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The New Republic at 100.


NOVEMBER 24, 2014, marked the 100th year of The New Republic, a venerable American magazine that wore the contemptuous epithets by conservatives as a “liberal rag” like a badge of honor. The publication was a forum for discussion of politics, policy and the arts. More broadly, The New Republic was a place where ideas—new, old, and contested—could be articulated. Legitimacy was conferred on the publication even before the appearance of the first issue; it was the subject of discussion at former president Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island estate (an auspicious setting for a magazine that would engage in political debate with a formidable tenacity).

TNR1On the unornamented cover of The New Republic’s first issue in 1914, the magazine identified itself to a public readership (at ten cents a copy and four dollars a year) as “A Journal of Opinion which Seeks to Meet the Challenge of a New Time.” In the 100th anniversary issue of the magazine, the editor, Franklin Foer, articulated the rewards of The New Republic’s adherence to its founding ideals — the very kinds of ideals that “gathered all the enthusiasm for reform and gave it coherence and intellectual heft.”


Indeed, the 100th Anniversary Issue of The New Republic testified to just how little the publication had strayed from its original commitments in the course of a century. In that issue, the regular “Dear Editors” segment of the publication was transformed into an accidental, abbreviated history of how The New Republic had, through the decades served as a place where seminal artistic and political figures responded to ideas—current, contentious or both—in the best way: by better outlining their own arguments and the logical foundation on which those arguments rested.

But the “Dear Editors” section of that 100th Anniversary Issue exposed something more. Thematized throughout, stated directly nowhere was fact that The New Republic proved more than a historical record of ideas, or even for the ideas of individuals. It was also an invitation to a singular, evanescent intellectual intimacy, for access to those thoughts, which would likely never be stated publicly, was not unlike a window, small and recessed, in a Romanesque cathedral. Though small and homely, those epistles permitted figures whose fame lent them a certain opacity to become transparent, if only for a moment. Readers pressed upon that figurative glass and witnessed not only how seminal figures shared the intimacies of thought; readers also experienced how the presentation of those thoughts humanized those who would otherwise be hopelessly remote, bringing the reader closer to individuals whom we could imagine only in glossy photos, fictions and autographs.

One illuminating lucarne is formed from a letter composed by Ray Bradbury, which appeared in the October 3, 1970, issue of the magazine. Bradbury condemned the moral position (a position which, by the tone of Bradbury’s response, indicates that the author did not merely dislike but abhorred) expressed in an earlier article by Douglas Stewart. There, Stewart had argued that “senile voters” should be screened and ultimately denied the right to vote. Bradbury responded with sardonic solidarity—and without the veil of science fiction to soften the contours of his discourse. Bradbury’s keen sensitivity to the perils of the Stewart prospect was linked to cyclical histories. He suggests that voting limits are not only laudable, but should be accompanied by the creation of “ovens and gas chambers …(to) really do the job right.” The concluding shot is also the best as Bradbury, in imagined collusion, assures Stewart that he has “other plans for cripples, the blind, and the Jews…”

IN A LETTER appearing on April 24, 1929, Virginia Woolf responds to one reader’s complaint that Woolf harbored a prejudice against American writers. In her risposte, Woolf praises Walt Whitman and other American writers with the gracious observation that, “I have been reading these writers and thinking how magnificent a language American is, how materially it differs from English…” Woolf’s praise broadens as she muses over how “American genius is an original genius…” But it is not enough for Woolf to simply vindicate herself from charges of prejudice. Her sly wit circles back to her critic’s original critique that Woolf disliked Henry James on account of his national affiliation, which did not confer upon him the privilege of being a “native” writer of British English. Embracing the debility of a criticism crudely launched with a blunt geographical distinction, Woolf’s encomium of American singularity is abruptly truncated. She then concludes that, in obedience to her critic’s implied call to consider and evaluate British and American writers as interchangeable, she will “haste to cancel these views and will note …there is no difference between England and America; America is merely a larger England across the Atlantic.”

The 100th Anniversary issue of The New Republic contains interludes, statements by turns inventive and apposite that had been made over the decade by the likes of Langston Hughes and Michael Kinsley. The issue also includes an ambitious but perforce abbreviated index of quotations or, in the words of the publication, “ a roll call of the people we believe have made the greatest intellectual contributions to the fields and causes that this magazine holds dear.” The result resembles a miniature commonplace book organized by headings for subjects ranging from American Civil Rights to Architecture to Sex.

