Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: A Matter of Opinion

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 5, 2014

… I’m not talking about fraud. I’m talking about journalistic practice.

“Lord, grant me socialism… but not yet.”

RecommendationSpecial Interests Only
AuthorVictor S. Navasky
Length476 pages
Book Rating5

Reading Victor Navasky’s memoir is like entering another world, a world where Democrat Ed Koch isn’t just less liberal than his fellow Democrats, but is a neo-conservative.1 A world of Binkys and Hams and Pings summering in Martha’s Vineyard. A world where well-off socialists fight for the right to eat caviar, and “socialist experiments” are good for every business but those of socialists.

A world where intentions matter more than actions and results.

Over the years, I have learned from George Orwell, from Khruschev’s revelations at the Twentieth Party Congress, from Gorbachev’s and other memoirs, from the Venona decrypts and selected Soviet archives, some of the many things wrong with this particular naïve internationalist version of “the new world a-comin’.” But as the democratic socialist Michael Harrington wrote in 1977 in The Vast Majority, although the popular-front vision was sometimes manipulated to rationalize cruelty rather than to promote kindness, “for all its confusions and evasions and contradictions, it was a corruption of something good that always remained in it: of an internationalism that is still the only hope of mankind. My heart still quickens when I hear the songs of the International Brigade.” Mine too.

Journalism, especially journals of opinion, are an elite that transcends not just movement (eschewing employee ownership, for example) but even technology. Journalists are more reliable than tape recorders. In support, he discusses Gabriel García Márquez’s idea that the tape recorder “is not a substitute for memory”:

Gabriel García Márquez, who when he is not writing his magical realist novels runs a journalism program in Cartagena de Indias, Columbia, has named the tape recorder as one of the guilty parties in much that is wrong with modern, speeded-up journalism.

Before it was invented, the job was done well with only three elements of work. The notebook, foolproof ethics and a pair of ears that we reporters used to listen to what the sources were telling us. The professional manual for the tape recorder has not yet been invented. Somebody needs to teach young reporters that the recorder is not a substitute for memory but an evolved version of the notebook, which served so well when the profession started.

His point is that the tape recorder listens and regurgitates, but it does not think, “it does not have a heart.” In the end, for García Márquez, the literal version of the spoken words it captures “would never be as trustworthy as those kept by the journalist who pays attention to the real words of the interlocutor.”

Throughout the book he quotes the mission of the Nation to not support any party or movement; two paragraphs before quoting it the umpteenth time, that the Nation cannot support a party because “it is also the job of our journal to deal with—not omit or ignore—inconvenient facts”, he argues that the USSR fell not because of Reagan’s hard-line policies in the eighties, but rather because protesters against US and British nuclear cooperation weakened the repressive states.

Throughout the book he does this. If he doesn’t like it, it must be on the right. When Susan Sontag called the left out for having supported communism and hidden the crimes of Soviet Russia, he argued that Russia was part of the right.

Contrarily, American or Russian, the right is anti-democratic. Its truths, such as they are, are always encapsulated in a larger lie. If Susan Sontag really needed to learn from the right, that was her problem, not ours.

If Gore Vidal is anti-semitic, he’s conservative. If he’s on the left, then he’s satirical.

He couldn’t quite put Christopher Hitchens on the right, but Navasky still had to support a party by denigrating Hitchens’s “obsession with Bill Clinton’s alleged public and private derelictions and the nexus between them.”

Emphasis mine. This was 2005. At this point there was no “alleged” about it, not in a memoir. We knew by that time that Clinton did what he was alleged to do.

He gets a dig in at the end, that the old Hitchens would have welcomed debate over who was worse, John Ashcroft or Osama bin Laden. The new Hitchens “chose to walk out on it.”

The new Hitchens sounds kind of neo-conservative.

Annoyed that despite such partisan deflection, some still call The Nation ideologues, Navasky takes four pages to explain why it’s a horrible accusation: that they are proud to be ideologues, and besides, everybody does it.

Throughout, when he’s not arguing that The Nation does not support any party or movement, he is very proud of supporting party and movement.

