Magazines: Good and Evil in the Thinking Press


While the public dialogue today remains dreary, controversy, satire, vision, and even outrage still rear their heads in the opinion press. In one magazine after another, editors and writers struggle to make themselves heard. Right and left continue to attempt to draw blood or plead for a cause, often providing what we see all too rarely today: interesting, provocative opinions. In this review of current periodicals, I'll try to provide a guide to some of the best and worst to be found.

Let's begin by paying tribute to the most consistently interesting political magazine in the country: The New Republic. Edited by Michael Kinsley, it is fresh, unpredictable, and brash. Kinsley manages to encourage both wit and fairly subtle reasoning from a fine stable of writers who represent a surprisingly broad range of opinion, with a few lamentable hobby-horse exceptions. And even when it is wrong on an issue, never mind: this is the kind of magazine with which you can enjoy disagreeing.

Pick up a few issues and see if you don't agree. Start with a regular feature, "The Zeitgeist Checklist," and then zip through the rest of it. I turn at random to a few recent issues.

In that of last December 28, semi-conservative reporter Fred Barnes writes an open appeal for conservatives to unite behind Jack Kemp, who he sees as Reagan's only logical heir. Barnes predicts that, as things look, Kemp won't make it beyond the early primaries. "The most likely scenario is that Bush or Dole will win the nomination and presidency, and soon break conservatives' hearts. Conservatives have only themselves to blame."

A few pages later, economics editor Robert Kuttner, a terrible economist—apparently the younger generation's answer to Robert Lekachman and other leftist hacks—makes the case against (government) austerity and in favor of (sigh!) higher taxes. For a little fun, read "The Fifth Columnist," a nasty review by Brit expatriate Henry Fairlie of left-wing Irish expatriate journalist Alexander Cockburn's collection Corruptions of Empire. (By the way, I'm a big fan of Cockburn's writing.)

TNR's main pundits in their always-provocative campaign coverage so far are Barnes and Hendrick Hertzberg, a maverick liberal who is something of a loose cannon. In the January 18 issue of TNR Barnes reports on the top agenda item for all the other Republican candidates: "Get Bush to Crack," while Hertzberg's "Monster from the ID" manages to be both scathing and sympathetic toward Gary Hart—a good balance, I'd say.

He finds a notable comparison between Hart and Nixon: "Both men are proven liars, but from the standpoint of statecraft Hart's lies have been uniformly trivial (why he changed his name, where he spent the night), while Nixon's were about rather more important things, such as what countries he was bombing and whether or not he was committing high crimes and misdemeanors."

For a change of pace, read the bizarre article in the same issue by Andrew Sullivan, "Flogging Underwear," which looks at "the new raunchiness of American advertising," features a Calvin Klein ad sprouting naked men and women, and finds that "the best adjective to describe the ethic of the whole power-sex genre of advertisement is: fascist." Fascist? Well, our naked wonders appear to be "Aryans…draped over a Nuremberg-style obelisk." Kvetch, kvetch.

Turn one final time to TNR, the February 1 issue, and read Jeffrey Alexander's "Back to Lippmann." Alexander recently visited Poland and relates an interesting development: the progress of "workers' universities" in the basements of churches, where lawyers, professors, scientists, trade union leaders, and others have been "reading books as fast as they could be translated into Polish, so that they could prepare themselves for the distant possibility of a socialist democracy." But a young sociologist surprised Alexander when he told him "which authors were uppermost on the list: Robert Nozick, Friedrich von Hayek, and other authors of the libertarian and free-market right."

Alexander quarreled with his sociologist friend: what's this stuff got to do with socialist democracy? "As many of them see it," he relates, "the practical question about the distribution of modern power is less about fair shares than about whether there is a space for argument at all. Private property is the only means of having a sure footing, a means of shutting out the state, of gaining a territory of one's own. Only private economic power can confront bureaucratized political control." Dare we hope that TNR will learn more about the virtues of private property from these Polish intellectuals?