That issue of The New Republic was more memorable than most, a distinction that its commemorative nature makes both obvious and necessary. The magazine’s long-time literary critic (since 1983) Leon Wieseltier, whose essays never failed to supply a valuable coda to each issue (whether their tone bordered on vitriolic or seemed to sink into an Arcadian dreamscape) concluded his article for that centennial issue — titled “The Mental Odyssey of the Ordinary Citizen” — with a sentiment worth repeating with the trenchancy of a latter-day Michel de Montaigne: “Ideas or interests? Ideas are interests. They are the interests of all who wish to live as free and undeceived people. Happy anniversary, precious pages!”

The optative mood of Wieseltier’s words soon assumed an elegiac pall. Two weeks after that centennial issue appeared, both Foer and Wieseltier resigned from The New Republic. Over 50 of the publication’s editors and writers followed suit. This exodus, which made the magazine’s next issue (Which would have appeared on the very date of this article’s composition, December 15, 2014) constituted a response to an announcement that the publication’s owner, Chris Hughes (also a co-owner of Facebook), intended to drastically reduce the number of issues from 20 to 10, all the while forming what was characterized as a “vertically integrated digital media company.” The emphasis on the material existence of The New Republic, the graceful metonymy smoothed with alliteration of those “precious pages” made Wieseltier’s words both prescient and poignant.

The publication showed a commitment to creating a culture where ideas were not only utterances but served as the figurative foundation for action, political and ethical.

A QUESTION SURFACES, one both candid and legitimate: Why should we care about this tacit declaration of the obsolescence of The New Republic, at least as a material entity? To be sure, it occupied an important place in the intellectual landscape of the United States during the twentieth century and gave identity to a political school that still lacked a name: Liberalism. Still, it is hardly the first venerable publication to be eclipsed by concerns of a new, digital age. And yet, with its investment in ideas, in articulating and debating them, in its often tacit belief that education and the ability to think are not privileges reserved for the cultural elite, but are instead necessary for all responsible citizens living in a democracy, it is difficult to disagree with Wieseltier when he sternly observes that “We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots.” Quite the opposite. In an ideological climate where U.S. conservatives have increasingly encouraged a suspicion of both intellect and intellectuals amongst their (often socio-economically disadvantaged) constituents, the unvarnished force of Wieseltier’s statement, driven home with streamlined isocolon furnishes an inexplicable sense of satisfaction as it distills the illogic of ideology in the first clause and disarms it in the second. But the demise of The New Republic signifies more than liberals bending rhetoric to champion seemingly lost causes. The publication showed a commitment to creating a culture where ideas were not only utterances but served as the figurative foundation for action, political and ethical. It is a rare gift to make private conviction hold hands with public interest.

The question of why the plight of The New Republic matters has not yet been answered. That is because, sentiments aside, it does not matter—as a single publication. However, The New Republic, with its emphasis on an idiosyncratic connection between ideas and concrete developments is a decorous figurehead for a broader concern. Part of the value of The New Republic was its presence as a tangible record of ideas, some belonging to historical figures, which were stated, exchanged, debated. Can a digital form of media preserve that fossil record of thought? Can it reflect how the conception, birth and death of ideas unfold in time?

PART OF THE problem lies in provenance. Obviously, the Information Age contains a plena of, well, information. So much is retained—even (infamously) against the will at times. But is there any real concept of source that can be traced regularly with fidelity? Inspiration, echoing, altering of sources has been a touchstone of intellectual activities for roughly two millennia. John Milton can borrow a line from Vergil and the source is clear—and it’s meant to be, for it not only creates a poetic dynasty but, in citing another work, another’s words, and importing both to a new context, both writers prosper — one in the lambent reassurance of legitimacy only the past can confer, the other in the confirmation that it is still relevant, still culturally meaningful.

But the digital age is like the sweeping, monotonous flatlands of the Great Plains that cut a swathe through the middle of America. The New York Times and an anonymous blogger share the Google stage. Perhaps the latter even plagiarized an article from the former. What is more, sources are obscured—not always, but often enough. Often enough, in fact, publications that most consider legitimate — like The New York Daily News wantonly cut and paste a museum’s press release for an exhibition and pass it off as a review or an original discourse. Consider the following. The American Folk Art Museum of New York launches an exhibition of “outsider artist” Willem van Genk. Though several online news sources plagiarize the press release, the issue of originality (and the reverse) is more insidious. Art Daily, proudly self-defined as the “First Art Newspaper on the Net,” “writes” about the van Genk exhibition, though it merely copies the words of the museum press release. Regator. Artrow, Dallas Art Dealer’s Association and Africa Gossip (to cite a few), use the description provided by Art Daily. Though these attribute a source (Art Daily), it is not the one they believe it to be.

