"Here's at you!"
Last week, Franklin Foer resigned his editorship of The New Republic. A deep, if not broad, mourning immediately commenced as a number of influential writers lamented what occurred to them as the passing of a great American institution. The mourners have something of a case. TNR had a hand in the careers of an outsized number of prominent narrative and opinion journalists. I have never quite been able to judge the effect of literature or journalism on policy, but I know that in my field, if you had dreams of having a career, you had to contend with TNR. My first editor at The Atlantic came from TNR, as did the editor of the entire magazine. More than any other writer, TNR alum Andrew Sullivan taught me how to think publicly. More than any other opinion writer, Hendrik Hertzberg taught me how to write with "thickness," as I once heard him say. A semester in my nonfiction class is never quite complete without this piece by Michael Kinsley. TNR's legacy is so significant that I could never have avoided being drawn into the magazine's orbit. Even if I had wanted to.
Earlier this year, Foer edited an anthology of TNR writings titled Insurrections of the Mind, commemorating the magazine's 100-year history. "This book hasn't been compiled in the name of definitiveness," Foer wrote. "It was put together in the spirit of the magazine that it anthologizes: it is an argument about what matters." There is only one essay in Insurrections that takes race as its subject. The volume includes only one black writer and only two writers of color. This is not an oversight. Nor does it mean that Foer is a bad human. On the contrary, if one were to attempt to capture the "spirit" of TNR, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives don't matter much at all.
That explains why the family rows at TNR's virtual funeral look like the "Whites Only" section of a Jim Crow-era movie-house. For most of its modern history, TNR has been an entirely white publication, which published stories confirming white people's worst instincts. During the culture wars of the '80s and '90s, TNR regarded black people with an attitude ranging from removed disregard to blatant bigotry. When people discuss TNR's racism, Andrew Sullivan's publication of excerpts from Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve (and a series of dissents) gets the most attention. But this fuels the lie that one infamous issue stands apart. In fact, the Bell Curve episode is remarkable for how well it fits with the rest of TNR's history.
The personal attitude of TNR's longtime owner, the bigoted Martin Peretz, should be mentioned here. Peretz's dossier of racist hits (mostly at the expense of blacks and Arabs) is shameful, and one does not have to look hard to find evidence of it in Peretz's writing or in the sensibility of the magazine during his ownership. In 1984, long before Sullivan was tapped to helm TNR, Charles Murray was dubbing affirmative action a form of "new racism" that targeted white people.
Two years later, Washington Post writer Richard Cohen was roundly rebuked for advocating that D.C. jewelry stores discriminate against young black men—but not by TNR. The magazine took the opportunity to convene a panel to "reflect briefly" on whether it was moral for merchants to bar black men from their stores. ("Expecting a jewelry store owner to risk his life in the service of color-blind justice is expecting too much," the magazine concluded.)
TNR made a habit of "reflecting briefly" on matters that were life and death to black people but were mostly abstract thought experiments to the magazine's editors. Before, during, and after Sullivan's tenure, the magazine seemed to believe that the kind of racism that mattered most was best evidenced in the evils of Afrocentrism, the excesses of multiculturalism, and the machinations of Jesse Jackson. It's true that TNR's staff roundly objected to excerpting The Bell Curve, but I was never quite sure why. Sullivan was simply exposing the dark premise that lay beneath much of the magazine's coverage of America's ancient dilemma.
What else to make of the article that made Stephen Glass's career possible, "Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work"? The piece asserted that black people in D.C. were distinctly lacking in the work ethic best evidenced by immigrant cab drivers. A surrealist comedy, Glass's piece revels in the alleged exploits of a mythical Asian-American avenger—Kae Bang—who wreaks havoc on black criminals who'd rather rob taxi drivers than work. The article concludes with Glass, in the cab, while its driver is robbed by a black man. It was all lies.
What else to make of TNR sending Ruth Shalit to evaluate affirmative action at The Washington Post in 1995? "She cast Post writer Kevin Merida as some kind of poster boy for affirmative action when in fact he had risen in the business for reasons far more legitimate than her own," David Carr wrote in 1999. Shalit's piece wasn't all lies. But it wasn't all true either. Shortly after the article was published, she was revealed to be a serial plagiarist.
