Excuse Me, Mr Coates

Some apologies for getting around to this so late. The torture report came out shortly after Ta-Nehisi’s excoriation of TNR as some kind of “neo-Dixiecrat” rag which had the equivalent of a “Whites Only” sign on it, and, well, first things first. Then I wasn’t blogging last week. So please don’t consider my recent silence some kind of tacit concession to TNC’s incendiary and hurtful critique. Au contraire.

A few brief points about his general argument. From the intensity of his rhetoric, you might infer that Ta-Nehisi was writing about National Review, an opponent of civil rights laws, or even about a neo-Confederate rag, as opposed to The New Republic, a longtime champion of the civil rights movement. But it appears he sees no difference. You’d think he were writing about a magazine filled with bigoted white Southerners, as opposed to an overwhelmingly Jewish set of writers and editors engaged in a long and internecine debate about what it means to be liberal. And the racial politics of TNR from the 1970s through the 1990s cannot be understood without grappling with the bitter and intense struggle between Jewish and African-American civil rights activists in the late 1960s and beyond. Surely Ta-Nehisi knows this. Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 1.29.49 PMHe grew up in this atmosphere. Maybe he believes TNR’s deviations from the Black Power party line were even worse because of its proclaimed liberalism. But he should at least diagnose it with a modicum of the sophistication he usually applies to American racial history.

As for the case that there was a “Whites Only” sign on the door: Has Ta-Nehisi really never read the extraordinary coverage of black history, literature, intellectual life, and poetry that TNR routinely published? Leon’s back-of-the-book was filled with such essays and reviews. Has it even occurred to him either that the campaign for welfare reform in the front of the book, for example, was conceived by liberals who believed the existing system was hurting black America? That it was a good faith effort precisely to care about an underclass “beyond the barrier”? You can debate its effectiveness and rationale. (President Obama, for the record, has said it was one subject on which he had changed his mind. Is he a neo-Dixiecrat as well?) But to assume that it was not done in good faith – or fueled by cheap racism – is not an argument. It’s just a smear.

Did we fail to find and nurture and promote African-American staffers? We did – along with almost every other magazine and newspaper at the time. I regret this. I tried – but obviously not hard enough. I’m no believer in affirmative action, but I’m a deep believer in the importance of differing life experiences to inform a magazine’s coverage of the world. And I tried mightily hard to find young black writers to contribute to the magazine. Did we fail because we were racists? I’ll leave that up to others to judge. But did we try to include black writers and intellectuals in the magazine’s discourse? Of course we did.

Which brings me to the issue we published on Race & IQ, of which I remain deeply proud and which has been distorted over time to appear as something I don’t recognize at all. Some of this may simply be bad memory or insufficient research (the issue is not online). Ta-Nehisi, for example, hasn’t actually read the issue he excoriates in the two decades since it was published. He is writing about his “feelings” about his memories, which he is perfectly entitled to do. But allow me to explain, with the full issue in my hands, why I think his account is flawed.

The current story-line would lead you to believe that TNR published “The Bell Curve.” But of course we didn’t. It was published by the Free Press, with a huge publicity and marketing budget. TNR wasn’t even the first magazine to weigh in on the controversy. The New York Times Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 1.47.24 PMMagazine had Charles Murray on its front cover before our issue came out – “The Most Dangerous Intellectual In America” – making the book even more of a hot topic. Every editor of every paper and magazine had to make a call about how to deal with the book. And as the editor of one of the country’s primary journals of opinion, which had already published Murray many times, I decided we should tackle it head on. We should air its most controversial argument and expose it to scrutiny and criticism. These were not, after all, marginal authors. One was a celebrated Harvard professor; the other was, at the time, the most influential social scientist in America. In my view, ducking this issue was not an option and even seemed cowardly. And I had read the entire book in great detail in manuscript to determine if there was a smidgen of eugenics in it, something that I, as a Catholic, find repellent in every way. This was my job as an editor. It passed my own test. Maybe I was wrong. But it was an honest call and one with which (unlike some others) I remain comfortable with today.

