Ideological Warfare

Why the United States needs opinionated loudmouths

two lines of paper, one red one blue, intertwined
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

While frequently as civil as a Bronx barroom, opinion journalism in the United States can also be as heady as a continental coffee house. This has been the case from the decisive influence of the Federalist Papers in the late-eighteenth century to the infectious presence of blogs in the early twenty-first. Within this bee-loud, brainy tradition, the biweekly National Review on the Right and The Nation, published weekly, on the Left have been particularly prominent. Through their regular rations of vigorous commentary, harsh critique, and unapologetic rabble-rousing, The Nation, founded in 1865 by E.L. Godkin, and National Review, founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr., have done as much as two congenitally unprofitable, small-circulation magazines can to influence the course of modern American history. Which is to say, a lot.

For example, to the unbound dismay of Victor Navasky, long-time editor and publisher of The Nation, Ronald Reagan’s rise to power owed a significant debt to “National Review’s nourishing of the impossible, and I would add implausible if not insane, ideas of the radical right.” William F. Buckley concurs, after his own fashion: “We did as much as anybody with the exception of—Himself—to shepherd into the White House the man I am confident will emerge as the principal political figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”

Given his well-deserved status as an obnoxiously triumphant conservative icon, Buckley may disarm resistant readers with the prescient intelligence of five decades’ worth of cultural criticism on offer in Miles Gone By, his collection of autobiographical essays, if not win them over with his country-clubby style or arch prescriptions. Meanwhile, Navasky, a practised player in elite journalism, award-winning author, and member of America’s left-liberal brain trust, emerges in his intellectual memoir as a wry and admirably nonsectarian spokesman for the crucial task of magazines like The Nation and National Review to speak truth to power. This is especially needed of late, given two developments: the corporate consolidation of mainstream media and the gradual homogenization of two-party politics. Beyond each man’s pride in his magazine and passion for its causes, and leaving aside occasional portions of guttersnipe and self-congratulation, these books reveal that Buckley and Navasky share an abiding appreciation for the spirited free play of ideas. Their primary difference lies not in ideology but perspective. Navasky argues for opinion journalism’s importance to American public life, Buckley argues for his own. Each is unexpectedly persuasive.

William F. Buckley’s conservatism seems to have been preordained. Growing up in Connecticut comfort as one of ten offspring of a Texas oil magnate, he enjoyed a childhood furnished with a French nanny, three nurses, two maids, a cook, and a butler, not to mention equestrian, elocution, and music lessons. Of course, there was also the necessary touring of Europe, where, among other edifications, Buckley “saw Neville Chamberlain descend from the airplane that had flown him from Munich to announce that he had brought ‘peace in our time.’ ” Thus was born a life of high entitlement and a lifelong suspicion of weak-kneed optimism.

Buckley first came to national prominence in 1951, with his book God and Man at Yale. He explosively argued from immediate experience that in its teaching philosophy Yale had abandoned its Christian foundations in favour of socialist theorizing and that this invidious program was being generously supported by unwitting, God-fearing alumni. Buckley soon became the golden-boy leader of a big-tent conservative movement fired by his enthusiastic conviction that the Cold War was to be fought at home and abroad according to traditional moral criteria and classic American principles.

All of this fed into his founding, in 1955, of National Review, which brashly announced itself as a magazine that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or have much patience with those who so urge it.” Enjoying some 275,000 subscribers at its high point, National Review helped alchemize Barry Goldwater’s apocalyptic failure in 1964 into Ronald Reagan’s colossal victory in 1980 by hammering away at ideological opponents. Today, the magazine regularly takes on apostate conservatives, dim-witted lefties, mainstream mannequins, and those “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” in France, while editorializing in support of free institutions at home and abroad.