Plagiarism in the media seems such a venial sin that even local newspapers, such as the provincial Princeton Packet, blithely transfer information from Wikipedia to an article on their pages. One difficulty compounds another. Information is passed without attribution, ability to trace sources is lost and as the ethos of individual sources flattens to an uncomfortably linear horizon, context falls away and a semantic charge so necessary for ideas to be articulated, is lost. And this is without consideration of strategies such as SEO that manipulate web search hits, to form what we see and how likely we are to see it.

These shortcomings have been observed before. It would be an act of foolish vanity to presume novelty here. Foolish and naïve. But what of thought? Can digital media create a blueprint of ideas in the same way that print can? The developments at The New Republic go well beyond a publication that is—or at least has been—an institution. Even at its worst and unwittingly, that “liberal rag” forces us to ask difficult questions about ideas, readers and the dialectic that masquerades as a simple dialogue.

IT IS PERHAPS easiest to examine the issue more closely by moving farther away, to an Information Age driven by another technology: Print. To be sure, print was not a perfect instrument for the dissemination of knowledge—after all, there were errata, misinformation, misspellings and misrepresentation as in the case of the so-called “wicked bible” printed by R. Barker in 1631, which commanded its readers, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

Nonetheless, print made information previously inaccessible available and to a wide audience, both geographically and socio-economically. That audience only grew as print technology became more sophisticated and printed materials lost the prohibitions of cost. The implications are many and vast. The facets of the consequences are impossible to calculate. One among many is a question of relationship, the relationship between a reader and the medium. In the case of print, what exactly did the dialectic created between reader, text, and the former’s assimilation of the latter yield? How did medium impact the way ideas were formed?

There is no single paradigm to map the relationship between the information flow technology enables and the impact it has on its audience.

There is no single paradigm to map the relationship between the information flow technology enables and the impact it has on its audience. However, two historical figures—contemporaries and most certainly strangers—supply dramatic versions of what that relationship and its effects might be. It was the second half of the sixteenth century and print technology had shaken off crude incunabula, had outstripped the challenges of printing with characters of different alphabets, had mastered the union of woodblock images and print. In short, as a technology, it was in the sixteenth century that print assumed a new standard of sophistication.

tassodelacTHE FIRST CASE is a drama of information run amok, beyond control. It concerns less the nature of the relationship between the reader and the information they imbibed in print and more the consequences of that information’s untrammeled dissemination. It was this lack of control and subsequent fear of print that goaded poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) to madness. While a courtier in the employ of the Este family of Ferrara, Tasso composed what was then considered greatest form of poetry one could write: epic. Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, which is set during the First Crusade, recounts the struggle to possess and triumph over Jerusalem by Crusaders. The poem, which officially appeared in 1581, would later influence generations of poets, musicians and artists.

In these times, the celebrity of Tasso’s poem of twenty cantos has diminished. It is generally recognized only by students, specialists and opera-goers. But in the sixteetnth and seventeenth century, the liberata was a seminal source of inspiration. Milton borrowed from (albeit not with unmixed adoration) heavily in Paradise Lost. As most who are familiar with Tasso’s œuvre today know, the work shifted in the course of the poet’s lifetime from earnest, numerous imitations of Petrarchan sonnets, the graceful pastoral drama known as the Aminta and numerous dialogues to the marmoreal morality of the liberata and, when Tasso discovered potential ambiguity even there, he revised it into the dreadful, tedious Gerusalemme conquistata.

tassogerModern encyclopedia entries often note that Tasso was likely schizophrenic. Nineteenth-century biographers (whose accounts are no less reliable for their age) are more spirited. They relate the tale of a Jesuit-trained man who, in the age of print, became anxious to control his manuscripts. The digital age has not shed that anxiety. One need only consider (to cite a modest example) the unsuccessful attempt by the publicist of the celebrated diva Beyoncé Knowles to control access to and dissemination of less-than-flattering photos from the singer’s Superbowl performance. Tasso’s paranoia became so acute that he attempted to stab an Este servant. One might add, however, that Tasso’s fear was partially justified as copies of the manuscript for the Gerusalemme liberata were in circulation before the cautious poet felt he had completed his poem’s final draft. Haunted by orthodoxy and divergence from it, Tasso not only feared, but sought out the Inquisition. After being sequestered for several years, the poet emerged, a pious enemy to ambiguity. He wrote religious poetry, a tragedy, and that aforementioned revised epic, the ponderous Gerusalemme conquistata. He also composed a number of dialogues as was the fashion among the literary set in Cinquecento Italy.

