He broke shit.

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Chris_Hughes

The 31-year-old owner of TNR

He wanted to “break shit.”

And so he did. Now everyone knows what Guy Vidra meant when he referred to himself as a “wartime CEO” at The New Republic and what, exactly, he wanted to break:  The New Republic is not likely to recover from the sacking of top editor Franklin Foer and literary editor Leon Wiesieltier, followed within hours by the resignations of Ryan Lizza, Adam Kirsch, Julia Ioffe, and six more of the dozen editors, with contributing editors Anne Applebaum, Paul Berman, , Helen Vendler, and others asking to be dropped from the masthead – altogether 55 exoduses, at last count. The debacle was accompanied by lamentations all across the political spectrum, for although the New Republic has a reputation as a “progressive” magazine, it was one of the few that gave a podium to intelligent voices of all ideological ilk, a truly needed service in an increasingly acrimonious and divisive society.

The New Republic is moving to New York, although it will continue to maintain a Washington, D.C., office. It will also cut its publication frequency in half, publishing just 10 print issues a year. Vidra’s announcement of the changes was thick with jargon and clichés: “re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company,” among them. Vidra, formerly general manager of Yahoo News, has the support of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who acquired TNR in 2012 at the age of 28. They both talk about about “content” and “platforms” and “brands,” and have taken the magazine in a more clearly ideological direction, designed to boost page views.

wieseltier

Wieseltier … gone.

“Assuming Chris really does plan to dumb it down in the name of clicks, what’s maddening is the way he has betrayed the premise on which he bought it. It’s like buying a historic Victorian mansion with the promise of preserving it — and then carving it into condos two years later,” one former longtime TNR staffer told Politico. “I hope Chris realizes how much intellectual firepower he’s losing here — and how hard it is to fake intellectual substance,” the former staffer said. “It makes no sense to publish clickbait under the TNR name (again, if that’s really his plan), you might as well just build a new thing from scratch.”

At this point, saving TNR will not be done by will alone. It takes more than ideology and snark to produce something that endures. You cannot buy gravitas, any more than you can buy reputation. What’s missing is what Czesław Miłosz used to call “piety” – a feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature – or perhaps what Susan Sontag called “an education of the heart.”

It has less to do with education and more with a certain amount of living, suffering, patience, tenacity, endurance, wisdom, and the willingness to pay, pay, pay (and I don’t mean with cash). My concern is that people such as Hughes and Vidra have no idea what it means to be caretakers of a century-old literary institution. It would take them a good deal of effort to get to the cultural level they already think they inhabit. Meanwhile, people being imitative creatures, the cheesy values spread and will accelerate a rush to the bottom.

Our culture is being taken over by children. While the young have always given the heave-ho to their elders, usually the elders held the purse-strings. The world has never been short of wealthy, arrogant youth, of course, but usually it was inherited, and depended on parental approval and generosity. With our technological era, the checks and balances are gone: an unimaginable wealth has shifted to kids who understand the weight and price of many things, but the value of nothing. A younger generation tests the limits, because historically, the guardrails have held. They don’t always. If you’re old enough, you’ve seen that, too.

juvenescenceRight now I’m reading Robert Pogue Harrison‘s Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age,” but before I began reading, my eye caught this passage in the epilogue:

“This is also why I believe that our juvenescent age is not just another stage of cultural development in the unfolding of modern civilization but represents a momentous, yet chaotic event in the evolution of humanity itself. The future that this event holds in store for us is one that remains incomprehensible from the perspective of the cultural history that precedes it. That future may well be upon us already, for as each day passes our present confounds historical understanding. If wisdom serves to create a living memory by synthesizing past and present with a view to the future, wisdom in our age has been thrown for a loss.”

