Martin Peretz has been a pillar of responsible liberalism since buying The New Republic magazine in 1974. While establishing himself as a respected teacher at Harvard, he also made TNR into one of the most exciting publications of the post Vietnam era. Peretz gave graduate students like Michael Kinsley, Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan the opportunity to establish themselves as important public intellectuals and in return they helped him give a second life to The New Republic, a magazine of politics founded by Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann in 1914. Peretz defined its unique blend of muscular political journalism and literary and cultural criticism. By the 1980s, TNR was the most influential small circulation magazine in the country, and unique among liberal publications in its defense of America in a time of Soviet advances and leftish infatuation with the Sandinistas and other totalitarian adventures, and also in its steadfast defense of Israel when the “progressive” attack on the only democracy in the Middle East, which Peretz saw would become a roar on the left, was still just a murmur.
In 2007, Peretz sold TNR to the Canadian media conglomerate Canwest, but retained his position as editor in chief. Two years later, as the magazine’s circulation continued to fall, he formed a group of investors to buy it back. Throughout all the changes, Peretz established himself as the liberal the left loved to hate, primarily because of his resolute defense of Israel in an era when progressives, acting in concert with Islamic extremists, insisted that it was a reincarnation of Hilter’s Germany. Peretz’s enemies bided their time, waiting for an excuse to isolate and stigmatize him. Their moment came a few weeks ago when he wrote in his New Republic blog, “The Spine,” about how the primary target of Islamist violence is other Muslims. “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” Peretz wrote. “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense they will abuse.”
The reaction was immediate. Leftist commentators from the elite media like The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof denounced Peretz’s Islamophobia. Students at Harvard picketed him with signs calling him a “racist rat.” Intellectuals such as Kinsley, Peter Beinart, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, and others whose careers Peretz made, left him twisting slowly in the wind. It was a full fledged public burning that culminated in a recent New York \Magazine article titled “Peretz in Exile.” The piece by Benjamin Wallace-Well portrayed Peretz as an intellectual pariah who was unbalanced and ultimately undone by his betrayal of the left, and most of all by his rear guard commitment to Zionism.
Wells broke the story that as of the first of this New Year, Peretz would be stepping down and given the new largely honorary position of Editor in Chief Emeritus. Moreover, it was reported that his popular blog on TNR’s website, “The Spine,” would be dropped from the magazine’s site. This turned out not be true. I spoke to Peretz, who is teaching in Israel, by phone. He pointed out to me that he is actively writing new blog entries- as he has the past few days. Moreover, rumors that he was forced out of the editorship are not true. He was contemplating leaving that post the last few years, he said, and only pleas by Frank Foer and Leon Wieseltier kept him from doing so. Involved in other projects, Peretz feels he had no time for the responsibility and day to day work of an editor in chief, and felt that now was the right time to relieve himself of the job. Moreover, the implication that the Board of TNR wanted him out are also not true; nor were the rumors that they had a controlling share in the magazine and that he had to bend to its desires.
Readers who may not have as yet seen the Wallace-Wells article were not informed on the magazine’s website of this major change. The magazine had previously announced that its actual editor, Franklin Foer, was leaving, and that Richard Just was to replace him. But the magazine did not announce any changes in Peretz’s status, and the last actual issue still listed him as Editor-in-Chief.
The truth about TNR, as I wrote elsewhere, is that the heyday of the magazine’s large influence lies far in the past, particularly in the decade of the 1980’s and the Reagan years. Most TNR readers I have spoken with regularly comment to me about the journal’s decline in importance over the years. Their decision to go bi-weekly, while possibly necessary for financial reasons, made it less effective as an influence in the nation’s political debate. Sites like “Real Clear Politics” sometimes put up pieces from TNR, but more than often, one finds more entries from conservative journals like National Review and the Weekly Standard. Checking the magazine’s print circulation figures that by law are publicly printed once a year, we see a steep drop in subscriptions, compared to a huge rise in left-wing magazines like The Nation, and a constant high circulation in National Review, still since Buckley’s days the standard-bearer for the conservative movement.
In 2000, TNR’s paid circulation was 101,651. In 2009, it had dropped to 53,485—the lowest in many, many years. A previous sale to CanWest did not work out, and in 2009, a group of investors in which Peretz had a major share bought the magazine from the Canadian firm that pledged to make it a major force in publishing once again. In 2010, in comparison, the left-wing Nation had a circulation of 145,000, and the conservative National Review in 2008 had a high circulation of 178,780. These figures tend to change and fluctuate with the fortunes of both the Left and the Right; conservative influence produces an influx of subs to left-wing organs of opinion, and a seemingly resurgent liberalism leads to growth of conservative ones. But despite these changes, the one constant has been a regular drop in the fortunes of TNR.
Peretz disputes the above assessment. First, he argues that on domestic policy, TNR has had a great influence in gathering support for Obama Care, which he backs. Right before Obama’s inauguration, TNR ran an event at which Rahm Emanuel and Barney Frank both spoke, and they would not have done so had they not understood TNR’s importance to the new administration, he argues. Moreover, he notes that TNR’s website has a huge readership, far more than The Nation. One cannot evaluate the magazine’s readership, says Peretz, by just going to the print edition.
For many years, especially in the 80’s, the magazine functioned as the more realistic and hard-edged liberal alternative to the stale liberalism of the wartime Popular Front, and later, the new anti-anti-Communism of the bulk of the liberal movement during the Vietnam War and after. In the conflict at home over Reagan policy in Central America, Peretz editorially supported the Nicaraguan contras, a group for whom most liberals had nothing but hate and disdain. He did this against the wishes of his own chosen editors, who openly published a letter opposed to the magazine’s editorial policy. And Peretz continued to run articles fiercely critical of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, from writers like Robert Leiken and myself. Indeed, Peretz and TNR sent me twice to Nicaragua to report on events during the Sandinistas’ years of power. From today’s perspective, Peretz says in retrospect, the fight of those years was more about a conflict between Nicaraguan elites for power, rather than one of the forces of freedom fighting against those of tyranny.
