Mayor Pete Buttigieg looks out to the audience during a campaign stop in Dover, N.H., July 12, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)If it’s going to do journalism, the magazine needs to stand up for itself.
The pitchforks are out again — are they ever really put away, anymore? — and this time the mob is calling for the head of the editor of The New Republic, who turns out to be Chris Lehmann, a name that requires a little looking around to find, editor of The New Republic being a rather more low-profile position today than it was in the days of Andrew Sullivan or Michael Kelly.
The offense is the magazine’s decision to publish “My Mayor Pete Problem,” a sophomoric essay by Dale Peck, a gay writer who finds the gay mayor of godforsaken South Bend, Ind., not quite gay enough. Pete, sniffs Peck, never had a proper gay adolescence, publicly acknowledged his homosexuality only a few years ago, and — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — got married without acquiring a very long or varied curriculum venereae. How could such a man ever hope to shoulder the burdens of leading the free world? The author suggested that “Mary Pete” be adopted as the homosexual answer to “Uncle Tom.”
Not exactly Montesquieu — or even Andrew Sullivan.
The usual rabble threw the usual tantrum, and The New Republic — the diminished, attenuated thing that still calls itself “The New Republic” — bent south, erasing the column from its website and replacing it with a terse editor’s note acknowledging that the article had been excised “in response to criticism of the piece’s inappropriate and invasive content.” And there was almost an apology: “We regret its publication.” The editor tried to magic away the controversy by claiming that the essay had been intended as satire, an obvious lie.
Win McCormack, the feckless Oregon gazillionaire Democratic sugar daddy who bought The New Republic from the feckless California gazillionaire Democratic sugar daddy who ruined it — these billionaire dilettantes presenting themselves today as the saviors of journalism will be the death of it — made the usual craven noises. “Inappropriate and offensive,” he called it. “A mistake.” But an apology will not do where a blood sacrifice is demanded. Sponsors pulled out of a climate-policy conference the magazine had helped to organize. Writer Emily Atkin lamented the cancelation of “my presidential climate forum” and declared herself “so devastated.” Critics raged that “every single editor who signed off on it should be fired,” and that the magazine could only begin to redeem itself by publicly blackballing Peck for his naughtyspeak.
The New Republic is itself an enthusiastic leader of these mob scenes — its contributors helped to lead the campaign to have me fired from The Atlantic — but we ought not allow pettiness to draw us into stupidity. Not that I believe that The New Republic in its current form can be rescued from its stupidity — it has the stink of intellectual death on it — but we might here find an instructive example.
Should The New Republic fire its editor(s) and blacklist Peck and other contributors who irritate the gentle sensibilities of the Twelve Angry Caitlyns who through Twitter leave such an outsized footprint in our political discourse? That depends on what you think The New Republic is for.
The New Republic, like every other magazine of its kind (including this one), must decide what it is or suffer from a crippling crisis of identity. Is it a magazine (in print and digital form) and hence dedicated to publishing writing that is useful, interesting, and delightful? Or is it a political faction — a committee of the Democratic party that produces a very, very expensive newsletter? If its main business is political activism, then, of course, it cannot afford to be offensive: Politics means building coalitions, servicing constituencies, flattering and courting interest groups, etc. But if its main business is to be journalism, then it will — inevitably — publish material that offends and irritates, that is controversial, that defies convention, that shocks polite society, etc. It will also publish material that runs counter to the political preferences of its readers: Rolling Stone was a pretty left-wing magazine that published such conservative writers as Tom Wolfe and P. J. O’Rourke; Playboy was no hothouse of conservatism when William F. Buckley Jr. contributed to it; the readers of the New York Times were not exactly universal in their admiration for William Safire. And if the pissant scolds and hall monitors of the soul had been in power a generation ago, we’d have been deprived of everything from the novels of Norman Mailer to the journalism of Hunter S. Thompson to the songs of Leonard Cohen. I prefer a world with the songs of Leonard Cohen in it even if it outrages every witless “I can’t even!” po-faced Caitlyn on the masthead of The New Republic, which really ought to try to acquire the nerve to stand up for itself if it is going to keep the name.
And you don’t get Leonard Cohen without getting a lot of Dale Peck, too. It’s a package deal.