Some have challenged whether this is a notable juncture in America’s cultural and literary history: Clive Crook over at the Bloomberg View writes in “Without the New Republic, I have No Reason to Live“: “You might say, the New Republic was a great and storied title. Why buy it in order to destroy it? Yes, in its day, it was indeed an indispensable magazine, but that was a long time ago. It’s years since it was required reading, even for people (such as myself) who are paid to take an interest in the things it writes about. Fact is, very little any longer is required reading: Choices have expanded in such a way as to make that idea anachronistic.

“It’s no act of disrespect to the achievements of the past to change – or even to shut down, if it comes to that – a publication that’s lost its way. Even if money doesn’t come into it, titles ought to be living things, not monuments to what they were. The same goes, only more so, for writers and editors.”

And there is a truth in that point of view, too. But I sense many people waiting in the wings to break things. Not so many who know how to put them together again.

Postscript on 12/9: We got a nice mention in Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” here.


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17 Responses to “He broke shit.”

  1. Amy Ellis Says:

    Great story! Thank you for sharing 😉

  2. Bruce Cole Says:

    Well said. We very much live in an Age of Arrested Development, of which this is the latest manifestation. Looking around the Internet, I actually read some libertarian-ish blog celebrate this as an act of “creative destruction” (that unfortunate phrase of Joseph Schumpeter). How predictable. I’m not a prophet, but I predict that in (at most) a year or so the print publication of The New Republic will cease entirely, and the on-line version will change its name.

    I have taken off the New Republic link on my blog, and will end with a favorite quote of mine, which is absolutely pertinent: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” – Sam Rayburn

  3. Jack DuVall Says:

    We cannot have a vibrant free society without a competition of ideas. In that competition, some ideas in regard to certain fields of knowledge and practice — such as our political culture, the main focus of The New Republic — will have more explanatory value than others. Over time, those ideas and their exponents acquire gravitas. It isn’t “juvenescence” or the cult of youth that’s propelling the arrogance that tosses aside gravitas, it’s the digital commodification of knowledge, in which the momentary polish of brands and the volume of page views replace the merit of content as the determinant of visibility to and access by a wider public. This only facilitates political extremism and social belligerence. Why bother to burn books if access to them is narrowing? What the commercial digital media seem to be accelerating in our society is a kind of unilateral disarmament of knowledge.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Jack, you might like the post directly below this one – Milan Kundera’s reflections on the erasure of history.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Bruce. I’ve actually been cheered by the comments on the right-wing blogs I’ve read, deploring the dismantling of TNR. Nice to get cross-the-aisle support on at least one issue.

  6. Grisha Freidin Says:

    Thank you, Cynthia, for this thoughtful and illuminating piece. I’ve written for TNR a long time ago; in fact TNR published my first column I tossed to them over the transom (Hertzberg picked it up). But I dissociated myself from them after the publisher (under another editor) tried to bully me into changing the valence of my piece on Russia. Some years ago, TNR peaked my interest again, and thought I’d try them again. Too late now. And what a shame. One look at the masthead, and you appreciate the loss with a deep sigh, if not a choke… Hope there is the will and the money to start a new magazine – one in what is now a gaping niche between the New Yorker and the NYRB. Fingers crossed…

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Grisha. Your praise means a lot to me.

  8. Bruce Cole Says:

    Cynthia,

    I take your point about the Right being generally supportive about TNR – it’s just that one that encapsulated that awful destructive attitude. Speaking of the Right, on one blog (of course, I can’t remember which!!!) I read one take on National Review’s financial plight which made TNR’s sound like Easy Street. Don’t know if it’s true – but it might be telling about the state of journals of opinion across the board – and it will only get worse.

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Well, that gets us into a conversation about greed – the craving not just for a reasonable profit, but an extraordinary, off-the-scale one. It’s not enough to have a respectably large audience among the cognoscenti, one has to have a kazillion page views of gawkers. In which case, the best route is nekkid ladies and car crashes. Or Kate Middleton’s latest burp. A well-thought-out critique of the politics of modern Hungary will never beat that.