Though a tiresome genre by modern standards, one of these dialogues is intriguing, an agonizing photographic still of a mind haunted by the hundred possibilities of his own words, own ideas placed in unintended contexts.

That dialogue, the Apologia in difesa della Gerusaleme liberata (1585) is, as the title advertises, an ‘explanation’ at turns technical and philosophical for his liberata. The treatise is more, though. It is an accidental testament to the darkest psychological consequences precipitated by the deluge of new print technology. Tasso does not merely explicate, gloss or defend his epic poem. Instead, he conjures a courtroom setting and imagines himself the defendant bound to answer the battery of questions posed by a mysterious interrogator. In the Apologia, Tasso submits, by proxy of his character in the dialogue, not just to questions about how his poem comports with orthodoxy but he also repeats and responds to searing critiques often framed in venomous phrases by his adversaries, critiques that associate the shortcomings of the poem with Tasso himself, declaring the liberata (and, by implication the man who composed it) to be ‘impotent’.

The Apologia is more than a curiosity. It is a unique testament to how the very concept of information’s diffusion, of writing moving across towns and cities unchecked by authorial control, had burrowed into the very psyche of a writer, becoming an ever-growing torment as the horror of potential heterodoxy dovetailed with a complete inability to control the dissemination of his work.

menocchTHE PROSPECT OF information run amok tortured Tasso psychologically. For one Friulian peasant, Domenico Scandella, or, more commonly, “Menocchio,” the new technology killed him. Menocchio was arguably burnt at the stake by the Inquisition on account of print and the ideas he formed through his readings. Perhaps reading the Qu’ran alongside Boccaccio’s Decamerone inspired Menocchio to invent peculiar, idiosyncratic notions about his world. The story of Menocchio, his fanciful ideas about the world and the charge of heresy those ideas earned him is worth noting.

Put briefly, Menocchio’s story is relatively simple. He was a miller who, in the course of daily commerce with his peers made comments, statements on account of which he was denounced to the Inquisition. He was interrogated on two occasions. On the second, the Inquisition ruled him a heretic. Consequently, he was burnt at the stake in 1599. In The Worms and the Cheese (1976), historian Carlo Ginzburg has provided the most well known narrative of Menocchio’s fate with a special emphasis on the relationship to printed books. Other scholars have made available primary source evidence, the proceedings of Menocchio’s trials. What has emerged is that Menocchio was certainly a reader, voracious and indiscriminate. He read books across genres—from religious texts to novellas to the travelogue of Sir John Mandeville. What is more, some of his statements—later used in support of his heresy—can be traced to the content of the books to which he had access. Working backwards from Menocchio’s statements to the content of his reading material (a list which can be reconstructed only in part), one can see centaurs of ideas formed, opinions twisted to individual interpretation, half-formed singular readings of information conveyed by books that the miller had the skill to access but not the formal instruction to understand in more traditional contexts. Hero or heretic (and likely neither), Menocchio’s access to printed books contributed if not led to his execution. The fearsome egalitarianism of print that so tortured Tasso condemned Menocchio to the flames.

Tasso’s delusions were aggravated by the prospect of words dispersed to an anonymous readership, words that could submit to polysemy or, worse, heterodoxy.

THE CASES OF Tasso and Menocchio are more than just anomalies of history or dramatic instances of how powerful the transmission of information—and thus the technology behind its dispersal—truly were. As a complete account of the dialectical model for the relationship between reader and text suggested earlier—the dialectic created between a reader — a text may prove as impossible for us to chart as Venus’ challenges to Psyche were. Even incomplete however, the experience of Tasso as a writer and Menocchio as reader in the golden age of print is memorable enough to be included in an historical record. That inclusion is not a matter of sheer drama or an obscure cult of personality. Through both figures it is possible to find partial answers to the question of how a sixteenth-century mind grappled with information and struggled with or celebrated an unprecedented flood of it. Tasso brings unique insights to the fore. As an active—and prolific—poet living at a time when print had moved beyond crude incunabula, Tasso is an instance of the fear that the promiscuity of the spread of information and ideas might breed heresy, mislead audiences with loathsome moral and ethical ambiguities (after all, the most memorable, pleasurable passages in his epic recount the erotic delights of a deadly pleasure garden). Nonetheless, from biography to Tasso’s own letters to that strange document, the Apologia, a narrative emerges of how the Information Age of the sixteenth century did not simply increase access to texts, it created an anxiety about what that access might mean. Moreover, in examining the narrative of Tasso, a photographic negative is made of the complexities of how an explosion of information influenced and impacted culture. It had the ability to insinuate itself into the very psyche of readers. If Tasso went mad, modern accounts may diagnose him as a schizophrenic with delusions of religious persecution. Regardless of his pathologies, Tasso’s delusions were aggravated by the prospect of words dispersed to an anonymous readership, words that could submit to polysemy or, worse, heterodoxy. In short, when considered in the context of print technology, the case of Tasso connects print to a heightened threat, to the danger of words, sometimes Janus-like, sometimes worse. With print, the abyss of ambiguity grew darker and deeper.