I don’t agree that the programs of the Great Society were tried and didn’t work—indeed they may not work, but I don’t think many of them were ever really given a fair chance; I have an enduring sympathy for socialist experiments, preferably decentralized, and keep looking for one that works. Which is quite different from presenting “both sides” of every issue… as a general proposition I sympathize with Heywood Brown when he said he was sick of The Nation’s “policy of fair play, and everybody must be heard whether or not he has anything to say. This isn’t an amateur tennis match. It’s a fight, and the well-being of masses of men and women depends upon the result… Even an open mind needs to pull down the window at certain times or it becomes less a mind than a cave of the winds.”

If that sounds like Thomas Sowell’s dictum that mistakes never send the left back to the drawing board, but that rather failed policies only need to be tried harder, it isn’t the only place Navasky echoes Sowell. For example, he quotes Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, as having said

The left is endowed with the capacity to feel nervous. It feels an obligation to provide innovative answers.

Not answers that work: answers that are new. Tried and proven solutions are categorically bad, solutions must be new and untried; this is almost exactly Sowell’s description of the vision of the anointed.

Further, people who are not part of the movement are not full citizens in the dialogue that Navasky wants to create. He was one of the early practitioners of the journalistic technique of altering the question. He describes doing this to Hubert Humphrey in 1968. “At the time I had mild compunctions about what I had done, but I persuaded myself that he deserved it. Now I’m not so sure.”

He’s not questioning whether that was valid journalism, only whether Humphrey deserved it. Again, this is described in detail in Sowell’s book.

I don’t know whether such a worldview falls under hypocrisy, cynicism, or just plain maliciousness. He displays all three of them throughout the book.

He often describes The Nation as a magazine where the editor fires the backers. This may have worked for The Nation because they didn’t make any money, and they had to continually find new backers to replace the old ones anyway. But when it comes to that classical socialist experiment, worker control of management, he explains that such an innovation would not work when it comes to journals of opinion: the workers will vote to give themselves the journal’s money rather than use it to report on the journal’s beat. (He also opposes the death tax, at least for periodicals.)

Under Navasky’s editorship, The Nation ran a “hatchet-job” review of an Iraqi dissident’s book in 1993. Sometime after the book came out, Navasky received a call from Palestinian activist Edward Said who told him that under no circumstances can you favorably review this book. Navasky asked Said who he thought should review it, and Said gave a list of names.

Rather than tossing it in the trash, Navasky provided the list to his literary editor, who, instead of using the list as a list to avoid, she chose someone who was on the list. While Navasky claims she did not choose from the list, choosing anyone on it guaranteed a malicious hatchet-job. Which, Navasky says, is what they got. He could tell it was a hatchet-job (his words) as soon as they received it. His response was merely to order that it be “fact-checked”.

Their fact-checker failed to successfully do so, and The Nation ended up, in a case of mistaken-identity, accusing one of the book author’s sources of embezzlement. This resulted in a lawsuit against the magazine.

Then Navasky has the naïveté or maliciousness to write that he was pretty sure that they could beat the lawsuit because, as a public figure, lies have to exhibit “malicious intent and reckless disregard” and, he claimed, they “had been neither malicious nor reckless”.

But the reviewer was almost certainly malicious, and they had been reckless in soliciting and printing the review, so it comes as no surprise that their lawyer convinced them to settle.

Navasky loves socialism except when he doesn’t. Besides not liking it when it affects the magazine, he also, during a description of testimony before a congressional committee on behalf of the ACLU, added this parenthetical:

At this point I self-aggrandizingly noted that I had been the recipient of the Tom Paine Award for civil liberties fifteen years earlier so I harbored a special affection for him. I didn’t mention that the award was bestowed by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, which in 1961 had been—falsely—named by HUAC as a “Communist front.”

I don’t know what level of involvement goes into being a “front”, but I can guess that if the NECLC had been a legal defense organization for the tobacco industry, and it was started by a publicist for RJ Reynolds and the president of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee—the latter of whom then went on to become the NECLC’s first Vice Chairman—Navasky would have had no problem calling it a front for the tobacco industry.

The NECLC was founded in 1951. The two most commonly listed founders are Lamont and Stone, as far as I can tell2. I.F Stone, according to KGB documents, was an active, low level agent of the Soviet Union. Corliss Lamont, also the NECLC’s first Vice Chairman, was the Chairman of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.

