The New Yorker Magazine

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu May 15 17:23:32 MDT 2003

Nation Magazine
essay | Posted May 15, 2003

The New Yorker Goes to War
How a Nice Magazine Talked Itself Into Backing Bush's Jihad
by Daniel Lazare

In its first issue after the fall of the World Trade Center, The New Yorker
published a handful of short reaction pieces by John Updike, Jonathan
Franzen and others about the horror that had just occurred in lower
Manhattan. Only one really stood out, however: an angry and eloquent blast
by Susan Sontag at "a robotic president who assures us that America still
stands tall" and robotic politicians who "apparently feel free to say
nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush." In the
wake of the Twin Towers attack, Sontag wrote, Americans had much to ponder
"about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence,
about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the
Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military
defense." Yet rather than thinking, politicians and the press were engaging
in "confidence-building and grief management." Where Americans had once
been contemptuous of Soviet yes-men, their own representatives were proving
no less acquiescent in the crunch as the Bush Administration geared up for
war. "The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric
spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days," she
declared, "seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy."

The essay, less than 500 words long, unleashed a torrent of right-wing
abuse, most of it zeroing in on Sontag's parenthetical point that, by
themselves, courage and cowardice are morally neutral--their moral quality
depends entirely on the ends they serve. Hence: "Whatever may be said of
the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." Andrew
Sullivan called it "deranged" and Charles Krauthammer said Sontag was
morally obtuse, while Rod Dreher, a columnist for the New York Post,
expressed a desire "to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn
Bridge, up to that despicable woman's apartment, grab her by the neck, drag
her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters."

"I didn't agree at all with Susan Sontag's now famous four paragraphs,"
editor David Remnick subsequently confessed in an interview with a Japanese
newspaper, and the magazine's coverage showed it. Never again would The New
Yorker publish anything as remotely outspoken about Bush's War on
Terrorism, by Sontag or by anyone else. While criticism of the White House
did not exactly vanish, it unquestionably wound down, growing more tempered
and balanced as the editors struggled to find something nice to say about
Administration policies.

House liberal Hendrik Hertzberg continued to turn out editorials that were
skeptical and irreverent (although, this being The New Yorker, never very
angry). But he found himself regularly checked by Remnick, who weighed in
at crucial moments with "Talk of the Town" comments that, after the usual
hemming and hawing, inevitably concluded that the White House was on the
right track after all. Rather than challenge the hawks, the magazine either
confined itself to criticisms of the way the war was being conducted or, in
a few instances, sought to one-up the boys on the Defense Policy Board by
running terrorist scare stories more lurid than even they could dream up.
In the end, the magazine wound up endorsing just the sort of war policies
it had warned against back in September 2001. Rather than opposing robotic
yes-man politics, it ended up practicing them.

The New Yorker has not been the only publication to fall into line behind
the Bush Administration's war drive, but for a number of reasons its
performance seems especially disappointing. One reason has to do with the
magazine's track record. One doesn't have to be a William Shawn devotee to
agree that the magazine has published some astonishing journalism over the
years--Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," James Baldwin's "Letter
from a Region of My Mind," Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Jonathan
Schell's pieces on Vietnam and Pauline Kael's wonderful demolition job on
Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, to name just a few. During the Vietnam War, it was
one of the few mainstream publications to try to unmask the sordid reality
behind the brass's regular 5 o'clock press briefings. And if it published
too many long and hyperfactual stories in the 1980s about wheat or geology,
at least it preferred being trivial and obscure to the glories of being a
team player in Washington, which is a moral stance of a sort.

Though its style may have been genteel, The New Yorker succeeded in
challenging middle-class sensibilities more often than any number of
scruffier publications. Another reason to mourn the magazine's lack of
resistance is that it represents an opportunity lost. Just as the magazine
helped middle-class opinion to coalesce against US intervention in Vietnam,
it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at
stake in the Middle East. Rather than unveil the reality behind a spurious
War on Terrorism, though, The New Yorker helped obscure it by painting
Bush's crusade as a natural and inevitable response to the World Trade
Center/Pentagon attack and, as a consequence, useless to oppose. Instead of
encouraging opposition, it helped defuse it. From shocking the bourgeoisie,
it has moved on to placating it at a time when it has rarely been more
dangerous and bellicose.


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