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Lord of the gadflies; the Nation is pushy and obnoxious. That's why it's so great.

Lord of the Gadflies

In some ways, The Nation, 1865-1990 (*) is a typical venerable old magazine collection. Its big literary guns of days gone by--Henry James, Mark Twain, D. H. Lawrence, H. L. Mencken--could all be expected to appear in a best of The Atlantic. In fact, they do (see Louise Desaulniers's 119 Years of The Atlantic). The two omnibuses also share a number of America's greatest poets.

So what exactly distinguishes the fiery, self-styled troublemaking weekly from America's oldest and most respectable Boston Brahmin journal? It's not the subject matter; both are dedicated in roughly equal parts to reporting, opinion, and cultural criticism. (The Nation publishes no fiction.) Nor are the two magazines necessarily distinguishable by their writers. Both are dedicated to high-minded, literate, liberalism. The Atlantic tends to lean rightward from liberal solutions while The Nation leans left. Nevertheless, the guts of Robert Reich's recent Atlantic cover story on what's wrong with America could easily have run in The Nation, had Reich wished to forgo a few thousand dollars.

The primary differences, in truth, are the magazines' individual voices. The Atlantic is a dinner party. The Nation is a political rally. Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation's editor from 1918 to 1934, once remarked that he had "never been able to work happily with men or women who are incapable of hot indignation at something or other. To minimize every evil is to my mind to condone it and in time destroy one's influence." This, more than anything, has been The Nation's credo for the past century. It may also be the reason that the magazine, along with the segment of the electorate it represents, have been so successfully marginalized during the past two decades.

Part of the problem, of course, is ideological. Americans are distinctly uncomfortable with class-based or collectivist-minded rhetoric. This appears to be the case in the 1990s no less than it was in the 1900s. The Nation tries to speak for those who get the rawest deal from society: its poor, its powerless, and its oppressed. These are exactly the folks with whom most law-abiding citizens would like to have nothing whatsoever to do. The political language of solidarity, however much it may be employed on behalf of geopolitical causes comfortably distant from our shores, loses much of its appeal when pitted against individual self-reliance at home.

But the attitude demonstrated by Villard may also provide an important clue to the puzzle. Ronald Reagan gave the impression that he stood with those fire-breathing radicals of the New Right, but deep down, he was quite tolerant of other people's ideas--to the degree that he understood them. He and his wife regularly socialized with unapologetic homosexuals. He even put them up in the White House guest suite. If Oswald Villard had thought that homosexuality was the path to hellfire and damnation, as Reagan seemed to profess, chances are he wouldn't have thrown his friends on the street. He probably would have kept them up arguing all night, overflowing with righteous indignation--but he sure as hell wouldn't have given them his guest bedroom. This may be the reason why Americans seem to take a liking to lovable old reactionaries, such as Reagan and Pat Buchanan, but seem to be frightened by the left-wing equivalents--who mean to convince you that they are right whether or not it kills both of you.

Leftward ho

The Nation is a wonderful collection of some of the most impassioned and powerfully argued American journalism ever to grace a cheaply printed page. One can simply open this collection at random and find something someone wrote half a century ago that is even truer today. Here is Albert Einstein on the 1932 disarmament conference: "As it is, the hardly bought achievements of the machine age in the hand of our generation are as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a three-year-old child." Twenty years later, Nelson Algren reflected on an American Christmas. "Nowhere," he wrote, "has any people set itself a moral code so rigid while applying it so flexibly. Never has any people been so outwardly confident that God is on its side while inwardly terrified lest He be not." The collection also gets the all-time most unlikely contributor award for its reproduction of a June 28, 1925, letter to the editor from a resident of Uffing, Germany, by the name of Adolf Hitler.

More difficult than finding delightful polemics in this anthology is discerning what, if any, influence these pieces have had over the years. Certainly Ralph Nader caused a big stir back in a 1959 issue with his first mention that some American cars might be less safe than advertisers were promising. Hunter Thompson's first piece, on the Hell's Angels, published in 1965, can also be considered one of the more influential articles in the history of modern journalism, for better or worse.

But for most of its adult life, The Nation has been forced to sit on the sidelines of American politics. During the height of the Stalinist period, the magazine published more than its share of simple-minded apologies. Ever since, it has suffered in Washington from the impression that its loyalties are somehow less than assured. (The magazine's recent sponsorship of Alexander Cockburn, the world's wittiest and most infuriatingly rigid Marxist journalist, has done nothing to dispel this impression.) Moreover, due to the recent rightward swing of much of the opinion press--most notably at the always au courant offices of its primary competitor, The New Republic--The Nation has earned the reputation in Washington as something of a museum piece, written by bearded Jewish radicals for sixties holdovers and public librarians.

In reading this collection, one gets the impression that there is something more fundamental at work in ensuring The Nation's perennial unchicness and lack of political cachet among movers and shakers in politics and finance: Philosophically, The Nation is anti-power. The magazine has no Albert Gore to groom for the presidency, no neoliberal manifesto to put in place once it gets there. Rather, The Nation's political community sees itself picketing outside the room where the decisions are being made, sticking up for the rights of the "permanent minority," whose interests always manage to get screwed when those fellas (and occasionally women) inside divvy up the goodies.

"A magazine shouldn't come to power," explains The Nation's current editor, the bearded Jewish radical Victor Navasky, in the book's afterward. "It can nourish, it can prod, it can hector, it can educate, it can cajole, wheedle, expose, embarrass, inform, illuminate, and inspire." All of this is a recipe for a lousy dinner party. It may even be, at some deeper level, vaguely un-American. But as we slog though the political and cultural dregs of the money/power-worshipping excesses of the Reagan era, it is surely necessary, now more than ever.

(*) The Nation: 1865-1990: Selections from the Independent Magazine of Politics and Culture. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, ed. Thunder's Mouth Press, $21.95.

Eric Alterman, a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, is writing a book on political pundits.
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Title Annotation:periodical
Author:Alterman, Eric
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
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