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Friday, December 05, 2014

Four Wieseltier Favorites

Lots of commentary last night and this morning about the shake-up (or stake-through-the-heart, if you prefer) at The New Republic. My favorite comments--which range from deeply mournful to vicious condemnation to a sad but informed shrug about the inevitable changes taking place in the business of opinion journalism--include thoughts from Nathan Pippenger, Alan Jacobs, Jonathan Chait, Noah Millman, and Ezra Klein, but you can find your own favorites if you like. I can't add much to it, unfortunately, as I have no particular anecdotes about TNR to share.

Well, that's not quite true; I have one. Long ago, in the very, very early days of the 21st century, John Tambornino--hi John!--and I were having lunch at some DuPont Circle deli in Washington DC, back when were both graduate students, him at Johns Hopkins, and me at Catholic University. I don't recall what we were talking about, but in all likelihood, since we were both budding political theorists, we were arguing about some issue in public policy and philosophy. Anyway, as we talked, we kept noticing a tall, white-haired gentleman at an adjacent table occasionally glancing over at us, clearly listening in on what we were saying. After we'd finished lunch and finally made our way back to the street, John suddenly stopped in his tracks. "You know," he said, glancing back at the still-occupied table, "I think that's Leon Wieseltier!" So there you go: my single brush with TNR greatness. Sadly, the esteemed literary editor and ferociously opinionated writer didn't run up to me to solicit my commentary on anything in particular, and so the opportunity passed.

The firing of Franklin Foer as TNR's editor doesn't mean much to me; he was a solid and thoughtful writer and editor in TNR's typically contrarian Jewish Ivy League neoliberal mold, but in elite journalism as it has come to operate over the past 20 years or so editors come and go with so much rapidity that it's hard to keep track. But Wieseltier was different. He'd been in charge of TNR's justly celebrated "back of the book" for more than 30 years, and thus had managed to develop a distinct editorial approach to those careful, lengthy, implacable reviews of books, culture, and ideas which--to someone like me anyway--long defined the very apex of public-intellectualdom. Aside from Richard Neuhaus at First Things (about whose tenure and arguments Wieseltier guided my friend Damon Linker to one of his, in my opinion, very best pieces of writing), I can't think of another editor whose instincts in approaching a topic I found more consistently challenging, engaging, and thought-provoking. Alan Jacobs expresses my feelings well: "Those long essay-reviews that Wieseltier ran [were] a model for much of my own periodical writing. Even when they were wrong, or widely considered wrong, they were confident, expansive, audacious in the scope of their claims....These lengthy essays, and many like them, generated important conversations, and I don’t know whether there are many periodicals in America who still publish reflections on books that are so ambitious. Probably the New York Review of Books comes closest, though with some exceptions the NYRB reviews are more strictly 'reviews,' less bold in their claims, more politely muted....I’m sad, and I hope that I can find elsewhere some of the things that, to me, made TNR special." To the extent that Wieseltier's departure means the loss of a place that I can regularly check to find long, reflective, serious intellectual engagements with politics, science, literature, foreign affairs, and more, then I'm sad too.

Because that's the sort of obsessive pack-rat I am, this morning I spent more than an hour going through hundreds of old clippings of mine, rediscovering dozens of great TNR reviews from the past 20 years (I've read TNR fairly consistently ever since the early 90s). Again and again, what I found was evidence of a guiding mind who turned someone with real expertise on a subject towards larger implications, and enabled them to make strong, publicly needed connections, commendations, and condemnations, but without ever losing their specialized grounding, thus saving the reviews from becoming...well, like one of my own blog posts, I suppose. There was Sean Wilentz's wonderfully broad review and exchange over the latest scholarship on Abraham Lincoln; David Rieff's fantastic evisceration of the Robert Kaplan's unknowingly condescending idolization of America's empire and its soldiers; Richard Just's infuriatingly patient and troubling case for intervention in Darfur; Jackson Lear's neat distinctions between different types of environmental radicalism; and more. But all of those have one thing in common though: they're available online, having escaped what Jacob Levy (traces of whose involvement in TNR can be found by those who Google carefully) once referred to as "the great TNR archive apocalypse," the details of which are apparently lost in the mists of time. But such electronic archive catastrophes have no effect on pieces of magazine paper kept in filing cabinets. And so, in honor of Wieseltier's departure, here are five great, mostly lost slivers from his long reign in the back of TNR's book:

