On the Cheapness of Life

As the Martin Peretz saga continues, a reflection on how bigotry can and does affect quality journalism

Andrew and Jack Shafer's reminiscence over the legacy of Martin Peretz, and quasi-defense of his bigotry, motivated me to do some of my own reflecting. To the present business, there is no actual defense of the statement "Muslim life is cheap, particularly to Muslims." African-Americans are overrepresented among both the perpetrators and victims of homicide. And yet had a writer for The New Republic, in the midst of asserting that blacks should not enjoy constitutional protection, argued that "Black life is cheap, particularly to blacks," and then doubled down on the assertion, I don't think we'd be having this debate--emphasis on "think."

On close reading, neither Andrew nor Jack are offering a defense so much as they are changing the subject. The question at hand is something along the lines of, "Does Martin Peretz exhibit a pattern of bigotry?" Andrew and Jack, instead, are addressing a question along the lines of "Is Martin Peretz a great journalist?" With respect for both Andrew and Jack, this is obfuscation. Ty Cobb was both a great baseball player and a bigot. The notion that we must choose between the two, that one mitigates the other, that good people don't do deplorable things, that deplorable people don't do great things, emanates from our own inability to understand that bigotry is not strictly the preserve of orcs.

That said, I would not have Peretz' legacy forgotten. But I would have it considered in a fullness befitting its breadth and splendor. Andrew asserts the following:

...Marty owned a magazine that pioneered the military and marriage debate that transformed a civil rights movement; or race, where his insistence on airing the really tough issues helped shift the debate, in my view, for the better. TNR's brave pioneering of welfare reform made a huge difference.

Peretz' alleged courage on race is a peculiar sort. Andrew may well be thinking of Peretz' assent to his stewardship of the infamous "Bell Curve" cover questioning the innate intellectual aptitude of African-Americans. He could also be thinking of Ruth Shalit's 1995 story which asserted that affirmative action was degrading the quality of The Washington Post. The story was filled with errors which Shalit dismissed as "a handful of unfortunate but minor inaccuracies" and "one major error." Repeated charges of plagiarism ultimately doomed Shalit at the The New Republic.

Or Andrew could be thinking of  the magazine's 1996 cover story "Taxis, and the Meaning Of Work." Here is the central thesis of the piece: 

In 1978, at the American Enterprise Institute, Jesse Jackson explained that dirty work was better than no work, since it paid in long-term benefits. But his advice has not been universally accepted, not least in his own community. 

Proceeding from there, the article goes on to contrast the flagging work ethic of African-Americans, with hard-working immigrant taxi-drivers--many of them Muslim. The article ends with a flurry of spectacular reportage, in which the journalist witnesses the robbery of one of his cab-driving subjects by a black man, and then tracks down a folk-hero of the local cab-driving community--Kae Bang "a Korean cabdriver-turned-vigilante who is to the D.C. cab community what Stagger Lee was to the Mississippi Delta." Bang, an expert martial artist, attracted his flock after he beat down "three brick wielding black teenagers" who'd assaulted him.* 

The story was a whirlwind of spectacular "gets" which could only have been executed by a crack reporter on his best day, or an outright liar willing to invoke every odious stereotype from Steppin Fetchit to Bruce Lee to Willie Horton. Martin Peretz put "Taxis and the Meaning Of Work" on the cover of The New Republic, a first for the article's author, Stephen Glass. Glass's name comes up whenever the latest instance of gumshoe malfeasance arises. What should not be forgotten is that one of the greatest fraud sprees in modern journalistic history, was aided and abetted by The New Republic's belief in shiftless, dangerous blacks and the immigrant avenger Kae Bang.

Washington Post editor Len Downie, Washington Post Company CEO Donald Graham stung by Shalit's piece, once suggested "Looking for a qualified black since 1914" as a motto for The New Republic. I don't know the magazine's employment record in regards to people who are not white, but I do know that the magazine field--political and otherwise--is probably the whitest field in all of journalism. And not simply American white--but privileged, coastal, Ivy League white. (I include my present employer in that assessment.)

Peretz is oft-saluted for bringing different perspectives under the same roof. In all my time of reading The New Republic, it's been clear that very few of those perspectives originate in communities of color. My sense of the diversity question has never been one of simple egalitarianism, but of the kind of humility that makes you question your courage on race, when your newsroom looks a graduate seminar at Harvard. Or worse. By my lights, every newsroom needs someone willing to ask, "Who the fuck is Kae Bang?"

And so it is, 15 years later, with a magazine whose effective co-editor defends the statement "Muslim life is cheap," and within weeks skips off to be honored at Harvard. This is all about firepower. The fact is that Peretz has the social and economic guns to be a bigot, to then be defended by even those who acknowledge his bigotry, and finally be honored at the highest levels of American academia.

But that aside, I would be very interested in precisely how much "Muslim life" is presently ensconced in The New Republic's venerable offices. It's very easy to raise tough questions, when you don't have to endure even tougher answers.
* "Taxi Cabs and The Meaning of Work" no longer appears on The New Republic's website. I tracked the piece down myself, and will gladly e-mail it to anyone who doubts its existence, or the parts quoted. Just send me a note.

UPDATE: I'd also be remiss to not link to Fallows' thoroughly convincing posts on all of this. The latest of which includes this incredible piece written by Peretz during the Iraq War:

I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan.

I'm really amazed by the inability to call this what it is. If Peretz is not a bigot, then the word has no meaning. My sense is that the latter is actually true for people whom we believe to be respectable.  James also links to a Peretz apology. I'm not convinced, but I'm not the one who needs to be. Maybe I will be after I think about it more.