Beyond his self-described career as “a conservative controversialist,” Buckley has been a prolific print journalist, television host, spy-novel writer, and inveterate adventurer. Since his boyhood brush with Chamberlain, he has also maintained what he calls his private “link to the heavy machinery of history.” In a series of reflective essays and personal portraits, Buckley recounts befriending and recruiting the reclusive Whittaker Chambers to write for his fledgling magazine. He also dines with Jackie Kennedy and Princess Grace at David Niven’s chalet in the Swiss Alps, starts up a lifelong friendship with John Kenneth Galbraith at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, squabbles with Ayn Rand and chats up Tom Wolfe on the New York society circuit (each of whom rivals Buckley in flashy self-regard), and lunches with two lions of twentieth-century journalism, the bbc’s Alistair Cooke and the New Yorker’s William Shawn. He plays go-between for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s first collaboration, spends many happy hours with Ron and Nancy, takes a turn as a cia agent, and, he laments, has the misfortune of acquiring “more wine than I could drink.”

This mixture of cocktail parties and hard power might make for queasy reading for the liberal intelligentsia, but here lies Buckley’s achievement. His peculiar integration of sophisticated conservative ideas with elegant, genial reveries “brought to the American right qualities no one could remember its ever having possessed,” or so judges Sam Tanenhaus, currently at work on a Buckley biography. Buckley gave the Right its first bona fide metropolitan intellectual, a far cry from the cavemen capitalists and backwoods isolationists of its past (and present).

In one telling exchange, where a critic ventures that Buckley’s hyperkinetic column writing, rumoured to take ony twenty minutes per piece three times a week, allowed ” ‘too little time for serious contemplation of difficult subjects,’ ” Buckley counters that his conservative cosmopolitanism has prevented him from degenerating into the one-note dogmatist implied by the charge. When writing, Buckley draws on “huge reserves: of opinion, prejudice, priorities, presumptions, data, ironies, drama, histrionics. And these reserves you enhance during practically the entire course of the day, and it doesn’t matter all that much if a particular hour is not devoted to considering problems of foreign policy. You can spend an hour playing the piano and develop your capacity to think, even to create, and certainly to invest yourself with a feeling for priorities.”

Buckley ends this essay by noting that as an intellectual exercise, “I asked myself the other day, ‘Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?’ I couldn’t think of anyone. And I devoted to the exercise twenty minutes. Flat.” Beyond this egotistical showmanship, Buckley’s roving intellectual curiosity and broad cultural appreciations could be instructive to both his disciples on the Right and his antagonists on the Left as a means of avoiding terminal earnestness and tunnel vision—the war of ideas’ nonpartisan impairments. But given the pragmatic politicking, ideological raillery, and gyroscopic news cycle that prevail along the Potomac, Buckley’s well-read gentility renders him, at times, something of a colourful and cultured antiquity.

Two essays stand out from this collection, nonetheless, one for pure reading pleasure and the other for uncommonly relevant commentary. The first, “The Angel of Craig’s Point,” recounts Buckley’s thwarted attempt to dispose of his trash while passing through New Brunswick on a 1982 sailing trip and the cross-border media controversy that resulted from the mocking letter he sent to the editor of Saint John’s Telegraph Journal. The piece is a rollicking parable about the devolving relationship between event, perspective, and report that develops when a taste for scandal outpaces a respect for accuracy.

In a more serious turn, Buckley combines personal concern, literary panache, and critical questioning—the core features of opinion journalism—in “Why Don’t We Complain?,” which the author declares “my Hamlet, my Gettysburg Address, my Ninth Symphony.” Perhaps as poetic justice for such self-aggrandizement, this 1961 essay, re-read today, reveals ironic, unintended consequences of Buckley’s rhetoric of activist individualism.

“Why Don’t We Complain?” is a first-person survey of the sterilization of the human spirit by bureaucracy, business, technology, and two-party politics. Counting himself among the afflicted, Buckley notes how citizens no longer speak up for themselves, whether in response to a blurry movie projector or the usurpation of their rights by anonymous, monumental power. He worries that a people that had succumbed to the infantilizing ministrations of the state would be incapable of defending itself against a foreign threat. This is classic Cold War conservatism. In an ironic testament to Buckley’s intellectual victory, however, his rallying cry—“to make our voices heard” and “[claim] our rights”—is regularly employed to great success, forty years later, by abortion and gay rights advocates, not exactly his intended audience.