And look: I completely respect those who believed that the right approach was to ignore the book entirely and treat it as a pariah text; or to publish only definitive, devastating take-downs. But I hope that an issue-long, 28-page debate on the subject can also be seen as a legitimate alternative option, especially if you’re on the liberal part of the left. Several quick books were published on exactly that model – and no one is accusing those editors of favoring white supremacy. TNR, moreover, had a long history of this kind of diversity. It published, for example, Robert Bork’s early and famous critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, while simultaneously supporting its passage.

And Dish readers know how comfortable I found myself in that liberal tradition. Airing taboo stuff and examining and critiquing it has been a running feature of this blog from its beginnings. It is an axiom of mine that anything can be examined and debated – and that the role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it forthrightly and honestly. Again: I respect those who believe the role of a magazine is to bless certain opinions and to stigmatize others, to indicate what is a socially acceptable opinion and what is not. It’s just not the way I have ever rolled on anything. So I responded to the race and IQ controversy exactly as I would any other: put it all on the table and let the facts and arguments take us where they may. In fact, I couldn’t understand why those who loathed the book didn’t leap at the chance to debunk it. If it were so transparently dreck, why not go in for the kill?

As it was, several leading black writers and intellectuals, with ties to the magazine, were eager to. Among them: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Glenn Loury, and Randy Kennedy. They were among the finest African-American minds of the era; and they did not hold back. Henry Louis Gates Jr analogized Murray to a slavery-defender:

By making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery, they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a free man.

Hugh Pearson wrote:

Murray and Herrnstein sound like two people who have found a way for racists to rationalize their racism without losing sleep over it. One could call what they are facilitating Racist Chic.

Glenn Loury wrote:

Murray and Herrnstein’s declarations of intent notwithstanding, the fact is one cannot engage in such a discourse without simultaneously signaling other political and moral messages. These other messages bear on the worth of the disadvantaged “clans” and the legitimacy of collective ameliorative efforts undertaken on their behalf. … I would have thought, and have always supposed, that the inherent equality of human beings was an ethical axiom and not a psychologically contingent fact.

The white contributors were just as caustic. Andrew Hacker, whose racial politics echoes TNC’s and who wrote another cover-story on racial justice under my editorship, deconstructed the IQ argument by applying it to ethnic sub-populations among whites:

Yet no one really wants to discuss the question of inherited intelligence as it might apply, say, to individuals of Irish and Italian stock. And when Americans of Russian origins (who are predominantly Jewish) place a premium on higher education, it is attributed to cultural roots rather than an inborn aptitude for this kind of endeavor. Better, for white sensibilities. to focus on presumed black deficiencies. But this is neither surprising nor new.

Legendary psychologist Richard Nisbett wrote:

This is not dispassionate scholarship. It is advocacy of views that are not well supported by the evidence, that do not represent the consensus of scholars and that are likely to do substantial harm to individuals and the social fabric.

Here is a passage from Randy Kennedy’s piece in the same issue:

Those who strongly disagree, as I do, with [Murray’s] analysis and prescriptions should not attempt to prevent Murray from stating his and his late collaborator’s, views. Attempting to muzzle him will only give the book additional, bankable publicity. Nor should critics feel that they must disagree with everything the authors say. Sometimes the authors make good points, as when they discuss anxieties surrounding the question of environmental versus genetic determinants of alleged racial differences in intelligence. Readers interested in evaluating the Murray-Herrnstein enterprise should show patience by engaging in and waiting for careful siftings of its intellectual merits and demerits. They should resist having their agendas set and their minds made up on terms prescribed by cultural entrepreneurs who exploit controversiality for the purpose of financial and political profit.

Is that erudite neo-Dixiecratism? I simply refuse to feel ashamed for publishing this debate, for showing that liberals need not be afraid of any set of ideas or empirical claims, and for believing that the best response is to air all of it, confident that the truth will ultimately win. That, in my view, is the essence of liberalism and I make absolutely no apologies for it. And the space granted to the critiques of the book was almost twice the space given to Murray and Herrnstein, and laid out at the beginning of the magazine, with the extract at the very end. It doesn’t get any fairer than that, which was why it was no surprise that this electric, passion-filled issue sold more copies than any in the magazine’s history.

