Illustration by Peter Bennett
An audience is like a broad. If you're indifferent, Endsville.
AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER THE NATION HAS 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're Eva 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.
In his embarrassing new book about Stalinism (he discovered it was murderous), Martin Amis shrewdly observes that the fall of communism liberated his pal Hitchens' writing by ending its ritual genuflections and obligatory defensiveness. The Nation itself enjoyed no such liberation. And so, rather than rethink the possibilities of a "progressive left" (to use one of its prize terms), the editors have remained content to belabor what its readers already know (e.g., Bush is a bum) while avoiding tough-minded journalistic coverage of the left. It settles for easy analysis, like suggesting that Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney lost her renomination bid simply because of the Jewish money sent to defeat her. Is this really true? The left would be better served if the magazine investigated such claims rather than merely assuming their truth, although this would involve actually going to Georgia.
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While The Weekly Standard always lets you know what the establishment right is arguing about -- debates that affect government policy -- The Nation keeps getting lost in internecine bickering and naive boosterism. It covered Jesse Jackson's backside for years and (Hitchens aside) wasted page after page defending Bill Clinton as if he were a put-upon victim. Too often today, the magazine comes across like a house organ of the Democratic Party or a flaccid version of Media Whores Online. To judge from the gushing work of regular correspondent John Nichols (who writes like a gaga press agent), failed Clinton Cabinet member Robert Reich is a bold tribune of The People and Dennis Kucinich has a prayer of becoming president in 2004.
One sign of The Nation's disarray is a tiny illustration in the September 2 issue. In an image seemingly worthy of Der Stürmer, it depicts a building that looks like the World Trade Center being smashed by a crane whose frame is the American flag and whose wrecking ball is imprinted with the Star of David. Is the magazine suggesting that the U.S. and the Jews were responsible for 9/11? Of course not, said editor in chief Katrina vanden Heuvel, when I called to find out. The building isn't supposed to be a WTC tower but a metaphor (it's faintly imprinted with a map of the Middle East), and the Star of David is supposed to represent Israel, not Judaism. "We regret any misinterpretation," she said, rather than openly apologizing or having the courage to endorse a drawing that many readers will find offensive.
This illustration follows with unnerving proximity the uncharacteristic decision to publish Forbidden Truth, the discredited French conspiracy book that suggested U.S. threats against the Taliban on behalf of oil interests provoked 9/11. Although the diluted American version is a best-seller for The Nation, publisher Victor Navasky is reluctant to vouch for the book's truth, telling The Village Voice's Cynthia Cotts, "I'm not a conspiracy theorist . . . but I think it's important to raise questions."
Well, sure. But such unwillingness to stand behind its own drawings and books suggests that those running the magazine have little idea of how it is seen in the larger world. This is hardly surprising, for The Nation all too often seems hermetically sealed in some bubble wrap or time warp. The very symbol of this may be a writer I've long admired, Katha Pollitt, whose two most memorable pieces in years -- a fatuous post-9/11 column saying that she sees the American flag as a symbol of tyranny, and her wonderful recent New Yorker article about learning to drive -- suggest that here is a person who desperately needs to get out more. One might say the same of the senior editors, who are evidently content to keep appealing to the same small group of like-minded people who can't believe the vast majority of America is so benighted. They need to talk to some folks who own guns.