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Victor Navasky: A Life on the Left

Victor Navasky is Publisher and Editorial Director of The Nation, and Delacorte Professor of Magazine Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of Naming Names, which will be republished by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the spring of 2003, and he is currently at work on a book about dissenting journalism.

Navasky sat down with Rail editor Theodore Hamm and contributing editor Williams Cole earlier this summer.

Theodore Hamm with Williams Cole (Rail): Let’s start with the big picture. Tell us about some important trends in politics and publishing you’ve seen over the last few decades.

Victor Navasky: I would say that the dominant trend in publishing is toward conglomeration, and the dominant trend in everything else is fragmentation. Thus you have ethnic strife within countries in Africa, or between countries like India and Pakistan; or, you take the language of people like Lewis and Huntington, between civilization. I don’t accept that language, but the trends are clear: just think of the World Trade Center on September 11. These two patterns intersect, among other places, in the limited news diet that is available to Americans in particular. As media are owned by fewer and fewer companies, the assumption underlying what’s covered and how, are narrowed. And so that means that in the immediate aftermath of an event like 9/11, you see the rallying-around phenomenon, which comes under the guise of patriotism; but you also see the press’s disinclination to question the underlying assumptions and values of our policies.

Rail: When you first started getting involved in politics and publishing in the 1960s, was there more room for critical debate within mainstream media?

Navasky: Well, this may have been an illusion, but it really seemed like there was a difference between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, for example, in terms of the campaigns of the Democratic and Republican parties. Barry Goldwater was for possibly introducing nuclear weapons into Vietnam, and one didn’t yet know that Lyndon Johnson was going to do what he did over there. History has taught us that the differences between them actually weren’t that great on issues of empire, and war and peace. I still believe there is a significant difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, but as Gore Vidal once said, “What this country needs is a good second party.” Culturally there was a difference between those who believed that, as a matter of morality, it was important to maintain a system of segregation in this country; and those who believed in the civil rights movement. This was a vast divide. So, you felt you were engaged in an important moral struggle, a political struggle, and a cultural struggle. Still, if you participated in that movement, either as a citizen, as a movement person, or as a journalist, you faced great obstacles. For journalists at places like The New Yorker or Time, you also weren’t supposed to in any way insert your views into your coverage; but those who covered these issues felt that they were doing a public service by bringing the civil rights struggle to people’s attention.

Rail: What about the coverage in the major media outlets you were writing for, like the New York Times Magazine? Was there more room for left perspectives back then?

Navasky: I don’t want to suggest that there were some “good old days” in any kind of nostalgic, sentimental way. On the other hand, I always felt that, to take the New York Times Magazine as an example, it was open to alternative perspectives provided you either instinctively knew how to get them in there, or you mastered the trick of getting them in. I’ll give you one example: An editor colleague of mine here was among those who were withholding their taxes during the Vietnam War. He was a radical person who happened to be a talented editor. I heard him on the phone one day talking to a writer who had turned in apiece that had a set of radical assumptions, and other editors were giving that writer a hard time about the piece. This friend of mine said, “They’re trying to jerk you around, and if I were you I would withdraw the piece.” And so I went up to him afterwards and I said, “Why would you tell him to do that?” and he said, “The odds are they wouldn’t do this if the piece didn’t have left assumptions,” and I said, “Well, you’re right, but from my point of view your job, our job, is to get the piece in there: forget that we share alternative politics, that’s your job as an editor, our jobs as editors, to make it work, not by diluting what he has to say, but by understanding how to preserve it in a way that won’t make The Times feel uncomfortable.”

As I saw it (and still do) every magazine has an ideal reader. At the Times, the ideal reader was the publisher, or to put in another way, the so-called reasonable man. That didn’t mean that you could only write articles he would agree with. It meant that the writer either had to share the ideal reader’s basic assumptions or send a signal that a different set of assumptions obtained. For example, although the assumption was that integration was a good thing, you could get a get a figure like Stokely Carmichael to write an article for the Magazine making the case for the Black Power Movement. Since Carmichael was a movement figure, this would put the reader on notice that he had his own set of assumptions that were not necessarily those of the Times.

Rail: Don’t you agree that the Book Review and the New York Times Magazine these days are ideologically conservative? And that the only other leading intellectual magazines provide only limited space at best for progressive ideas?