  10. Jeff S. Says:

    I haven’t seen many people comment on the phrase “vertically integrated digital media company,” so I poked around on the Internet to see what “vertical integration” means in a business context. Apparently, at its most basic, it’s when a company controls its own supply chain: e.g., a steel company that owns the mines, the mills, the foundries, and the ships and trucks that transported all of the materials, or a fast-food company that raises its own chickens. I can’t figure out what “vertical integration” means in the context of websites and magazine publishing, so I’m guessing it’s just baloney that’s meant to suggest a more promising and sophisticated plan than the one they’ve started rolling out. (The piece Hughes wrote this morning in the Washington Post is similarly vacuous.)

  11. George Says:

    I am not sure how much Mr. Hughes’s age proves. Alexander Hamilton was hardly older when he was a leading force in the constitutional convention. Frederick the Great was younger when he started the Seven Years War.

    Your point on the craving for extraordinary profit seems to me better exemplified by the goings-on at the Chicago Tribune, where Zell’s group seemed to expect speculative profits in a business that just didn’t make them. Sam Zell is not a young man.

  12. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Chronological age certainly doesn’t prove much. In Hamilton’s day, a man was likely to assume much more responsibility for others at a much earlier age. We live in an era of prolonged youth and prolonged adolescence.

    Greed occurs across the board in all eras and ages, but it is certainly enabled by a wealth unimaginable in an earlier era.

  13. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Baloney about sums it up.

  14. Mark Says:

    To my mind, losing TNR — and it’s being viciously destroyed, let’s not beat around the bush — is a fatal strike to the American intellectual scene. The magazine was a glittering jewel, a journalistic example. I’ll never forget, opening its pages in the tumultuous aftermath of Sept 11, and reading the IDIOT WATCH, in which TNR’s lonely editors bravely, nimbly and intelligently battled back against the defeatist naysaying of the powerful hordes of so-called peaceniks (there was a time, if you can believe it, when people, whether venal or merely misguided, were actually opposed to our forceable saving of Iraq). In indecent times, I know it fortified *me*; and I don’t think I’m alone in saying the IDIOT WATCH was a journalistic, intellectual and moral example, a touchstone in both form and content for how to live and think. Should another crisis arise, will a “vertically integrated media company” be so brave, so intelligent, as to do similar. Of course not, Cynthia. As you and commenter DuVall say, juvenescence is our future: brutality, ugliness, extremism and herd-thinking. Impious times, indeed.

  15. Jeff S. Says:

    I just read the New Yorker piece former TNR editor Ryan Lizza wrote about the Hughes/Vidra situation and I’m increasingly convinced that the deadly sin at work here isn’t greed, but vanity. Chris Hughes got rich in his mid-20s for doing pretty much nothing, and he now acts as if he’s in danger of never being taken seriously unless he can show he can run a business. I almost feel bad for him as I imagine the creeping horror he must feel as he realizes that a lifelong curse accompanies 800 million dollars.

  16. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had the opportunity to experience such a creeping horror.

  17. Bruce Cole Says:

    I thought I might add another window to the responses to the murder of The New Republic. I actually meant to send this along earlier, but, oh well.

    The Nation (predictably) ran a nasty piece of commentary by Greg Grandin, on-line, dated December 8. It had just enough truth to be dangerous (half-truths are worse than whole lies because they are more insidious). It spotlights TNR’s anti-Sandinista, pro-Contra editorializing, along with its support for the atrocity called “welfare reform,” for instance, without noting the many articles against both that TNR ran; and never mind the multitude of other subjects TNR covered: like what happened in Eastern Europe in the 1980s to the embarrassment and chagrin of at least some of the Nation’s sub-Stalinist readership. Of course, also no mention of the justly-celebrated “back of the book” that Leon Wieseltier oversaw for 3 wonderful decades (when has the Nation ever had anything comparable?). A good example of a periodical that, in the end, ONLY has a “line” to offer. (A final note: a weird mirror-opposite commentary from the Right was perpetrated a few days ago by Amity Shales at National Review Online – predictable, too).

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