For Ta-Nehisi, none of this mattered or matters:

I knew that TNR’s much celebrated “heterodoxy” was built on a strain of erudite neo-Dixiecratism. When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.

Kennedy and Loury and Gates were the enemy? Open, spirited debate was the enemy? That, it seems to me, tells you a lot more about Ta-Nehisi than them or me.

(For an update on this post, see here.)

Quote For The Day II

“By the late 1960s, TNR had long since lost its cachet as the voice of re-invigorated liberalism—a cachet that was perhaps best illustrated when the dashing, young President Kennedy had been photographed boarding Air Force One holding a copy. When he sold the magazine to Peretz, Harrison believed he had secured Peretz’s promise to let him continue to run the magazine for three years. This plan quickly foundered, however, when Peretz got tired of reading rejection notices for articles he hoped to publish in the magazine at the same time he was covering its losses. Soon Harrison’s Queen Anne desk and his John Marin paintings were moved out of the editor’s office. Much of the staff, which then included Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow, and Doris Grumbach, was either fired or chose to resign. The staffers were largely replaced by young men fresh out of Harvard, with plenty of talent but few journalistic credentials and little sense of the magazine’s place in the history of liberalism,” – Eric Alterman, 2007.

Sound familiar?

(Hat tip: Jesse Walker)

The Closing Of The Back-Of-The-Book

Josh Chafetz mourns it:

[N]o one else in Washington, nor precious few outlets anywhere, does what Leon did with the back of the book. Leon cared about culture and about ideas, not as adornment, but as ends in themselves. And he cared enough to write passionately and to commission passionate pieces about them. In an era of click-bait, the TNR back of the book ran long-form, thoughtful pieces about the arts, about culture, about ideas and their histories. In an era of vanishing book reviews, the TNR back of the book routinely ran lengthy reviews of books one might not otherwise encounter. In an era of laid-off critics, the TNR back of the book had a deep bench of drama, art, music, dance and literature critics. In a city obsessed with “winning” the 24-hour news cycle, the TNR back of the book played a much, much longer game.

Think for a second about what has happened to book reviews. Most newspapers got rid of them years ago. Try finding them on the NYT app. With TNR’s back-of-the-book gone, we’re left with a few pages in The New Yorker, the TLS, the wonderful New York Review of Books (but that institution too seems vulnerable, given its aging leadership), and a bunch of newish cultural outlets that vie for attention when TNR could command it. Everything else is Amazon and stars. But the review section is not just a feature; it’s part of a critical eco-system that sustains a higher culture in a democracy. Losing it can be fatal to a democracy that hopes to rise above mass-cult.

In my time at TNR, I wrote for both the front and the back, and no one seemed to mind. In fact, you were expected to be a reporter or political writer who could always dip your toes into the high culture of the back-of-the-book. I also had the privilege of being the second-in-command at the back of the book for a while. There are too many stories to tell, but I always revered that section and protected it almost as fiercely as Leon did. We became estranged for lots of reasons – and Dishhead will be aware of the long-running feud (another characteristic of TNR-style journalism). But we were and are as one on the role of high culture in our democracy, even if I sometimes felt that TNR’s literary section was sometimes unnecessarily obscurantist and impenetrable on purpose. Alyssa remembers “the publication’s simple confidence that culture was an important subject that required no justification to sell to readers”:

You didn’t have to have a policy hook, or even the draw of Misty Copeland’s rising star, to write about dance there, as Jennifer Homans, the magazine’s dance editor who resigned [Friday], did so beautifully. Culture could provide answers that policy analysis could not, as it did in Rebecca Traister’s marvelous “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” a synthesis that drew on everything from Esquire’s beauty metrics to Amy Poehler’s rebellious, dirty sense of humor, to the criminalization of parenting to explain how women have been kept subject to men’s opinions. I return to that piece at least once a week. I don’t necessarily agree with Jed Perl on the politicization of art, but we are of accord that the fate of art matters even if it shifts no policies.

