need to know about the man. (It does, after all, take one to know one.)

But then there is the matter of the magazine itself. It's long been a cliché to point out that Peretz hired editors who were both more liberal, and usually, more intelligent than he was. And many of them went on to become among the brightest stars of the American journalistic firmament. One of them, Leon Wieseltier, stayed and stayed. (The Times piece hints of the possible gift of a house from his patron.) Allowing for a few personal obsessions of his own, Wieseltier has managed week after week, for a quarter century, to publish the most stimulating and erudite "back of the book" available anywhere in America. No matter what egregious attacks Peretz sent forth against Arabs, blacks, Mexicans, or (no less frequently) liberals, Wieseltier never had any trouble attracting top-tier reviewers whether in politics or literature and eliciting what was often their best work.

So the plus side of Peretz's tenure was that the magazine was mostly liberal, mostly well-edited, and easily dismissible when it wasn't. But while it is true that under Mike Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, and to lesser extent, Peter Beinart and Frank Foer, TNR lived up to its reputation as a lively, contrarian read on the week's news with a strong liberal voice, its net effect -- even in its best years -- was to weaken liberalism and comfort conservatives. The primary problem was the fact that unlike say, Commentary, which after a few years of claiming that it had been "mugged by reality" owned up to its conservative conversion, TNR continued to insist that it spoke for American liberalism. And people who did not pay too close attention -- or had their own reasons for indulging this conceit -- played along. And so the virus of liberal self-hatred infected the entire bloodstream of liberalism -- particularly with regard to Israel and the Palestinians -- and bore at its body from within.

The old "even the liberal New Republic" line that dates back to the Reagan era was no joke. Kinsley and Hertzberg could write the most brilliant eviscerations of Reaganite nonsense available anywhere, but the fact that elsewhere in the magazine, these same endeavors were receiving the enthusiastic endorsements not only of Peretz but of Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke -- even on occasion, the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle -- counted for far more in the context of contemporary debate. The sad fact of political life in Washington is that "liberals" are never so influential as when they are throwing in the towel on their own team and endorsing the arguments of the other side. (The punditocracy tends to call this "moderation.") The New Republic "mattered" when it endorsed the contras, the U.S. war in El Salvador, the MX missile, Charles Murray's racist pseudo-science, Republican lies about the Clinton health-care-reform plan, the Iraq War, and pretty much everything the Israeli government has said and done for the past 37 years; other times, not so much. Liberals making liberal points, however eloquently, might make other liberals feel better. They might help to inform their arguments. But they do not make news; they do not get their authors invited on Sunday shows or invited to the White House.

More on TAP

"My Marty Peretz Problem -- and Ours"
Eric Alterman (2007)

TNR's willingness not only to embrace the neoconservative foreign-policy agenda but also to adopt its style of name calling and its habit of questioning the loyalty of those who remained steadfast in their commitment to a less belligerent, more cooperative approach to global relations did further damage to American liberalism during the Peretz era. First, it implicated some of its most eloquent voices in silent assent, since Peretz noticed every slight and could be found attacking his own editors on occasion when they strayed too far from his hard-line views. These attacks, in recent times authored by Peretz's young "mini-me," James Kirchick, also served as a warning to others not to raise their voices too loud lest they invite similar personal abuse. After all, who needs that kind of tsoris? Who wants to explain to one's parents that, no you really aren't an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people because you like J Street? And who wants to worry about seeing his or her next book attacked (or at best, ignored) because one took the wrong line on the invasion of Gaza? TNR exercised genuine power in the tiny world of literary and policy-minded journalism and that power was almost always exercised on behalf of silencing those who transgressed the boundaries that Peretz sought to define.

In the end, the septuagenarian was undone by the young technology of the blog. The absence of an editor to save him from his worst tendencies revealed to the world what had previously been present only between the magazine's lines. That the "editor-in-chief" of America's best-known liberal magazine was an intolerant and angry bigot and a conservative (on most matters) to boot, and was tolerable when only close readers (like yours truly) were complaining about it. But once it went up on the blog, and respectable folk like the Times' Nick Kristof started complaining and Harvard and Brandeis students began organizing protests, the partners whom Peretz had recruited to make up the magazine's losses after he could no longer sustain them himself cannot have been happy to see their good names sullied by association.

So Peretz's new status will be as blogless editor "emeritus." The New Republic is a shadow of its best self, with a circulation that is a fraction of its closest competitor, The Nation, and has the reputation of being a dysfunctional clubhouse for overachieving ex-Harvard students. This does not mean its authors do not consistently produce excellent work. I particularly wish to salute John Judis' erudite political and foreign-policy analyses and Jonathan Cohn's invaluable health-care coverage. But the sum, for the past 37 years, has inevitably amounted to far less than the sum of its parts.

Fortunately, the TNR "brand" has survived these tumultuous years, however tenuously. And perhaps less fortunately, liberalism has never been in greater need of the contribution its many talented writers are capable of making, and are now free to do so. Spine-less, TNR will henceforth become a more serious and stronger voice in the American political conversation. To this one can only say "Maazel tov."

Eric Alterman's  first contribution to The New Republic appeared in 1986.

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