Victor S. Navasky Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Journals of Opinion and the Work of Democracy: Conversation with Victor Navasky, Publisher and former Editor of The Nation, September 16, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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On Satire

After your graduation from Yale with a degree from one of the, if not the best, school in the country, you set out to start a magazine of satire called Monocle. How did that come about? What does that tell us about you?

I say in the book that people might ask why did a serious young man with a brilliant legal career ahead of him choose to go into this frivolous occupation, and the first thing is maybe I wasn't that serious and the second was maybe I didn't have that brilliant a legal career ahead of me

We started Monocle while I was still a student at Yale and then we graduated it with us. This was at the tail end of the McCarthy period and there was what I thought of as an "irreverence boomlet " going on, and we thought we were part of it. Mort Sahl was out in San Francisco at the "hungry i" nightclub with the daily paper, commenting on what was happening; Nichols and May were improvising in Chicago, and we started Monocle magazine. There was another little magazine called The Realist, a journal of free thought, criticism, and satire that Paul Krasner had coming out of New York, and we thought we could challenge the pieties of the day through satire which didn't really exist in print in a serious way at that point.

One thing you got out of this, I gather, is a sense of the business of doing magazines.

We did, because our editorial policy officially was that "the views of our contributors, no matter how conflicting and contradictory, are the views of the editors"; and we called ourselves a "leisurely quarterly" because we only came out twice a year at first. But here's what I learned. When we put out our first issue in New Haven, I wrote on the masthead that this is second class matter and we got hauled down to the New Haven post office and we were told we were fourth class matter. I just had copied the "second class matter" from the Harper's magazine. But I quickly learned that in order to qualify as second class matter you have to [adhere to] all kinds of bureaucratic postal regulations and pay an application fee.

At Monocle I learned that all of the premises of magazine publishing, which I'd assumed were just between writers and editors, depended on business assumptions: one, the postal office, which is a bureaucratic assumption; but secondly, Monocle had an odd shape, we called ourselves "as tall as Time and as wide as Reader's Digest," and we thought we could sell ads prepared for both [of these publications]. This caused us problems with the printer because printing presses are built to certain size specifications and it meant we wasted paper. At Monocle we [thought] that the ideal magazine should be like the UN police force and come out whenever there's an emergency, or come out when we had something to say. But because of second class, you have to come out regularly. Our theory had been, if one issue is worth 50 cents and the next issue is worth two dollars, you charge 50 cents for one and two dollars for the next. But we learned when we went on newsstands that it confuses the newsstand dealer if you have different prices.

So, every premise in the business was dictated by a business requirement. I got interested in the business side of the magazine because I had to raise money for it.

Your experience at Monocle raises a very interesting question which I'd like you to comment on, which is the role of satire as a form of social and political criticism. We're in a period now where if you go to parties at Berkeley and you ask what is the best source of news, it's Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. In your career, at various points, without going into all of these in detail, there are moments where you're involved beyond Monocle -- for example, in the Iron Mountain Report, which was a satire of academic, bureaucratic reports. So, getting back to the question, help us understand what satire is and how it relates to serious political criticism.

The line between humor and satire is elusive. Satire is meaner. At one point I used to say -- this is in the 1960s -- it's the difference between attacking Ike, which is humor (we published in Monocle the Gettysburg Address [as delivered by] Eisenhower, which began, "I haven't checked these figures yet, but eighty-seven years ago, I think it was ... ,") and attacking Jack [Kennedy], which required satire which meant a sharper scalpel. We did a parody of Salinger in the style of Salinger called A Perfect Day for Honeyfitz about Jack and Jackie meeting in college.

Carey McWilliams, the editor of The Nation, said something years later that is a good answer to your question, although he wasn't talking about satire, but it spoke to me out of my experience putting out Monocle: "It only takes one pin-prick to deflate a balloon." That's what satire is all about. It is about questioning the official line and doing it with humor, but with depth and bite. It's an opportunity to expose pomposity.

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