Yes, there are other magazines in the world. The December issue of The American Spectator celebrated its 20th anniversary and, as if to symbolize its often schizoid history, we are treated to 100 pages that neatly balance Good and Evil contributions. George Gilder lets fly with a wildly optimistic, hopeful, and humane essay, "The Message of the Microcosm," a stirring celebration of technology, liberty, and progress that can only be called masterful and endlessly quotable.

A sample: "All value comes from free minds; nothing else matters. Slaves are virtually worthless. By creating slaves, the capture of territory destroys its value. In the new world, socialists are capable chiefly of destruction. Wealth and power are products of emancipation, deregulation, immigration, tax reduction, liberty. Governments can increase their sway only by releasing their controls and emancipating their people. Authorities cannot seize power and wealth; what they seize they destroy. They can only grow strong by attracting and liberating creative men and women." Don't miss this powerful essay by one of the few writers I think deserves to be called a visionary.

But turn a few pages and you are into Mark Falcoffs "Let's Be Honest About Vietnam," another of those omnipresent pieces attempting to rehabilitate the Vietnam war of which conservatives seem so fond these days. And countless other snippets, both good and bad. TAS reminds me of the little girl with a curl right in the middle of her forehead: when it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid.

Let's end up this month with the fist of the neoconservative movement, Norman Podhoretz's Commentary. Frankly, Commentary seems to be slipping. Its present circulation is just over 33,000, down from the 50,000 range a few years ago. Put in another light, the circulations of what was once one of the most powerful magazines in the world and our own irrepressible REASON could soon crisscross, as REASON continues its long-term climb in circulation and influence.

One major difference between the two publications that might account for some of the opposite trends at work here: Commentary's obsessive social conservatism versus REASON's support for tolerance and peaceful coexistence among people of different lifestyles. Perhaps the steam is running out of the older generation's engine of hostility toward the young and the different, a position with which an officially Jewish magazine like Commentary (published by the American Jewish Committee) should never have been very comfortable.

I take as two prime exhibits with which to leave you: the December Commentary's latest in an apparently interminable series of attacks on homosexuals, "Inventing Homosexuality," by Marjorie Rosenberg (about which the less said the better), and an attack by Australian philosopher David Stove on "The Columbus Argument."

Stove takes on what he considers the most viable argument against conservatism in general. "I call it the They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus' Argument," he writes. "It goes as follows: Throughout almost all of history, people who have proposed innovations, whether in belief or in behavior, have met with hostility.…Yet whatever improvements have actually been made in human life, either in our opinions or in our practice, have depended, and must always depend, on some innovator in the first place. We ought, therefore, not merely to tolerate, but to welcome, innovators.' "

Stove finds this John Stuart Mill–style argument "dangerous," and he attacks Mill's pleading "in On Liberty for the widest variety of what he chose to call 'experiments in living.'" Stove deems the phrase "a sickeningly dishonest attempt to capture some of the deserved prestige of science for things which had not the remotest connection with science; principally—need I say?—certain sexual and domestic arrangements of a then-novel kind." (Harriet Taylor had left a loveless marriage to live with her devoted John Stuart Mill.)

Ah, but don't worry, for our humble philosopher has a ready answer: while it is true that for every improvement in the human condition there had to be a "new departure," this is equally true "for any change for the worse." And since there have been many more false and bad innovations than good, we have "at least as much reason" to discourage as to encourage innovators.

Our opponent of Mill's alleged "sickening dishonesty" then has the nerve to compare the examples of Columbus, Copernicus, and Galileo with those of Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot—both groups being, you see, "innovators." Isn't something missing here? Perhaps even the tiniest recognition on Stove's part that not one classical-liberal defender of change and personal experiments in living thought one had the right to trample on the individual rights of others?

Perhaps there's no link between views such as these and Commentary's slip in readership and influence. Then again, we can always hope!

Roy A. Childs, Jr., is editor of The Libertarian, a new monthly newsletter, and editorial director of Laissez Faire Books.