TNR might have been helped by having more—or merely any—black people on its staff. I spent the weekend calling around and talking to people who worked in the offices over the years. From what I can tell, in that period, TNR had a total of two black people on staff as writers or editors. When I asked former employees whether they ever looked around and wondered why the newsroom was so white, the answers ranged from "not really" to "not often enough." This is understandable. Prioritizing diversity would have been asking TNR to not be TNR. One person recalled a meeting at the magazine's offices when the idea of excerpting The Bell Curve was first pitched. Charles Murray came to this meeting to present his findings. The meeting was very contentious. I asked if there were any black people in the room this meeting. The person could not recall.
I always knew I could never work at TNR. In the latter portion of the magazine's heyday, in the mid-'90s, I was at Howard University with aspirations toward writing. Howard has a way of inculcating its students with a sense of mission. If you are going into writing, you understand that you are not a free agent, but the bearer of heritage walking in the steps of Hurston, Morrison, Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison. None of these writers appear in Insurrections of the Mind. Howard University taught me to be unsurprised by this. It also taught me that writing was war, and I knew, even then, that TNR represented much of what I was at war with. I knew that TNR's much celebrated "heterodoxy" was built on a strain of erudite neo-Dixiecratism. When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.
TNR did not come to racism out of evil. Very few people ever do. Many of the white people working for the magazine were very young and very smart. This is always a dangerous combination. It must have been that much more dangerous given that their boss was a racist. (Though I am told he had many black friends and protégés.) Peretz was not always a regular presence in the office. This allowed TNR's saner staff to regard him as the crazy uncle who says racist shit at Thanksgiving. But Peretz was not a crazy uncle—he was the wealthy benefactor of an influential magazine that published ideas that damaged black people.
A writer for TNR told me how, in the mid-'90s, Peretz would come down to the office from Cambridge and lobby young writers to write what turned out to be the fictional "Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work." The writer told me that the young interns and fact-checkers would squirm in their seats. But no one took a stand. And perhaps it is too much to expect writers in their mid 20s, with editors in their late 20s, to say to Peretz, "Please stop shopping this racist bullshit." But the task was made infinitely easier by a monochrome staff that could view Peretz's racism as an abstraction, and not something that directly injured their families.
Things got better after Peretz was dislodged. The retrograde politics were gone, but the "Whites Only" sign remained. I've been told that Foer was greatly pained by Peretz's racism. I believe this. White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough. That is not true because they are white, but because they are human. I know this, too well. Still, as of last week there were still no black writers on TNR's staff, and only one on its masthead. Magazines, in general, have an awful record on diversity. But if TNR's influence and importance was as outsized as its advocates claim, then the import of its racist legacy is outsized in the same measure. One cannot sincerely partake in heritage à la carte.
In this sense it is unfortunate to see anonymous staffers accusing TNR's owner Chris Hughes of trying to create "another BuzzFeed." If that is truly Hughes's ambition, then—in at least one important way—he will have created a publication significantly more moral than anything any recent TNR editor ever has. No publication has more aggressively dealt with diversity than BuzzFeed. And not unrelated to this diversity has been a stellar range of storytelling and analysis, that could rival—if not best—the journalism in the latest iteration of TNR.
No one who works in magazines is happy to hear about writers and editors losing their jobs—even when those people have the enviable luxury of walking out on principle. And when I think of TNR's history, when I flip through Insurrections, when I examine the magazine's archives, I am not so much angry as I am sad. There really was so much fine writing in its pages. But all my life I have had to take lessons from people who, in some profound way, cannot see me. TNR billed itself as the magazine for iconoclasts. But its iconoclasm ended exactly where everyone else's does—at 110th Street. Worse, TNR encouraged incuriosity about what lay beyond the barrier. It told its readers that my world was welfare cheats, affirmative-action babies, and Jesse Jackson. And that white people—or any people—would be urged to such ignorance by their Harvard-bred intellectual leadership is deeply sad. The in-flight magazine of Air Force One should have been better. Perhaps it still can be.