Navasky: No, I see it differently. I think the Book Review is not so much conservative as oblivious, and that there are editors up there who have no politics as such. The editor-in-chief seems to me to be fundamentally a non-political person who delegates reviewer decisions to sub-editors, some of whom do seem to have a more limited sense of who the acceptable reviewers are for certain kinds political books. I don’t fully understand the Magazine these days—sometimes there are great pieces in there, sometimes there’s trivia. There are particular magazines, however, where you can see a little shift. For example, I think Harper’s is these days much more open to pieces from an alternative perspective. Willie Morris, an earlier editor, favored pieces that were from a sort of personal journey perspective, and after he left it went into a limbo, and after he left it went into a limbo, and then gradually Lewis Lapham has moved from the civil libertarian monarchist he used to seem to be, to someone who’s also interested in progressive ideas, always with a literary sensibility. The Atlantic has been taken over now by Michael Kelly who is, in his personal writing, really pretty rightwing and nasty. But as an individual he is a nice guy, and as editor of The Atlantic he seems to suspend the nastiness of his Washington Post column. And as an editor he has a cultural interest that I respond to. I recently read what I thought was going to be an interminable piece by Christopher Hitchens on Winston Churchill, but I’ve rarely read anything that interested me more. I mean it was such a marvelous unending essay, I’m sorry it ended; and so Kelly’s doing interested things.

Rail: What do you see as the place of The Nation right now?

Navasky: After September 11 we started getting hundreds of new subscribers a day over our website, but they were subscribing to the hard copy magazine. I think some of that was directly attributable to what the magazine was publishing, and some of it was a tribute to the web site because people—younger readers—see that and see it free of charge. Nut some of it is a response to what the magazine stands for and has stood for over the years and people know they’re not getting answers from the mainstream media, and it’s not even a criticism of the mainstream media so much as a confusion and a desire for guidance on how to think of this new situation. What do you do when 3000 people are blown up two blocks from you, and they hit the Pentagon at the same time? What are people of humanitarian, humanist, liberal , or radical impulses and self-images supposed to think? They come to The Nation to find out.

Rail: So you would describe its politics with these ecumenical terms?

Navasky: Well, you know Katrina [van den Heuvel, Nation Editor] will say The Nation is a “big tent” and I agree. If you look at the Washington Post or NBC, you will see they will give “equal time” to the arguments between the Democrats and Republicans. At The Nation we don’t feel the compulsion to give equal time to anybody, and we think that the most interesting debates are the ones that you don’t find in the mainstream media. They’re debates between the radicals and the liberals, between the radical feminists and the civil libertarians, or between democratic socialists and the bio-regionalists, which later became the anti-globalization movement. So, I think the magazine’s recent growth comes from a public yearning to get a fix on this fast-developing new world, and that rather than any doctrinaire line has brought people to the magazine. And as a result, the magazine is discovering itself in conversation with these new and varied constituencies. But classically, it seems to me, it’s a views magazine, not a news magazine, although it publishes news that you won’t get in the mainstream media. At different points in its history it has been very important in its history it has been very important for it be an investigative reporting magazine, and at other points it’s been very important for it be an other points it’s been a very important for it to be a political theory magazine—and currently, it’s obviously a mix of all these things. If it has a line it is to be suspicious of the official line,

Rail: What are some of the challenges a small magazine faces in a world dominated not only by media giants but also by corporations like Enron, whose global reach and corruption extend beyond the means of most investigative reporters?

Navasky: I have felt for the last ten years that—and this goes back to your first question about the trends in media in relation to trends in politics—the current challenge to the press, to the media, is to find a way to cover the new multi-national corporation, or trans-national corporation. Investigative reporting is something we know how to do in terms of municipal corruption—Steffens taught us that. We know how to do it in terms of Washington, because Woodward and Bernstein taught us how. And we know how to do it even in terms of part of the Muslim world—I mean, Sy Hersh has done in away, or half done it, if you read Michael Massing’s analysis of his stuff in our magazine. Even a “Lebanese Rag,” as Regan put, did it on the Iran Contra connection. But we still don’t know how to do it for the multi-national corporation [MNC], and/or to the extent that we do, it’s extremely expensive, because they’re not located in any one else place. You have to go out ot the Bahamas to find out what the MNC’s legal personality is. The MNC’s also have high-priced legal and public relations talent whose job in the legal realm is to threaten you with lawsuits or to bring them. And in the public relations realm it’s the opposite of the job that one thinks of as being the mandate of a PR person, which is to get your name in the papers. The job of the PR people for these MNC’s is to keep them out of the papers, to schmooze things over, to make invisible the things that they’re doing to the world environment, to de-link them from the consequences of their actions.