His further commentary on the imperilled landscape of modern democracy is even more arresting, in that it reads like the latest in progressive polemic. There is, he observes, an “increased sense of helplessness in an age of technology and centralized political and economic power.” But in decrying the stifling consolidations of power in America, Buckley was simply performing, to great effect, the first charge of opinion journalism, which is to be “a force of protest of the humane against the pressures of domineering institutions.”

That fine description, a paraphrase of Theodor Adorno, concludes Victor Navasky’s A Matter of Opinion. This less flamboyant, more deliberative account emphasizes—no doubt to the discomfort of its author’s more doctrinaire readers—The Nation’s common mission with its ideological opponents at National Review. While Navasky has no reservations about calling out a “right-wing nuthouse” when he sees one, his proudly “simplistic, absolutist view of the First Amendment” requires him to defend its right to free expression. The stakes are unprecedented in his view, “given the contradiction between our for-profit, highly concentrated, advertising-saturated, corporate media system and the communications requirements of a democratic society.”

To clarify and overcome this contradiction, Navasky calls for the continued free passage of opinion magazines through the ever-thinning pathways of the American public square. His spirited defence, along with The Nation’s many, many money woes, provide the recurrent themes of this engaging account of a life devoted to maintaining the integrity of the Fourth Estate. A Matter of Opinion is equally a chronicle of Navasky’s career-long passions: left-liberal ideas, left-liberal causes, and a left-liberal money pit.

For 140 years, The Nation has survived against common sense and the dictates of the market, despite its butcher-paper pages, its paying writers “in the high two figures,” and its annual losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, the magazine takes on big oil, big pharmacy, and their outsized brethren—not to mention all facets of the “Ri¢hie Bu$h” administration—proudly adhering to its unofficial motto, “If it’s bad for the country, it’s good for The Nation.” (The magazine’s subscriber base, 185,000 and climbing, is at a record high.) To his credit, Navasky has enough confidence in his magazine’s current efforts to excuse himself from simply rehashing its latest battles in his memoir.

An older battle, however, remains at full tilt. Some fifty years after the storied Hiss/Chambers espionage case, the question of Alger Hiss’s innocence occupies Navasky’s attention, as it does for many American intellectuals concerned about the adversarial relationship between personal liberty and national security. Navasky’s decision to maintain Hiss’s innocence by expressing his suspicion about Chambers’ character is unproductive; he basically repeats the standard, unsuccessful approach of past Hiss supporters and also rummages around the case’s long paper trail while emphasizing his magazine’s diligence.

More immediately, Navasky avoids a proper reckoning with some significant controversies that have occurred on his watch at The Nation. For example, he addresses Christopher Hitchens’ loud exit from the magazine in 2002 by reprinting the contrarian commentator’s complaint that his “Minority Report” column had been rendered pointless as the magazine became “the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” Navasky briskly dismisses Hitchens’ characterization as unrecognizable and expresses regret over his departure. But the matter deserves a far more rigorous examination—one that truly explores the relationship between intellectual honesty, ideological dissent, and rhetorical provocation.

Navasky also makes a clumsy go at Susan Sontag’s 1981 indictment of The Nation, in which she wrote that Reader’s Digest did a better job of reporting on the realities of Communism. Two decades later, he comes off as surprisingly blinkered in his response, trying to fence off Sontag’s critique by allowing that “[i]nternationally The Nation was indeed slower than the Digest to comprehend the internal corruption and repression of Stalin’s Russia, but on balance it was a much more perceptive analyst and interpreter of the dynaics of the Cold War.” For a leading proponent of serious journalism and defender of the left-liberal intellectual tradition to make such even-handed comparisons between Reader’s Digest and The Nation is embarrassing.