This is a philosophy that guides a lot of more general-interest publications, including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books where Daniel Mendelsohn, among my favorite living critics, brings the same attention to Greek poetry and the spasms of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway. But it’s a bit rarer, I think, among Washington publications that think of themselves as policy-oriented, or in sections like op-ed pages where culture yields pride of place to policy and politics.

Damon Linker calls Leon “one of the greatest editors in the history of American letter”:

From 1983, when he took over the back of the book, through the early years of the 2000s, Wieseltier’s pages were just about the only game in town for serious writing about culture. Only The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, each with a couple dozen reviews in every issue, came close to matching the cultural heat and light that Wieseltier managed to generate with a handful of essays and reviews, and a modest budget, in nearly every issue of TNR.

Today the cultural landscape is different. Not only are old-media opinion journals (The Nation, for example) publishing much smarter and unpredictable review essays than they used to, but there are a slew of digital outlets covering cultural topics in a variety of interesting ways — The Believer, n+1, The New Inquiry, Tablet Magazine, and many others — as well as old-time (Boston Review) and new-fangled (LA Review of Books) cultural journals whose content can be easily and instantly accessed online.

The question, as always, is whether the increased quantity will match (let alone surpass) the quality Wieseltier managed to achieve in issue after issue of TNR.

Cynthia Haven is pessimistic:

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.

Or maybe they’ll learn.

Where Are The Sugar-Daddies Of Yore?


Chris Hughes wants to turn a profit:

At the heart of the conflict of the past few days is a divergent view on how the New Republic — and journalism more broadly — will survive. In one view, it is a “public trust” and not a business. It is something greater than a commercial enterprise, ineffable, an ideal that cannot be touched. Financially, it would be a charity. There is much experimentation in nonprofit journalism – ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are proving the model — and that may be the right path for certain institutions. At the New Republic, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to this institution to aim to become a sustainable business and not position ourselves to rely on the largesse of an unpredictable few. Our success is not guaranteed, but I think it’s critical to try.

This is relatively new in the history of persons of sugar. And I don’t think it’s because Hughes is somehow a different sort of mogul than those in days gone by, just that the incentives have shifted rather dramatically in a very short period of time. The truth is: when there were only a handful of magazines that had a monopoly on opinion journalism, owning one gave you a real cultural gate-keeper power. It was worth losing money for the huge gains in influence you received in return, the social status, access to the powerful and pursuit of a cause. You could shape the discourse around your pet causes, and alter and shape the debate in ways no one – outside the Kochs and liberal ad-buyers – now can. This was a bad thing in some respects – the debate about Israel, for example, was far less open and diverse than today – and a few men (and they were almost all men) really shouldn’t be able to wield that kind of influence in a democracy. But it also provided a way for great writing and sharp thinking to endure. As a simple formula, it worked. And owners were relatively happy.

Fast-forward to today and the benefits of owning TNR or the Atlantic or the Nation have all but evaporated. There is no incentive for cultural gate-keepers any more, because there are no gates to keep. Anyone with an Internet connection can reach a mass audience, and the power and prestige that once accrued to a publisher are thereby eviscerated. You end up where Hughes ended up: spending millions to fund ornery, if talented, writers, and wondering what’s in it for you. Sure, you get to interview the president once in a while. Maybe you can get Nancy Pelosi to come to your wedding. But, once that thrill is gone, what’s left … but a giant headache and a company that hemorrhages money?

In response to my hankering for the TNR of old, Dreher argues that there is “no way to be that kind of magazine today and make money. Maybe there never was”:

[W]hen people like Freddie de Boer, a true leftist, sneer from a left-wing perspective at the demise of TNR, I understand where he’s coming from and don’t begrudge him his opinion. But I think he shouldn’t be quite so confident, because the same dynamic that’s brought TNR down threatens all small magazines of opinion in this country. I would be surprised if any of us could pay our bills on subscriptions and ad sales alone. We depend on the generosity of donors — many of them wealthy and public-spirited — who believe that the work we do is important, even if it is not money-making.

