The Nation is no longer worth reading. The venerable Manhattan weekly lost its voice of dissent last week as Christopher Hitchens decided that his column would not be a part of The Nation any longer. For those who still enjoy getting their commentary on The Nation’s trademark butcher paper, the departure of Hitchens leaves the magazine lacking its most jarring figure.
While Hitchens refusal to accept the politically fashionable redeemed him from the failures that mark his colleagues, it is Hitchens’ humor that makes him great. The devilish wit of Hitchens, a man willing to call the Catholic Church “a protection racket for child rapists” (thanks to Esquire Woomer for that choice quote) stood out on The Nation’s dour pages.
The Nation’s most amusing cover in recent memory was the Alfred E. Neuman portrait of presidential candidate Bush wearing a button on his lapel with the imperative “Worry.” Gallows humor, the last outlet of the defeated, is the extent of what The Nation can muster for levity.
This dryness and insufferable gravitas is not limited to one particular leftist journal. The assortment of embittered pamphleteers, budding polemicists and harried academics that make up the liberal rag industry display a chronic inability to exercise their humor nodules. Why the solemnity? Maybe it’s a siege mentality or perhaps something more fundamental.
On the Right a different story is playing out: Reason, the National Review and The Weekly Standard are three ideologically-driven papers that have more compelling writers than their stale liberal counterparts. Libertarians are always a fun-loving and unpredictable lot, but to see the prudish National Review featuring the boisterous Jonah Goldberg and The Weekly Standard, ventriloquist for American imperialists, running uproarious cultural commentaries is shocking. A vibrant debate taking place among conservative circles, a debate between neoconservatives, isolationists and theocrats. This is the grist mill for a controversy, contempt and ultimately a sense of fallibility that results in humor.
The liberal establishment, however, does not enjoy a similar situation. Discussing this question with a friend, I was told that liberals aren’t intentionally inflammatory. That’s probably right, but a less flattering way of saying the same thing is that liberals fear to offend. Personally, I think this situation is the result of how we define the relationship between the individual and the group and how we too often fail to make a distinction between the two. The blame lies with the bastard trinity of postmodern liberalism: Identity politics, multiculturalism and political correctness. The refusal to challenge individuals for fear of offending the group. The refusal to characterize individuals for fear of offending the group. The refusal to speak truths for fear of alienating the group. These rules are accepted by too many.
For a local example, look at the MetroTimes’ weekly columnist Jack Lessenberry. In his column “United States of Imperialism” Lessenberry attacks President Bush with monikers from “shrub” to “George the lesser” to the Dowdism “W” – no criticism is taboo. Sadaam Hussein, however, is simply “Sadaam.” Hussein seems like a good target for jokes to me. There has to be something amusing that rhymes with Baathist or maybe there’s a joke in Hussein’s rejection from the Baghdad Military Academy in 1957.
All of this is not meant to say that if I was forced to choose between a weekend at a Southern Baptist convention and a week with the chattering classes on The Nation’s Seminar Cruise later this month, I would be obliged to accompany Katrina vanden Heuvel and her ilk. I am only to assume the writers of The Nation eat better and their music is probably better than syncopated banjos.
But there is hope. The Washington Monthly and Slate are at the vanguard of a new liberal journalism. Journalism that rejects piety and seeks to probe contradictions. Yes, I sound like an overzealous car salesman, but it’s true. Robert Wright and Mickey Kaus offer stunning arguments in support of globalization and social equality respectively. They are moderates, but they offer a lesson for the radically inclined. Radicals need to start slaying their own sacred cows posthaste.
Zac Peskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.