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In Defense of Marty Peretz

I originally wrote this for FrontPage.com, but wanted to share it with my readers here at PJM -- RR.

Martin Peretz has been a pillar of responsible liberalism since buying The New Republic magazine in 1974.  While establishing himself as a respected teacher at Harvard, he also made TNR into one of the most exciting publications of the post Vietnam era.  Peretz gave graduate students like Michael Kinsley, Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan the opportunity to establish themselves as important public intellectuals and in return they helped him give a second life to The New Republic, a magazine of politics founded by Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann in 1914. Peretz defined its unique blend of muscular political journalism and literary and cultural criticism.  By the 1980s, TNR was the most influential small circulation magazine in the country, and unique among liberal publications in its defense of America in a time of Soviet advances and leftish infatuation with the Sandinistas and other totalitarian adventures, and also in its steadfast defense of Israel when the “progressive” attack on the only democracy in the Middle East, which Peretz saw would become a roar on the left, was still just a murmur.

In 2007, Peretz sold TNR to the Canadian media conglomerate Canwest, but retained his position as editor in chief.  Two years later, as the magazine’s circulation continued to fall, he formed a group of investors to buy it back.  Throughout all the changes, Peretz established himself as the liberal the left loved to hate, primarily because of his resolute  defense of Israel in an era when progressives, acting in concert with Islamic extremists, insisted that it was a reincarnation of Hilter’s Germany.  Peretz’s enemies bided their time, waiting for an excuse to isolate and stigmatize him. Their moment came a few weeks ago when he wrote in his New Republic blog, “The Spine,” about how the primary target of Islamist violence is other Muslims.  “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” Peretz wrote.  “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense they will abuse.”

The reaction was immediate.  Leftist commentators from the elite media like The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof denounced Peretz’s Islamophobia.  Students at Harvard picketed him with signs calling him a “racist rat.”  Intellectuals such as Kinsley, Peter Beinart, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, and others whose careers Peretz made, left him twisting slowly in the wind. It was a full fledged public burning that culminated in a recent New York Magazine article titled “Peretz in Exile.” The piece by Benjamin Wallace-Well portrayed Peretz as an intellectual pariah who was unbalanced and ultimately undone by his betrayal of the left, and most of all by his rear guard commitment to Zionism.

Wells broke the story that as of the first of this New Year, Peretz would be stepping down and given the new largely honorary position of Editor in Chief Emeritus. Moreover, it was reported that his popular blog on TNR’s website, “The Spine,” would be dropped from the magazine’s site. This turned out not be true. I spoke to Peretz, who is teaching in Israel, by phone. He pointed out to me that he is actively writing new blog entries -- as he has the past few days. Moreover, rumors that he was forced out of the editorship are not true. He was contemplating leaving that post the last few years, he said, and only pleas by Frank Foer and Leon Wieseltier kept him from doing so. Involved in other projects, Peretz feels he had no time for the responsibility and day to day work of an editor in chief, and felt that now was the right time to relieve himself of the job. Moreover, the implication that the Board of TNR wanted him out are also not true; nor were the rumors that they had a controlling share in the magazine and that he had to bend to its desires.

Readers who may not have as yet seen the Wallace-Wells article were not informed on the magazine’s website of this major change. The magazine had previously announced that its actual editor, Franklin Foer, was leaving, and that Richard Just was to replace him. But the magazine did not announce any changes in Peretz’s status, and the last actual issue still listed him as Editor-in-Chief.

The truth about TNR, as I wrote elsewhere, is that the heyday of the magazine’s large influence lies far in the past, particularly in the decade of the 1980’s and the Reagan years. Most TNR readers I have spoken with regularly comment to me about the journal’s decline in importance over the years. Their decision to go bi-weekly, while possibly necessary for financial reasons, made it less effective as an influence in the nation’s political debate. Sites like “Real Clear Politics” sometimes put up pieces from TNR, but more than often, one finds more entries from conservative journals like National Review and the Weekly Standard. Checking the magazine’s print circulation figures that by law are publicly printed once a year, we see a steep drop in subscriptions, compared to a huge rise in left-wing magazines like The Nation, and a constant high circulation in National Review, still since Buckley’s days the standard-bearer for the conservative movement.

In 2000, TNR’s paid circulation was 101,651. In 2009, it had dropped to 53,485—the lowest in many, many years. A previous sale to CanWest did not work out, and in 2009, a group of investors in which Peretz had a major share bought the magazine from the Canadian firm that pledged to make it a major force in publishing once again. In 2010, in comparison, the left-wing Nation had a circulation of 145,000, and the conservative National Review in 2008 had a high circulation of 178,780. These figures tend to change and fluctuate with the fortunes of both the Left and the Right; conservative influence produces an influx of subs to left-wing organs of opinion, and a seemingly resurgent liberalism leads to growth of conservative ones. But despite these changes, the one constant has been a regular drop in the fortunes of TNR.

Peretz disputes the above assessment. First, he argues that on domestic policy, TNR has had a great influence in gathering support for Obama Care, which he backs. Right before Obama’s inauguration, TNR ran an event at which Rahm Emanuel and Barney Frank both spoke, and they would not have done so had they not understood TNR’s importance to the new administration, he argues. Moreover, he notes that TNR’s website has a huge readership, far more than The Nation. One cannot evaluate the magazine’s readership, says Peretz, by just going to the print edition.