Navasky is considerably more persuasive in detailing lessons learned from his encounters with other elements of media culture, notably the New York Times. After forays into journalism at Swarthmore, in the military, and at Yale Law School, he entered the Times’ universe in 1970. His cracking chapter on the newspaper’s culture should be required reading for its devout readership, who legendarily invest the Times with papal infallibility.

Navasky is both funny and critical in revealing the breathtaking insularity and intellectual incest that wins out at America’s so-called paper of record, but his wider point is more valuable: if the most prominent of mainstream organs is so comfortably blind to its limitations, then it falls to the press’s “second-class citizens,” the opinion journals, to both challenge this grey consensus and push the public eye into otherwise dark corridors of national life.

In light of the 2003 Jayson Blair plagiarism controversy, a semi-permanent stain on the Times’ reputation, Navasky’s experiences with smug sloth at the newspaper in the seventies prove depressingly prophetic. Perhaps shrewdly, a basic rule of Navasky’s editorship of The Nation, which he assumed in 1978, was that “if we ever published anything that could appear in the New York Times Magazine we would not be doing our job.” Thereafter, he traces out the many arguments, lawsuits, and ballooning egos that are any good editor’s workplace hazards. The tale, at times overwhelmingly detailed and a tad clubby itself, will grip Navasky’s Columbia journalism students, followers of intellectual culture, and Nation aficionados.

For readers outside these contexts, the book’s principal value rests in its two great searches: first, for a formidable statement of the opinion journal’s worth, and second, for money to keep one going. Navasky finds the first in the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the second in Paul Newman. Gleefully caustic about the gnomic pretensions of postmodern academics, Navasky’s encounters with Habermas lead to fruitful reconsideration. He discovers that Habermas “identified the journal of opinion as a sort of house organ to the public sphere,” a space he defined as “neither market-driven nor dominated by the state.” Building off this negative definition, Navasky proposes that the public sphere is actually constituted in part by opinion journals themselves. His point is convincing: if “to flourish, democracy requires mentation, and debate,” then the ink spilled by magazines like The Nation and National Review is a vital fluid of the body politic. This takes hard cash; lacking “Buckley bucks,” Navasky goes on a Grail-like quest for the financing to keep The Nation afloat and independent. He eventually wins support from Paul Newman, among others, but also uses bald marketing ploys like “selling [Nation] credit cards [and] cabins on a Holland-American ocean liner,” and is commendably unembarrassed by these measures, undoubtedly considered vulgar by elites and the puritanical Left.

One of Navasky’s great contributions to contemporary left-liberalism is his willingness to get a little dirt under his fingernails. He thereby avoids the swaddled high-mindedness that so many in his circles pride themselves on maintaining, even to the point of irrelevance. Such ineffective sanctimony, as Navasky reveals in his historical overview of opinion journalism, in part accounts for why the majority of intellectual publications are spectacularly short-lived.

The Nation has long survived on the strength of its ideas and the talents of its contributors, but given America’s inexorable march toward media concentration—according to Ben Bagdikian in The New Media Monopoly, by 2004, five corporations controlled “most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios, radio and televisions in the United States”—Navasky has had to come in from the cold. He establishes this as a basic requirement of his trade: “by definition the journal of opinion, if it is to be politically and culturally free, must also be financially independent.” Therefore, he concludes with savvy, “You need to run one of these magazines like a business or else you will be out of business. But if business is all you are, you will be out of business, too.” America’s opinion journals, like the nation itself, can be loud, proud, and dangerous when provoked. By most lights, these rags are more trouble than they’re worth. Exactly!, Buckley and Navasky might say.

Randy Boyagoda
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto. His next book, Little Sanctuary, his first for young readers, began as a short story in The Walrus and will be published later this year. He has been contributing to the magazine since 2005.