Meanwhile, Menocchio furnishes a unique insight into how relatively naïve readers exposed for the first time with a plena of information made sense of it. Menocchio fashioned it into a strange mosaic and that tessellated vision of the world contributed greatly to his demise—after all, he was first reported as a heretic after making comments about communion wafers. His seemingly heretical actions could be found elsewhere, in absentminded comments and observations, in idiosyncratic ways of looking at the world, interpretations inflected by reading.

The case of Menocchio in particular is more than a curiosity or a small tragedy, though it was both. It also lifts that veil, that opacity that exists between a reader and the material they imbibe– and it does so not with the reactions to a text registered by somebody last month or even last year or framed yesterday in a clever one-hundred forty characters; it provides insight into how a mind that time has otherwise made alien to us once received information, interpreted it, wed it to existing ideas, made it his own.

By making a bid to transform The New Republic into a digital format, tangibility is lost.

ONE MIGHT WELL wonder how a discussion of the printing press, Tasso and Menocchio could relate to The New Republic. It has everything to do with that publication. The New Republic prided itself on being a magazine of note, a record for developments in the history of ideas and an index of the thinkers who thought them. By making a bid to transform the publication into a digital format, tangibility is lost. Foer’s replacement as editor of The New Republic comes from the Gawker contingent, a blog that is at once smut-fest and glib media reportage, so one might include “respectability” to the list of qualities lost. Perhaps that is what inspired Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg — whose photograph graced the cover of The New Republic just a few months ago — to cancel her subscription to the publication.

But this is not a cowboys-and-Indians-style showdown between medias old and new. The New Republic simply allows a question about loss in the digital age to become more palpable. It was noted above that the way in which individuals responded to the opinions of others and exposed their own ideas became a way of acquaintanceship from afar, akin to the sort brokered by the narratives of Tasso and Menocchio. Reading their ideas fostered a kind of intimacy, otherwise impossible with luminaries. In reading, one caught a glimpse of ‘the man himself’ (or the woman). What is more, that exchange of ideas, that process of reading, reacting, writing a response and presenting it for the public to read is lost in digital form. To be sure, there are Tweets, blogs, an ever-expanding cadre of social media, a section for “Comments” at the foot of online articles, but they lack something the “Letters to the Editor” possesses: the inconvenience of time. Immediacy is not necessarily a virtue, nor does it always promote the most well reasoned ideas. After all, the Information Age never represented itself as the Idea Age. But the question of time broadens when we consider the vast ocean of digital information. Ideas exist in the digital world, but they exist in seeming synchronicity, argument and opposition, narrative and counter-narrative seem, to return to the Great Plains simile, to exist on the same plane. That information is timely is of paramount importance, but in prizing it so, a claim on time conceived of more broadly, as a diachronic history, is lost.

One wonders if, in this digital ocean of prose and pictures, we are not damaging the delicate junction between ideas and information.

With the growing hegemony of digitization one wonders if, in this digital ocean of prose and pictures, we are not damaging the delicate junction between ideas and information, a junction that makes it possible to enter into intellectual accord and dialogue with voices long silent. And in doing so, one wonders if the insights of a Menocchio or a Tasso, insights into what readers thought in the very center of a technological revolution, will be obscured. Ideas rendered unimportant in their surfeit. Ideas might be written into the historical record, but few voices will be able to articulate them in a way that, centuries later, we might be able to understand not just as information but as a point in a vast constellation of other ideas. Will there be astronomers of thought who can manage to reticulate nuance, influence and an entire historical moment?

If The New Republic recovers in a digital format—as other venerable publications have—will it invent something even more lasting than liberalism? Can it manage to preserve traces of the dialectic between information and reader, reader and idea? Can a form of transmitting information that is ruled by radical mutability become capable of inscribing itself in the record? If so, it might provide another chapter to that historical narrative of radically subjective intellectual development so easily embodied by Tasso and Menocchio: The chapter of how our new technology changed what it meant to be a reader—and to reason.

Alana Shilling-Janoff comments on cultural phenomena for The Fortnightly Review. Shilling-Janoff has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. Her special interests are reception history and the afterlife of Latin poetry in the Renaissance.

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Note: Minor edits made subsequent to first publication.



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