"Tiananmen and the Cosmos," Andrew J. Nathan, July 29, 1991. For someone only recently back from two years in South Korea, struggling to process my own ideas about East Asian culture and politics, years away from beginning any serious engagement with China or Confucian ideas, this review was terrific eye-opener. "Shortly after his flight from China, Yan predicted that the regime of Li and Deng would fall within two years. His optimism was widely shared among his colleagues. But today the exile movement is at a low point. Membership has eroded, funding is hard to find, the movement is fragmented into scores of organizations. The younger leaders are learning English and entering graduate school, while many of the older ones are living from year to year on fellowships. Many in the overseas community criticize the movement as divided, demoralized, rudderless, even corrupt. But his harshness is misplaced. The democracy movement abroad needs to be evaluated for what it really is: not a political party with a program to hasten the fall of the Deng regime, but a community of intellectuals who are suffering the personal frustrations of exile yet also taking advantage of the opportunity to rethink. They are not the ones who will overthrow the regime, but they will be prepared with new ideas when it finally falls."

"Suffer the Little Children," Jean Bethke Elshtain, March 4, 1996. I've mentioned this piece before, and how much it endeared me to Elshtain's writings, with its wonderfully unsympathetic examination of the harsh judgment which meritocratic neoliberalism inevitably, however confusedly, carries in its heart. "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."

"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Thomas Jefferson," Sean Wilentz, March 10, 1997. Another Wilentz contribution, and one I like even better than his later one on Lincoln: "Jefferson's fate has paralleled that of twentieth-century American liberalism. There was always something absurd about describing Jefferson, the agrarian anti-statist, as one of the forerunners of Progressive reform and New Deal reform. Jefferson's writings on religious liberty gave the argument a certain plausibility in the 1920s, amid the Scopes trial and a revival of anti-Catholic nativism. A decade later, New Deal Democrats pointed with pride to their party's distant genealogical connections to the Jeffersonians. Much more influential, though, was the notion, first popularized by Herbert Croly back in 1909, that modern reformers were trying to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. (That is, it was Jefferson who inspired latter-day government efforts to rein in the malefactors of great wealth.) With the presumption, the reputations of Jefferson and modern liberalism crested at about the same time, in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet as the century has dragged on, and as American liberalism has suffered through its own intellectual and political crises, it has become harder to sustain Jefferson's reputation as any kind of liberal fore-runner."

"Axle of Evil," Gregg Easterbrook, January 20, 2003. An absolutely ferocious review, which uses a book on sports-utility vehicles as an opportunity to given a shuddering smack-down to the American auto industry and the American automobile driver alike. "The SUVs combination of sociopathy and fantasy has reached its preposterous culmination in [the Hummer], which is based on the military Humvee, originally designed to carry infantry and machine  guns. The Hummer gets ten miles per gallon, meaning that its annual  greenhouse-gas emissions triple those of a car, and it weighs nearly three tons. (Still another loophole: if an SUV grows heavy enough, like the Hummer, the manufacturer does not have to report its fuel mileage to the EPA.) Hummers are even longer and higher  than standard large SUVs, but Consumer Guide recently warned of the vehicle's 'limited cargo room' and 'cramped' seats, evidence of poor design. (The mid-size Nissan Maxima, which weighs less than  half as much as a Hummer, has more front legroom.) The Hummer cannot park without straddling spaces. Its owner would be out of his or her mind to take this $52,000 bauble off the interstate, though of course the advertising features the usual postcard scenes of the  noble outdoors. (In my favorite, a Hummer is racing across a  glacier.) Do I need to tell you that Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded General Motors to offer the civilian Hummer, endorsed it, and purchased the first one? The Hummer screams to the world the words that stand as one of Schwarzenegger's signature achievements  as an actor: 'Fuck you, asshole!' Maybe this class of vehicles should be called FUVs."

Maybe Wieseltier will fire off a firm FU to the new regime at TNR? We can only hope.

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