The "New" Nation
Sometime on Friday, veteran liberal activists Jerry and Cathy Bruno will ease the NationMobile off the Mass Pike and head into Boston for a week of schmoozing with magazine distributors, bookstore owners, and the just plain curious. Their goal: increased visibility for the Nation, the 130-year-old weekly journal of the left.As metaphors go, the Brunos' rented Pontiac minivan, on the road from Billings, Idaho, to Albany, New York, since September 6, works pretty well. This, after all, is a time when the Nation itself is on the move, trying to build circulation and influence in the shadow of the ascendant right.For one thing, the Nation's got a new editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who brings a touch of glamour to a position held for years by the distinctly nonglamorous Victor Navasky, now the publisher and editorial director. Vanden Heuvel, a thirtysomething Russian expert with family roots in Hollywood and the New York social and political scenes, was the subject of a mostly flattering profile in New York magazine in August, and was among Esquire's "Women We Love" this fall.For another, the Nation is reaching out through a redesign and expansion to be unveiled on next week, through a six-month-old nationally syndicated radio program, and through a home page on the Internet's World-Wide Web (http://www.TheNation.com), scheduled to go live sometime in January, that will include such innovations as the entire radio show in RealAudio format.All this comes at a time when a new ownership group, headed by Navasky and with funding from sources such as Paul Newman and vanden Heuvel herself, has imbued the money-losing magazine's dark, dingy Greenwich Village offices with a sense of independence and possibility."I think it's a moment of great opportunity for the magazine," says vanden Heuvel. "We have a monopoly on weekly progressive journalism in this country, and we need to take advantage of that."Glory daysBut that monopoly was created, some critics say, by the intellectual and spiritual death of the American left, obsessed as it is with past glories such as the civil-rights movement and old battles dating back to the McCarthy era, which continue to be played out in the Nation's pages.Even as sympathetic a critic as Richard Parker, a former publisher of Mother Jones and Ramparts who sits on the Nation's editorial board, argues that the magazine needs to stop living in the past."It's become reactive, and its ability to sketch out a vision of American society that's both plausible and attractive is what's missing," says Parker, a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center, part of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.Vanden Heuvel accepts such criticism, at least to an extent, and says readers can expect to see an attempt to answer it in the coming months. For instance, she's planning a feature to be called "Rethinking" that will serve as a forum for hashing out new progressive ideas, and which she expects "will be a place that may anger some in the traditional Nation community."At the same time, though, she says it's unrealistic to expect the Nationto solve the left's crisis all by itself. She and Navasky both see considerable intellectual ferment on the left, from which a new vision might be born. The pages of the Nation, they say, will reflect that ferment."It's nice to think that there's some great thinker out there, a 1990s Tom Paine or Karl Marx or whatever, who can put it in one place," says Navasky. "And if one does emerge," he adds puckishly, "I think the Nation will be the one to publish her."The strength of the magazine is its columnists, and the marquee attraction is Alexander Cockburn, an irascible iconoclast. On the one hand, he dabbles in the weird, seeking common ground between the left and right-wing militias, for instance. On the other hand, he's been an eloquent opponent of intervention in Bosnia, denouncing the "laptop bombardiers" (including his fellow Brit and Nation colleague Christopher Hitchens) who pushed for the US to fight on the side of the Muslims.Cockburn is also a masterful media critic who loves slaughtering sacred cows. He marked the retirement of Robert MacNeil from The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour with a brutal analysis of MacNeil's aversion to controversy and of the show's unwillingness to offend its corporate sponsors.The battle between Cockburn and Hitchens over Bosnia and other issues led vanden Heuvel and Navasky last summer to send a memo to the columnists asking them to tone down "intramural feuding or sniping," a move that backfired when the text of the memo found its way into the Village Voice. Vanden Heuvel says simply that she's heard from readers who find the squabbling "distasteful," but adds that no one has moved to muzzle Cockburn or Hitchens.Hitchens says he ignored the memo; Cockburn reacted with contempt, writing in his column that he considered it part of the "aversion to honest coverage of the Clinton crowd...so rife in liberal circles these days.""I guess where I differ from Navasky and vanden Heuvel," Cockburn told the Boston Phoenix, "is that they are very much into the lesser-of-two-evils approach at the moment: endless tub-thumping about Newt, the Contract, the right, the militias. In my view bold new thinking has to start from the fact, obvious to most, that 'liberalism' is shagged out and utterly corrupted."The third bigfoot columnist is Katha Pollitt, who's emerged as a graceful voice who nevertheless occasionally falls into ideology-driven cant, such as her suggestion that Hillary Clinton was hypocritical to speak out against genital mutilation in Third World countries because her husband favors cuts in welfare. Despite such silliness, it's hard not to like anyone whom Camille Paglia terms "that bitch Katha Pollitt, the biggest Stalinist of them all," an endorsement that Pollitt proudly quoted in her own column.Recent additions include "Right Thinking," an entertaining column on the wingnuts by Eric Alterman, and "Media Matters," written by outside contributors. The latter debuted with some particularly annoying essays by Barbara Ehrenreich. In one, on the media-driven Colin-Powell-for-president boomlet, she wrote that "Powell, no less than O.J., owes his mega-fame to multiple murders." I swear I'm not taking this out of context.Beyond its columnists, the Nation relies on feature articles that range from Neil Postman's sharp critique of the technological classroom to Edward Said's rant that the Israeli-PLO settlement was little more than the fulfillment of the Israeli right's imperialistic ambitions. (Too bad Yigal Amir didn't read this before heading off to the peace rally where Yitzhak Rabin was appearing.)Although you'll occasionally find a hard-hitting investigative report, vanden Heuvel concedes that's an area that needs beefing up, and says the magazine will soon unveil a new investigative unit.Outside the debate With a circulation of about 90,000, the Nation is nearly as big as the New Republic; yet the Nation clearly lacks the clout of its centrist competitor. Vanden Heuvel and others attribute that to the magazine's refusal to make the kind of accommodation to power that would, say, lead Bill Clinton to quote from it at Cabinet meetings.Besides, being considered a nonplayer in the national debate isn't necessarily a bad thing when that debate involves, as Hitchens sees it, a narrow contest between the Democratic right and the Republican right. The Nation's role, he insists, is to stand apart from that."'What are we going to do about all these niggers who are breeding?' That's a question you can read 50 times a day in the national press," says Hitchens in his clipped British accent. "It's unbelievable. And you need someone to stand up and say, 'This emperor is fucking unclad.'"