Somebody said yesterday that TNR doesn’t need a better business model, it needs a better owner. Yes, exactly. I don’t know how many rich people are willing to subsidize a money-losing journalistic operation out of principle and for the common good, but we sure need to find them.

Chait makes related points in response to Ezra:

The odd thing about Klein’s column is that, other than this small disagreement about TNR’s character, I cannot find anything in it with which I disagree. He straightforwardly described the problem of highbrow magazines that serve a public-interest function and have always lost money. He proceeds from that accurate description straight to the conclusion in his headline — TNR must change — without explaining why. One could just as easily conclude that TNR will always lose money, and its value should be assessed in non-market terms and subsidized accordingly by a willing donor.

That unacknowledged leap of logic contains nearly all our disagreement. It seems to be rooted in a deep faith in the power of the free market when it comes to media. Klein has always been very explicit about his view that media functions that earn money are good …

That sort of market fundamentalism is largely associated with the political right. You can find traces of it on the center-left among the winners of the new media economy, like many otherwise-liberal winners of other sectors of the new economy. They implicitly associate success with virtue. They may understand that an institution like The New Republic creates externalities that are not captured through market value, but this factor does not intrude upon their model.

Yet the fact that TNR does not meet a market need does not mean it serves no purpose. The main thing it needed to change was its owner.

There is a middle ground, of course, and it seems to me that TNR’s staff were prepared to find it. A magazine that has no interest in paying its way becomes a sad vanity publication. But a magazine that can pay for the bulk of its operations but still needs some sugar-money to keep it afloat is a perfectly good model for a place whose standards and intellectual heft will never make it a mass publication. And it remains a good model. It’s just that few of the super-rich today really respect that model, or have even a crude interest in sustaining it.

(Image from The Federalist)

When Silicon Valley Dabbles In Journalism

In response to TNR’s implosion, Lucia Moses considers why applying tech solutions to media so often ends in tears:

“They’ve arrived from Mars with the typical arrogance of a tourist, over-noticing the wrong things,” said Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review. “If there were a simple solution, smart people like me would have done it. Publishing is an extremely fidgety business with a direct cost, a base that is in many cases unwilling to pay for the product, and an indirect audience in marketers and advertisers who have found increasing efficiencies, which have driven down CPMs.”

Apart from that, it’s a great industry to work in! McArdle compares media and tech industries:

In many ways, a company such as Facebook and eBay is the opposite of a media company.

Those companies have huge network effects, and they get their content for free or nearly free. Making a lot of money out of a business like that is hard — many more attempts have failed than succeeded. But a prestige media company makes expensive content that has zero network effects; you can’t copyright a fact. In the new digital world, hours after your expensively reported story is out, dozens of other outlets will have re-reported the same facts and taken some of the traffic. Making a lot of money out of a business like that is much more difficult. Chris Hughes was not insane to think that he could make something like a New Yorker for Washington. It was, however, pretty crazy to think that you could do so without losing a bunch of money.

You need only read the stories about FirstLook and The New Republic to understand how badly tech-style management assumptions translate into media. When that approach failed, spectacular public meltdowns ensued. So the new moguls now learn another key difference about the media business: You are always being closely watched, so communications, and effective crisis management, are supremely important. A spectacular HR crisis translates more directly into loss of reputation, and sales, than it does almost anywhere else.

Drezner is in the same ballpark:

I’ve heard a lot of nonprofit sector folk complaining that Silicon Valley investors want to revolutionize their field without really understanding it.

The pattern in each of these cases is that a fabulously wealthy and successful investor enters a new and not-terribly-successful sector and tries to apply the lessons learned from the investor’s past successes to this new area. Except that there’s not a ton of evidence that those lessons are truly generalizable. One almost wonders if there is an extension of the Peter Principle for investors.