Rail: Nevertheless, are there steps that small magazines can still take?

Navasky: It’s no accident that some of the best investigative journalism has come from small magazines like Mother Jones, The Progressive, The Nation. Because historically it’s the independent magazines that have an interests in exposing the powers that be. But these days we need a new kind of journalism to uncover an Enron. Even if you know how to read balance sheets, which not enough journalists do, you have to be able to penetrate the new kinds of schemes these transnational corporations set up. And then there is the problem of access. But my question is whether there is a journalism we can create that can give people the tools to cover these companies, as well as to uncover these stories. I think a magazine like ours can be part of that process, even though in the past if you asked editors here, “What about business coverage?” they’d say, “That’s not our job, that’s for the Wall Street Journal.” Wrong, wrong,wrong, it’s very important that that be added too our portfolio. So, for example, Bill Greider, who joined the magazine a couple of years ago, gives a new dimension to journalism here, a dimension that we certainly didn’t have when I was doing the day to day editing. To me it deepens the coverage that we have and the service that we perform for our readers. What’s needed is a new culture of journalism, one that will give us journalists with a combination of economic literacy, analytic ability, and entrepreneurial energy fueled by a sense of injustice. We need to give them the resources—through alliances with progressive foundations and related institutions—the time, resources and space to do the job.

Rail: How much do you think The Nation, you can never judge influence by circulation; it’s the quality of their readership that matters. Our readers possess influence, because they are people who are interested in ideas, they’re teachers, they’re journalists, they’re writers of the nightly news, and when they are not the Congress people themselves, they’re staff people for members of Congress. Having said that, when I came here in 1978 we had 20,000 subscribers, and we now have 117,000, and it’s going up. I’ve always thought that there are maybe a quarter of a million people in this country who are interested in ideas and if we were artful in discovering them, they would pay to get this magazine. Ideally this audience would include those who don’t agree with us and would read it because they want to know what they other side is thinking. Basically The Nation has two constituencies: intellectuals and movement activists. We provide ideas and information for both of them.

Rail: Let’s turn back the clock for a moment. What were you doing prior to being hired as editor of The Nation in 1978?

Navasky: I had taken a vacation from journalism for a year and was Ramsey Clark’s campaign “mismanager” (laughs) when he ran for Senate, and we won the primary and lost the general election to Jack Javits, who was the highest vote getter in the country, so we thought we did pretty well. Ramsey at that point was way ahead of his time, as he refused to take more than a hundred bucks from a contributor, because he saw the link between money and politics and didn’t want any part in it. The traditional fundraising you had to do in order to cozy up to big money was something we couldn’t do. Thus, we had to figure out another way to do it, so we made the late Paul Gottlieb, who was then the publisher of the American Heritage, the campaign’s treasurer because he was a direct mail expert who knew how to solicit small amounts of money. And then Hamilton Fish [now director of the Nation Institute] took charge of organizing coffee klatches and by the end of the campaign, we raised about a million dollars in small donations, whereas we’d been told that we’d be lucky to get $20,000. A million was still a small amount of money to run a Senate campaign on although not as small as it would appear today. Anyway, after the campaign, Ham read an article in the paper about how Marcel Ophuls had been fired from the movie he was making, Memory of Justice, about the Nuremberg Trials. It was twice as long as it was supposed to be and not yet finished when the producers said enough already. So, with a friend of his who had also worked with the Clark campaign, Ham contacted Ophuls and asked if Ham raised the money to buy back the rights to his film, would Ophuls complete it. Ophuls had already made The Sorrow and the Pity which was a great movie. Ophuls said sure, and Ham did it. About that time the word was out that The Nation was up for sale, and Ham was looking for something to do. My theory was that he was genetically programmed to run for Congress: his grandfather had been a congressman, his father had been a congressman and there had always been Hamilton Fish out there. He had one slight problem: he was in the wrong party. They were Republicans and he was a Democrat, and in the end that’s what did him in. But he was I thought sort of waiting for his father to retire and doing good deeds until then. I had concluded in the course of doing research about the McCarthy Period of what became Naming Names, that The Nation was in a class by itself among publication as a defender of civil liberties. So Ham decided, having rescued the Ophul’s film, why not help The Nation?

Rail: When you took over The Nation, did you have a specific vision of the things you wanted to change?