But on domestic issues, the magazine continued to hold firm to the old paradigm of Progressivism, in which it got started when Herbert Croly founded the journal in the days of TR and Woodrow Wilson. Its writers and editors followed the usual Progressive era views, whose adherents thought that the “administrative, bureaucratic state,” as writer Walter Russell Mead defines it, can still be handled via regulatory measures. Hence their defense of and support of Obama Care, which outgoing editor Franklin Foer mentioned as one of the magazine’s most important efforts. As Mead writes so powerfully, “if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and institutions of twentieth century progressivism.” Its promises have dissolved, and its “premises no longer hold.” This goes against the grains of many of our best intellectuals, Mead claims, an observation justified by reading many of TNR’s own writers and editors when they write about domestic issues.
Despite this major problem that has always plagued TNR, for years it was a hard edged critic of the official American liberalism, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. It stood not only for anti-Communism, but for a strong national defense, against appeasement of tyrannies at a time when many of our Presidents sought to placate or appease them in the hopes that it would lead to peace. Most important of all, TNR was the strongest media voice in the nation that stood foursquare in defense of Israel. And all of this was due to the influence and guidance of Marty Peretz, who always understood – and does so especially at present – that the strength of Israel was paramount to the ability of the West to defeat our latest enemy, the forces of radical Islam. Peretz realizes that Israel’s fight is not that nation’s alone; rather, it is the fight of the Western powers as a whole.
And it is this stance, we must understand, that has led to Peretz having so many enemies. His willingness to stand up and buck official liberalism in its hostility to Israel and the view of most realists and liberals that peace does not exist in the Middle East because of Israel’s so-called self-defeating policies, has meant that those who believe in this fairy tale have total hatred for Peretz, and instead of wishing him well in his endeavors, are out to destroy him.
The New York Magazine article was part of this hit-job, in which the author allowed Peretz’s ex-wife Anne, from whom Peretz obtained a bitter divorce a few years ago, to largely frame the personal narrative of the article, in which readers learn of Peretz’s “anger” that supposedly was “only partly diminished by years of therapy.” His defense of Israel is questioned by having Wallce-Wells treat the Palestinians as making “halting steps to modernization,” while Israel he claims has “pivoted to the right.” Clearly, Wallace-Wells is a sympathizer with Peter Beinart’s school of realism in which Beinart and others argue that Israel has betrayed them and liberalism, and might no longer be worthy of the support they once gave the Jewish State unless it allows them to force concessions upon Israel that a majority of its citizens oppose.
I happened to be leaving a forum with Peretz at which he spoke and as we exited the building, Peter Beinart was coming in. The two passed each other by with hardly a word of response from Beinart, although Peretz said hello. It was pretty clear that Beinart now felt personally hostile to Peretz. And this is from a man whom Peretz made editor of the magazine and who stood at its helm for many years. Yet Wallace-Wells only lets his readers know that if people dislike Peretz and his politics, it is all Peretz’s fault—just like the absence of real peace in the Middle East is all Israel’s fault.
We learn that Peretz “is grumpy about modernity,” that James Fallows – “the most reasonable man in American letters,” Wallace-Wells writes – concludes that “Peretz is a bigot.” How could he not be, since Fallows said it, and he is, of course, reasonable. Wallace-Wells does not tell his readers that Fallows is well known for long holding an anti-Israel position. This was made clear a few years ago by Gabriel Schoenfeld.
“Taking up the ideas of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt about the inordinate influence of the ‘Israel Lobby’ on American foreign policy,” writes Schoenfeld, “James Fallows of the Atlantic writes that ‘[t]o the (ongoing) extent that AIPAC–the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself ‘America’s Pro-Israel Lobby’–is trying to legitimize a military showdown between the United States and Iran, it is advancing its own causes at the expense of larger American interests.” The people behind this cause, he continue ‘are not from one ethnic group in the conventional sense but are mainly of one religion (Jewish).’ “To observe this, writes Fallows, and to warn against it, ‘including the disastrous consequences of attacking Iran’ that it is seeking to bring about, is not to be anti-Semitic. And noting the ‘power and potential’ of groups like AIPAC ‘to distort policy’ simply means ‘recognizing that James Madison’s warnings about the invidious effects of ‘faction’ apply beyond the 18th century.’”
As Schoenfeld argues, Fallows himself is part of the faction “of liberals who in almost all instances oppose the use of American power abroad. This faction, too, might be thought of as invidiously ‘advancing its own causes at the expense of larger American interests.’”
Take Wells’ second paragraph, in which he blames Israel for refusing “to stop construction of new settlements; its growing hostility toward the international community and the Obama administration; its storming of an aid flotilla off the Gaza Strip in May- these postures and incidents have led some of the liberal intellectuals who have historically defended Israel to begin to edge away.” He writes as if it was not Obama who reversed a fifty year policy of support for Israel, bowed and scraped before Israel’s enemies, snubbed Netanyahu and reneged on Bush’s pledge about allowing settlements. Obama, as most observers have noted, made it impossible for the Palestinian Authority to do any less than Obama had, and hence they demanded Israel make concessions before any negotiations. And then he describes the terrorist attempt to break a legal blockade of Gaza as an “aid Flotilla,” rather than a blatant attempt of Hamas supporters to push Israel to the wall. Wallace-Wells, clearly, is in the Beinart-Walt-Mearsheimer camp- and is in no position to criticize Peretz for standing firm against them.
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