The Best Of The Dish This Weekend


Ross made a crucial point about TNR today:

The New Republic as-it-was, the magazine I and others grew up reading, was emphatically not just a “policy magazine.” It was, instead, a publication that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art. It wasn’t just a liberal magazine, in other words; it was a liberal-arts magazine, which unlike many of today’s online ventures never left its readers with the delusion that literary style or intellectual ambition were of secondary importance, or that today’s fashions represented permanent truths.

That’s why the Dish’s coverage of the world every day includes philosophy, theology, art, photography, literature, film and poetry alongside our bread and butter political and policy analysis. If you want to know why we don’t take the weekends off – but try to curate and aggregate some of the more thoughtful essays and reviews and posts on what might be called “the eternal things”, this is why. Because we’re trying in our inevitably limited bloggy way to keep the worldview of the now-disappearing literary and political magazines alive in a new medium and a new form. If we had the resources, we would do more – finding ways to add many more original essays and reviews to Deep Dish, for example. We’re brainstorming the future of our little experiment all the time – but the demise of places where high and low culture, politics and poetry, human life and abstract argument can jostle for space and inform each other makes me particularly aware of the need to fill this cultural void, while some of us still retain the institutional memory to replicate it. Culture needs stewards, and they can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

I struggle with blogging all the time – it’s a very intense and public way of being a writer, it’s extremely Howler Beagle (tr)strenuous, and doing it for fifteen years every day can get you exhausted by exhaustion. Part of me wants to drop off the planet all the time and just grab a book or ten, or debate something in the news without anyone but my friends to tell me I’m full of shit, or just not go online for a few weeks on end. Part of me would like to go a week without being called a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, an anti-Semite or a misogynist (I guess that was Burning Man). But I’m not delusional, and when I see the little lifeboat that we, with your help, have managed to create over a decade and a half, it seems a vital thing to figure out a way for it to survive and thrive. As more old-school magazines become shipwrecks, or unrecognizable, we have to keep that boat buoyant until the seas calm … or this metaphor completely runs out of steam.

This weekend, we discovered aspects of Kafka’s life that were straight from a sit-com; explored Pope Francis’ view of sexual complementarity; worried about the decline of male friendship and love (see Martin Amis talk about Hitch here); celebrated the art of toilet graffiti; and revealed the video-photo-shopping of movie-stars in movies – to make them flawless, of course.

Some other quotes:

Bad sex writing: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

Faith: “The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.”

Good luck: “Updike’s literary setbacks were those of a lottery winner who stubs his toe on the way to the bank and then has to wait in line before he can cash his check”

Jed Perl on Picasso: “A product of modernism, Picasso trumped modernism. By rejecting the idea of art as having a past or a future, he has somehow managed to stay with us in the present.”

And Mark Strand on his own death, and on life:

The weather, like tomorrow, like your life,
is partially here, partially up in the air.
There is nothing you can do.

The most popular post of the weekend was TNR RIP – my reflections on the implosion of an institution. Next up: A Smaller Screen For Sex.

If you want to help keep this blog alive, and haven’t yet subscribed, please do here. It matters for all the reasons above. If you have, thank you – and you can help some more by buying a Christmas gift subscription for a friend or family member, or by buying our new coffee mug. Some Dishheads’ pets – here, here and here – are more excited than others:


Mug just arrived! Gorgeous!

One more email for the weekend, from the reader who sent the window view above:

Because I’m a recent first-time subscriber, I don’t know the unspoken decorum to go about submitting a Window View for the daily shots or the weekly contest, but here it is: a shot from the elementary school I work at in Boiro, Spain, taken at 3:33pm. I’ve been reading since around March or so and subscribed in July and am happy to contribute even a small amount to support such a high quality curation of links and articles from across the ‘net as well as the rich discussion that is hosted here. Keep it up.

We will in the morning; see you then.