I’m not being rhetorical here when I say that I don’t know what level of involvement is required to be a “front”. It may simply be that since this proposed new organization was going to defend communists as well as others that the ACLU was ignoring, that it then attracted people associated with communism. My point is that Navasky would not afford the same degree of leniency that he affords the left, to people he perceives as being on the right.

For all that the book is filled with such stories, some of them evince a naïveté that confounds simple hypocrisy. One amusing anecdote is when Navasky manages a coup: convincing I.F. Stone to speak at an Amsterdam conference put on by The Nation. The Nation could not afford a fee, but Stone agrees to speak for free. Stone then managed to parlay the simple no-fee speaking engagement into a very nice trip for himself and his wife, starting with rooms aboard the Queen Elizabeth II rather than their budget airline tickets. Then, turns out the QE2 docked in London after the Netherlands. Stone managed to get a London hotel from The Nation. Then a cottage by the canal. Navasky ends the anecdote…

… at a farewell session at a local bar, as we consumed caviar and vodka, he raised a toast: “Comes the revolution, we will all eat like this.”

Stone managed to parlay a no-fee speaking engagement into a very nice European trip complete with caviar.

Well, Stone is one of the anointed, and the vision of the anointed is that the anointed get what they want. I get the impression throughout the book that he has a kindergarten worldview, but then I came to this, which led into his lawsuit anecdote:

One morning in 1981 I had awakened with what I was certain, despite my well-known modesty and humility, was the solution to the crisis in the Middle East. If the Palestinian community would adopt the Gandhian tactic of non-violent or passive resistance, substituting civil disobedience for terrorism, peace would have a chance. Passive resistance works only under certain conditions: You need a highly civilized population a portion of whom sympathize with the just cause of the resisters, and Israel, with its Peace Now activists seemed to me to fit the bill.

He then tried to convince Palestinian writer Edward Said to make the suggestion, since it would sound better coming from a Palestinian than from a New York Jew.

Now, on the one hand his great idea shows a level of logic that escapes most of the left: that if Palestinians stop trying to kill Israelis, Israelis will no longer need to act as if Palestinians are trying to kill Israelis. An Israel not under constant missile and other attack would be far more susceptible to peace overtures.

Except, of course, that that’s not his logic. He can’t conceive of just ending terrorism, ending terrorism has to be part of some Gandhian resistance program that will require embarrassing Israelis into accepting peace, as if they don’t already want it.

But the true problem is that he acts as if all that’s necessary now is to describe this great idea to Palestinian thought-leaders and There Will Be Peace.

You might as well ask the proverbial dog and scorpion to cross the Tigris together. Navasky seems to make two mistakes here: one, that the Palestinians are a single entity controlled by a few leaders (a similar mistake socialists make in all countries), and, two, that their hatred, like his, is mere show, that it can be turned off according to the policy needs of the moment. He thinks that there is a greater principle animating the Palestinian desire to destroy Israel, when by all appearances hatred is the goal, not a means.

Navasky is disappointed when Said hid “the Gandhian call to Palestinians to put down their arms” behind “a code phrase”. The code words that Said said would be recognized throughout the Middle East as a call for Gandhian resistance: “the time for speaking clearly has arrived”.

“So much,” wrote Navasky, “for my brilliant idea.” Navasky doesn’t even bother to wonder why his friend refused to call for peace. He’s just disappointed that his brilliant idea fell behind the international code couch.

A Matter of Opinion is definitely a collection of interesting anecdotes. It’s also an odd look into the mind of a leftist editor. He wants political news to be more of a conversation, but he wants to preside over that conversation. If the people start coming to the wrong conclusion, he blames the right and their lies. In his final “Reflections” he writes that, quoting University of Illinois Dean Theodore Peterson, “There is still a place in society for a cultural elite, open to whoever cares to join it.” You join the elite by subscribing to the Nation and its opinions.

  1. I’m guessing, since this predates Koch fever on the left, it’s because Ed Koch wasn’t so liberal as to support John Kerry in 2004, and that this was fresh in Navasky’s memory since this book was published in 2005.

  2. The NECLC’s proponents don’t seem to want to name the founders, only its detractors, so I can’t be certain how trustworthy the information is.

A Matter of Opinion

Victor S. Navasky

Recommendation: Special Interests Only