By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Peter Bennett
An audience is like a broad. If you're indifferent, Endsville.
AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER THE NATIONHAS been the journalistic lodestar of the American left. Now, in its 137th year, the magazine is on a commercial roll. Its subscriptions have risen steadily in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. Its finances may actually break even (a miracle in the world of political magazines). And its publishing adjunct, Nation Books, is raking in money from two hot titles: Gore Vidal's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Forbidden Truth by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié. Indeed, everything's going so well that I feel kind of churlish in pointing out what most on the left are unwilling to say: The Nation is a profoundly dreary magazine.
Just compare it to another thin, ideologically driven rag, The Weekly Standard, a right-wing publication currently approaching its measly seventh anniversary. A few months ago, I began putting new issues of each side by side on an end table and, to my surprise, discovered that while unread copies of The Nation invariably rose in guilt-inducing stacks, I always read The Weekly Standard right away. Why? Because seen purely as a magazine, The Standard is incomparably more alluring. As gray and unappetizing as homework, The Nation makes you approach it in the same spirit that Democrats might vote for Gray Davis -- where else can you go? In contrast, The Standard woos you by saying, "We're having big fun over here on the right."
And in some undeniable sense that's true. Back in the '60s, the left was the home of humor, iconoclasm, pleasure. But over the last two decades, the joy has gone out of the left -- it now feels hedged in by shibboleths and defeatism -- while the right has been having a gas, be it Lee Atwater grooving to the blues, Rush Limbaugh chortling about Feminazis or grimly gleeful Ann Coulter serving up bile as if it were chocolate mousse, even dubbing Katie Couric "the affable Eva Braun of morning television." (Get your political allegiances straight, babe. Katie's the Madame Mao of morning television. You'reEva Braun.)
These same high spirits course through The Standard, whose editor William Kristol constantly shows up on TV grinning like a catfish. His magazine features catchy covers, a reader-friendly layout, breezy headlines (a hit piece on Lula was called "Brazil's Nut") and a core of enjoyable writers, notably David Brooks, Christopher Caldwell (whose article on Islam in France is one of the best things I've read this year) and David Tell, probably the country's most compelling editorialist. Although driven by a devout ideological agenda -- it's for unfettered free trade and war on Iraq -- Kristol and executive editor Fred Barnes know how to mix things up, running a parody page (often mirthless, to be sure), funny articles by the likes of P.J. O'Rourke (who reminds us that reactionaries make better humorists than liberals) and sharp, short items designed to keep readers amused on that long march to Baghdad. Snappy and pointed, it's designed to compete in a world that has many magazines.
NOT SO THE NATION, WHICH PRESENTS ITSELF AS less a treat than an obligation. In his new book, critic Hal Foster attacks the contemporary obsession with design, claiming "design abets a near-perfect circuit of production and consumption, without much running room for anything else." The same scolding puritanism is obviously at work in The Nation, whose visual presentation is mired in the same mentality that kept documentaries slathering folk music on their soundtracks decades after Dylan went electric -- as if being clueless were a badge of integrity.
Even as the Canadian magazine Adbusters attacks corporate culture by taking marketing techniques and cleverly standing them on their heads, The Nation specializes in anti-corporate anhedonia. From its drab covers to its pages choking with print (it makes The New Yorker look like In Style), the whole thing feels deliberately unsexy. Jokes are usually limited to Calvin Trillin's doggerel, headlines are warnings, not enticements -- the current issue boasts such tantalizing gems as "Stirrings in Kabul" and "Fight-Back in Bolivia" -- and too much of the writing is muffled by low-word-rate padding and fear of offending the magazine's many constituencies. Reading the average Nation editorial is like trying to gobble a box of dry muesli.
Of course, The Nation famously has some memorable writers -- including Christopher Hitchens, John Leonard, Cockburn the Dread and occasional contributor Ellen Willis (where is she, by the way?) -- who could form the core of a lively political magazine. But they're surrounded by broken-record Jonathan Schell (yep, he's still for nuclear disarmament), freshly minted columnist Jim Hightower, whose Lone Star folksiness has worn thin as a roadkill rattler on the Waco highway, and law professor Patricia J. Williams, who writes with such transcendent dullness that she seems destined for a regular gig on the op-ed pages of the L.A. Times.
The Standard's editors grasp that most of America now talks about politics in the guise of culture -- which is why David Brooks turns out wry pieces of pop sociology about such conservative archetypes as "Patio Man" from the outer-ring suburbs. In comparison, The Nation's editors have no pop instincts at all; they run endless earnest policy pieces and book reviews with no drama or verve.