Liberalism, Conservatism, Skepticism

Thanks to the Washington Post, Tom Maguire and Hanna Rosin, we have a glimpse of what might have actually happened to UVA’s “Jackie”:

A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are advocates at U-Va. for sex-assault awareness, said they believe that something traumatic happened to her, but they also have come to doubt her account. A student who came to Jackie’s aid the night of the alleged attack said in an interview late Friday night that she did not appear physically injured at the time but was visibly shaken and told him and two other friends that she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men. They offered to get her help and she said she just wanted to return to her dorm, said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

That’s a horrific story, if it pans out. The failure of the school to investigate more assiduously remains salient. The climate for young women on a campus where many readily believed the gang-rape-broken-glass-“grab it by its leg” version does not cease to be a pressing issue. The truth could be damning enough.

So why did an inflammatory, lurid, and apparently fallacious story get into print – with only one source and no corroboration – breaking most basic journalistic rules in a serious publication? Rich Bradley is surely right: it was a too-good-to-check story that echoed what many truly wanted to hear. It managed to suggest that the “rape culture” we are now told is endemic is even worse than you could possibly imagine, and ignored in plain sight. It implicated individuals in various stigmatized groups (among many journalists and activists) – i.e. the dreaded evil trifecta of “white”, “men” and “Southern”. Its details – from the shattered glass and the beer bottle sodomy – had an irresistible allure. Questioning it was like questioning whether Saddam Hussein actually did have WMDs – it seems as if you are excusing an evil figure, or being terminally naïve, or minimizing the danger. We believe what we want to believe – and, in our public debates, we also keep searching for the perfect anecdote or fact or story to refute our opponents for good and all.

Both sides do this. Republicans couldn’t accept the already-damning and uncontested facts about Benghazi – that the danger to the consulate was under-estimated, security was lax, and people died as a consequence. They had to make the story fit a bigger narrative – of treachery and betrayal at the highest levels, a story that could dispatch Obama and Clinton in one news cycle swoop. And so they have made an ass of themselves as much as Rolling Stone has. I’ve done this too – in 2002 and 2003, when I simply did not see what was in front of my nose on Iraq. So I don’t think that the lesson of this latest embarrassment is that we do not have a grave problem of campus rape; or that anything more than a tiny fraction of those claiming rape are fraudulent. I think the lesson is to be more skeptical of things you want to believe than of almost anything else.

This is difficult, especially when you believe you are in the vanguard of social justice – and the ends can justify the means. It is much easier, for example, to believe that the vicious murder of Matthew Shepard vindicates a worldview where every straight man is a gay-basher until proven otherwise, and that the hatred of gays is close-to-pathological in its fury. It is much harder to absorb a still-terrible but much more complicated story of a horrible mixture of homophobia, the meth subculture and petty criminality.

This is why liberalism matters as much as progressivism, which is on my mind a little as the demise of TNR has sunk in. For many, TNR’s legacy of airing internal dissent, its controversial questioning of progressive shibboleths, its inclusion of some conservatives in its ranks, its constant sallies against liberals as well as conservatives, and its airing of taboo subjects, make it a risibly racist/sexist/homophobic/classist institution that deserves to die. I dissent. What it long represented was the spirit of liberalism in the American tradition – a spirit of fearless inquiry, serious argument, and a concern for the truth. That TNR failed in some of these attempts does not damn it. Not to try to confront feelings with reason, or ideology with fact is a far worse inclination. In fact, as so many instant hysterical and self-serving stories flicker across our screens and phones, we need TNR’s beleaguered liberal spirit as badly as we always did. We need it among publications on the right as well as the left. In these polarized, self-cocooning days of Facebook “likes” and doxxing, of intensifying groupthink and moral posturing, of Twitter lynch-mobs and instant fads, we need  more voices willing to question their own “side”, more turds in more punchbowls, more writers willing to be open to facts that undermine their own ideology, to express skepticism precisely in those areas where dogmatism is creeping in.

We try to do that every day here at the Dish – because, in part, I was trained and influenced and formed by some of the best minds in this great liberal tradition in American letters, and because I have tried to learn from my own errors. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fool-proof. But that tradition must not die; or, sooner rather than later, our democracy will.

(Thumbnail image cropped from a photo by Bob Mical)