Navasky: My first change was to move the letters page from the back to the front and let our writers answer the letters in the same issue in which they appeared. I also wrote a prospectus in which I said that, if I did my job well, no one would know the first year that I was there that there was a change in management, but I thought that the magazine could gradually reach a much wider audience without diluting what it did. This was because first of all, there were a lot of very good writers, who, if you matched with the right subject, would write for the magazine. Carey McWilliams [Nation editor from 1955-1975, and Navasky’s “idol”] had had a great run, but he was gone for three years already and he was slowing down a little. Blair Clark (1975-1978) had a different view and was more of a caretaker, although he did write very good editorials. It seemed to me that since the New Republic was going off in a new direction, there was a real opportunity to have an independent progressive voice on a weekly basis. I think it was Walter Cronkite who used to end his nightly newscasts by saying, “That’s the way it is.” Well, I wanted to put out a magazine which would say that’s not the way it is at all. Let’s take another look.

It did happen that a lot of great writers wanted to write for our magazine, and I also wanted to create an environment where everyone was excited and into it, and it would be the opposite of a bureaucracy, like the one I had seen at the Times. It would be an open place and the ideas would be thing that drove it. I recruited an editorial board twice a year, and I’d be in touch over the phone on a regular basis. It’s very daunting to come into a place like this and be expected to be an instant expert on everything from Africa to arms control. Then Calvin Trillin agreed to become our humor columnist. And Bud was the funniest writer I knew, but no one would let him write a humor column; The New Yorker wouldn’t, instead they were content to have him go out and do his fine reporting. It was weird; he could write funny food pieces for them, but he wasn’t encouraged to do funny pieces about anything else, which is what he really wanted to do. When we let him do it, his column became a major success. It seemed to me important that the left have someone in-house to puncture its own pretensions.

Rail: On the subject of writers, it seems that the only major left figure who rarely shows up in The Nation is Chomsky. Any reason?

Navasky: Well, first of all I think that I share, along with Katrina and other editors here, respect bordering on awe for his contributions to political thought in this country. However, he tends to write at great length, and, on any number of occasions, before Z Magazine even existed, we would contact and say we’d like him to do this or that, and he would either be too busy or sometimes send a speech he had given that on a subject we had covered a week before. And once, when one of his books—I don’t remember which one—came out, our reviewer, a journalist named Jack Langguth, had written a very important book about torture in Latin America, and who had worked for LA Times, didn’t love Chomsky’s book; and I think people mistook that for the magazine’s position on Noam. It wasn’t. We run an independent review operation. He’s written three or four pieces for the magazine in recent years, and we invite him to do things episodically. Katrina and I have a high regard for him. Perhaps in the future he will be able to do more.

Rail: Tell us about your upbringing in the 40s and 50s, and how specifically you became an opponent of McCarthyism.

Navasky: At the age of eleven I went to school at the Little Red School House, which was a private school in Greenwich Village that started out inside the public school system. It was always a sort of proletarian private school and it had a heritage as an experimental school. It was started by Elisabeth Irwin who upheld the ideal of democratic education espoused by John Dewey, and she attracted to the school many people on the bohemian left. Little Red and Elisabeth Irwin imbued their students with the idea of social change. My parents were not particularly on the left, so I ended up there by accident—

Rail: What kind of work did your parents do?

Navasky: My mother worked as a secretary to my father until they got married and then she stopped working and started having children. My father worked for his father, who came over from Eastern Europe, from a town that was part of Russia, then Lithuania, and then Poland—it kept shifting depending on the time period. My father sold his share in the businesses so that I wouldn’t have to go into it. He should have gone to college, because he’s someone who read everything, and who always wanted to be a writer, but it didn’t happen for him.

At the Little Red Schoolhouse, there were a lot of kids whose parents got troubled in one way or another during the McCarthy years. Some of them were children of teachers who wouldn’t take the non-Communist oath. Some of them were children of artists like Ben Shahn or Milton Avery, whose daughter was in my class; they weren’t blacklisted, but were identified with the people who were, because they had been in the Party together or they were just politically allied with those who were. So I was always curious about the Party, and then when I went away to Swarthmore College (where I first learned about the ACLU), McCarthy and co. started calling some of the teachers as well as the head of my old high school as witnesses before the investigating committees. When I got out of the Army in 1956, I used the GI Bill to go to Yale Law School, and there I began to read the testimony of all my former teachers. And I was just interested because, you know, it’s a way of learning about your parents’ generation—really it was a fascinating thing to me, to learn about the families of your friends. One friend of mine, Susan Buchman, saw her father, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Sid Buchman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), have to leave the country. And then, at Yale, I had a chance to learn and think about that.

Rail: What sorts of parallels do you see between the McCarthy period and the present Ashcroft era? Are there precedents for the PATRIOT Act, or is it something entirely new?

Navasky: Based on my work on both the Kennedy Justice Department and McCarthyism, I can certainly say that the conflicts between civil liberties, democracy, and national security are nothing new. It seems to me that there are two great periods throughout the nation’s history: one is freedom, liberty, Tom Paine, Jefferson, Madison, and the Bill of Rights; the other is intolerance, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Palmer Raids after WWI, and the McCarthy. These patterns have always been in conflict with one another. The pendulum goes back and forth. The temptation is always to curtail liberties in a time of danger or trouble, and then the lesson uniformly is that we went too far, and that more damage was done in the name of counter-subversion than the subversives ever could have done—even though at the time it always seems imperative to crackdown. So along 9/11, and people say, “Well, this is different. After all, they just blew up 3000 people.” But Judge Irving Kaufman claimed that the Rosenbergs were responsible for the loss of 50,000 lives in Korea, because they stole the secret of the atom bomb. Well, history tells that while Julius may have indeed been a spy of some sort, there was no secret of the atom bomb to steal, Ethel probably had nothing to do with it, and what Julius did was worth maybe eight years at most, which is what Klaus Fuchs got in England. At the time, however Eisenhower said it cost millions of lives, many more than the 3000 at the World Trade Center.

So, I worry when the Bush and Ashcroft Administration say that it’s ok to suspend habeas corpus, to deprive detainees of counsel, to keep their names secret, to deny them a right to a speedy and open trial and to reject the requirements of international law. The lesson from the past tell us that we’re in a lot of trouble. It may feel different, because the prisoners are said not to be citizens and so on; and it may feel like the circumstances dictate and exception that doesn’t have precedential consequences, but in fact, it’s a very dangerous situation for people who care about democracy.

Rail: What’s the precedent being set?

Navasky: That if the president says we’re at war, Congress will write him a blank check and in the name of national security the state will override the Constitution.

Rail: The Nation seems to hold a very clear position regarding the U.S. left’s role in relationship to Israel. Can you elaborate?

Navasky: I don’t know that this is completely true, because we do have internal debates about it. I personally, and the magazine generally, but not totally, has had the politics of the Peace Now movement in Israel. This translated into belief in:A) the importance of the security of Israel; B) the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination; C) the belief that continued hostilities will only lead to tragedy, death and violence, and D) that the only solution is some form of settlement (which it begins to look like will have to be imposed). I think I am alone in my current belief that while things on the ground have never been worse, conditions for a settlement—objectively speaking, as the Marxists used to say—have never been better. The convening of the Arab Summit and the announcement of the Saudi peace plan mean that for the first time in 50 years, the Arab countries are ready to recognize Israel. They were smart enough to get Saddam Hussein to sign onto this plan; and Hussein said he’d let the UN inspectors into Iraq. All of these difficult alliances, to be sure. But Sharon and Arafat also know that they don’t control their own people on the extremes, and they need a third-party intervener. After first refusing to get involved, the Bush Administration became actively involved, and they had the European Union and Russia, and the UN or NATO, their choice, ready to join them. And everyone knows what the peace settlement will be. They even have a definition of the “right of return” for Palestinians, which has been a real sticking point. Standing back from it, the conditions are definitely there, and it takes is the will. [Editor’s Note: This conversation took place prior to Bush’s call for the Palestinians to dump Arafat.]

Rail: Finally, given the current climate at home and abroad, what do you see as the left’s role?

Navasky: There are many lefts and I’m not comfortable being the spokesperson for them. In the long run the liberal-left has to work with and on behalf of the dispossessed in terms that speak to the political, economic and cultural issues raised in a global context. But in the short run I don’t we’re in the middle of a worst-case scenario, in which people complacently accept incursions on their rights and liberties; and there’s a new blatancy on the part of those making the assaults. Now we’re discussing openly how to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The CIA used to have to lie to Congress about its activities because those activities were illegal; now everyone accepts that those same illegal activities are ok. The rule of law is under attack, and so I would say that right now it is our job, in Bill Grieder’s words, to tell the people.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail


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